Summiting Denali

BVMA Guide James Bealer Summits Denali

I recently climbed Denali in May and June 2019 while working for RMI Expeditions. Here is the story of my expedition.

Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America

Our expedition began in Anchorage, where the team met in person for the first time. We loaded into a shuttle and drove to Wasilla, Alaska to shop for last-minute food purchases. After grabbing a quick dinner, we continued driving north to Talkeetna, our last stop in civilization. The next day, we began sorting group food, double-checking our tents and stoves, and attended a briefing with the National Park Service. We made sure every single bag was packed and weighed, so K2 Aviation, the company, flying us onto the mountain, knew exactly how much each plane would weigh. K2 even weighed each climber holding his or her mountain boots, which we left in the hanger to be ready to fly the next day.

Getting to the first camp

7,800 feet above sea level

In the morning, we got word that the weather was good to go, so the team loaded two planes outfitted with massive skis and took off. The flight into the Alaska Range is absolutely stunning. You can see glaciers flowing for miles out of the mountains, and peaks soaring higher than the plane is flying just out the window. We circled once over basecamp and then landed on the all snow airstrip. The next hour went quickly, as we packed our sleds with food and fuel for the next 22 days. We headed out of basecamp and began the five-mile trek up the Kahiltna Glacier to Camp 1.


Camp 1 on Denali sits at roughly 7,800 feet of elevation. Once arrived, our team went straight to work setting up camp. There is plenty to do when building a camp in the snow. Tent platforms must be dug out and packed down to be firm enough to sleep on, and the camp has to be checked for crevasses. We made a small kitchen to cook in and melt snow for drinking water. When all was finished, it was quite late, and we quickly went to sleep in preparation for moving camp the next day. Moving a camp takes a total of three days.

[Figure 2]

Getting to the second camp

11,000 feet above sea level

The first day, we carry a large load of food most of the way to the next camp and “cache” it there. Caching means we dig a very deep hole in the snow and bury our food and gear, marking it so that we can return and pick it up later.

Getting to the third camp

14,200 feet above sea level

The second day, we pack up and move all the way up to the next camp. Finally, we get a quasi-rest day as we make the short journey to retrieve our cache. The next week was spent moving gear and camp up the mountain to Camp 2 at 11,000 feet and then to Camp 3, at 14,200 feet.

[Figure 3]

Summiting Denali

20,310 feet above sea level

To summit Denali, you need three days of good weather in a row. One day to move up to Camp 4, one to go for the summit, and one to descend from Camp 4. Until that happens, you sit at Camp 3 and bide your time. We sat at camp for eight days. Most of the time was spent in our tents reading books, listening to music, and eating snacks. Finally, the forecast said it was time to climb. The team moved to Camp 4 and spent the night at 17,200 feet. That morning, we woke up and headed towards the summit. Stunning views greeted us in all directions as we climbed closer to the highest point in North America. We pushed through as the wind chill dropped to -70 degrees Fahrenheit. After 8 hours of slow, labored climbing, we hit the top.

John MacKinnon [Figure 4]

The whole team was standing at 20,320 feet above sea level. We celebrated with hugs, tears, high-fives, and lots of smiles. There are few places in the world as incredible as Denali. Of those places, few are as incredibly challenging. Only a lucky few will ever get to experience the magic found on the top of that mountain. All I can say is, I’m excited to help another group of climbers do it again next year.

James Bealer currently splits his time between guiding glaciated peaks in Washington and guiding for BVMA.


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Looking Ahead to Spring Ski Season!

2019 Snow

To say this winter has been “epic” would be an understatement;

historic is a much more accurate way to describe winter in Colorado this year.

The Arkansas River basin is at about 145% of normal with regards to snow water equivalent [Figure 1]. These numbers are sure to delight the boating crowd, but they also point to the potential for some amazing spring skiing and riding. A deep and robust late-season snowpack in the Arkansas Valley is going to lead to one of the best spring ski seasons in recent memory!

[Figure 1]

So what exactly happens to the snowpack as the seasons transition from winter to spring?

melt-freeze metamorphism

A process called melt-freeze metamorphism drives this seasonal change in the snowpack, and it has already began affecting the snowpack on sunny slopes and at lower elevations. During this process, water percolates through the snowpack on warm sunny days and then freezes up the snow grains during cold, clear nights. When the liquid water freezes at night it essentially locks up the snow crystals and makes them very strong until the sun and warmer temperatures soften them up the next day.

