As I stood gazing across the vast Kahiltna Glacier from Base Camp in 2010, I knew immediately that Denali's West Buttress--the obsession of every climber in shouting distance--just wasn't for me. But then I didn't exactly expect to fall under the spell of Mt. Foraker and the Sultana, "the wife of Denali", either.
But inexorably, over the course of my 10 days there, I became obsessed with this beautiful massif directly in front of me at almost all times.
It taunted me, dared me to climb it. So I resolved in May of 2010--standing in its shadow, crunching in the pure snows of an immense Alaskan glacier--that I'd skip everyone else's dream and go straight to my own on this Alaska Grade III classic in 2011.
A year of planning and 8 months of training later, my vision came to life.This is the story of my attempt on 17,400 foot Mt. Foraker via the Sultana Ridge.
To climb Foraker by this route, one must first climb 12,800-foot Mt. Crosson, and then another peak called Pt. 12,472 before reaching the knife-edged, crevassed and double corniced Sultana Ridge, which then rises 5,000 vertical feet to Foraker's lofty summit.
To accomplish this requires extended good weather and planning. Most attempts are turned back by poor conditions.
Mt. Foraker sees very few attempts (just 9 climbers attempted it in ALL of 2010), and its rare and coveted summit has an average success rate of just 20%-30%.
Foraker 2011: Tuesday, April 26, Talkeetna, Alaska - travel dayWatch for links to video below, and click pics for larger versions.
|Bambi hangin' with her daddy|
for a while before he leaves
I woke to an easy preflight ritual this morning. My flight wasn't til 1pm, so it was rather unlike many trips I've taken lately where I've had to be up at the butt-crack of dawn.
I've spent the last several days frantically running around comparing gear lists, because for whatever reason, AMS has multiple versions : one mostly geared toward climbing Denali's West Buttress, and another that's based on that one, but a little more Foraker-specific—but they don't agree completely.
And neither of them agree completely with my own list items; packing got unruly quickly. Looked like a climbing gear bomb went off in my studio.
Last year's experience in the Alaska Range has proven invaluable, though, as I now have at least some sense of what worked for me and what didn't.
So comparing all three lists I'm finally packed, and my First Ascent bags are once again sitting in the family room waiting to be (tortuously) lugged out to the 4Runner for transport to the airport. I believe I'm one bag smaller this year, though, and for a trip that's more than twice as long, I call that progress!
Still, it's just a ton of crap… I'm probably still overpacked, too, like always. This whole thing with packing light is always a challenge for an anal retentive idiot like me, but I am getting better. It just takes practice.
|My modest room at the Tee Pee|
My flight today was at 12:40 PM—which means it got in to Anchorage around 6pm: a great time if you like getting to an airport at an hour where no trains run and nothing but expensive custom trips go to Talkeetna, and then charge you $150 each direction for the privilege. Gas prices are crazy now, true, but still… Ouch. Last year was $60 each way.
The flight: so uneventful as to be nearly unworthy of mention here, and my ride to TKA was equally aggressively mundane.
|The rugged Chugach range just outside Anchorage|
I dropped my gear off at AMS around 9:30 PM and had high hopes of a caribou burger at the West Rib
, but it was not to be: the were closed for the night.
So instead, I headed over to my "hotel," the Tee Pee where I stayed last year, and whose proprietor is still that same nice, but wayyyy too chatty older woman. She promptly checked me in.
I asked if there was anywhere still serving food in town and was told nobody was open at this hour. GARRR!
Miraculously, though, she volunteered that she'd hosted a banquet at the hotel that day, and had tons of leftover food—and that she would feed me for free!! Done, and done.
|The Chugach range|
I took my stuff to my room. I sat on the bed. Bored. Hmmm... Continue sitting in room and ponder my impending starvation. Wait, what am I doing? Okay, time to eat.
Two huge plates of barbecue baby back ribs, macaroni salad, garlic bread, and two beverages later, I crashed.
Foraker 2011: Wednesday, April 27-Talkeetna (Day 1)
Watch for links to video below, and click pics for larger versions.
I arrived at 8 AM at AMS—once again deprived of another Talkeetna delicacy, the epic cinnamon rolls from The Roadhouse
. They're not open til 9! WTF. I want!!
I mean, come on... besides climbing, there just aren't THAT many things that make a trip to Talkeetna worthwhile foodwise, and I've so far missed out on two of the three I was looking forward to!! GAH!
