Good Hill Hunter
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Noted ski mountaineer Andrew McLean, named one of the planet’s finest athletes by Outside in December 2001, departed his home in Salt Lake City with an ambitious goal in his sites: to be the first to complete a continuous ski descent of Alaska’s 14,573-foot Mt. Hunter. With first descents already notched on neighboring Mount McKinley (20,230 feet) and Mount Foraker (17,400 feet), Hunter remains one of the great first descents left in Alaska. If all goes well, McLean and his team will attempt the feat in mid-May. Outside Senior Editor Nick Heil caught up with McLean shortly before his departure.
Outside: What’s the itinerary for your upcoming Mt. Hunter trip?
McLean: It’s a multi-part trip. First, I’m going up to Valdez to do two ski mountaineering races, the Alaska Raid and the Alaska Raid Invitational. Then I’ll be doing an IMG guides course, put on by Eric Pehota. On May 4th through the 23rd, we’ll fly into Denali National Park and spend two to three weeks trying Hunter. That seems to be what it takes.
Because of weather?
Yeah, weather and conditions. It’s been tried before and it’s kind of deceiving. It’s only 14,573 feet—you should conceivably be able to do it in three to four days, but people who have tried it before have been shut down because they haven’t given it enough time, due to one thing or another. We decided we were going to make a concerted effort to get it this time.
Is it a difficult route?
Not bad on the way up, but it is difficult to ski down. Hunter is kind of different because it’s a definite fortress—there’s no easy way off it. If you take the path of least resistance, it brings you up to this plateau that’s flat for about half a mile. You’d have to skin across that flat and ski back down, so that’s not really a very good ski line. The line we want to try goes right to the summit, and there’s no easy way down.
So you’ll be skiing down the route that you ascend?
Does it have a name?
It’s called the Ramen Route. It’s kind of a variation on the Southwest Ridge.
Is there a ski rating? A lot of your big descents are rated-and I’m not familiar with this rating system-S4 and S5.
That’s based on the European ratings. This would definitely be a big one. Class 4, I’d guess. Class 1 might be like a tour in the Wasatch, say a couple of hours round trip. Class 2 is a little bigger. Class 3 might be a couple of day outing. Class 4 is an expedition-style outing. And Class 5 would be Everest type stuff. As far as the scale is concerned, it’ll be a 4 out of 5. As for the technical difficulty, I just don’t know. I’m assuming it’ll be right on up there.
It’s never been done before, but it has been attempted?
Yeah. Two of the guys I’m going with, Loren Glick and John Weeden, tried it last year, and it’s been discussed by a bunch of different ski mountaineers, but it hasn’t been done yet. It’s kind of cool that the entire peak hasn’t been skied yet. It’s one of the big three in there. There’s Denali, which is the highest, Foraker, and Mount Hunter.
Have you scouted this route? Can you give me some details of what the descent might involve in terms of exposure, steepness, and objective hazards?
Just getting to the base of it is kind of tricky. It’s got a big broken-up glacier, so we’ll have to spend a couple of days negotiating that, hauling our sleds, just to get into position for it. And then you’re kind of looking right at the crux, which is kind of a steep couloir that goes up to a ridge, and the couloir is broken up, it’s not just a classic straight line. Then it gets into some thin sections where we might have to actually do some roped climbing, place some gear, and that will bring us into the upper part of the couloir which should be pretty straight forward. That gets you up onto a ridge, and the ridge should be pretty good skiing. It’s hard to tell from photos but it should be low 30s [degrees], like an intermediate type run, right to the summit. That part will be pretty safe, hopefully it will soften up a little bit. The lower couloir should be the crux of it.
And do you anticipate being able to ski the whole thing continuously?
Hopefully. I think if the conditions are good we’ll be able to ski the whole thing. In the past what I’ve done with things like this is if you encounter a short little rock band or steep icy section, is climb up in and leave a rope, and when you come back down you ski it with the rope hanging there.
Are you actually on belay?
No. You’re doing a self-belay. It’s like using a handrail. You’d be able to grab it if you need it. You’ll know based on your trip up where you may need it. You get up there and if it’s nice, skiable powder you’re like, okay, no problem. If you need to, you fix a rope on that section.
What do conditions tend to be like this time of year?
That depends on the snow season. So far, it’s supposed to be really good. It started out slow but then kicked in. So, snow coverage is good. And it’s still kind of winter up there, so you just never know.
You’ve put in some pretty big ski descents on McKinley. Does ski mountaineering in Alaska present challenges that are different from ski mountaineering elsewhere in the world?
Alaska’s very accessible, which in some ways makes it harder than the Himalayas. It’s possible to get in and have a big mountain experience in just a few days, where in the Himalayas you may be approaching for a week or two. So there’s no warm-up to the mountains in Alaska. You just fly into Anchorage, drive up, and fly into your mountain—so conceivably within 24 hours of leaving Salt Lake, you can be on the glacier amidst all the weather and all of that.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is it preferable to have a psychological wind-up to a big peak?
