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Tackling Denali

Local man and his friend became the first adaptive skiers to summit and ski down Mount Denali
Photo courtesy of Mt. AshlandPete McAfee makes turns in the bowl at Mt. Ashland.
Photo courtesy of Mt. AshlandPete McAfee makes turns in the powder at Mt. Ashland.

A local one-legged skier and another from Montana became the first adaptive athletes to both summit and ski down Alaska’s 20,310-foot Mount Denali June 20. Their adventure is now featured in a Warren Miller ski adventure film.

Pete McAfee skis regularly at Mt. Ashland on a single ski with two outriggers, devices with smaller skis that attach to both arms. He works with a group at Mt. Ashland helping others learn adaptive skiing methods, including the three-tracking he does.

A six-member team completed the adventure despite some of the worst snow conditions on Mount Denali, North America’s highest peak, in recent years due to warmer than normal weather. Adaptative skier Vasu Sojitra of Bozeman was on the team, along with mountaineers and filmmakers Stein Retzlaff and Erich Roepke, with whom McAfee has climbed other peaks.

Adaptive athletes had summited Denali before, but there was no record of any of them skiing down.

Retzlaff and Roepke had pitched the idea to Warren Miller Entertainment, which liked the concept but wondered whether the team could carry it off.

“I think they were pretty skeptical,” said McAfee. But Stein and Roepke work regularly as backcountry skiing and mountaineering guides in addition to making films.

“The mountain was pretty windblown. Lots of white and blue ice. It was pretty much a survival zone, a lot of it is a no-fall zone,” said McAfee. The weather that caused 100-degree temperatures in Medford June 20 also affected Denali, exposing crevasses, eliminating snow bridges and making regular routes impassable.

Ascent and descent of the mountain took 18 days. All supplies and the crew were flown into a base camp landing strip at 7,000 feet. Camps were established higher up at 11,000, 14,000 and 17,000 feet before the final ascent. Two trips were made by each crew member to a supply cache at 13,500 feet.

“We were forced to acclimate really well because of the weather. We got snowed in at 11,000 feet for a few days,” said McAfee. “That might have been the saving grace.”

The crew packed light for the climb to 17,000 feet, but took enough food to survive five days if they got caught by a storm. Once there, a brief window opened which allowed summiting, but then the skiing descent began right away as approaching weather could have prevented the team from flying out of the base camp.

“It was a pretty much a brutal push that was 30 hours from 17 camp up to the summit, then back to the base camp,” said McAfee. “We definitely would have taken it a little slower (without the weather coming).”

McAfee was born and raised in west Texas. He was born with one leg shorter than the other and it was amputated just before he began grade school. He started wearing a prosthetic leg right away. McAfee’s wife, Joy, wanted to leave Texas, and they had a talk about moving. With a lease up for renewal, she explored areas north of San Francisco and told him she thought he’d like the Rogue Valley.

“I had never been here. I had never seen it,” said McAfee. The couple moved to Medford in 2009 and McAfee first skied at Mt. Ashland in 2010.

He first used skis on both legs, but that ended up breaking his stump due to the leverage. He then began skiing on one ski and using regular, straight poles. It wasn’t until he skied Mt. Bachelor that he encountered the outriggers which introduced him to three-tracking.

“It changed my life, as this is a lot better,” said McAfee.

In 2015 he launched into backcountry skiing at a more intense level. To ski backcountry, grip-providing “skins” are attached to skis for uphill climbing. Backcountry skiing also requires awareness of avalanche dangers and equipment to help survive the potential slides. McAfee has summited Mount Shasta, Mount Rainer and most of the Cascade peaks in between.

A group of up to 10 volunteers, including McAfee, offer instruction on adaptive skiing at Mt. Ashland. The volunteers, along with some area ski instructors, received training from an adaptive skiing crew that came down from Mt. Bachelor a few years ago.

McAfee works a night shift as an X-ray technician at Ashland Community Hospital. Before his shifts during the winter he’s usually skiing at Mt. Ashland. His wife and daughters, Hannan and Katy, are also skiers.

Just three months after Denali, McAfee summited 19,347-foot Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a group from the Range of Motion Project, which provides prosthetics for amputees in Latin America. A chance encounter at a pizza parlor in Alaska after the climb led to the invitation, which he initially resisted.

“I could just barely walk. I was limping around, but as soon as I got home and … considered it, I realized it’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” said McAfee.

McAfee is already considering his next big adventure. It would be to summit Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, the highest point on the planet from the center of the earth. While Mount Everest is the tallest from mean sea level, Chimborazo is 6,800 feet farther from the center due to the bulge at the Earth’s equator. At 20,564 feet, it is Ecuador’s highest mountain.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.