Anyway, we did introductions, ran through a swift gear check (where I shaved at least 10 pounds from my pack… overpacked!! Did I mention? Ha ha). Awesome.
Before we took off, we harnessed up and did some crevasse self rescue training out back, hanging from the rafters on ropes. It was a new twist (for me) on the familiar prusik method... just basically getting everybody on the same page using a partial "Texas pre-rig" system for glacier travel. I found it educational, since I've never done glaciers pre-rigged with prusiks in case of falls.
|Kevin Wright. With a brother Brian. Weird.|
When that was done, we finished packing our gear into backpacks and sled duffels, loaded it all up in the van, and headed over to the Ranger station to sign in and pay our climbing fees... $210 for Foraker. Ouch!
Oh yeah, one weird thing: we were required to do a briefing on the dangers of Foraker at the NPS station, and it was basically just a presentation from one of the rangers... who was named Kevin Wright (same as my bro).
I noticed it right on his nametag and interrupted him mid-sentence.Turns out he
has a brother named Brian, too. Bizarro.
Just like always, it's a whirlwind of "hurry up and wait" activity and deadlines getting out of Talkeetna and onto the glacier.
We rushed over to the airstrip... where we promptly sat down and waited for our TAT pilot to figure out whether there was an air leak in his left tire or not.
They got it sorted, though, and we loaded the gear up, boarded the plane and flew directly onto the glacier.
How awesome is that? There have been people stuck in town burning time for three days waiting for weather to get good enough to fly onto the glacier, but the instant I show up, the weather clears, and on we fly, with not a single minute lost. Haha Sweet!
All the other climbers in town should thank me for showing up haha. Anyway I got tons of epic shots of the Alaska Range on the way in,we dumped gear on the snow, and set up camp.
It's a very eerie feeling at Kahiltna Base Camp this year. There's almost nobody here, and much more than last year, it's now scarily evident just how remote a location this truly is.
Last year, climb season was in full swing with tons of Denali traffic, bustle, tents, noise, and everything else.
Today, though, the NPS tents aren't even set up yet, there's barely even a runway, and we're making first tracks in the snow almost everywhere we go.
|A high glacier that pours its ice off an immense cliff |
It's a deathly silent and beautiful experience , standing amid these giant spires, towers and buttresses... one that requires, if you're even the slightest bit of a thinking person, serious consideration of what one is about to undertake. I was awed once again by their very presence, and knowing that I was to climb what lay before me in short order gave me a reason to consider my quest even more seriously than I had up to this point.
And there, across the glacier once more, looms Foraker, silent and vast. I'd forgotten just how massive it is, the way it forces you to look, the way it draws your gaze and fills the field of view of even the unwilling.
Crosson is utterly vision-filling, too, lying under nearly perfect blue azure skies.
Today, it's touched occasionally by drifting fingers of cloud that caress its slopes, as though the mountain were the immense pet of an even larger, colder, and less corporeal being whose stroking hand is manifested only in wisps as they cross the dimensional boundaries that divide us from the deep, ancient souls of the mountains.
The whole area is exhilarating—and terrifying. I can see nearly our entire route from here. Crosson, the dirty and imposing dirtpile; Foraker, icy and forbidding, guarded by gargoyles, corniced ridges, insane hanging glaciers, titanic ice falls, and other immobile-yet-raging menaces.
It's always been a mountain to me that fairly bristles with benevolent (and yes, even malevolent) attitude, a mountain that dares one to climb it.
Sitting this close to such a towering monster—one that was once only an idea, a concept, an intention to climb—I can now feel in the reality of the actions I set in motion the icy breath of the mountain.
And I can hear the distant deep booming of its heart, as the mighty seracs on its flanks collapse in cataclysmic explosions of neon blue ice.
|Crosson in the mist|
There's a power beyond description in these great peaks.
|A shot of the Crosson start |
That I underestimated even the size of Crosson (not to mention Foraker) as I sat home in my little world, studying picture after picture of it on a tiny screen was painfully obvious the instant I stepped off the plane and into the pillowy snows of the Kahiltna.
I realized that I had been lulled by the sense of tranquility that photos of these mountains can sometimes portray. My sensitivity to being dwarfed by these great beings was dulled by the time spent in proximity to them as I stood in this same spot last year.
But I know in my heart that I'm absolutely up to the task. I've prepared hard, and with great discipline and forethought... no more thinking. It's time for doing. Tomorrow, we climb.
