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Ian Walsh, Denali Photo: Erich Roepke/ROAM

“For a seasoned mountain climber, [Denali] might seem like a walk in the park, but for me it’s such new territory and so far outside of my comfort zone.” Photo: Erich Roepke/ROAM


The Inertia

If you don’t already have the sincere pleasure of following big wave aficionado, Ian Walsh, on Instagram, we recommend you get on it. The man is easily one of the most down-to-earth humans while also living at the cutting edge of big wave surfing’s continued modern progression.

On the other hand, if you are of the man’s 125,000 followers, you may have noticed in early June that the digital updates from Walsh that peppered your news feed were geotagged from an unlikely place – Alaska. Here at The Inertia, we’ve known for some time about Walsh’s penchant for deep powder and his budding interest in accessing it via splitboard (check out this trip we did with him and a pretty legendary crew in the Sierra backcountry last year). But, as even the most devoted splitboarder will tell you, hiking around the backcountry and bona fide mountaineering aren’t exactly the same thing.

As it happens, Walsh was among a legendary cast of characters (including Nick Russell, Forrest Shearer, Danny Davis, and Harry Kearney) that recently summited the tallest peak in North America, Denali, while doing some riding on the side.

I reached out to Walsh to get his take on the trip and unpack the crew’s incredible trip:

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Where did the idea for this trip come from?

Well, the idea was kind of the brainchild of Nick Russell. He was working with Forrest Shearer to put together a group of guys to head up there because the monumental snow amounts Alaska had last winter which led to a bunch of terrain that normally wouldn’t be rideable being very accessible and rideable, as far as snowboarding goes. I had been spending a bunch of time in Jackson Hole (Wyoming) with the kind of sub-par end of winter we had for big surf. And when I was in Jackson those guys reached out to me and planted the seed.

I was doing quite a bit of hiking around Jackson with Jimmy Chin and Mark Carter and Cody Townsend and just kind of brought it up at dinner lightly and they said, “You should definitely do it.” They helped me piece together a gear list, and that was kind of the first I started to think about it. Then, when I got home from that trip in early April, I got my permit and committed. And Nick and Forrest had pieced together a really insane group of guys that are all incredible snowboarders and all have a wealth of knowledge in the high alpine. So, I was just stoked to go and soak up all I could from them.

So, tell me about the prep process. I assume there’s some acclimatization that happens especially when you spend most days on Maui at sea level?

Acclimatizing was one of my biggest concerns. Obviously, those guys spend all season long pretty high in the mountains whereas my life revolves around sea level and has for the entirety of my life. So, I don’t know much about what your body’s gonna feel and the highest I’d ever been was really the top of Maui, which is 10,080 feet. I guess I had a few days in Jackson and they’re right about that same range. So, I just tried to prepare as best I could given the circumstances of being in Hawaii for the most part.

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Ian Walsh on the west butt of Denali. Photo: Erich Roepke/ROAM

Ian Walsh on the West Buttress of Denali. Photo: Erich Roepke/ROAM

Walk me through the schedule.

So, we landed and got dropped off on the glacier by this plane and we loaded up these little sleds and our backpacks. We were each hauling between 140 to 150 pounds between the pack and the sled. And then we took off and skinned for eight or nine hours and set up camp, spent the night, woke up, broke everything down, packed everything up and started much more of a climb.

We went that day from about 7,000 feet to about 11,000 feet or so. That was another big day, probably nine or ten hours. We set up camp there and then in the morning we broke down our heaviest things and just went up with packs and did a cache just below the 14,000-foot mark and buried all our stuff there and went back down to 11,000. I was pretty fortunate that that ended up being our plan because it definitely helped with acclimatizing.

Then we woke up, packed up, and hauled it straight up to 14,000 feet. That was another massive day. And once we got there we did one run down to our cache where our food was, picked it up, and we were locked in at 14,000. And every day there was snowboarding, targeting whatever objective we wanted to ride and getting up and down safely. A few short days later we were fortunate enough that the entire group was able to summit and snowboard down.

Following along on Instagram it looked like you had multiple summit attempts?

So, we had two summit attempts. We got really fortunate with weather. When we first got (to 14,000 feet) it was incredible weather, but we knew that if we rushed straight to the summit there was a chance we could get altitude sickness, so we just snowboarded for a couple of days. Then we made a push for the summit and got up to 17,000 feet and a big weather system blew in right when we got there so that shut us down that day, so we snowboarded down from 17,000 feet.

