Alaska’s Denali is finally open to guided skiing, and you have a Colorado company to thank ~ The Colorado Sun

After more than a decade of trying, Telluride’s Mountain Trip ran its first guided ski mountaineering trip in May

Elizabeth Miller

Skiers guided by Telluride’s Mountain Trip ascend Denali in Alaska earlier this year. (Courtesy Mountain Trip)

For the 25 years he has guided peaks in the Alaska Range, Bill Allen looked at snowy slopes on Denali, North America’s tallest peak, and saw a prize to be had.

“It’s the crown jewel of North America for not just mountaineering, but ski mountaineering,” said Allen, co-owner of and a guide for Mountain Trip, a Telluride-based company that leads clients up each of the highest points on each continent, including Denali, known as the Seven Summits. 

But until May, Allen’s guides had been banned from taking ski mountaineering clients onto Denali. When the National Park Service implemented a permit system in Denali National Park decades ago and set rules for guiding services working there, Allen said, “ski mountaineering wasn’t a thing the way it is now.” Permit rules were written with the expectation that mountaineers would stay roped, walking uphill and down, and so required that safety measure. Breaking the rules could cost the company its spot as one of few authorized to guide in the park. So for years, individuals could ski from the summit, but anyone who hired a guide had to stay roped.

“You can’t ski safely down a mountain on a rope — it just doesn’t work that way,” said Chris Davenport, renowned ski mountaineer and former World Extreme Skiing Champion, who talked with Allen about the dream of guiding ski mountaineering trips in the national park for more than a decade. “It’s one thing to be on a rope when skinning up, but skiing down, it’s easy to yank someone off their feet.”

A skier with Telluride-based Mountain Trip descends Alaska’s Denali in May as part of the first-ever guided ski mountaineering on North America’s highest peak. (Jediah Porter / Mountain Trip, Special to The Colorado Sun) 

Allen argued the case for changing the rules to park rangers for more than a decade. In 2020, park management finally lifted the rope rule. In May, Mountain Trip guides led their first guided ski descent from Denali’s summit and then the second at the end of June for a group of developing ski mountaineers with a mission of skiing these peaks to talk about climate change.

“Now, we’re able to go and bring skiers there and see the beauty of the park from a skier’s perspective,” Davenport said.

Building a pathway in paperwork and pipeline for skiers

With interest in backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering exploding, particularly over the last two years, more people have built strong backcountry skiing skills, Allen said, and are looking to Alaska to take their adventures to the next level. That makes for both increasing appetite and a growing pool of potential clients with skills enough to attempt skiing on the 20,310-foot-tall peak (formerly Mount McKinley; its Athabaskan name was officially restored in 2015). That appetite helped motivate the park service to change its guidelines. 

Fifteen years ago, Allen recalls, “The park was like, ‘Why do we need this, nobody is even asking for it?’ and I was like, well they’re not asking for it because it’s not an option, so we just say no to people every year — do you want us to have them call you? And we started doing that for a while,” Allen said. 

For about five years, he handed out the email address and phone number for the park service to anyone who asked for a ski mountaineering guide on Denali, and the park service listened. Having Tucker Chenoweth, a skier, as south district ranger for Denali National Park, also helped.

“He gets it,” Allen said. Chenoweth couldn’t adjust the contracts that issue concessionaires their permits but could answer his bosses’ questions about whether guided ski descents were reasonable and what protocols to set. To answer those inquiries and nudge the bureaucratic workings along, Allen proposed guidelines for how to assess the terrain, avalanche hazards, where ski mountaineers should be roped, and where it’s appropriate to drop the rope based on test runs Mountain Trip staff made off the summit years ago. 

“I have, on my own private trips, skied on Denali, and recognized that it could be done and that there was no real reason for the park service to prevent it,” Chenoweth said. “I think in a wilderness setting, you should have a choice on how you want to experience that place.”

Chenoweth is seeing more ski mountaineers on Denali, as well as more climbers on guided trips. Which is understandable. It’s challenging to camp at altitude for two-to-three weeks waiting for a weather window to reach the summit while making food and melting snow for water and dealing with sapping strength. Skiing adds another layer of difficulty.

“I’d say skiing on Denali is survival,” Chenoweth said. “There’s places and times that it lines up and you have decent snow, but in general, you’re going to be really battling the conditions. You’re going from 7,000 feet to 20,310 feet and so you get the whole gambit of conditions. It’s everything from breakable crust to wind slab to corn to powder, all the way up to super hard alpine ice. It sounds fun, so I think there will be interest, but the reality of committing to it and doing it is going to be different, because it should not be taken lightly.”

Ski mountaineering on Denali requires all the skills of a mountaineer for glacier travel, crevasse rescue, climbing 50-plus degree slopes covered in snow and ice with crampons and ice axes, and self-arresting to prevent long falls. 

“All these things, as well as dealing with the altitude and the environment of Denali,” Allen said. “Then, you also need to be a really strong and proficient skier that can handle skiing with a heavy pack on in, like, not perfect snow conditions, in potentially some steep terrain. … There’s a lot of people who have interest and fewer people who have the skills.”

But the shift in regulations also allowed for launching a program to develop those skills. With Davenport, Mountain Trip began week-long ski mountaineering camps in the national park. The first series of those camps were held in 2021 and the second ran in April.


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