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Reports / Ski Mountaineering in Alaska

Christian Pondella

Chris Davenport is one of the world’s most accomplished big-mountain skiers. Last spring, he gathered ace skiers Michelle Parker, Christian Pondella, and Jim Morrison to venture out to the remote edges of the Alaska Range in search of first ski descents. “I try and go places where other people aren’t going,” Davenport says. “I love exploring the far corners of the globe.” Here’s what they discovered.

Areas like this are rare in the world today, yet in the Alaska Range they still remain plentiful if you are willing to do the research and spend the time.

How many times have you skied Denali the peak and/or in Denali NP?
Chris: I have done five trips into Denali National Park and Preserve—two full expeditions on Denali itself with two summits of the main peak as well as two summits of the rarely visited North Peak. My other two trips were to ski in the Ruth Glacier area and the Pika Glacier area (Little Switzerland).

What were your objectives this time? Why were you drawn to them?
Chris: For this trip I was looking for a remote area that had never seen ski exploration and thus could offer first descents. Areas like this are rare in the world today, yet in the Alaska Range they still remain plentiful if you are willing to do the research and spend the time. So to summarize these objectives we were looking for a remote, stunning location with little or no reported activity from skiers in history.

Who was with you? Why was it a good team?
Chris: Team is everything in the mountains. My three partners are not only close friends but incredibly strong and confident mountain people as well. I have known Jim Morrison and Christian Pondella for over 20 years and have spent tons of time with them in the Alps, Alaska, the Sierra, and in Colorado. Michelle Parker is also a super solid skier who is building her ski alpinism resume and totally impressed me on a trip to Svalbard a couple of years ago while we were filming my series Faces of Dav. Plus it’s always great to have a mix of male and female energy on any team in the mountains.

The combination of northerly latitude, ample seasonal snow, massive glaciers, and long hours of daylight in the spring make it the best place in the world for ski mountaineering in my opinion.
—Chris Davenport

What makes Denali National Park and Preserve so unique in the world? Why are skiers drawn there?
Chris: It’s really the Alaska Range itself that is so special and unique. Denali National Park and Preserve takes up a big chunk of the range, and the far corners of the park are where I set my sights when investigating this trip. The combination of northerly latitude, ample seasonal snow, massive glaciers, and long hours of daylight in the spring make it the best place in the world for ski mountaineering in my opinion. Especially as the Alps, Sierra Nevada, Andes, and Himalaya see dry seasons and warmer temps.

What hazards did you face on your adventure this spring?
Chris: We had a really smooth trip with no issues what-so-ever. The main hazards we were paying attention to were crevasses, which were easily managed, avalanche hazard, of which there was none, cold temps, which weren’t that bad, and sometimes overhead hazard of cornices or rockfall, which again we could manage with good route selection. Then of course there is the falling hazard, which is very real as we did ski some serious no-fall-zone lines. In this case you must ski with total focus and control and not take chances.

How many days was the trip? How much time was spent climbing up versus skiing down?
Chris: We had built 12 days on the glacier into this trip out of 15 days total. Since we had perfect high pressure and pretty much raged every day out we ended up skiing 7 days, with a total of 10 major descents, and then called the plane and headed out.

I want my grandkids to have snowy winters.
—Chris Davenport

What was the coldest temperature? Was the snow good?
Chris: The coldest temps in the early morning were about 0 degrees F, but as soon as the sun hit our tents things warmed up nicely. We had some nice t-shirt afternoons and everyone was cozy in their warm bags at night.

Did you experience any of the peak’s notorious bad weather?
Chris: On this trip we had absolutely perfect weather, and in the past I have been very lucky on Denali as well. Back in March of 1997 I had a super cold trip to the Ruth Glacier which taught me never to go there in March.

How do you pick your skiing objectives these days?
Chris: I spend a lot of time reading through old American Alpine Club journals looking for trips reports to remote areas that typically get good snow. Most of these are climber’s reporting but you can infer a lot about the skiing potential. I learned about the Kichatna Spires zone from an article in the 90s about a North Face team of climbers that went to put up a new big wall route. I also try and go places where other people aren’t going. I love exploring the far corners of the globe.

You just had your knee replaced. Roughly how many total injuries have you had?
Chris: Hah I’ve been pretty fortunate on injuries in my career- nothing really beyond some knee surgeries. But those add up and for the last 3 seasons I basically had no meniscus or cartilage on the outside of my right knee, so I did a MAKOplasty partial knee replacement in May which was awesome. I walked out of the hospital, was on the bike in two weeks, and running in two months. I’m at three months now and sitting in the airport in Houston heading to Chile to get back on snow.

You have skied so many peaks of the world. Which do you wish people would ask you about?
Chris: I enjoy talking about the risk management paradigm and decision making processes. I try and surround myself with great partners that help my elevate my skills. These can be great lessons for life and business as well.

You often speak out for the environment. Which issue is of greatest concern to you? What can people do to help?
Chris: Well I was just spending a bunch of time on a proposed coal mine expansion into a wilderness roadless area in Colorado. It blows me away that one of the fastest growing industries by revenue but also by new jobs is renewable energy, yet politicians still get behind fossil fuels. We need to get past the burning of coal and the release of methane as soon as humanly possible.

This is not an easy or quick transition, shit i’m about to get on a plane, but we as a people can do great things if we put our minds and our dollars behind them. If I could have one legacy its that I helped my family, community, state, nation, planet, get off fossil fuels. I want my grandkids to have snowy winters.



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