The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is almost 20 million acres of tundra, glaciers and pristine habitats unaltered by roads or even trails. It is a completely intact, unaltered ecosystem home to Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, arctic fox, snowy owls and polar bears.
“There’s nothing but pure nature,” said Kit DesLauriers, a Teton Village-based ski mountaineer known for being the first person to ski the highest peaks on all seven continents.
In the spring of 2014, DesLauriers, 45, lent her skills to science, carrying a GPS device to the top of some of the Arctic’s highest mountains to test the accuracy of glaciologist Matthew Nolan’s new mapping device that will help measure glacial change.
DesLauriers gathered data in areas only skilled mountaineers could access, and then skied mountains in one of the wildest places in the world. Her work with Nolan also earned her the title of one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year. The list includes people pushing the boundaries in athletic pursuits, exploration and conservation.
DesLauriers grew up in New England where she learned Nordic skiing. She didn’t try Alpine skiing until she was 14 years old, but was instantly drawn to it and set her sights on Colorado where she moved as soon as she graduated from college. There she set bigger and bigger ski goals. But her first big expedition was climbing in India when she was 28. As she trekked below the giant peaks she had one thought; “I wished I had my skis with me. For me, that was the turning point.”
Ski mountaineering, where people climb mountains so steep they wear their skis on their back and use ropes, crampons and ice axes to get to the top, combined everything she loved about the outdoors. She’d look at mountains and see the lines on rock and snow.
“And they just kind of invite you in,” she said.
It was on an expedition in Siberia in 1999 that she met Rob DesLauriers. She fell in love and moved to Teton Valley, Idaho, and then eventually to Wilson. Kit DesLauriers continued her pursuit of skiing peaks, eventually becoming the first person to ski the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent, when she successfully descended Mt. Everest in 2006.
Skiing took her all over the world, but there was one place she’d dreamt about for years — the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
“It captivated me,” she said. “It’s the wildest place I can imagine that we have in the United States of America.”
In 2010 she set out with a North Face team to ski the highest peak in the area, but found conflicting information about whether that title went to Mount Chamberlin or Mount Isto.
Too far apart to tackle both in one trip, the team decided to focus on a single area in a glaciated valley where they climbed and skied several peaks.
DesLauriers met Nolan, the glaciologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while waiting for a plane during that trip. Nolan was on his way to a research station on the McCall Glacier. He told DesLauriers about the disappearing glaciers he studied and the two kept in touch.
In 2012 she volunteered to go back and help him with an ice radar survey, lugging gear to areas Nolan couldn’t reach. She returned again in 2014 thanks to a National Geographic Grant after Nolan created a system to map the glaciers from the air. He recruited DesLauriers to test the accuracy of his method by collecting data from the ground to see if it matched. He said it didn’t matter where she measured as long as he could fly over it from the air. She decided to find out which mountain, Mount Chamberlin or Mount Isto, was higher.
It took a few days of skiing just to reach the base of Mount Isto and then eight hours to climb it. Getting to Mount Chamberlin was easier, but that climb took 12 hours. The skiing featured glacial ice and hard, frozen and sometimes rotten snow, with occasional corn, the snow found in the spring during the freeze-thaw cycles. But for DesLauriers it’s not about the quality of skiing. It’s about being immersed in a massive and wild landscape.
“Man, you are so far out there,” DesLauriers said. “You are completely self-reliant at that point. That’s an amazing experience in this day and age when everyone is so connected.”
DesLauriers’ work confirmed the accuracy of Nolan’s mapping system. And it turned out Mount Isto is about 70 feet higher than Mount Chamberlin.
DesLauriers isn’t sure what adventure she’ll pursue next or if future projects will have a science component. But she knows eventually she’ll go back to the refuge.
“I know I’m not done with that area,” she said.
In the meantime, the public can vote for DesLauriers and any of the other adventurers on National Geographic’s list for the “People’s Choice” award. Voting is open until Jan. 31.
“Then,” she said, “get out and do something inspiring yourself.”