Telluride-Based Mountain Travel Makes Denali Guided Ski Trips a Reality

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The odds of reaching the Denali are no better than a drawbut those who do join a prestigious club and guide service mountain trip has successfully helped approximately 2,000 people reach North America’s highest point in its 49 year history. Now, the Telluride-based outfitter guides adventurers to join an even more elite club: those who have skied to the top of Denali.

On June 5, after nearly 20 years of back-and-forth with the National Park Service (NPS) over allowing ropeless guided ski runs on Denali, Mountain Trip led the first customer on a commercial expedition in a decade to the top of Alaska’s peak. – and then skied from the top. This achievement “advances guiding ski mountaineering in the United States,” says Bill Allen, co-owner of Mountain Trip. “Denali is a big lens that people dream of.”

Mountain Trip may call the San Juans home, but mountaineering expeditions in the Alaska Range, which stretches 600 miles around Anchorage from the Alaskan-Canadian border to to the Alaska Peninsula, are the reason for the boutique guide service. In 1972, California mountaineer Gary Bocarde heard rumors of untapped opportunities on the great walls in Alaska. Like a real dustbag, Bocarde packed up his car and drove nearly 3,200 miles north to see if the big stories were true.

They were. Massive 5,000 foot cliffs with no recorded climbs awaited him in the Alaska Range. He began picking peaks, including the first winter alpine ascent in this range when he summited Mount Hunter. All the while, Bocarde was plagued with one problem: money. Or more precisely, its absence. Leading mountain novices seemed like the obvious way to turn his passion into a profession, and in 1973 Mountain Trip was born.

Bocarde continued to run or manage trips to Alaska until 2004 when he sold his company to Allen and Todd Rutledge. Under new owners, Mountain Trip moved its headquarters to Colorado and expanded to conduct expeditions around the world, including the highest peaks on every continent. “Denali is always at the heart of what we do,” Rutledge says, noting that under his and Allen’s leadership, Mountain Trip has guided more routes and more climbers on Denali than any other outfitter.

Until recently, however, skiing on Denali was not something the outfitter offered. Although independent, non-commercial groups have long been allowed to ski the summit, the NPS has banned ropeless glacier travel among commercial groups on Denali since the early 1980s. As a result, guided groups have had to be tied together with a rope when traveling over Denali’s “firnline”, where there is usually snow. In theory, this requirement ensures that if a person loses their footing on a slope or falls into a crevasse, the one they are attached to will stop on their own and (hopefully) act as a human anchor preventing falls. There is, however, a downside. “It’s really hard,” says Rutledge, “to ski tied up with someone else on a rope.”

In 2006, Rutledge and Allen approached the NPS with a request to permit ropeless ski mountaineering. Their argument: there are situations and terrains in which it is less risky to ski without a rope than to ski connected to the other members of your group. Rutledge says, for example, that someone with altitude sickness could ski down the mountain faster if they weren’t roped in with other expedition members.

A Mountain Trip guide skis past the icefall above Camp 2 in the western foothills of Denali this past spring. Photo by Jediah Porter

The NPS acknowledged the validity of Mountain Trip’s arguments in 2008 and offered the guide service interim verbal permission to ski mountaineer Denali (which they did in 2009 and 2010). But the park service didn’t write the language into Mountain Trip’s contract, and verbal permission was revoked in 2012. “The park’s position was basically that you’ll always be safer if you’re roped in,” says Rutledge, “which has put a damper on our ability to offer Denali ski vacations.

Almost a decade later, in 2018, Rutledge and Allen made another push to get formal approval. In addition to reiterating their claims about the safety of ropeless travel on glaciers, they also pointed to advances in ski equipment and the rise in popularity of ski touring. Owners also highlighted the evolution of guiding as a highly regulated profession; prior to 2010, when specialized training became the industry standard, many guides were essentially skilled hobbyists who led side trips.

In 2019, after more dialogue with the park, the NPS finally wrote the permission into the Mountain Trip contract. (This permission also extends to other guiding services on the mountain.) But with COVID-19 travel dwindling over the past two years—and with Denali fully closed to guiding services in 2020—Mountain Trip had not yet led customers in a downhill ski from the summit.

The dream of a commercial group skiing to the summit finally came true on June 5, when two Mountain Trip guides and their client put on skis, looked down at the white expanse below, and dropped off a peak that had no not been fully skied for over 10 years. The trio were thrilled to see years of personal and collective effort come to fruition, but “it was a relatively quiet scene,” according to Jediah Porter, the trip’s lead guide. “We’re all pretty reserved personalities.”

Back in Colorado though, where Rutledge was tracking their progress on a satellite tracker, cheers rang out. “I saw that the trail didn’t come back to the road but descended from the top of that 1,000ft snow face,” he said, a clear indication that the group had been able to descend the summit on skis. (His exact words of elation included an unfit for print expletive.) Once he found out the team was safely back at camp, Rutledge said, “I felt like we had broken a barrier. We worked hard for this, and for this to happen, I was proud of them.

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