Chasing the big one

Joel Bettner’s Denali mission


The mountain haunts climbers. It lurks in their dreams, draws them like moths to the flame and, from time to time, claims them as its own. Denali. The big one. First climbed in the early 1900s, the peak is the highest in North America. It’s also one of the most challenging.


Joel Bettner is no different than many who’ve contemplated this massif. But unlike most, his goal isn’t just to summit the peak. Bettner’s true objective is the Messner Coulior. A ski mountaineer’s dream descent, this massive line plunges more than 5,000 feet down the peak. By anyone’s reckoning, it’s one of the world’s classic ski descents. First skied by the pioneering French extreme skier Sylvan Sudan in 1972, this Alaskan testpiece drops from approximately 19,500 feet to 7,000 feet, with a consistent pitch of 45 degrees, much steeper than most in-bounds expert runs at your local ski area. It’s steep, exposed and has claimed the lives of several of those foolish enough to attempt it when conditions are not prime.

The physical challenge of skiing the Messner is compounded by the logistical and natural challenges that are unique to Denali. Looming into the atmosphere at a height of 20,237 feet, the base-to-peak elevation gain of the mountain is approximately 18,000 feet, the largest of any mountain situated completely above sea level. It remained unclimbed until 1913, when a party led by Harry Karstens, Walter Harper, Hudson Stuck and Robert Tatum were able to successfully ascend the peak.

The dramatic elevation gain that climbers and ski mountaineers like Bettner face is compounded by Mother Nature’s curveballs. The weather on Denali can be beautiful, with calm days and warm sunshine. However, it’s more likely that those who challenge the mountain will face howling winds, impressive snowfall and bitter cold. Conditions can change rapidly, without warning and each year climbers who overestimate their abilities are caught at altitude on the peak by storms. Some never make it back to base camp.

According to a 2008 study published by the medical journal High Altitude Medicine and Biology, the fatality rate for the peak is approximately three out of every 1,000 summit attempts. The number, of course, doesn’t include the numerous close calls and near misses that happen every year on the mountain.

Bettner first saw Denali in 2008. He was working in Alaska and caught a heli ride on a clear day.

“I had a clear line of sight to Denali,” he recalls. “I immediately said to myself, ‘I need to do that.’” At that point, Bettner was already chasing a passion for skiing. His family had a deep connection to the sport. An Austrian-Hungarian grandfather, Francis Sogis, escaped the Iron Curtain by skiing over the Alps into Italy. And this, as well as Sogis’ other climbing and skiing exploits, had a profound impact on Bettner.

“He told me about the Seven Summits [the seven highest peaks on each continent],” says Bettner. “I was a Wolf Cub Scout, and one of the things we did was to make a life goal list, and my goal was to climb one of the seven summits.”

Bettner smiles as he continues to recall time spent with his grandfather, describing learning how to climb with him as a kid, as well as other mountaineering lessons. “He just turned 90 and finally quit mountain biking,” Bettner says with a laugh, obviously still impressed by the grit and physical abilities of Sogis.

With the life list in place, his grandfather’s passion for mountains running through his veins and the memorable view of Denali on a clear day haunting him, Bettner started focusing on the Messner.

“I realized I would need a lot of experience,” he says. “I did the Circle of Fire volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, Rainier, Mt. Adams, Baker. These are all classic ascents.

“I also started working on the planning and ski mountaineering aspect of the project.”

The work that Bettner got going on featured some impressive lines, including the second descent of the Nisqually ice cliff on Mount Rainier, a big solo on the west face of Mount Adams and a lot of other smaller projects.

“I’ve done stuff all over Colorado,” says Bettner. “Day-long tours from Frisco over into Vail, skiing the steepest stuff I could find, things like that.”

Still there’s a method to his madness.

Bettner ended up in Colorado due to the University of Colorado, particularly the school’s excellent engineering programs. Bettner spent his undergraduate years studying civil and environmental engineering. Then, undeterred by the heavy course load, he went on to graduate school, where he obtained a master’s in mechanical engineering. (At this juncture, it’s interesting to note that his grandfather, Sogis, was a civil engineer, with a career path that included working at the World Bank and also in Alaska.)

But a career in engineering wasn’t in the cards.

“The engineering field was not for me,” admits Bettner. “I sat in an office 60 hours a week in a cube, dreaming of what I was going to do on the weekend. I was making money, but that’s not what was motivating me.”

What did motivate him were mountains: climbing them and then skiing down.

Mountaineering, particularly ski mountaineering, is a high-risk game, fueled by passion. But it is also a game where people who have the kind of analytical mindset that works for engineering excel. Expeditions to large peaks like Denali are a complex dance of logistics, from dialing in food supplies to understanding weather patterns to organizing finances to the actual climbing. There’s a lot more math involved than most climbers would want to admit and, when you throw into the mix the challenges of skiing down large peaks, at high altitude, often unroped and at the mercy of snow conditions on steep, no-fall terrain, a cool head that can calculate the risk-versus-reward factor is essential. There’s also, given the amount of time, effort and planning that go into the front side of expeditions like this, a need to be highly motivated and focused.

“I’m very goal-driven, not necessarily the type of goals other people might have,” says Bettner. “Most of my peers are very financially goal-driven, which is fine and I respect it, but it is not one of those things that keeps me awake at night. But I will stay awake at night thinking of a mountain I will ski, and Denali is the most consuming one, because there is so much to it.”

With the attempt set for this spring, when the Denali climbing season starts, Bettner keeps focusing on the Messner.

“In the past 10 years, I’ve learned that I get so much less enjoyment if I can’t ski a mountain,” he says. “I won’t climb it unless I can ski it. We are hoping to ski the Messner Coulior, one of the biggest and most classic lines on the mountain, with more than 5,000 feet of vertical on the line itself.”

He smiles. “It is iconic.” Respond:

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