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Monday, July 12, 2010
Updated: April 11, 2:35 PM ET
Unskied Lines #4: South Face of Denali


Theoretically a skier would start on the main snowfield coming off the summit, traverse to his left under the giant rock buttress, and continue down through (read: over) the cliffs below. Yikes.

[Ed's note: Don't miss the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh installments of our Unskied Lines series.]

Ski mountaineer Chris Davenport calls the south face of 20,320-foot Denali, in Alaska, "the baddest unskied line in North America."

He has his reasons. "One, it's North America's highest peak, two, it drops off the summit, three, it's got massive relief, and four, it's not contrived at all -- it goes. It's a major face on one of the world's major peaks; one of the Seven Summits."

Roughly 90 percent of the people who attempt Denali (which was first skied in 1962) elect to climb and descend the west buttress, a route that doesn't require very technical mountaineering skills. The south face, however, is a different beast.

From the summit down to the glacier below measures a vertical drop of 8,000 feet, including a complicated maze of navigational challenges and, depending on the year, eight to 12 rappels amounting to approximately 1,000 feet over the final 3,000 feet of descent.

"You drop in skier's right of the rocks and follow the shadow line down for 4000' before trending left and into the difficulties," says Davenport.

All of that, of course, is part of the allure. Ever since he saw a Bradford Washburn photo of the face in the book "High Alaska" in the late '90s, Davenport has been captivated by its skiing potential.

"I've had my eyes on that thing for years," he said. "I don't think it's that hard. I think someone just needs to sack up and go do it."

Davenport had planned to attempt the first descent in 2009 with Jackson Hole guide Greg Collins, but another commitment foiled their plans. Two other ski mountaineers, Dan Corn and Kevin Mahoney, made an attempt but were turned back by poor conditions. They skied 1,000 feet of the south face.

Mahoney later wrote on the Black Diamond blog that the face "had it all -- big rock buttresses, snaking ice lines, and 50- to 60-degree snow slopes that near continuously connect for 8,000 feet. Essentially it was one-stop shopping for crazed winter addicts seeking adventure."

This photo alone shows 8,000 feet ... gah!

The ski line, which roughly follows the Haston-Scott climbing route, is a two-part objective. "The top is the easy part," said Davenport, who has summited Denali twice and skied eight different routes on the peak during a 2007 trip. "You look down at 4,000 or 5,000 vertical feet of a wide open pow field. But then it gets really complex."

Davenport estimates the ascent and descent will take one to two days, but the challenge will be nailing the conditions, likely in late May or June. "That's the trick to this line. It's so big and the weather is so tough to predict, you have to be up there already acclimatized, know what the snow's doing, and you gotta be ready to go when the conditions are right."

Between buying a permit, three weeks of food and a flight to Alaska, the trip would rank on the extremely affordable end of ski expeditions: Davenport said it would only cost $500 to $600 in addition to the flight.

"It's in the back of my head every year," he said, "but it's one of those daunting things to commit to: 'Hey, let's go ski the south face of Denali.'"

Nonetheless, he added, "I think as soon as somebody does it, everybody will be like, 'Oh, that's not too hard.'"