Ryan & Jon ~ Tales from the Adventure Gap

Conrad Anker’s team of athletes enjoyed a leisurely week of rest in Advanced Base Camp, at just over 14,200 feet above sea level. Along with many other climbers on the mountain at the time they were also waiting for an appropriate window of opportunity to open so that they could make the final ascent to the summit of Denali. When the day at last arrived, rather than spend the night at the High Camp at 17,200 feet, the team decided instead to make the climb up from 14 Camp in a single push. On that day as many as 60 climbers headed out to reach the highest physical point in North America.

Early on the morning of June 26, 2013 the team left Advanced Base Camp as a group. As they gradually made their way up the Headwall and toward Denali Pass Ryan Hudson began to realize he was well out in front of everyone else along with the writer Jon Krakauer.

“We were just keeping a more efficient pace,” Ryan said. “I just followed step for step. We kind of got into this groove where we just pulled away”

Along the trail Krakauer coached Ryan giving him tips and really teaching him about the mountain. They weren’t roped together. But as they made their way over Pig Hill and across the Football Field, that last named feature on the on the West Buttress route toward the summit, they seemed to form a bond. Together they were out in front of the expedition, two men from vastly different backgrounds found kinship in the mountains as Krakauer taught Ryan from his long years of experience.

“Mind you I didn’t know who Jon Krakauer was before this trip,” Ryan said. “But it meant a lot to me to get to know him rather than coming in with prior knowledge of all his writings and everything that he had accomplished in mountaineering. To me he was just Jon.”

On Denali Ryan was perhaps further from his place of origin than ever before in his life. Born in San Diego, California Ryan was the youngest of five children raised by a single mother. Homeless from the time of his first few minutes of life he had few clear prospects for a better future.
“Most of my childhood was immersed in this impoverished lifestyle,” Ryan said. “I grew up in and out of shelters. We were sleeping on the streets and pretty much did whatever we could to get by, but in the lowest form of living.”

For as long as he could remember growing up Ryan had none of the basic advantages most people take for granted. He had nothing, no place to call home, no bed of his own to sleep in, not even regular meals. Ryan existed at the very bottom of American society. But thanks to the support of conscientious and supportive mentors this young man received opportunities to discover and his explore his natural talents. Exposed to snowboarding at a young age Ryan was able to develop his skills and ultimately became a professional outdoorsman. And here on the highest peak in North America in the company of seasoned mountaineers he ascended to heights that were once to him unimaginable.

Through the hours they spent together climbing up toward the summit Krakauer and Ryan told stories and shared jokes like old buddies. Though he didn’t realize it at the time Ryan was having his anxieties and fears put to rest by a master storyteller and thus distracted made short work of a grueling uphill grind toward the summit. They walked until they found themselves at the very base of the summit ridge. With just 300 vertical feet to go they stopped for a rest. They took off their packs, ate some food, drank some water and took in the amazing landscape all around them.

“From that spot it was one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen and Jon felt the same way,” Ryan said. “We sat their and shared this amazing moment together and Jon looked at me said ‘You know what Hudson? This has been the most amazing experience and I am honored to be up here with you.’ When I heard that my heart sank.”

In that moment all the anxiety and doubt that Ryan Hudson had felt throughout his career as an athlete fell away. Sitting there with one of the most prominent figures in the world of mountaineering his skills and talents were acknowledged and honored in a way that he had never experience before. But suddenly that bright instant in time became overshadowed by a pending storm that Ryan couldn’t see.

“This amazing and all,” Krakauer said. “But we have to get the hell out of here. Something’s coming and it’s big and we’re in the wrong place.”

The sky was blue, the air was still and Ryan was terribly confused. But Krakauer’s dire warning would brook no argument. They immediately stood up, put on their packs and ran as fast as they could down the mountain.

“There were still other teams on their way up,” Ryan said. “And they were looking at us like we’re crazy.”

As they passed group after group Krakauer spread the word that there was a major storm coming. With so many international teams on the mountain not everyone understood what he was trying to convey and many groups kept moving up. But just as Ryan and Krakauer made it half-way down the Football Field the sky suddenly turned dark and there was a horrifying clap of thunder.

“The sun was gone at this point,” Ryan said. “And it turned into this really big electrical storm. At this point I’m pretty sure I’m dead.”

But they kept moving as quickly as they could until they finally reached the rest of their team. By this point the snow is coming down sideways and the wind is howling. Lightning was striking all around them. And everyone’s metallic gear had become electrified.

“People’s harnesses and carabiners are rattling,” Ryan said “Ice axes and ski poles, everything metal has his hum to it. People are getting shocked by their gear.”

Thinking quickly each member of the team removed all their metal objects and immediately they sat down in the snow. They got as low to ground as possible as Conrad and Krakauer tried to keep everyone calm. When there was lull in the lightning strikes they all gathered together there skis, poles, snowboards ice axes, anything with metal and tied them all together into a single bundle that they dragged behind them with a length of rope. They ran down the mountain.

Although some members of the team stopped to spend the night at the High Camp at 17,200 feet Ryan and a majority of the group spent the next five hours trudging their way back to Advance Base Camp. Only two days remained on their permit. The expedition was over. They had to leave. From 14 Camp they would return to the landing strip in the morning and head for home.

Looking back on the experience Ryan found it to be one of the most rewarding of his young life. He found himself tested against the elements and performed well despite his lack of advanced training or years of experience. Now that he’s had a taste of it Ryan says that he wants to make big mountain snowboarding part of his career as a professional athlete.

“I’m not at the point where I can afford to go out into unknown ranges and start naming peaks after my kids,”Ryan said. “But you know man it’s all about falling in love with what you want to do, something that makes you feel good, something that you feel passionate about. Whether or not the color of my skin is black, pink, purple, orange or green we’re all in it for the same thing.”

The Joy Trip Project is made possible thanks to the support of fans on Patreon.com

Photo: Courtesy of Max Lowe

The story of Ryan Hudson is detailed in the new book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors 

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.