A group of Leadville locals are embarking on a 24-day unguided expedition to summit and possibly ski Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest peak. The team left Colorado on May 1 and are planning to return sometime in June.
Jessee Yelverton, Andrew Letherby and Lynn Hall met at Two Mile Brewing Company about a year ago. Yelverton was serving beers while Letherby and Hall were sitting at the bar discussing Denali, the 20,310 foot peak formerly known as Mount McKinley. The U.S. Department of the Interior officially renamed the mountain Denali, as it is known by the Koyukon people, in 2015. When Yelverton overheard Letherby and Hall’s conversation, he was immediately interested.
“We talked the next morning because a lot of the details had been forgotten,” said Yelverton, who works as a ski patroller at Copper Mountain and at Leadville Outdoors and Mountain Market with Hall. Letherby works as a New Balance representative for the area. “But we realized that we were all very serious and passionate about Denali, and so plans were set in motion.”
From then on, the three locals agreed to train like it was their full-time job. For months, Yelverton, Hall and Letherby skinned up Ski Cooper before work, worked through yoga and core exercises, maintained a high-fat diet, and went on several backcountry yurt trips around Leadville.
Towards the end of 2020, the group started training even harder even though their permits were yet to be approved. Denali was on lockdown for much of 2020 because of the pandemic, and there was a backlog of permits to approve in 2021 with limited number of spots. “It was cutting it way too close,” Hall said.
Finally, on January 1, when Hall was skinning up Mount Elbert, she found out that their permits had been approved. “That was the motivation I needed to get up Elbert that day,” Hall said. “It was such a relief and so exciting.”
The last big phase of the team’s training regimen was a trip to Mount Hood at the end of April. There, the group met up with four other mountaineers who would be joining them in Alaska — all friends of Letherby’s. While training at elevation in Colorado was beneficial, the group’s time on Mount Hood exposed them to the deep crevasses and steep couloirs they would be dealing with on Denali.
On May 2, Yelverton, Letherby and Hall landed in Anchorage, Alaska after hauling 80 pounds of gear each through security at Denver International Airport. They bought more food in Anchorage, increasing their load weight to well over 100 pounds each.
The next day, they drove about two hours to Talkeetna, the last town before entering Denali National Park and Preserve. In Talkeetna, the group met with park rangers at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station to discuss safety and weather, a significant factor on Denali that will determine the team’s progress.
It took several 30-minute plane rides to transport all their gear to base camp at 7,200 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier. From there, the team will pull sleds to 14,000 feet over the course of one week. Denali becomes very steep at 14,000 feet, so the sleds will stay behind once the team reaches that point. The group will carry dehydrated food and the bare necessities to the summit at 20,310 feet.
At the summit, Yelverton will decide whether it’s safe to descend on skis. Letherby and Hall are using their skis predominantly to ascend on skins.
Denali offers a number of difficult obstacles for those wanting to descend its face on skis, including massive slaps of blue ice, bottomless crevasses and unpredictable weather. Yelverton is unsure if he will attempt the feat, but there are a few lines he will scope out before making his decision: the West Buttress, Orient Express and Messner Couloir.
“It’s mostly about being in the location,” said Yelverton. “If the mountain wants us to get up high and ski down, then we will.”