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10,500 Feet Above Bear Mountain: How Three Bluebirds Trained for Denali

Last season, three of Bluebird’s employees made a plan on the skin track of Bear Mountain to summit Denali in the spring of 2021. John Beye, a passionate skier and Bluebird’s 2020/2021 base area manager, was a part of this team. In this blog, John tells an enticing story of their training at Bluebird and their adventure on Denali. The group’s training experience galvanized the development of a new advanced course at Bluebird Backcountry — Ski Mountaineering 1 — an incredible opportunity to learn from experts and get acquainted to the world of ski mountaineering in the best classroom around.

The following article was written by John Beye.

Bear Mountain, the highest peak at Bluebird Backcountry, tops out at 9,845 feet. While not the highest summit in North America, Bear — and the surrounding terrain at Bluebird — does provide an excellent training ground for those with their eyes set on big mountain objectives. From the novice stepping into tech bindings for the first time to the experienced shredder opting to avoid suspect avalanche forecasts, Bluebird Backcountry happily plays host to all backcountry skiers hoping to progress in the sport. For three Bluebird staff members this past spring, that very progression brought them to the summit of Denali — a peak 10,500 feet taller than the highpoint of our backyard Bear Mountain.

Bluebird Backcountry boasts a small, passionate staff who are all motivated by maximizing their time in the mountains while helping others do the same. If you visited last winter, you surely met some of them on the skin track. What you may not have noticed, though, is the discrete training being done by a select few in preparation for skiing off the top of North America’s highest peak.

You may have taken a backcountry ski lesson with Menno. What he probably didn’t tell you was that his backpack was weighted down with climbing ropes for a little bit of extra uphill weight. Perhaps you stopped to visit Sam and snag some midday bacon at The Perch. Did you happen to notice him setting up snow anchors and running crevasse rescue drills outside? Maybe you were lucky enough to catch one of the on-mountain popup barbecue events in the spring. If so, you can thank John for multitasking by hauling sleds full of Denali training weight… err… propane tanks and all of the grilling necessities deep into The Hundred Acre Woods.

John Beye training for his expeditions at Bear Mountain. Photo courtesy of John Beye.

Strangers before the Bluebird season, Menno, Sam, and John became quick friends at Bear Mountain. Menno and John were roommates in Kremmling at a house more full of ski mountaineers than ski bums (read: a case of PBR lasted over two months), and it wasn’t long before discussions of skiing Denali percolated into the evening conversations. A climbing permit for late May was secured by early March for two teams; John and Menno with a few other friends, and Sam accompanied by other climbing partners.  

For Sam, Covid-19 had shut down the entire 2020 Denali climbing season and pushed his previously planned expedition to spring 2021 instead. With a little bit of luck, both teams landed climbing permits within one day of each other and would become serendipitous neighbors for nearly three weeks on the glaciers leading up to North America’s tallest peak.  

Of course, “one does not simply walk onto Denali,” and the final months of the Bluebird operating season were filled with physical training, skills practice, and gear talk. Menno, Sam, and John spent hours touring uphill with unnecessarily heavy backpacks, perfecting their rigging systems for hauling sleds, sharing food and gear strategies, and ensuring that systems were dialed should anyone take the plunge into one of the many man-eating crevasses of the Alaska Range. When it comes to big objectives, planning is all part of the fun and watching the pieces come together can be nearly as rewarding as the climb itself.

As winter drew to a close in Colorado and the end-of-season staff party came and went, all eyes were focused on The Last Frontier. Sam returned to The Front Range to log some vertical on a few famed 14ers, while Menno and John headed to the Pacific Northwest for an abbreviated volcano tour that would allow for more glacier practice and big single day ski descents on some classic lines.  

Everything was slowly coming into focus, and before long these three members of the Bluebird flock would be reunited on the Talkeetna airstrip — patiently waiting for weather to clear and for their chance to land on the Kahiltna Glacier en route to the roof of North America.

With a classic Alaska Range storm brewing high in the mountains, one day bled into the next while Sam, Menno, John and their respective teams sat patiently — biding their time in quintessential small town Alaska. Finally, after a few unplanned days in Talkeetna, Sam’s team got word that their pilot was going to shoot a weather window and get them onto the Kahiltna. Menno and John enviously waved from the airstrip, knowing they would reconnect somewhere up high when the weather would allow for their safe passage in a smaller aircraft.

Menno, Sam, and John wait at the airstrip for a weather window. Photo: John Beye

Thankfully they didn’t have to wait long. By 1:00pm the following afternoon, their team was hastily unpacking the plane, rigging sleds, roping up, and eagerly starting the long push across the Lower Kahiltna Glacier — each with 125 lbs of gear in tow. 

The lower mountain proved uneventful in all the best ways. Blue skies, reflective solar heat, and solid snow bridges paved the way from the icy airstrip all the way to 11,000 feet — a destination reached by both teams in a couple full days of glacier travel. From there on, the climb gets a bit more technical and consequential as expeditions navigate Windy Corner — the crux separating the lower elevations from the majesty of the Upper Mountain.  

At this point, Sam’s and John/Menno’s teams had reunited and were back on the same program, advancing to 14 Camp in less than a week from first landing on the glacier. The average summit bid on Denali is 18 days, and our Bluebird representatives were well on their way to bringing that number down. The move to 14,000 feet, though grueling, went smoothly and both teams now had a solid high elevation base camp to acclimatize, strategize, and — duh — ski.

Though still largely a minority, each year an increasing amount of climbers on Denali are opting to attempt to ski at least some of the mountain in hopes of increasing their efficiency — and in some regards safety — when traveling over the highly glaciated terrain. This, in conjunction with attempting a summit straight from 14,000 feet (skipping the more common overnight camp at 17,000 feet) are what the National Park Service would consider disturbing plans. With skis and splitboards underfoot and ambitions to summit in one long push from 14 Camp, the Bluebird teams followed both of these plans. 

