Heart-stopping video footage shows a Japanese alpine skier joining the elite group of people who have descended the hardest side of Mount Denali, North America’s highest peak, and lived to tell the tale.
Daisuke Sasaki hurtled down a 3,000-meter “vertical-drop” course at angles of up to 55 degrees on the southwest face of the famed 6,190-meter peak in the U.S. state of Alaska, in June.
“I focused on skiing and did not have the chance to be terrified,” said Sasaki, 40, who lives in Sapporo and has won numerous prizes in international alpine skiing competitions.
Only a few skiers have succeeded in making the descent on the mountain’s south buttress, according to a Denali National Park official.
“I had longed to take on Denali and the Cassin Ridge from my earlier years,” said Sasaki. “I did it for pleasure, together with my like-minded peers, rather than for the challenge.”
Cassin Ridge is a difficult route, featuring many walls of ice and rock leading to the summit of Denali–previously called Mount McKinley–which Sasaki’s party climbed, each person weighed down by about 20-kilogram backpacks, including their skis.
“I have long loved climbing mountains and skiing. This achievement is just an extension of what I love to do,” said Sasaki.
“When I realized it may be possible for me (to ski on Denali’s southwest face), I thought, ‘let’s give it a try.’”
Sasaki had been planning to take on the challenge for several years, making preparations and researching the route. He climbed up the mountain one year before the event, trying to determine whether a descent on skis would be possible, because studying pictures and topographic maps had not helped him obtain a three-dimensional picture of the terrain or figure out how the snow accumulates on the steep mountainside.
The rock-studded southwest face is treacherous. Not only are there crevasses, but some points narrow to just 2 meters–which can be difficult to navigate through at speed.
Because the air is 60 percent thinner than at ground level, Sasaki embarked on his journey up the mountain well in advance of the main event, taking three weeks in total to acclimatize his body to the environment.
He started climbing along the Cassin Ridge after checking the weather, and on the way up he carefully observed from the ridge the snow conditions and terrain of his skiing course, intending to identify his route down and memorize it.
On the fifth day of his ascent, Sasaki finally reached the summit, where the temperature was minus 30 degrees.
Then he took the plunge. While skiing, it was impossible to brake due to the layers of ice under a thin coating of snow, and he had a narrow escape when an avalanche occurred right in front of him.
“If I had been 20 centimeters further ahead, I would have been engulfed by a mass of snow,” Sasaki said, looking back on a split-second life-or-death decision he had to make.
Sasaki works as a mountain guide certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA).
The fearless sportsman has also been on a number of challenging ski expeditions together with his peers on high mountains in the northern Kuril Islands, Greenland, Patagonia and elsewhere.
At the age of 23, Sasaki skied down the conventional route of Denali, on its west side.
He is set to tell all about his latest success at a series of talks in Nagoya, Osaka, Tokyo, Sapporo and other cities from the end of September.