I think we waited one day for weather and then the next day after that was just good sunny conditions, just a little windy and we made a push for the summit from 14,000 feet and the wind was really bad from what we heard from the morning but we got fortunate that once we passed the 18,000-foot range the wind just slacked off completely. It was like full glass off for us (laughs). And we felt really lucky the mountain just let us in.

Ian Walsh with his home made Hawaiian flag on the summit of Denali

Ian Walsh with his homemade Hawaiian flag on the summit of Denali. Photo: Erich Roepke/ROAM

What were your emotions like when you finally reached the summit?

I think the emotional feeling of when you’re not quite there, you’re moving, your pace is backed off because it’s hard to breathe at about 20,000 feet and you see that ending that’s taking you to 20,300 feet, that last bit is really, really gratifying. And I guess the feeling at the summit was just really appreciative. It was incredible to be up there. Our entire crew was able to summit. And there was no one else around for as far as we could see. So I guess the biggest thing I felt was grateful that we got a window, the weather laid down, and the mountain let us up there safely.

All of these guys on the trip are pushing the limits in the backcountry and big mountain snowboarding in some way. What was it like to come at this as the only professional big wave surfer on the trip?

Everything with where I am now is completely natural and it’s just kind of how things have shaken out. Since I first stepped into the snow I was fascinated by it and just really loved the change of scenery from growing up seeing what I saw on Maui. It was a nice contrast.

In the last few days since I’ve been home, I’ve just had this really deep motivation for big waves.

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And learning how to snowboard was like learning how to surf. It gave me all the same feelings that I had when I was a little kid except you have all these body mechanics that correlate that you can transfer to snowboarding. The learning process in those beginning phases was pretty expedited for me. And on a powder day, the body mechanics are really similar to surfing. For me, this was just the natural progression and it comes from the respect that I have for what those guys do in the mountains and how they read the mountains and adapt to conditions that are constantly changing. It’s just a whole new world.

Do you feel like anything from your big wave training regimen prepared you for this, fitness-wise? 

I think having a decent level of fitness for something like this doesn’t hurt, but when I got there everything is so different. Even splitboarding. I love splitboarding, I really enjoy the climbing aspect of it, like getting up the mountain and obviously riding down. But, this trip was so different because we had 150 pounds of gear and you have a sled harnessed to your back and your hips and your backpack’s really heavy, so just breaking in the hip flexors and the glutes and the quads and everything was an entirely new experience for me.

It took a day or two, but you start to adapt. And it’s just like, “Okay, I guess this is the new normal, I better get used to this.”

Were there any other challenges coming from such a different background than the other guys on the trip?

I think the gear. The biggest challenge was the gear. The gear list that I had to order for this trip was daunting to me. It’s not a bunch of stuff that I already had in my garage. I was fortunate that Jimmy Chin and Cody Townsend and Forrest Shearer and Jeremy Jones all helped me a ton with like sending me gear lists to work off of and helping me figure it out. It was so time-saving.

To order crampons or ice axes, if you go online there are like 400 of each. So, being able to just text Jeremy and just ask him, “Hey, what crampons do I need for these boots?” That was so fast. But getting through that list was still daunting. I was still asking myself questions like: Is my sleeping pad good enough? Is my sleeping bag good enough? Which it wasn’t. I ended up borrowing a bag from Jimmy Chin because I needed a -20° sleeping bag. So there were so many things like that. But, after spending 24 hours a day with all that gear for weeks, I’m well acquainted and have a much better understanding of it.

What’s next?

I’ve been thinking about that. This definitely opened my eyes and gave me a unique perspective on everything else in life. Like it really made me take a step back and realize that some things that seem super challenging really are not. I feel like I have a new perspective on problem-solving and rational thinking.

It definitely got the wheels turning for what I want to do next and I’ve noticed in the last few days since I’ve been home, I’ve just had this really deep motivation for big waves. Which I always have, but in the last week or so I’ve been ultra motivated for this next winter.

And it was fun to set this lofty goal. For a seasoned mountain climber, [Denali] might seem like a walk in the park, but for me it’s such new territory and so far outside of my comfort zone that, to set a goal like that and do it and come home safely and everyone comes home safely and was able to summit was pretty special.

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