This is part one of a series of stories from legendary skier Mike Hattrup about his current day job of traveling the American West, creating the next generation of ski equipment, and working with amazing athletes like Jackson, Wyo.-based Sophia Schwartz. Want to read his dispatches from the road? Join Outside+ and keep your eyes on “Out of Office with Mike Hattrup” for a semi-weekly dose of tales from the road throughout the month of June.
It was early July in 1996 and I was guiding on Denali for Rainier Mountaineering. The majority of our clientele were not skiers, so like most climbers on the highest peak in North America, we used snowshoes on the lower mountain.
We were weary from almost three weeks on the mountain and into the second day of not moving. Our group of twelve were holed up in tents at the top of the Lower Kahiltna Glacier trying to stay entertained as the rain pitter-pattered on our roofs. We needed the temperature to drop and strengthen the crevasse bridges to make it safer for us to navigate the maze of crevasses that stood between us and our pick-up.
1996 was a low snow year, so the lower Kahiltna was really broken up. What should have been an easy three-hour stroll turned into a stressful eight-hour day of end-running the maze of crevasses that stretched out for miles. Meanwhile, a group of Norwegians on skis—and a little speed—were able to glide over the fragile bridges and cover in three hours what took our group two days.
I vowed then and there never to return to Denali without skis.
So when I heard that Wyoming-based Fischer athlete Sophia Schwartz was planning to ski Denali this past May, I was excited to talk to her about her trip before she took to discuss her strategy, preparation, and why she was motivated to take on this challenge in the first place.
Mike Hattrup: You planned to ski Denali last year, but Covid thwarted that plan. So, then you went to the Wind Rivers, right?
Sophia Schwartz: Last year, our project was to go to Denali and ski, but once Denali was canceled, our team had been working and training together, so we decided to go to the Wind River range because it felt comfortable with our Covid risk tolerance.
Hattrup: You mentioned that none of your team members have done a big unguided expedition like this. So tell me about who you’re going with.
Schwartz: My good friend Iain Kuo is the expedition trip leader, and he came up with the idea and invited me along to go ski Denali from the start. He’s someone who has climbed bigger peaks and is a big fan of cold and suffering, but honestly, he is a pretty green skier having only really started skiing after transitioning from snowboarding three years ago. He’s chill and goes with the flow and really has a good risk tolerance.
So then we reached out to two different friends: Joey Sackett who lives here in Jackson and then a friend of a friend introduced me to Marika Feduschak. She is a student at Montana State University in Bozeman. I was really excited to have another woman on the team.
Hattrup: What route are you planning to climb and ski?
Schwartz: We will head up the West Buttress and the goal is to ski the Messner Couloir. We know that conditions will very much be the determining factor around our ski descent, so the other options we are looking at include the Rescue Couloir and the Orient Express if conditions don’t line up for the Messner.
Hattrup: I walked down Denali and I can tell you, I promised myself, I would never go back without skis. And speaking of skis, what do you plan to ski from an equipment standpoint?
Schwartz: Yeah, I’m bringing the Fischer Hannibal 96, which is my everyday backcountry ski. It just skis really well in all conditions. I think it’s scary to be on top of a 40- to 50-degree line and not know that you can hold an edge or turn the way you want to turn. But it’s also light enough that you can totally cruise up.
And then I typically ski almost a hundred percent of my season in the Ranger Free ski boot, but I’m going to switch it up and take the Travers for a longer expedition. It’s significantly lighter and also skis really well. The one thing the traverse doesn’t do quite as well is jump.
See what else Sophia is bringing on this expedition: Critical Gear for Your Next Overnight Ski Expedition
Hattrup: So no double backflips planned for Denali?
Schwartz: Somebody told me a story of their friend who was hanging out at the 14,000-foot camp, which ends up being this advanced base camp. There were a few weather days and they built a jump and someone tried a double backflip, lost a ski, and never found it. It ended their expedition. So it was a good story for someone who loves to jump to be like, “You’re right. I’m here to spend time with this one goal and this one mountain,” and so my feet will not intentionally go above my head the whole trip.
Hattrup: When I climbed Denali 25 years ago, one of my fondest memories was that everybody’s bringing freeze-dried food because it’s light, but we brought bacon to 14,000 feet. The smell of bacon wafting through the camp was priceless. We might not have made a whole lot of friends there, but it was really nice to have bacon. What are you planning for food and how many days?
Schwartz: We’ve heard that many of the guided parties bring way too much food and coming down from 14,000 feet, they don’t necessarily want to carry that weight. So we’re planning on a 21-day expedition and our friend and mentor Mark Smiley told us to bring seven days of food. We were too scared to do that, so we’re going to bring 14 days of food and have a lot of really good snacks. And honestly, a lot of that is freeze-dried food. But we’re bringing Trailtopia and that’s what we brought on our Winds trip. I love to cook, and for our Winds trip, I was definitely a bit of a grump thinking of only having freeze-dried food. And then it actually turned out to be quite delicious.
Hattrup: So, blue bags aren’t a new idea, and when I was guiding on Rainier, blue bags were used to carry your own feces off the mountain, and on Rainier, it wasn’t a big deal because you’re on the mountain for two days and that’s not a lot of human waste, but for three weeks you’re going to be dragging your shit around, pun intended. That’s a long time and it’s not going to be light. So tell me a little bit about your blue bag angle on this.
Schwartz: In learning about how to deal with your waste management on Denali, we learned that a lot of people will carry their waste up to 14,000 feet and there’s a communal crevasse that everybody dumps their waste into. One of the big issues around climate change and losing these glaciers is that as they’re melting out, now you have all of this waste being exposed and it can potentially get in people’s drinking water. Everything has this downstream effect.
So for us, we said, ‘Okay, what if we carried all of our waste out? What does that actually look like?’ It’s kind of daunting. How hard is it to carry your waste out? How much more weight are we really bringing back downhill with us? Will we ever just get so frustrated that we dump our weight? You get these clean mountain cans to store your waste into and does that fill up? Will we run out of space to even store our waste?
Last year, even just learning to use my pee bottle really should have been one of the goals in the Jack of all Trades video. I had to give myself a more intense pep-talk to use my pee bottle in my sleeping bag for the first time on our Winds Traverse than I gave myself for doing a double backflip, for skiing the Grand, for anything. It’s definitely scary, and there’ll be a lot of learning that goes along with it.
Hattrup: Well, if you’re carrying all your waste out, that’s certainly a vote for bringing less food in, right? That means your sled will be a little bit lighter on the way out.
Schwartz: I’m definitely hoping to metabolize most of it into warm energy and minimize the waste.
Hattrup: What are you most anxious about for Denali? Is it the cold, the altitude, the technical skiing or climbing, or just peeing in your pee bottle?
Schwartz: Yeah. Pee bottle is number one.
I think that it’s kind of a split between the cold. The idea of shivering in your tent while it’s negative 20 with 60 mile-an-hour wind is just not a condition I have been in before and can be very humbling. Then on top of that, I’m most concerned about decision-making. You need to find ways to continue to be able to honor your decision-making and practice that in the field and to be big enough and strong enough to walk away from something if the conditions aren’t right.
Hattrup: That’s a super healthy attitude. Every time you turn around, you can always go back. It’s the time you don’t turn around that you might lose that opportunity.
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