Words and Photos by Frankie Devlin
Prior to this splitboarding trip, I had imagined that the Alaska Range was large, but as the plane punched through the clouds and circled around to the landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier, my perspective quickly shifted. Nothing I had seen or ridden before compared to the size and scale of this place. Clustered together amongst a white glacial sea of endless peaks was a small group of dots; tents, planes and people that formed the NPS base camp.
Once on the glacier, we rigged plastic sleds with enough food and supplies to sustain the 10 of us for 25 days. Fully stocked we made our way to our first camp at 7800’. The next week was spent ferrying gear up to higher caches and getting splitboard laps in when we could. At 11,000’ camp we waited out a storm and eventually pushed to 14,000’. There we set up a more permanent existence with a full dome kitchen tent, plenty of space to relax and a spectacular view of Foraker that we never grew tired of.
With 14 camp established it was time to ride. When the sun never sets there's always time for another lap. We went splitboarding most days. The snow was excellent with a storm every few days to keep things fresh. Multiple cycles of snow, sun and shredding ensued. In the evenings good conversation and the nightly weather forecast on the NPS radio channel kept everyone entertained.
One sunny day we decided to make a push for the summit. I left camp early with some extra group gear to cache at 17 camp. The rest of the team would follow a few hours later with hopes of summiting the next day. I buried the group gear and brewed up some water at 17 camp, then downed some sugar snacks to push on. Climbing solo gave me plenty of time to reflect on the trip and the amazing place we were inhabited these past weeks. A few hours later, I approached the summit ridge. Amongst the clouds and no place higher to climb in North America, I found myself at the summit marker. A friend from 14 camp had skied off the summit in pristine powder the day before. I was not so lucky. On the ride down the winds picked up. It was survival boarding at it's best. Back at 17 camp the rest of the group was getting ready for bed. I downed a quick meal of cheese sticks, Snickers bars and hydrated to do it all again the next day. With ten people and deteriorating weather the summit push took a bit longer, but in the end everyone made it above 20K and 7 of us were able to stand at the top of the continent. Then began another gnarly windswept descent. Happy to be safely back in our tents we celebrated with some whiskey and freeze dried dinners.
Much to the bafflement of our fellow 14 camp mountaineers we settled in for another week on Denali. Seems they just couldn’t fathom why we would still be hanging out after attaining the summit. We explained that we were there for the whole experience. With ample supplies, fresh snow and a solid crew of friends down for whatever our adventure had just begun.