The Wickersham Wall Revisited
“I’m worried about crevasses, icy slopes and avalanches too. Is all this danger really worth it? Have I considered what I’m doing and why?” I wrote these words in my journal a few days prior to launching onto Denali’s 14,500 foot tall, 4-mile wide Wickersham Wall in May of 1994. I’m sure Aaron Mainer and Peter Dale, who skied the wall twenty-five years later, had similar doubts. Yet after a successful trip and safe return, fears are forgotten, replaced by pride and satisfaction. Skiing the “Wick Wall” was a defining event in my life, largely because it was so daunting. For the next generation, it would be the same.
Few have been closer to the massive north face of Mt. McKinley, aka Denali, than a plane window on a scenic flight. Mainer and Dale studied and photographed the wall from such a vantage point, then dropped into it two weeks later. Not surprisingly, the terrain looked entirely different once they were on it, searching for ways past cliffs, crevasses and seracs. Yet they persevered, found a line, and survived to tell the tale.
Their story is below. It’s now a major chapter in the ski history of the Wickersham Wall. They dropped into perhaps the most committing line in the Alaska Range without sleeping bags or a tent, determined to find the bottom in a single push. Their style could be called “alpine big wall skiing.” By contrast, John Montecucco and I brought food and fuel for 3 weeks, and double-carried up the wall, breaking it into five sections. This evolution of ski mountaineering mirrors the direction of alpine climbing, where expedition style has largely been replaced by “light and fast” alpinism.
Judge Wickersham led the first attempt on Denali in 1903, up the face that now bears his name. His party was stymied at 8,100 feet by sheer ice, a feature John M. and I climbed with ice tools and rappelled down in 1994. Mainer and Dale somehow skied pastthis crux 25 years later.
Just as many aspects of the Wall endured for over a century, others have transformed dramatically in just a quarter of that time. Climate change and de-glaciation in Alaska is well documented. This wall has undoubtedly lost ice, but anecdotal evidence, spread over decades, is all we have to confirm this; stories passed back from one (new) generation of ski mountaineers to the previous (old) author. And one aspect of the story, more annual snow covering the lower Wickersham in 2019 than 1994, demonstrates that cyclical variations in local snowfall can influence success more than global warming.
Mainer and Dale’s ski descent in 2019 was apparently the first since 1998, when Adrian Nature did a similar top-down descent. He overcame all manner of challenges, and reached Wonder Lake 56 hours after departing the 14,000-foot camp on the West Buttress. Prior to this, a French Team skied the wall in two parts in 1995. Little else is known of their adventure.
Montecucco and I skied the wall in stages, from the bottom up; a conservative and controversial style. We spent 8 days approaching the wall, 12 skiing it, and 4 returning to the airstrip at Kahiltna Base. We double-carried each section of the wall, in order to acclimatize, recon, and ski unencumbered by camping gear. We down-climbed and rappelled 2 different sections, totaling 400 feet. Evidently we had less seasonal snow smoothing out the ice features than Mainer and Dale.
However, the previous 2 parties to attempt a ski descent before us both had accidents related to icy conditions, so maybe seasonal cover was even less then? In 1982 the French extreme ski pioneer, Patrick Vallencant, broke his ankle when he skied into a crevasse on blue ice. In 1983, Rick Wyatt, Evelyn Lees and two others climbed the wall in stages, similar to us. Rick shared good “beta” with me. Unluckily, Evelyn slipped while climbing ice near the summit plateau, taking a long slide and sustaining a broken hip and wrist. They self-rescued back to the West Buttress, which gave me the idea for our exit from the wall.
From Summit to Tundra: A Top-Down, Modern Wickersham Adventure
Aaron Mainer and Peter Dale, as the culmination of a 2 week ski adventure on Denali, made an on-sight, single-push ski descent of the Wickersham Wall on May 29, 2019. They shared with me the story of this historic descent.
Mainer is an AMGA-certified mountain guide, who spent most of his career with International Mountain Guides on Rainier, Denali and Everest. He’s now working as a fireman in Seattle and skiing big mountains for the love of it. Dale is a manager at Crystal Mountain on the north flank of Mt Rainier. The two cut their teeth ski mountaineering on Rainier, including a cutting edge line on the Willis Wall. They’ve also negotiated numerous wild lines in the Alaska Range, including a first descent on the North Face of Mt. Foraker, located skier’s left of the Archangel Ridge.
The day prior to Mainer and Dale’s attempt on the Wick Wall, which began at the 14,000-foot camp on the West Buttress, the two returned to Kahiltna Base Camp, 7,200, to leave most of their gear there to be flown out to Talkeetna. They then climbed 7,000 feet, spread over ~9 miles, getting back to 14,000 around midnight. This “little jaunt” pre-tired them for the epic journey to come.
As a result, they started later than planned the following morning. They climbed the standard West Buttress Route to Denali Pass, 18,200, and crossed the vast, high summit plateau to the edge of the North Face, aka the Wickersham Wall. They didn’t set foot on the North Summit (high point of the wall) instead they dropped in about halfway between the summit and the top of the Canadian Spur, which defines the western edge of the Wall, at 7 pm. They spent the next 5 hours descending 13,000 feet down the biggest skiable wall on Earth. They had previously skied a new line on Foraker, but the Wickersham “felt considerably bigger,” Mainer recalls.
Visibility was decent, but the snow started out firm and “wind-hammered.” They linked up areas of fall line skiing with skier’s left traverses to work their way over to the Canadian Spur. Hans Gmoser led a team of Canadian Heli-Ski Guides up this first ascent of this route, hence the name. Around 16,000 feet, the snow became boot-top powder(!), and remained sweet for the next 7,000 feet. This was exactly the snow we found on the first descent in ’94. Maybe the ideal way to “get the goods” the Wickersham would be just to ski the upper 7k of the C-Spur?
However, Mainer and Dale were too tired to consider climbing back up and out. They carried on as the route finding became more difficult. Mid-level clouds rolled in and obscured their view. The two roped together for about 1,000 feet. They skied around crevasses and found their way past the massive drop-off that bisects the Wall at 13,000 feet. They managed to keep skis on, and ventured west of the Canadian Spur to pass this crux. John and I cramponed up and down an arete at this level in ’94.
Mainer and Dale had overflown the wall on their initial flight into the range, deemed the snow coverage to be better than in previous years down low, and had taken plenty of photos. Yet now they were on the wall, the photos didn’t match up well with reality! The terrain presented itself as far more complicated.
Poor visibility, combined with a feeling of utter commitment, put them in a state of anxiety. They waited until the clouds lifted a bit. Their spirits also lifted. Confidence returned, and they skied on, negotiating a heavily creased section around 10,000. Mainer felt conditions on the wall were “pretty optimal,” owing to a fat snow year in the Alaska Range, including considerable recent snow during the team’s two weeks at 14 camp. Strong winds that followed the heavy snows stripped the Messner Couloir (which they skied) and other terrain on the West Buttress, but seemingly deposited snow on the North Face.
The intrepid pair had a close call with a wet-slab avalanche at about 8,000. Thousands of feet of cold, soft snow had lulled them into complacency. At this lower altitude, on a west aspect, the surface snow was getting heated, and Peter triggered a 1-foot deep, 200-300 foot wide slab as they circumvented Judge Wickersham’s troublesome ice tower. Fortunately, the savvy skier clung to the higher ground of the C-Spur and dodged a nasty ride into what I dubbed the “Basin from Hell” in ’94.
Descending further onto the Jeffrey Glacier, they found crevasses where none had been visible on their fly-over two weeks prior. A great deal of melting had evidently occurred at this altitude. Snow bridges had vanished! Roping up again, they zig-zagged their way through, doggedly.
The final segment of the Wick Wall involves an ice ramp once known as the “Elephant’s Trunk.” The trunk was severed when the Peters Glacier surged 600 feet in 1986, leaving only a tongue of ice that terminates a few hundred feet above the Peters. Avalanchey “Isothermal mush” snow exacerbated the challenge here. They were compelled to ski cut enough wet snow “push-a-lanches” to create a corridor free from hang-fire above. They sketched their way down this gravelly trough to the Peters Glacier by midnight, and called it a “helluva” day. With no sleeping bags they rolled out sleeping pads, donned down pants and stuck their feet in their packs for the first of three planned “shiver bivvies.” At 5,950 feet elevation in late May, it wasn’t terribly cold.
They probably overslept, because travel on the basically flat Peters Glacier was hampered by a variable, breakable crust. The one-inch, superficial re-freeze would support their skis momentarily before collapsing. And the crust disappeared altogether as the day wore on. Demoralizing travel ensued. They tried various tactics: moving on the glacier, the lateral moraine, and even walking on rubbly rock. All was arduous.
They released their heels on the flat sections to “classic stride,” but they’d decided to save weight by leaving skins behind; perhaps a false move. Inching forward without skins felt “tragic” in such adverse conditions. The adrenaline bump that buoyed them on the wall had long-since passed. A forecast for more stormy weather also played on their psyche. Today they must get to McGonagall Pass. This included slogging 6 miles on the Peters Glacier, climbing 2,000 feet up to Gunsight Pass and descending the Muldrow Glacier.
The terminus of the Peters is now located right where they needed to start ascending to the pass. Here they rappelled an ice cliff. Lacking skins, they wrapped Voile Straps around their skis to provide traction. Like never before, they learned to “work the terrain,” and set a super low-angle skin trail!
After crossing the pass, a steep, dry descent, postholing in rotten shale, brought them to the Muldrow, and more mushy snow. Rain and melting had created countless depressions. Their tired minds conceived each of these as crevasses. Every time their skis punched through the slush, they feared it was a crevasse fall. It could have been. The edge of the Muldrow is heavily broken. It was mentally and physically draining.
Finally the glacier becomes solid and essentially crevasse-free for the last few miles to McGonagall, where they said “good riddance” to the ice and snow, and stretched out on dry ground for the night, knowing their troubles were (pretty much) behind. Many climbers’ caches exist around this little pass. The pair were tempted to raid these to satiate their ravenous appetites. They’d eaten little for 3 days. But they resisted the temptation.
The final push to Wonder Lake involves some 20 miles, but a veritable trail now makes route finding easy. They waded Clear Creek and trudged on, bumping into Cody Hughes Clay James. This ambitious pair had bicycled from Salt Lake City to Wonder Lake, and was now climbing Denali via the Muldrow Glacier Route (see story on page 54). Hughes remembers how surprised he was to see another team carrying skis across the tundra, and the faraway look in Mainer and Dale’s eyes. He knew well the deep-down body fatigue they must be feeling.
In this state, they braced for one last challenge: crossing the mile-wide McKinley River Bar. Dozens of braids of dark, glacier-fed water hide cut-banks and deep spots. Adrian Nature had met a bear and been swept downstream here at the end of his Wickersham marathon. Mainer and Dale teamed up to support one another against the powerful current in the fastest flowing channels, and completed the final crux.
However, upon reaching Wonder Lake and the Denali Park Road, there was one more problem…the tourist buses were not yet running! It was still May. As luck would have it, a park employee spotted the two, sleeping in the campground, and said, “Hello! Where the hell did you come from?” Later that morning, he kindly gave them a lift to the Eilson Visitors Center where they caught a bus back to civilization. A truly epic journey, and clean ski descent of the magnificent wall, was completed in fine, modern, light and fast style.