Well, yes and no. The peaks are smaller. Denali tops out at 20,000 feet, which is where the Himalayan peaks just kind of get going. But it is much further north, so you feel the effects of the altitude, plus the weather can be a lot worse there because it’s pretty coastal. Denali’s not that far from the coast so it can get hit by these big wet storms with a lot of wind, and temperatures can go way down. The skiing tends to be better than other places, and that can be good and bad. You can get a huge dump—the kind that just buries your tent—so if you’re trying to ski a couloir, that pretty much shoots it for another week or so. That’s where strategy and being patient come into play.
I’m assuming avalanche danger is a pretty big concern up there.
Yeah, especially on Hunter because it’s a little lower than the other peaks. Denali kind of has its own weather patterns. It especially gets a lot of wind, and the wind tends to scour some areas and deposit snow in other areas—a lot of times your climbing ridges, where it’ll be really good cramponing or ice axing. Whereas on Hunter you’re down a little lower so you tend to have more accumulation on faces, a more persistent avalanche hazard, and maybe a little bit more snow. It’s about 5,000 to 6,000 feet lower than Denali, which is right next to it.
Have people been eyeballing Hunter for quite some time, hoping they’d get a shot at skiing the whole thing?
I think among people who are into that kind of thing-like all six of us-it’s a pretty big deal. A lot of that is because the peak itself is well known but has never been skied. So that might be a little bit different than, say, Foraker, where if you went up and skied a new line off it, it’s already had two other lines skied off—so it’s just a variation on what’s been done. But Hunter hasn’t been skied at all.
It’s still a virgin.
Yep. That’s kind of neat. And Hunter has a lot of history. It has the Moonflower climb on it.
I’m not familiar with that one.
That’s a Mugs Stump route, a big test piece for alpine climbing.
Why is that?
It’s got it all. It’s got rock climbing and snow and ice, it’s vertical, and it’s pretty easily accessible. It’s north-facing so it’s kind of your classic tough alpine route. It was first done in four or five days and since then a lot of really accomplished climbers have come out and brought it down to 20 hours or something like that. It’s still a classic well-known route.
Back in 1999, you were involved in the tragic accident on Shishapangma when Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges were killed in a freak avalanche. Do incidents like that make you pull back at all?
Well, I’m kind of a slow learner (laughs). To some degree, I think my good friend Mark Holbrook who was on the trip has pretty much given up big peaks like that one. It might have affected him differently. But for me, I think, I’m mellower. If we don’t make it it’s not that big a deal. Whereas before, I was a little more amped up, and was much more willing to take chances. Now, if it doesn’t happen—if we don’t make it, or if the conditions don’t look good, I’m just a little bit more content to take it as it comes and keep it in perspective. Making it out alive is an important thing, and having a good trip, and hanging out with some friends, and going to new places, and traveling… that’s as important, if not more so, than getting to the top.
Do you find it difficult to manage risk on extreme trips like this?
A lot of it has to do with going with people you’re comfortable with, people you know. And these two guys I’m going with, we’ve skied together quite a bit and I think we’re all in the same comfort level as far as the risk we want to take. At some point I think there’s just a lot of creative rationalization that goes on, like there might be a lot of avalanches streaming down, and you think, well, we’re okay ’cause we’re on a ridge, and then all of a sudden you have to cross a couloir, and you’re like, oh, it’s only 200 feet across to another ridge, let’s just go for it (laughs). You find yourself doing things that you look back on and think, that wasn’t such a good idea. You kind of rationalize it like, oh that’ll be okay. To ski something like this, obviously, you have to be really careful. Like in the case with Alex and Dave, there is a huge objective hazard that you can’t control at all. I mean, you can be safe and rope up, and do everything right, and at the same time get hit by an avalanche that started 3,000 feet above you. It’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We saw a good example of that when those high-school kids were hit on Rogers Pass this past winter.
Yes. Part of it is just being in the mountains. I guess you could avoid it by just not going in the mountains at all. They were on pretty mellow terrain, but sometimes that kind of thing just happens.
Do you have other big objectives on your list in the near future besides Hunter? Are you gravitating more toward ski-mountaineering racing like the one you just staged near Alta? Less objectively risky pursuits, compared to bigger expeditions?
I am changing my focus on things a little bit. Like the trip we did up on Baffin Island.
When you were kite-skiing?
Yeah. What I liked about the Baffin trip is that we just had lots of little objectives, so if you get 5 or 6 of them, it’s a successful trip. You’re kind of exploring by going to places that are really off the beaten path, like Baffin. We’re going to go try to cross the Patagonia Ice Cap. Those are still big expedition type things, but they aren’t necessarily like doing a straight 8,000-meter peak. There are still plenty of hazards to be found. So I guess I am scaling back in that regard. I turned down a trip to go ski Everest with Mark Newcomb and Steven Koch. You have to be really fired up for those kinds of trips. If you’re not 100 percent committed, it’s really hard to do them.