Foraker 2011: Thursday, April 28 – Kahiltna base camp to Crosson (Day 2)Watch for links to video below, and click pics for larger versions!
We poked our heads out the tent door this morning around 7:30 AM and got a faceful of perfect blue skies--and Mt. Frances.
Nate Opp, our lead guide, and Joey McBrayer prepared a light "breakfast" of bagels and cream cheese for me and my climbing companions for the next two weeks: Craig, Bob, and Kirk.
Craig is a big tall guy with an easy laugh and a gravelly voice, and reminds me quite a lot of Jerry from last year.
Bob is a quieter, less gregarious character who seems oddly reflective, perhaps a bit distant, and who has known Craig for about 45 years. They've climbed lots of big mountains together.
|Mt. Frances' false summit. I stood on the true summit last year. CLICK THIS AND MAKE SURE YOU VIEW IT AT 100%!|
Both men are in their 60s, and while Bob *seems* solid, Craig is more of a sure bet. He's definitely the guns-blazing-get-after-if mountain climber type. You can hear his booming gritty baritone from far away and he's quick with a joke, while Bob seems more content to let Craig take most of center stage. Both have climbed many times with AMS.
Kirk seems like a nice guy. Funny, and begins most of his sentences with "like" haha
He's climbed with Nate before on Mount Russell last year (which they summited… a peak that's on my list, too), and has also been with AMS many times before. As the least experienced climber and the only one on the expedition who's wholly new to AMS, that sorta leaves me feeling like a bit of an outsider.
In fact, I've found myself strangely quiet the last couple days… not my usual outgoing, loud, slightly obnoxious self. I think that's partly because of the sobering nature of this kind of climbing for me, and partly because of the group dynamic, but that's ok... I'm here to climb.
At any rate, all of us are tall, lanky types, so nobody is really dwarfed when we're all standing around. Kind of an interesting dynamic.
After we finished eating, we broke camp, loaded up our packs, packed our sled duffels, strapped those into our sleds, rigged the sled hauls to our packs, roped up, popped on our accursed snowshoes, and started the crunchy, lurching (but easy) march across the glacier.
|Kirk and Craig loading up for the glacier walk|
As I suspected, we were split into two rope teams of three men each, with a guide at the front of each team. I was on Nate's rope, with Craig in the middle, and me last.
Joey broke trail with Kirk and Bob in tow, and we followed (thanks for breaking trail, guys). We started down Heartbreak Hill—so named because Denali climbers returning from grueling West Buttress climbs are confronted with this very long hill before they can at last collapse in Kahiltna base camp at the top.
We headed down the West Buttress track for a mile or two before cutting off hard left, finally slogging into unbroken powder for nearly the entire Kahiltna crossing, aiming for the foot of Crosson – and Foraker. God, they're huge.
My team, being second as I mentioned, had the benefit of Joey's team's trail (thanks, guys!). It was mostly pretty easy glacier walking for a while, with some ups and downs as we undulated up, over, around, and between crevasses.
There were a few icy cracks here and there, but it seems like this early in the year, the crevasses are mostly still covered by snow bridges.
We'd done some crevasse rescue scenarios last night to make sure we are all on the same page for today's crossing, and the new-to-me pre-rig prusik and ascender setups Nate demonstrated for getting yourself out of a crack were now spinning through my head as I stepped and walked over crevasses both small and large.
|Break before veering off the West Buttress path into untracked snow|
And while I definitely hate the klunkiness of snowshoe design (have I mentioned that?), I was nevertheless glad to have the flotation they provided in deep snow.
My pack/sled combination was heavier—probably MUCH heavier—than it should have been, due to packing too much food (as usual), too much gear, and an unfortunately large, heavy (but awesome) camera at my side, so without my snow shoes, I'd have been sinking a lot deeper than I already was.
The 1.5 hour glacier walk to the lower of the two icefalls we were aiming for near the toe of Crosson was pretty easy, with a good pace... but it's hard to keep your eyes off the giants in the background.
We skirted it up a hill to the left and wove our way up to the flat area that separated the upper and lower icefalls and serac fields. The plan was to hang a right on that flat and head straight over to the rocky base of Crosson—and that's exactly what we did.
