What it takes to splitboard Denali
Summit County, Colo. – Thinking back to his month-long expedition to the summit of Alaska’s Denali last summer, Pat Gephart estimates there were at least 200 people on the megamountain along with him and his Summit County group.
Of all of those expeditioners he came across, Gephart could count on one hand the amount of people who snowboarded from the 20,310-foot summit formerly known as Mount McKinley.
The 32-year-old Breckenridge resident and Pennsylvania native was one of them. On June 27 of last year he achieved his goal. Gephart strapped into his Weston Range 161 splitboard, riding approximately 200 yards along the narrow ridgeline down from Denali’s cloud-splitting summit.
To Gephart, this was his latest adventure within a passion he describes as “alpinisim on a snowboard.” Along with his fellow Breckenridge backcountry mates Reid Calmus and Pat “Perry” Johnson, Gephart set out on June 8, 2018, to ascend approximately 14,000 vertical feet — all above tree line.
Once there, despite the serene, windless conditions amid Alaska’s endlessly lit summer days, Gephart wasn’t self-congratulatory. Rather, he was hyper-focused on safely riding the crampon-trampled summit snow.
“It’s just spicy,” Gephart said of snowboarding Denali’s summit ridgeline, “kind of like a knife-edge snow ridge.”
“You just don’t want to fall,” he said. “For me, we had two partners, they were beat — tired. Really, we had pushed some people to get up the mountain just to summit, which was awesome to accomplish that. It was really about getting everyone down safely. That’s kind of your main goal at that time.”
Gephart had to make the executive decision to unstrap from his board when the Denali ridgeline was particularly precarious — 2-3 feet across allowing for one ski line and no real room to turn. The other risk in snowboarding the hard snow along the ridge was the reality that if he lost balance and fell one way, it’d potentially be into a crevasse — a deep open crack in Denali’s glaciated terrain. Lose balance and fall to the other side, and Gephart said a snowboarder like him would never be found again.
These are the inherent risks with snowboarding lines down megamountains. Despite the danger, it’s expeditions like these that excite some of Summit County’s most experienced and adventurous backcountry recreationists like Teague Holmes, Adam Karchster, Chase Frantz and Dave Bottomley, who were also chasing adventure in Alaska.
For Gephart, a year after he rode the Fuhrer Finger line on Mount Rainier and the South Side line on Mount Hood, something on Denali was the logical next step.
He planned for Denali’s West Buttress route, the mountain’s most commonly climbed route. Leading up to the expedition, Gephart felt he and his trio were ready for Denali thanks to their well-rounded experience with winter mountaineering in Summit County. Also an avid ice and rock climber, Gephart believed his experiences surviving and thriving in the cold and snowy backcountry of Colorado’s High Country would be ideal preparation for whatever Denali threw at him — namely any steep, icy vertical faces.
Gephart also realized Alaska mountaineering is much different than anywhere else. It’s very committing. You have to have the right gear, the right cooking systems. Also, the proper implementable crevasse and glacier training is a must.
“A trip like this,” Gephart said, “you have to have a pretty good mountaineering background — using crampons, an ice ax; knowing how to self arrest; knowing how to move on glaciated terrain through crevasses; how to expedition winter camp through long periods of time; how to keep your gear dialed; how to not get things wet — all of these things come together. Basically, how to take care of yourself when you’re in a wilderness — a snow wilderness — for a long period of time.”
Snowboarding off of Denali is a world away from where Gephart’s snowboarding life began, back on small resort halfpipes in Pennsylvania. Just four years before his Denali trip, Gephart became hooked on splitboarding.
Splitboards are a relatively new technology that allows snowboarders to literally split their board down the middle. This allows riders to do the same kind of uphill backcountry traversing that skiers do. Just like touring, splitboarders slip one-way carpet-like traction sleeves over the equivalent of skis, facilitating upward mobility while preventing downward sliding.
As such, the Weston snowboard Gephart rode on Denali was very different from the resort snowboards he grew up learning on. But it’s only on a splitboard where Gephart can progress into the more technical mountaineering he’d like to do in the future, whether that be back at Denali or even in the Himalayas.
“The sky’s the limit, and Denali was the next step,” Gephart said. “That was a goal I made, and that’s the thing with goals: you make goals and you have this natural progression to get to that goal, which is a means to a lot of other ends. It’s not just Denali, you are opening up doors to the next goals.”
While ascending from one camp to another on Denali, Gephart may have already been thinking ahead to other expeditions. He was also dialed in to basking in the strategy and fun of the Denali trip.
The fun parts included riding the maritime snowpack powder down from Denali’s 14,000-foot camp. While riding this natural, above-tree-line terrain, Gephart took in the powerful, raw beauty of the jagged peaks surrounding Denali, such as Mount Hunter and the summertime cerac ice and rock falls in the distance.
The location of that camp was, effectively, the line of demarcation between more tame terrain below and the steep, 50-degree incline that led to Denali’s summit. But before they could even reach the camp, Gephart and his crew experienced the worst of Mother Nature’s wrath at their 11,000-foot camp. That’s where they bunkered down for six days, sitting and shoveling out a heavy storm. Gephart described it as a great introduction into Alaskan mountaineering, as the group needed to prepare their campsite with dug-out, snow-cube walls to protect from the howling winds.
As for the big day, when they reached the summit on June 27, the crew waited for a window in the weather that allowed for relatively warm, minus-15 degree low-wind conditions at the summit. From 14,000 feet and up, Gephart opted for crampons over skins, as the terrain was too steep. With his splitboard on his back, he and the group roped together and slowly ascended the final segment of the mountain.
About 24 hours after they set out from the 14,000-foot camp, descending from the summit, Gephart trudged through some of the more sketchy sections of Denali. His group had fought through a case of frostbite, one individual with fluid in their lungs and an overall relative lack of energy. Still, the several elements of alpinism on odysseys like these are what Gephart lives for.
“If I can combine that with splitboarding,” Gephart said, “I’m having the best day ever.”
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