For these three and their accompanying teammates, having skis at 14,000 feet was nothing short of a necessity. While Denali may have had one of its worst snow years in some time in 2021, the aesthetics of skiing out of camp at 14,000 feet cannot be beat. Big sweeping views and Goliath seracs abound, and navigating boot-top powder in this high altitude playground can be a far more enjoyable way to acclimatize than jumping jacks or hiking up and down the fixed lines of The Headwall.

Evenings at 14 Camp were largely spent cooking good food, playing games, and eagerly gathering weather forecasts to plan for the encroaching summit day ahead. Remarkably fair weather blessed the beginning of June in the Alaska Range, and when surrounding expeditions started to move to 17,000 feet, the Bluebird crew knew it was go-time. Weather moved in on Sam’s expedition during their first attempt and forced an early retreat back to camp from 17,000 feet. While their expedition regrouped the following day, John and Menno’s team saw another weather window and made a run for it.

One of the team’s three camps on Denali. Photo: John Beye

The blessing of Alaska in the summertime is that alpine starts are rarely a necessity, given the amount of daylight available to climbers. As such, summit day started around 7:30am and before long the crew had ascended The Headwall on the fixed lines, navigated the breathtaking ridgeline at 16,000 feet, and cruised through 17 Camp by 11am.  From there, the high consequence terrain of The Audubon and Denali Pass at 18,200 feet awaited — but even that leg passed quickly. The push across the high elevation plateau leading to the summit can be a slog, but with good weather this section proved more mental than anything. As evening approached, the team waited at the base of the summit ridge for expeditions ahead of them to finish their descent. Not only did this offer an increased margin of safety but, by the time they reached the top, Menno and John’s team had the roof of North America entirely to themselves. Tears, laughter, and summit selfies followed, and the calm Alaskan evening meant that the Hawaiian shirts could happily come out — even at 20,310 feet above sea level.

John & Menno’s team on the summit of Denali. Photo: John Beye

With any mountain, climbing is only half the battle and success is truly marked by returning home. It was time to click into skis and begin the descent back to 14 Camp. Dropping off of the summit of Denali was almost everything this crew could have hoped for, but the real ski objectives begin right around 19,000 feet. Given the atrocious conditions visible from 14 Camp, the Messner Couloir was very clearly not going to be an option. That left the Orient Express (OE) as the next best classic descent. After nosing into this couloir’s entrance, and debating for what seemed like an eternity, the four retreated for a more mellow return down Denali’s West Buttress. Though discouraged, this decision was vindicated by a roped up expedition climbing up the OE by placing ice screws and swinging tools on their summit attempt later that same evening. 

As if the mountain chose to reward this conservative decision, the ski back to and down Denali Pass was fast and fun. At no point would one assume that the highlight of a ski expedition on Denali would be walking downhill. However, against all odds, retracing their steps down 16 Ridge with skis firmly attached to packs and the sun dipping below the horizon was pure magic. The Alaska Range was aflame in alpenglow and the entire reality of a successful expedition finally set in as midnight neared at 16,000 feet in a true alpine kingdom.

Exhausted, the team of four rolled into 14 Camp and straight into their tents for a night of fatigued and fitful sleep. The bliss and relief when waking up the morning following a successful summit bid of this magnitude is indescribable. John and Menno’s team reached, and skied off, the summit of Denali on the 13th day of their expedition — many days ahead of the mountain average. Of the just over 1,000 climbers on Denali this season, 53% reached the top. Sam’s team would have an equally rewarding, emotional, and successful summit bid two days later, bringing the summit percentage for Bluebird employees in 2021 to 100%.  

The descent from 14,000 feet provided the final reward of two and half weeks on the mountain, offering a contemplative 7,000-foot descent past Windy Corner, through the previous camp at 11,000 feet, and across the Lower Kahiltna Glacier back to the airstrip. The final night on the mountain was spent in revelry by enjoying the beer and junk food cached at the airstrip weeks ago, before laying out insulating pads on the snow and catching some shuteye under The Midnight Sun.

Menno descending Ridge 16 on Denali. Photo: John Beye

It takes years of skill development and mountain acumen, the right partners, months of preparation… and sometimes even a little bit of luck… for expedition dreams to transform into reality. 

To tackle something as ambitious as a ski descent from the tallest peak in North America, everything needs to work out perfectly. Large multi-day expeditions require an incredible amount of planning and foresight, a willingness to intentionally exist in uncomfortable situations, and an insatiable desire to push oneself in the mountains. While over 10,000 feet lower than Denali, Bear Mountain provides the perfect venue to learn and practice some of these skills while building the necessary awareness and fitness to start dreaming of mountains the world over. At Bluebird Backcountry the final critical piece of the puzzle — strong partners and mentors, a supportive community, and lasting friendships — are also readily available.

There are many incredible places to visit and memories to be made as you continue to push yourself in the mountains. This winter, whether you are stepping into backcountry skis for the first time or have a big expedition already on the calendar, Bear Mountain and the surrounding terrain is there to support your personal progression in backcountry learning — whatever that may be. And if you happen to run into Sam, Menno, or John at Bluebird this year, don’t be afraid to ask if their packs are yet again full of training weight, in preparation for their next grand adventure.

If this story inspired you to explore high mountains on your skis or splitboard, Bluebird’s Ski Mountaineering 1 course is the perfect introduction to what the world of ski mountaineering is all about! Instructed by the second woman to ski all of Colorado’s 14ers and all-around highly accomplished Brittany Konsella, you’re in for a knowledgeable and fun-filled day course.