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Nick Russell Opens Up About the Denali Surf Team

Despite the strange looks he’d receive from tourists, surfer Ian Walsh slipped on his snowboard boots and went for a hike in Maui’s hillside. It was early June, a time in which he’d be normally surfing in the nearby cerulean waves. Instead Walsh plodded uphill, hoping that each step would come in handy for the much longer hike waiting for him up in Alaska. Last March, Walsh had eagerly accepted Nick Russell’s invitation to snowboard North America’s tallest peak, Denali. Joining him would be an all star snowboarder crew: Danny Davis, Forrest Shearer, Jerry Mark, Clark Henarie, Harry Kearney, and Nathaniel Murphy are few to name. Even though he was still learning the ropes of big mountain snowboarding, Walsh wasn’t new to pushing his limits. Remember, this is the guy known for riding behemoth slabs of water in Jaws. Denali would just be a different kind of sufferfest.

RELATED: Ian Walsh’s Unique Path to Snowboarding

Russell, knowing Walsh’s athleticism, wasn’t worried. The surfer was given the stamp of approval from Jimmy Chin, which was all Russell needed to hear. To tell us more about last year’s expedition, Russell dropped by TGR HQ after a few snowboard laps on Teton Pass. Here’s what he had to say about the trip:

Is it true that Denali was originally your brainchild?

NR: Denali has always been on the list. It’s a necessary checkmark, and it just seemed like the perfect time to go. From what I’d heard from friends like Jeremy Jones, who had been on the mountain, the more friends the merrier. You have a lot of downtime on the mountain. There were ultimately nine of us. Danny Davis was in from the start. Aside from him the crew constantly evolved.

How did Ian get involved?

NR: Ian Walsh had come out to Tahoe two seasons ago and rode with Danny, Jeremy, and I. He was super psyched on snowboarding and splitboarding. When I got the idea I just casually extended the invitation to him, and he responded, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Denali.’ That was a bit surprising to hear from a big wave surfer, but he was a yes right away. Through his inclusion, it brought about the film with ROAM.

All Denali expeditions start with a flight in. Photo by ROAM | Erich Roepke.

The crew dynamic looked great from the outside, but how was it on the trip?

NR: It was great. There was never any negativity or stress whatsoever. Everyone brought something different to the table. Jerry Mark was the only person on the team who had been on the mountain before. From what he said about his first trip, Denali felt like a completely different mountain because it was like a sheet of blue ice. He was the realist of the trip because he understood how bad things could get in terms of weather and conditions. Thankfully, we lucked out because the weather was beautiful from the day we got there up until the day we left 18 days later.

It sounds like you guys scored on both perfect weather and snow conditions?

NR: It was perfect. There had been a bunch of skiers on the mountain before us, but basically, by the time we got to 14-camp the main trade routes looked like a ski resort. There were a ton of ski tracks and by the time we got there, everyone seemed to be leaving the mountain. So there really weren't any other skiers and snowboarders on the mountain. We got these little snow refreshes—never more than 10 inches at a time—which meant all the steep lines held perfect boot-top powder. It was either full beginner’s luck or the stars aligning for us, but looking back the expedition felt meant to be.

What were your main goals going into the trip?

NR: Anyone who’s looked into Denali has heard about Chris Davenport’s trip in 2007. His team skied essentially every line on the mountain, thus creating this holy grail accomplishment. I was definitely going into the trip with these lofty goals but not really wanting to voice them—you know, to not jinx things. Whenever going into the big mountain I think it’s best to not set your hopes too high and be ready for the worst. Inversely, things panned out perfectly.

Ian Walsh navigating the Denali ridgeline. Photo by ROAM | Erich Roepke.

Did you guys check off everything on your list then?

NR: Between the whole team, we rode all the lines.

We would split up into groups on certain days because of the natural separation of paces and what not. All the lines come back down to 14,000 feet. Most climbers set up camp at 17,000 feet. We didn’t want to do that because it didn’t sound appealing to bring all our gear up there and have to ride down with heavy packs. Basically, every push we did started from 14,000 feet. When we went for the top, it was a 6,000-foot day.

Once you’re above 16,000 feet you’re counting your steps. You start moving a lot slower above 17,000. We probably had at least four days at 17,000, riding mellow runs like the Orient Shoulder which eventually brought us back down to camp. On our first attempt for the top, a big cloud shut us down, so we just rode the Rescue Gully. A couple of us rode the Dog Leg, while a few of the other guys rode the Sunshine Face. We ended up riding the Messner Couloir from the summit, and two days later we climbed the West Rib and rode the Orient Express from the top.

Did you get into anything else while you were based on the mountain?

NR: Yeah there’s this little side objective called Black Rock Peak, which had never been snowboarded before. Basically, when you get to 17,000, you’re staring at this face with perfect couloirs that’s right off the north summit. It was super inviting. For most people, by the time you’re at 17,000, you’re pretty focused on reaching the summit. To get to this little side mission, it’s essentially a detour.

We went to the top and snowboarded the Messner. Following that descent, we rested at camp. The day after that we climbed the Orient and were super smoked, but had heard that some weather was coming in a few days. So the next day we went back up to ride this zone. After that, there really wasn’t anything else we wanted to ride, so we left the next day—which was a week ahead of schedule.

Nick Russell channeling his inner mountain goat on the hike up. Photo by ROAM | Erich Roepke.

It’s interesting that Denali offers so many different snowboarding objectives.

NR: It’s a very friendly ski and snowboard mountain. It’s almost as if the higher powers designed that mountain for fall line snowboarding. Plus, the up—particularly the trade route up the West Buttress—is so user-friendly. The lines also ride straight back to your tent. When the weather is there, and you’ve got a good grasp of what’s going on, you can get into this headspace for ticking off boxes.

We lucked out that there weren’t really any other skiers or snowboarders on the mountain, which made the experience pretty unique. We were out there at the end of June, so the climbing season was coming to an end. Normally 14 Camp is booming with a lively community and tent city, but by the time we had left, there were maybe two other groups on the mountain. I think the solitude gave us a more intimate experience.

I can imagine that it changes the experience when you travel to these extremely wild spaces and there’s a full-on tent city with hundreds of other climbers right at the base.

NR: Totally, and it’s not bad necessarily. As I said, Denali is a bucket list item to check off. The mountain has an incredible infrastructure with the search and rescue and park rangers. They’ll come over the radio every night to give you the weather forecast—and they’ll also tell you a joke and Trivia. At 8 o’clock we’d tune into Channel 1 and huddled around the radio to listen. It’s definitely got a community vibe for sure. We started interacting with the other teams too. We met this Japanese team that called themselves the “Denali Samurai”. They had this one dude with them—Obi Wan Denali—who had been up the mountain like 30 times. He had some friends pass away on the mountain so he would go up there every year to help with weather forecasting. It’s a cool scene up there.

When you get into that routine of living on the glacier for three weeks, it was definitely a culture shock coming off the mountain.

How did you go about preparing for this expedition?

NR: I decided pretty early on that I wanted to go up there. There’s a lot of red tape when it comes to the permit, so you have to get it two months in advance. That required commitment from everyone, which made things a little challenging for coordinating the logistics.

Luckily the Sierra had such a great winter, I was out on the Eastern side every day in April and May. A couple of days before the trip, Danny and I went out to Shasta to get up in elevation. It definitely helps to be as fit as possible and doing a lot of riding between 12-14,000 feet.

The gear prep wasn’t too hard, but this was my first-time glacier camping. I had a lot of unknowns going into it—like needing baby wipes for a sponge bath or how many socks to bring. For food we went to Costco in Anchorage and went crazy. We bought horse feed sacks and put all our food in there. I remember stressing at the hangar before we flew out because they weigh your gear and you’re charged for overweight bags. Everyone ended up being over the limit because our stuff weighed about 150 pounds each.

How was acclimatizing?

NR: You land at 7,000 feet and then your first day is a long slog to the first camp—which gains about 1,000 elevation. We did Camp 2 at 11,000 feet and spent two nights there. From 11,000 to 14,000 we did a double carry, basically caching gear under the Windy Corner and riding back down. Getting to 14,000 can sometimes be an issue for a lot of people. Basically when we got to 12,000 feet that was the highest Ian had ever been in his life. So by the time we got to 14,000 feet, not only was that now the highest he’s ever been, but he was also staying there for another 16 days without going any lower. I think his fitness and athleticism played a big role with his ability to adapt.

14,000 feet really affects a lot of people, we knew a few people who had gotten High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) at that elevation. So we took things pretty easy that first week. We’d go to 16,000 feet and then come back down the mountain. We’d go 16,500 and then come back down. Once you’ve gone up to 17,000 once or twice you’re pretty much ready to make a push for the top. You just have to accept that you’re in for a really really long day. But the fact that there’s 24 hours of daylight in the summer is really incredible, because it gives you a lot of flexibility. We started to realize that the lines we wanted to ride got the best light at 10 p.m. For our summit push, we didn’t leave until 9 or 10 in the morning. It was a trip.

With a view like this, it's worth the sufferfest up. Photo by ROAM | Erich Roepke.

Can you describe how it felt reaching the summit?

NR: I totally shed some tears. I’ve never had that experience before on a mountain, and I wasn’t expecting it at all. But gaining the ridge to the top I had this flood of emotions hit me. I don’t know if it’s from the lack of oxygen or the culmination of all the effort it takes to get up there, but your body kind of exudes this huge sigh of relief. The view up there—being at the highest point in North America—it’s just incredible. Just knowing that you're the highest thing around is wild.

When we were up on the summit this little plane came by and buzzed us, which was a trip. They must have seen us from a distance and wanted to check us out.

It was definitely the most connected experience I’ve ever had on a mountain.

How was the ride down?

NR: The summit ridge was variable. Once we got into the Messner we had to be extremely conservative, because there was no way of knowing if there was blue ice waiting for us. At first we tentatively tested the waters by making conservative turns. Slowly but surely these turns got bigger and bigger, and suddenly we were arcing huge turns across the couloir. There were times we were leap frogging down 1,500-foot pitches. You’re just riding forever, meanwhile you can see camp the whole time and it’s still super far away. Looking around you feel like a speck of Gore-Tex in this endless sea of ice and mountains. It’s very humbling.

How did Ian handle the expedition?

NR: For most inexperienced people you’d be a little more weary about going out to the mountains—especially Denali. But I knew his level of athleticism and head game, which made me confident about his skill level. Plus while you’re up there you’re working as a team, and everyone’s looking out for each other. I had full confidence in him the whole time. He was like a sponge, asking questions the entire time. Wanting to even know about the little things, like keeping your liners in your sleeping bag or what kind of spork to buy.

And he did go up Rainier with Cody Townsend a few weeks before the trip. So that was a huge chunk of his training. I know he also spends a lot of time in Jackson during the winter, riding with Travis Rice and Jimmy Chin. Plus, when you see the waves he’s surfed, it makes you realize that he’ll be just fine. It was honestly cool to see an outsider’s perspective on what we do.

Though I’d never go on a surf trip on him—I’d literally die. Our crew joked about going out to Hawaii after Denali, but I’m pretty sure the eight of us would be screwed following him into a wave.

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