Corn Snow

The finished product of melt-freeze metamorphism is referred to as “corn snow” [Figure 2]. On a clear and chilly spring morning your skis or board won’t be able to penetrate into the snow surface because the entire snowpack is frozen solid. The upper snowpack will progressively soften as the sun comes out and the day warms up. When your skis or board sink down a few inches in the upper snowpack then you have found perfect corn! If you find yourself sinking in more than a few inches then it is time to move to shadier slopes or get off steep terrain.

[Figure 2]

[Figure 2]

melt-freeze cycles

Spring riders and ski/snowboard mountaineers take advantage of these melt-freeze cycles to get out and explore big steep lines in the backcountry. Personally, springtime is my favorite time to play in the mountains around Buena Vista; the days are long, the travel conditions are fast [Figure 3] and the snowpack becomes more predictable. Remember that starting early and getting off steep slopes before they get too much sun and become wet and sticky is essential for safe travel when dealing with spring conditions.

[Figure 3]

[Figure 3]

Ski Mountaineering & Guided Backcountry Skiing / Splitboarding

The staff here at BVMA also loves to take advantage of the amazing spring riding conditions in the Arkansas Valley. This year, we are offering a Ski Mountaineering Skills course from May 3 – May 5 with an AMGA Ski Guide, and will continue to offer guided backcountry ski tours for guests on great lines in the Cottonwood Pass area through May.

Come enjoy an awesome Spring Ski season with BVMA

John MacKinnon [Figure 4]

John MacKinnon [Figure 4]

John is an AMGA Rock & Ski Guide, and partner with BVMA. He lives in Leadville with his wife, Reed, and 8-week old daughter, Eleanor. If there is snow in the mountains, he can usually be found somewhere in the Sawatch Zone with skis on his feet or on his backpack.


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Why You Need a Pre-game Routine for Backcountry Skiing

Having a pre-game routine gets you ready for what you’re about to do.

When I played basketball, I got made fun of for being superstitious. I always got ready the same way. I put different parts of my uniform in the same order. Then I put my left sock on, my right sock on, my left shoe, and finally my right shoe. I always started with the left first. Looking back on it, there was no superstition, I just enjoyed a routine. This was my basketball pre-game routine. I do the exact same thing for backcountry skiing.

I have a routine. I have a certain way to start the day in order to set myself up for success.

1T4A3209 (1).jpg
  1. I like to gather my gear together the night before, so I don’t worry about it in the morning.

  2. I make sure my skis and poles are strapped together, so I don’t forget one or the other.

  3. I always put my skins in my pack. Some people like to put them on the skis before you leave the house. It is very convenient, but I’ve been told that it’s bad for both the bases of skis and the glue of your skins to be on skis for an extended period of time. So, I make sure to wait for the trailhead to put them on.  

  4. I gather my pack and gear. Checking to make sure I have my three kits: first aid kit, repair kit, and rescue kit.  

  5. I set out my shell and whatever extra insulation I may need, depending on conditions. I like to leave all of this in a big pile by the door. I actually pack it all in the morning to be sure I have everything.

  6. I always make sure my boots are in the house so they aren’t frozen the next morning from sitting in the cold.

  7. The next day (day of skiing), I like to wake up in time to eat a nice breakfast.  It’s good to remember that food is fuel. What you put in your body at the start of the day is what gets you to the top.  

  8. While I’m eating, I check the CAIC forecast, and look at a map of the area I’m going to ski.

  9. Before getting in the car, I always run through a checklist with the group I am skiing with. Does everybody have a beacon, shovel, probe? What about skis and skins? It is always a bummer if somebody forgets boots too.  

  10. On the way to the trailhead, I like to mentally prepare for skiing - thinking about the uphill and the challenge that it will be. I consider the weather conditions and mentally prepare for them. I talk through the group dynamics in my head. I also set goals for the day.


Now, when I get to the trailhead, I am ready to ski!

Backcountry Skiing Buena Vista Mountain Adventures
Backcountry Skiing Buena Vista Mountain Adventures

If you have a good routine you can improve your chances of having a great day in the backcountry. It can help you not forget an essential piece of gear, and get your mind ready for the challenge that awaits. It doesn’t need to be as detailed as my routine, but I highly suggest setting a standard in place for yourself! Every time I ski, I still have a routine. I start with the left boot first...

Get into the backcountry with BVMA


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What’s In your pack?

Packing for Backcountry
Skiing and Splitboarding

Being intentional in what and how you pack your backcountry backpack, as well as, periodically going through your pack throughout the season; ensures you won't find that half-eaten PB&J while you are looking for your other glove, and makes certain you have what you need for a safe, fun and successful day in the backcountry.

Below is a breakdown of what I generally carry as a guide and a few thoughts on how I pack my bag.

*Please note, there are many different schools of thought on how to pack a pack, not to mention, a lot of different gear to choose from.

This blog post is just how I pack my ski pack and what equipment I use as a professional guide. Talk to your ski partners; what are they doing? Try different methods for packing your own backpack. What works? What needs improvement? Remember, experience is the best teacher!


What To Pack

I have the mindset that what I carry as a backcountry traveler gives me the ability to stay comfortable, safe and handle uncertainty and adversity while I am in the wild snow. Anything can happen in the backcountry, being prepared and having the ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment is paramount. There is however, a balance, you don't want to carry too much either. Think strategically. Strive to have the most amount of tricks with the fewest amount of tools. What items do you have in your pack that serves multiple uses? With bringing the right stuff also comes the responsibility of knowing how and when to use it. Do you know how to use everything you have with you? If you don’t, that's ok, practice. Know how to use everything you carry with you in a non-emergent situation so you are prepared for an emergency—this is important. Now what's in my pack, you ask?

Generally speaking, I divide my gear into two categories;

necessities and seasonal


Backcountry Necessities

I carry the following items with me no matter the day. I may tweak a few things depending on weather, distance, or duration but the 'necessity' items are always in my ski pack. Within the necessity category, I organize into three sub-categories: Rescue & Emergency, Personal Comfort, and Snow Study.


Rescue & Emergency


Avalanche Rescue

• Beacon
• Shovel
• Probe

Make sure your beacon has good batteries, and all components are functioning properly


First Aid Kit

I am continually taking note if I used anything out of my first aid kit that may need to be replaced or restocked.

I also, think about what kind of emergencies I might be dealing with each tour; every outing can pose different threats

I also consider how long I will be out in the field


Repair Kit

• Can you fix your touring rig?

• How about your friends?




• Will we have to wait for help?

• Can we transport an injured person?

• Can we build a fire?


Head Lamp(s)

I carry two

No one ever plans on getting caught out past dark, be prepared


Personal Comfort



• A packable synthetic or down jacket

• I tend to vary the weight depending on the temperature


Protection From The Elements

• A weatherproof shell to keep the wind and precipitation off.

• Sun shirt. In the spring, when I may not have a soft or hard shell on I commonly wear a sunproof base layer (I particularly love a hood)

• Buff

• Handwarmers


Gloves, Gloves and More Gloves

Cold and wet hands are no fun, for this reason, I generally have at least two sometimes three pairs of gloves in my pack depending on the tour and the conditions


Food and Water

Bring what you like and what keeps you going.

A little extra is a good thing. Everyone is a bit different here.

I generally carry Bars, PB&J and approximately one litre of water


Snow Study

As a professional, I carry items to help me make snowpack observations as often as needed. I find digging in the snow, checking out layers and tracking the seasons' conditions to be super enjoyable. Anyone adventuring in the backcountry should take an AIARE Level 1 to obtain a basic recreational knowledge of snow observation and safe travel.


Seasonal Items

As winter turns to spring and our objectives drift from soft skiing snow to harder, steeper spring lines, we also need to carry a few more tools. Climbing and skiing spring snow can be super enjoyable but has its own set of skills to learn. Make sure to get the training!


Ski and Foot Crampons

When the going gets steep, put them on your feet.

Your climbing skins may not work as well with hard snow.

Ski crampons can be an excellent tool for steep hard snow conditions.


Piolet’ (Ice Axe) and/or Whipit

For climbing steep snow or arresting a fall in steep terrain


How To Pack

Efficiency also means safety in the mountains. If I can have what I need at a moments grasp I have more time to communicate with partners, make observations, and ensure I am on route. In other words, all that time you took looking for your second glove, you could have been talking with your partner about what you’ve been observing on your tour so far.    


