Inside Ian Walsh’s Quest to Climb Up and Snowboard Down Denali
Ian Walsh is no stranger to tackling big walls. Albeit liquid ones that hurtle towards and sometimes down on top of him at 70 miles an hour at famed surf spots like Peahi (aka Jaws), Teahupoʻo, and Cloudbreak. But what about more solid obstacles, those that tower thousands of feet above the Earth’s surface, far from the waves in which he grew up?
Once another big winter season in Hawaii was behind him, that’s the direction Ian turned his attention. Back in March, he was spending time splitboarding and hiking in Jackson Hole with his friend and fellow Momentous ambassador Jimmy Chin. As fate would have it, Ian answered a call from big mountain shredders Forrest Shearer and Nick Russell, who asked him a simple question: “Do you want to go to Denali?” Ever eager for a new challenge, Ian decided he’d find it heading up one of nature’s most magisterial creations – and then, for good measure, snowboarding some new lines on America’s deadliest mountain. “I’m in,” he replied.
Getting Packed and Prepared
Long before heading out for the Alaska Range, Ian’s first challenge was logistical. First, he secured a permit. Next, he hit up Mark Carter, Jeremy Jones, and other mentors in the big mountain community, who sent him extensive gear lists. Realizing that these were little more than words on a page, Ian then sought a real-world opportunity to literally learn the ropes.
“I did a trip with Cody Townsend for his Fifty project in Washington at Mount Rainier, and he gave me a fast-paced tutorial on how to correctly set up and use all this gear,” Ian said. “If you asked me to pack for Mavericks or Jaws, I could do that with my eyes closed. But suddenly I need to order crampons, ice axes, carabiners, and all these other things that I don't know that much about, and there were what felt like 400 options just for the ax. Luckily, I had Jeremy, Jimmy, Cody, Nick, and Forrest to help me get it all dialed in.”
Once he had all his equipment sorted out, Ian switched his focus to preparing physically to venture above 20,000 feet for the first time. In addition to his usual cross-training, which, as he told us a few months ago, includes lifting, biking, and running, Ian added long hikes in Hawaii, such as up Haleakalā’s tallest peak, the 10,023-foot Puʻuʻulaʻula. Sometimes he did these in regular attire, while on occasion, he’d pair his hydration bladder and backpack with winter boots to break in the footwear part of his Denali ensemble.
“I wanted to do a fast-paced hike at altitude with my heavy pack here on Maui,” Ian said. “Everyone who saw me probably thought I looked insane, but breaking in those boots and finding where the hot spots were for blisters was pretty instrumental because the first day on the Denali trip was a 10-hour hike, followed by eight to 12 hours of climbing a day. So having those boots broken in was pretty big for me.”
Heading for the Glacier
Ian couldn’t have picked better climbing partners for his month-long odyssey. From Shearer and Russell to Winter X Games icon Danny Davis to Telluride-based shredder Harry Kearney (who Ian would soon come to call a “hot sauce connoisseur” for the inventive stews he cooked up), the expedition’s #DenalsSurfTeam was stacked with decades of high alpine expertise. Plus a team of ROAM photographers and cinematographers primed to capture the entire experience from base camp to summit and back again, frame by frame.
After loading up all their gear into a twin prop plane, Ian and his fellow expeditioners took the Talkeetna Air Taxi to the upper Yenta Glacier, which, at 7,000 feet, is at the base of Denali. Above them rose 13,020 more feet of the mountain known as “The Tall One,” the summit of which is reached by less than 50 percent of the climbers who attempt it due to volatile weather patterns, unstable ice pack, and a bevy of other hazards. So even with such an experienced crew, there were no guarantees that Ian and the others would reach the top.
When you’re several miles above sea level, even the simplest human function can become challenging. “Some nights I’d wake up and find myself almost hyperventilating,” Ian said. “My body was trying to reboot, but it wasn’t getting the amount of oxygen that it's used to in my regular breathing pattern. Then I’d remember that I was at 14,000 feet, and that I just needed to slow my breath down and rest. I also had all these reef cuts from surfing before I left, and none of them healed. Everything is altered by the lack of oxygen.”
Fueling the Fire
In packing for a big mountain expedition, every single ounce counts. There’s certainly no room for giant tubs of protein powder. Yet Ian was able to squeeze some single servings of Momentous RedShift and ArcFire into his pack after the Denali team assembled their gear in Talkeetna, Alaska, as the compact size makes it stashable even when space is tight. This allowed Ian to fuel up every morning and start each evening’s recovery with the highest quality grass-fed whey protein, which helps combat the catabolism (break down of muscle) that can occur when burning several thousand extra calories a day.
“Eating on those long days was challenging because we were constantly moving to keep warm and reach a certain point by the end of each day,” Ian said. A lot of times my food was just in my pocket – bars, dried fruit, beef jerky, and stuff like that. In the morning I’d have oatmeal with almond butter and a shake with a double or triple serving of Momentous RedShift, which would set me up well for 12-hour endurance days. Then when we were done in the evening, chocolate-flavored ArcFire became my treat on the trip. I’d boil some water, mix it in, and it was like having hot chocolate. Momentous was instrumental in keeping me going, because we didn’t have too many rest days. Being able to load up before I left every day and then have something that sped up the recovery process in the evening was big.”
Such recovery was much needed as Ian and his teammates faced the full fury of Denali’s volatile weather patterns while fully exposed on the mountainside, as well as their own doubts and fears. “While we were climbing, we faced some very strong winds that had forced a group who’d tried to go up from the 17,000-foot camp to turn around,” Ian said. “Once we passed about 11,000 feet, every step I took was the highest I'd ever been. So each day I was getting a new feeling in my body. I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, I just hope my body allows me to keep going up.’”
Making the Final Push
Despite the challenging conditions and Ian’s unfamiliarity with such extreme altitude, he experienced some magical moments as he and the rest of the team pushed steadily upwards. “At North Peak, we dropped in around 19,000 feet,” Ian said. “It’s been skied by Chris Davenport and a few others, but I don’t think anyone has ever snowboarded it. That was a special day because eight of us took different lines and it brought out the best in these guys. It was special for me to see them experiencing the purest form of happiness and excitement, and I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what we’d done until we regrouped safely at the bottom.”
After descending from North Peak, it was time for the group to turn around and head back up Denali for the final summit push. Dense clouds closed in and forced the team to abort their first summit attempt but undeterred, they soon tried again. And after 12 hours of climbing from the 14,000-foot camp, Ian and the rest of the Denali Surf Team stood atop of North America’s highest peak, a month after setting off from the Yenta Glacier. And then, as you might expect, they gleefully snowboarded back down the mountain. Even once his initial elation had faded, Ian was left with something lasting.
“This trip made me feel like nothing's impossible – it changed my perspective on life,” he said. “A couple of days ago, I was sailing on a little boat and got blasted by this swell that flipped my boat. Normally that’d be a complete nightmare, but this time it was natural to start problem-solving. I turned the boat back over, got the sail in the wind, and then hung on as best I could while I got it back to shore.”