Being last on a rope team can suck if the leader isn't paying attention to pace. On undulating up/down terrain like this, the leader might be heading down the other side of a hill you're just starting up, and gravity is on his side.
|Mt. Foraker's massive Southwest ridge and face. CLICK THIS!|
If he's paying attention to where the rest of the rope team is behind him, it's not so bad, because he'll slow his pace until the guy in back crests the hill. If not, you have to really motor on uphill terrain to keep up—which means you can be working very VERY hard hard on uphills from the back of the rope.
Nate is a great leader, but we were all still finding our groove with each other, so he probably wasn't paying attention to pace in this way today, and I found it extremely challenging to keep up.
Consequently, near the top of the big hill between the icefalls, I was overheating and sweating profusely--a condition to be avoided in mountaineering.
I was a little mystified by this... I'm in amazing shape, and very strong, so this shouldn't have posed any kind of problem physically.
Note: I've since realized, having experienced this kind of challenge during two other days this trip that the main problem was not being fueled up for breakfast with enough calories to perform at the sustained high levels mountain climbing requires.
My other hard days from this trip came on 1. another bagel day, and 2. a two-pack of instant oatmeal day… about 400 calories of input vs. the huge, 5000-7000 calorie average output days of hard expedition climbing.
|Approaching the lower icefall below our access point to Crosson|
No matter how many 270-calorie energy bars you wolf down on short breaks, it's never enough without a huge breakfast to start with).
Today, I was just simply just out of gas, and hit the wall early. I've learned that I'm a very strong climber, but to take full advantage of that strength, I MUST be fueled up properly to perform at a high level… otherwise, I just have to wallow through it, and that can make for a very, very hard day.
|Crosson Base Camp, looking back toward Kahiltna Base. Probing the site.|
At about this point, I made another mistake: the day was heating up, and I should have shed a layer when Craig stopped the rope team unexpectedly to do just that. I thought I'd be ok, but it got hotter, and I got sweatier (and therefore wetter), so that just made the problem worse.
It was also about this time that my left snowshoe (which I hate—have I mentioned...? haha) came sloppy loose and started getting hung up on my boot every other step or so, causing me to sink a lot of unnecessary additional effort into correcting it, while still keeping moving at pace. Eventually, I had to stop the team to fix that, too. (Note: I sound like such a whiny little bitch as I'm transcribing this journal entry. HAHA)
We reached the base of Crosson about where we expected, but Nate and Joey didn't readily spot a good place to camp, so we continued and dropped down the slope a bit to a flat area a little lower than the gully we planned to ascend to gain the ridge tomorrow.
Nate and Joey probed the prospective camp for crevasses.
With such a light breakfast and only a couple of snacks on the trip, I was more gassed than I should have been, so stomping out a tent platform seemed pure, unadulterated masochism, but it was fine, and we eventually got a comfortable camp established.
|Nate and Joey climbing the gully (yes, there are people in this shot)|
We ate an early dinner, too, so that Nate and Joey could gear up once more and go do an exploratory climb to cache some gear higher up and anchor a fixed rope up the gully for the teams to use tomorrow.
Dinner was welcome, and very tasty: macaroni and cheese with ham, peas, and carrots. After this morning's meager volume, I made a point to mention to Nate the same thing Jason and Tyler learned last year from experience: I need more fuel, so if there's anything left, I'll take it.
Me: the human disposal, as usual. HAHA
After dinner, Nate and Joey donned their harnesses and packs again and took off up the mountain, heading for a bergschrund below a steep, narrow, rock and ice gully that led up the side of Crosson and onto rock scree on the ridge above.
This aspect of Crosson melts out quickly every year, which is why this expedition goes so early, I learned.
They were gone about three hours, and cached some of the gear they were carrying (wands, group food, and a few gallons of fuel) near the ridge above us, and set a rope for us to stabilize our climb up the gully tomorrow.
Shortly after they got back to camp, it started to fog in, cloud over, and Foraker disappeared from view as it started to snow lightly.
If that keeps up through tonight, we won't be climbing tomorrow. Weather report is for snow in the night, so it's not looking good.
|Panorama of the Foraker/Crosson massif - CLICK THIS!|
For the rest of the story...
While I was transcribing the rest of my journal entries from this trip, I decided to make a movie about it, too, seein's how I have tons of video and still photographs from the trip.
A movie is nice, because it's easier to get a sense of what expedition climbing in the Alaska Range is all about. All the rest of my entries from this Foraker trip are coming on my blog
, but in the meantime, check this out: