Alaska’s Denali, as the highest peak in North America with a summit of 20,310 feet, is a bucket-list climb for any number of mountaineers, climbers, and adventure seekers. But what about skiers? Denali’s first full descent on skis wasn’t recorded until 1972, almost 60 years after the first on-foot ascent. Even today, it is a far less common choice, with less than 10% of people opting to ski, rather than climb down. Although this is changing thanks to improvements in ski technology, those who have skied down North America’s tallest peak can still count themselves part of a rather exclusive club.
Don caught up with John Beye, one of our PurePower ambassadors, who has recently become a part of that elite group, having summited – and successfully skied down – Denali earlier this year. Watch the full interview below to hear John give more detail about his rigorous training routine, the things that really light him up about being in the mountains, and to hear his breathtaking description of his time in Alaska in his own words.
John describes how he got into mountaineering and backwoods skiing. Growing up in Wisconsin, he spent time on the lakes every summer and went on annual national park road trips out west with his teacher parents. “The outdoors has been ingrained in me for a long time,” he says.
When he was older, he moved to Jackson, Wyoming. He’d been rock climbing and backcountry skiing for about a decade at that point, but as he puts it, “Everything just fell into place once I had the mountains in my backyard.”
Sharing his love of wild, mountainous places with other people has always been important to John. He has led expeditions in Northern India, the Himalayas, and Norway. In his role as an outdoor educator, he has worked with groups of students in the Tetons, Yellowstone, and further afield.
He also describes feeling a necessity to unplug from the rest of the world, so much so that for the past 6 years, he has been managing an off-grid wilderness lodge in Alaska for part of the year.
John sees the unplugging that comes with wilderness expeditions as the perfect way to build and strengthen relationships with partners, friends, and family. “I think being in the mountains and stepping out of your comfort zone and pushing physical and mental limits is good as an individual. But it’s maybe even more powerful when you’re doing it with partners and with friends and family that you care about.”
Mentoring is another key factor in John’s love of the mountains. As he puts it, “As far as progressing in the mountains goes, it’s good to have someone that you’re mentoring, someone on the same level as you, and a mentor who you’re getting skills, knowledge, support, and comfort from.”
Mentoring and building relationships are more important to John than chasing summits or pushing himself. “That’s probably a selfish endeavor to some extent. And so being able to really put the effort into the people you’re with helps me justify it. And then being able to share those stories with others is also a big component to hopefully motivating other people to get out there and chase their own dreams, then maybe develop an ethic that they didn’t have before and have some sense of stewardship so they take care of these places that we’re all recreating in.”
The Denali Climb
Denali had been on John’s list for a while. This is not a goal to take lightly, and his many years of training and skills progression were certainly key. From crevasse rescue training to avalanche courses to skiing down Pico de Orizaba in Mexico (18,491 feet), and even two weeks of volcano skiing in the Pacific Northwest in the run-up to summiting Denali, John took his preparation very seriously.
After months of planning on Zoom and weeks of packing and repacking gear, John and his three friends arrived in Alaska in late May, reaching the summit in under a week (most people take double that, even without carrying skiing gear). Opting to summit from 14,000 feet in one big push, they ended up at the top of the mountain late in the day, meaning they had it to themselves. “We were able to kind of soak it all up. I know a few of us shed some tears.”
The way down proved more challenging, and the group of friends had to think on their feet and adapt to changing conditions. This meant nixing their planned route down the Orient Express, which would take them straight into camp, instead traversing round to the other side of the mountain, adding hours onto their journey. As it turned out, they made the right decision.
“We get down to the 16,000-foot ridge at twilight or at sunset, and everything’s aglow. The sun’s dropping around the horizon and the sky has lit up and all the mountains are just on fire. And it was this perfect ‘aha’ moment of like, ‘Oh this is probably the most stunning and inspiring leg of this entire two-week journey. And it’s walking downhill with skis on my back.’”
The Support of PurePower
With every ounce of carry weight accounted for, it’s a huge honor to us at PurePower that our products not only made the cut, but also helped to keep John and his friends in peak condition (pun intended).
Spending so many nights on Denali, it was vital that John and his team were able to get high-quality sleep and wake up refreshed. “Having had trouble sleeping at altitude in the past, I think the Power Down was imperative to how good we felt.”
Similarly, the group needed to rest and recover from strenuous climbs hauling large amounts of gear. “The Reboot as well was just – we felt great the entire time, even when the day came to push for the summit.”
Climbing a mountain can be just as much a mental journey as a physical one, and John tells an amazing story of how the group had to pause on the descent to reconsider their route. Having taken some Daily Boost a little while before, they were able to pause for around half an hour to consider their options in an amazingly calm, collected manner. “[Daily Boost] helped reset my mindset to more of a state of calm and a state of awareness and just appreciation for the experience.”