Teary eyed and short of breath, four mountaineers hugged as they stood atop North America's highest peak, setting their gaze to the Alaska Mountain Range. Standing 10 pounds lighter than the start of the trip, Aaron Diamond looked at his partners and said what all four were thinking: "I'm ready for a beer."
After their final descent down Denali on June 3rd, the "Big Three Team" summited in a single expedition the three largest peaks in the Alaska Range--Mount Hunter, Mount Foraker, and Denali. In 31 days, they climbed and skied 67,000 vertical feet.
The plan started brewing last summer when two of the guys were guiding in Chile. Anton Sponar, whose family owns the cat skiing operation Ski Arpa in the Chilean Andes, struck up the idea with a fellow Ski Arpa guide Diamond.
"The whole idea of the three highest peaks came up," says Sponar. "We eventually realized, looking at a map, that they're pretty close together, and basically it would be really cool to try all three of them in an extended expedition"
Though just the seed of an idea was formed, it quickly gained momentum when Sponar spoke with longtime ski partner and Aspen guide Jordan White, who coincidentally had the exact same ambition. They took it as a sign, and the trio recruited Evan Pletcher, who in 2010 worked as guide on a Denali expedition for the company Mountain Trip.
"The planning was super difficult," says Sponar. "Just trying to figure out how much food, and what gear we needed for each peak just because they're all so different."
While the trio of mountains stand 15 miles of apart, each boasts its own set of obstacles. Dwarfed by Denali and Foraker, at 14,500 feet, Mount Hunter is a geographic example that size isn't all that matters. The team swung ice axes for 3,300 feet along the Ramen Route to catch their means to the summit--the West Ridge. After six days, and a 24-hour summit push, the team reached their first goal on May 10th and turned their skis towards a 50-degree descent.
At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker stands as the second tallest in the Alaskan Range, and third in the United States. Unlike Hunter's more manageable approach to base camp--where excess gear can be stored--Foraker's ascent quickly turns from a moderate skin to a steep and unpredictable climb.
"It’s different than anywhere else because the ridges and crevasse spread out in all different directions," says Sponar. "Instead of being able to see where all the crevasses usually crack open, on the ridge they were checkerboard."
Knowing what was in store, each member of the team climbed and skinned to the Foraker Base Camp with gear hauled on their back rather than pulled on a sled.
"We had to carry everything in our packs--six days worth of food, sleeping bags, everything," says Sponar. "That was pretty tough. Our packs probably weighed about 80 pounds for the first couple days going up."
Foraker is due southwest of its neighbors and often bares the brunt of unexpected weather. For the team, this meant that conditions could change fast. They could be climbing under clear sky one moment, then scrambling to make shelter from incoming storms the next.
"We all knew ahead of time that there was a really low chance of success," says Diamond. "There's just so much that could go wrong. It's mainly the weather, but we were ready to be there for 45 days."
As the team continued on their route to the summit via Sultana Ridge, their necks were sore from looking at the sky, and their faces were burned from 40 mph winds. Finally, six days into the climb, the team found a calm day that allowed them to make a 6,000-foot summit push. Exhausted and in awe, they found the best descent of their trip as they dug their edges into a mixture of glaciated and firm snow down Sultana Ridge.
When the four made their way for Denali, they had spent 20 days in expedition mode--basing decisions off weather and waiting, trying to stay hydrated by melting ice and snow into drinking water. After spending five days above 14,000 feet, climbing and acclimatizing, the team found a 24-hour window to make their final summit.
Only 10 days since they left base camp for Denali, they stood atop the 20,300-foot summit. Congratulations were given, though muffled by jackets that fought the negative 30 degree Fahrenheit chill.
Cautiously, the team made their way down Football Field then Autobahn Face--two routes often used for descents. They spent the following day hiking and skinning to base camp, where they celebrated like any self-respecting skier.
"During the whole expedition, we didn't drink anything [alcohol]," says Sponar. "[After], we ended up polishing off all our booze and sleeping out in the snow. It's pretty ridiculous because we spent the last 30 days trying to keep our gear dry."