How Quickly can you get to emergency items?

Do a deployment drill. Can you get out and deploy your shovel and probe in a matter of seconds? I personally prefer a pack with a dedicated snow tool compartment that is big and easy to get to.

What will you need sooner than later or more frequently?

Items I use all the time I keep on my person or in my pack’s hip belt. (Compass, Scraper, Lip Balm, Sunscreen, Ski Straps, Snacks)

If I know it is going to be super windy above treeline, I will put my hard shell and a heavier pair of gloves at the top of my pack etc.

Over the past few season guiding, I have also started to keep a few small items that I or my customers may need at the top outside pocket of my pack. Ibuprofen, Bandaids, Blister care items, Cotton tape, Glop Stopper.

Planing how my pack is organized has greatly improved the number of times I need to dig things out of the bottom of my pack.   

What types of transitions will I be making and when?

If I know I will have a steep snow climb coming up sooner than later I will put my crampons up at the top of my pack or if there is a high probability that I will need something I will make sure it is easier to get to it.


In Conclusion

Packing for Backcountry Skiing and Splitboarding

What we bring with us and how we carry it in our pack can greatly improve your efficiency, as well as, your ability to adapt and improvise as needed. Be intentional with your backcountry backpack. Also, don’t forget to periodically go through your pack throughout the season to insure you have what you need for a safe, fun and successful day in the backcountry.


Learn more about
Guided Backcountry Skiing And Splitboarding with BVMA


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Why Invest In Outdoor Education?

In the world of outdoor ADVENTURE, many voices are competing for your hard-earned dollar.

Web, print, and television advertising continually tempt you to splurge on the latest gear or the best vacation destination of the year. These are reasonable outlets for your cash, but it’s relatively easy to make the argument that there is a potentially more valuable way to improve your outdoor experience than new gear or more exotic destinations.

Offpiste skiing in deep powder snow

Throughout the history of outdoor sports, those new to an activity have traditionally had a mentor, usually a close friend or family member, who showed them the ropes and taught them the techniques, and also the ethics, of their chosen form of outdoor recreation. This was especially true in the world of hunting and fishing where many of us learned valuable lessons at a young age from a close relative.

Elk in the wild
Beautiful brown trout caught by fly fishing.

In the modern world of outdoor adventure sports, and I’m specifically thinking of rock climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing and snowboarding, there is often a different path to gaining skills and knowledge. One of the best, and sometimes the only way, to become proficient and stay safe, is to take a course from a professional guide.


outdoor education is an excellent investment for anyone interested in outdoor adventure

True Experts

  1. Despite the impression that you get from the vast number of gear stores and magazines, climbing and backcountry skiing are niche sports with relatively few serious enthusiasts and even fewer true experts. As a result, not everyone who is interested in becoming skilled at these sports has an effective mentor who can teach them the skills and the decision-making required to enjoy the sport in a fun and safe manner.

    Not Just For Beginners

  2. Outdoor adventure sports are very equipment and knowledge intensive. Navigating trip planning, use, and care of equipment, and related skills like navigation can be overwhelming for anyone, not just the beginners.

    Accelerate The Learning Curve

  3. Outdoor adventure sports also require a long time to get to the point where the participant feels like the skills come naturally, and even longer to reach the advanced or expert level. Anything that you can do to accelerate the learning curve is worthwhile.

    Complex Skills

  4. Complex skills are best learned in a disciplined, systematic environment that follows a “crawl, walk, run” progression from classroom instruction to basic scenarios to outdoor practical application.

    Professional Instruction

  5. All outdoor sports, but especially backcountry skiing and rock climbing, have inherent dangers that rarely exist in other sports. Professional instruction provides not only skills but risk management tactics and decision-making frameworks to reduce risks to a manageable level for the participant.

Woman skier free rider goes down on powder snow in the mountains
Navigating with map and compass, essential backcountry skills
snowboarder is jumping in the mountain forest

Whether you are new to the outdoor adventure world or are a seasoned veteran, mastery of mountain skills is a lifelong pursuit. One of the best investments you can make on this journey is professional outdoor education.


Learn more about
Outdoor educational courses with BVMA


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