📸 christian johansen / 📍 mount denali

The Denali Solstice Project

Facing the complex and unpredictable character of Mother Nature can test the resilience of any expedition team.

Last May, the Denali Solstice Project Team set out to accompany Meredith Edwards up Mount Denali in hopes of setting a FKT (Fastest Known Time). Facing the complex and unpredictable character of Mother Nature can test the resilience of any expedition team. Despite encountering one of the worst weather windows in years, the team spent 29 days on the mountain with 14 days at 14,000 feet.

They emerged from the trip with a ski off the summit, grace, humility, and a heightened awareness of the raw and unpredictable nature of mountaineering. Read on for a first-hand account of their mission from Christian.

meet the skida ambassadors | denali solstice project

changing expectations

"Perfectionism is the enemy, not the friend of creativity. When we try to get something “right”— meaning perfect— we create a debilitating loop, as we focus only on fixing what we see as wrong and are blind to what is right.”

Julia Cameron

✍️ words by christian johansen

We spent 30 days on Denali and it happened to be one of the worst weather years in the last decade or so.  The frost-bite rates were higher, the summit rates were lower (31%), and the storms kept coming.  In the end, our team walked away with a ski off the summit, during one of the few weather windows we had, but it was tent time galore in between.  

As necessity breeds invention, tent time – hopefully – breeds anti-boredom, or one goes insane.  We played hearts, traveled to neighboring camps to play Uno or Yahtzee, and made elaborate meals. Meredith became master of pancakes – there’s nothing quite like a pancake breakfast at altitude.   When we arrived at the 14000' camp, we were exhausted, only to wake up the next day to freshly baked Pilsbury cinnamon rolls Hannah had picked up from a descending party.  Dave dug a snow cave. Andrei took long strolls around camp.

Hannah and Meredith also spent downtime “training” – running sprints at each camp to keep legs warm, and cardio in check. It’s frankly remarkable how fit they are. Although, as no strangers to hundred-mile races, it’s not surprising.  Meredith has a number of notable races under her belt, in the US and abroad, and Hannah is the second person ever to through hike the Grand Canyon.  Frankly, coming from a background of so much impressive physical output, it was a challenge for them to sit still, but they mastered the task beautifully.  Audiobooks helped – and I believe Mer experienced Harry Potter for the first time.  

Our time on the mountain, in large part, became a game with boredom, as minutes stretched to hours, and hours to days.

In these imperfect in-between moments, I found that my own art flourished. It may have been the wide open space of the Alaska range, or the fact that we had these large swaths of time to spare, but it became easy to put pen to paper.  This spark of creativity helped craft this perfectly imperfect expedition into an even more vibrant adventure.

In any pursuit, be it art, photography, filmmaking, or the very act of finding the perfect turn on skis; when one cares about the result, it’s common to experience perfectionism.  We freeze or spin circles because we can’t quite get it right, oftentimes sending us into tailspins of “this is trash” or even worse, cases of the “I’m not good enoughs”. This has been a great challenge for me over the years.  Up on Denali, I found a breath of fresh air, and tried to set a new goal: to draw bravely. 

Admittedly, it was a dramatic moniker to adopt, but it worked.  And I had time to test it.  I sought only to be loose.  I wanted to not overthink, and to allow the pen to move across the page.  I urged myself to believe that whatever “it” was that I drew, was “perfect” just by existing.  In practice, this translated into new, strange fonts used and new line styles emerging.  If I wanted to abandon a page, I did.  If I felt compelled to be meticulous, I was.  As I looked back on my pages, I became aware that this was becoming one of my favorite journal/sketchbooks I’d ever created — one I was most proud of – which is significant because I’ve been keeping some kind of note/sketchbook by my side since I was about 12 years old.  These imperfect drawings became better than I could have imagined, and as I drew,  I realized this was – ironically – a bit of an allegory of our expedition.

Up on Denali, at 20000’ above sea level, we were met with imperfect circumstances.  These in turn gave way to solutions that while imperfect or often best guesses, kept our team chugging along. We pivoted, we adapted, and we didn’t fight what the mountain threw at us – I mean it’s a mountain, what are you gonna do.  And it’s a privilege to be here. The day we wanted to summit is totally socked in? No worries, let’s make an extravagant breakfast of pancakes, nutella, and bacon.  Just as the pen in my sketchbook adapted to a seemingly out of place line,  funky dot, or oversized letter, we let the circumstances – and ourselves – be dictated by what the mountain had to offer.  An exercise of acceptance. In this way, our expedition became uniquely ours and – though we didn’t have the opportunity to attempt our goal of an FKT – something to be truly proud of.