An (Un)Average Joe Versus Denali

A not-so-normal guy accomplishes the not-so-normal dream of skiing on the roof of North America. Alone. On tele skis. Last month.

Joe Stiles is not a normal man. He has the word “suffer” tattooed on the inside of his bottom lip. When he skis the San Juan Mountains and the resort at Telluride, Colorado, Stiles does so as a poleless telemarker, hands out and up, as if ready for an embrace. He thrives on long workdays and little sleep, seemingly preferring it to the alternative, which comes in very handy on solo mountaineering missions that have multi-day approaches and during graveyard shifts on Telluride’s grooming crew. Angel food cake and key lime pie are his favorite desserts, which he loves to enjoy at his secret tree house. Stiles is a card-holding, Eagle Scout-trained Colorado mountain man who was raised on a cattle ranch outside of Austin, Texas. And he used all of his schooling and idiosyncrasy to achieve a goal more than a decade in the making. Joe Stiles just carved up Denali in poetic, soulful tele-turnin’ fashion. He also had a pirate flag with him.

“I have wanted to check out Denali for at least 12 years,” says Stiles. “I wasn’t sure if I was up for the challenge. But I figured I may as well ski off the top if I was going to go all the way up there. Desire helped a lot.”

Denali is a significant mountain, and for good reason. It’s more than 20,000 feet tall, isolated, and is subject to some serious weather. In November of 2003, the weather station near the summit recorded high winds and a temp of minus 75 degrees. The windchill was minus 118, the North American record. Even in July, temps can get to 25 below. “A partner was hard to find,” explains Stiles. “As was everything else. It is not easy for people to take a month off of work, nor is it easy to pay for the whole shebang, in time, money, and relationships. It’s a huge, frozen mountain, and a totally new experience.”

Last October, Stiles’ lofty ski mountaineering goal become more realistic when United Airlines gave him a sizable voucher. His mind immediately went to Denali. With a flight covered, the goal seemed a little more in reach. April, the best time to make a-go for his objective, was six months away. “I felt it was plenty far enough in the future to not feel pressure. Why not go for it? I let Warren Miller inspire, ‘If you don’t do it this year, you’ll only be another year older when you do.’ Giddy up.”

Stiles fully committed after receiving moral support from his family. Then he used the voucher for a one-way plane ticket, planning to stay as long as it would take. Then came the gear, a lot of new gear: tent, pack, kitchen setup, extensive medical kit, sleeping bag and pads, ski boots and overboots, massive down parka, and more. Stiles found joy rather than frustration in trading his time and money for the gear he’d be using in an unimaginable, otherworldy place. But then came the fear.

“I was worried and unsure of what I was getting myself into,” explains Stiles. “The gear, the time, and the technical knowledge required for this can be had by anyone in a short time. In order to complete my goal, I relied heavily upon years of mental training and ski practice.”

Years prior, Stiles attended a 28-day NOLS wilderness mountaineering course in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, an experience that became an irreplaceable foundation for climbing safety and self-sufficiency in the mountains. Since his late teens, Stiles has committed himself to the alpine, solo climbing, and training toward technical expertise. He has read all of the classic mountain climbing works and tried to learn from and emulate the elite mountain professionals. He tested his mettle, pushing himself and his hard skills and mental fitness, on The Diamond on Longs Peak, his favorite place in the world. “Multi-day high alpine big wall soloing strengthened my mind considerably,” Stiles says. “That was by far the most important training for skiing Denali solo.”

Stiles took a leave of absence from work at the end April until the end of June. He was on Denali for 38 of those days. It was 8 p.m. and minus 30 when he arrived at base camp at 14,000 feet. Upon removing his ski boot shell, Stiles found snow packed into his left boot. It had unknowingly cracked from the cold. His big toe was white and as hard as a marble. But Stiles refused to relent and he summited on the 34th day.

Only two other climbers attempted the summit with Stiles on June 2nd. They turned around a couple of hours shy. The headwinds blew at 20 mph and temps held steady at minus 20. Alone, Stiles walked toward his goal, counting 25 steps between rests. The final summit ridge is a narrow bridge with gripping exposure, a possible 800-foot fall to the left and an 8,000-footer to the right. Suffice it to say, it was slow going. Then, suddenly, the weather got calm and clear, and Stiles saw prayer flags 20 feet in front of him.

He recalls: “The whole trip had been full of questions and doubt, and the top wasn’t assured until I was straddling it. I felt tears on my cheeks, which started burning from smiling so big. I had the whole top of the mountain to myself in calm sunshine. I stayed an hour, then skied down. Once I got to 14k, below the steeps, I knew I had made it. A feeling of relief washed through me, and I found my cheeks burning again. So much time and energy concentrated at a very uncertain goal..and I had done it. It was very satisfying. I had so many supporters. I was ecstatic I could follow through on what they believed I could achieve.”

Since returning to Colorado, Stiles has had a nothing can faze me attitude about life and adventuring in the mountains. Successfully skiing off the top of North America to base camp, 13,500 feet and 15 and a half miles of challenging and dangerous skiing, will make you feel pretty good. “Summiting saturated every cell in my body with joy,” says Stiles. “Once down to 14k camp, I threw my hands up victorious, and did a little end-zone shuffle in my skis. I could celebrate with authority because I was veiled in clouds and snowfall. My legs were shot, but I made the most beautiful-feeling, knee-dropping, graceful carves through a foot of creamy powder above camp. Those were the most fun turns of my life.”

Joe Stiles navigated the skiing below the 14k camp, which is peppered with hidden crevasses that have claimed the lives of many adventurers, and skinned up the last half mile on Heartbreak Hill to the airstrip. He was as happy and content as a person can be. “The greatest challenge wasn’t the fear of the unknown or crevasses or exposure or anything else up there,” Stiles explains. “Those were there, of course. But it was fully committing to the adventure by climbing aboard the plane in Talkeetna that was the toughest. The mind has the same power to scare as it does to support.”

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