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Mount Foraker's Southeast Ridge

Mount Foraker’s Southeast Ridge

H. Adams Carter

With sections by James Richardson and Jeffrey Duenwald

OUR aerial reconnaissance was hardly a success. As Don Sheldon swooped his ski-wheeled Supercub over Foraker’s southeast ridge, we could see the magnificent sweep upwards of the hanging-glacier-studded southern and eastern faces, both rising some 11,000 uninterrupted feet to the third highest summit of the United States. It was impressive beyond all belief, but it was frustrating as well. Clouds shrouded the ridge that separated the two faces from 9000 to 12,000 feet; the rock step, the two hanging glaciers on its southern flank, the very part of the ridge which was the key to the route. We flew northwards towards the approaches of the northeast ridge. Thoughts of climbing the rotten rock buttress could be discarded without further reconnaissance. The ice- fall that nestled under the east face, tried in 1962 by the Germans (A.A.J., 1963, 13:2, pp. 394-5), looked like a death-trap from avalanches. Aside from a new appreciation for the colossal size of the peak, I felt little wiser than I had previously after examination of Brad Washburn’s photographs. Minutes later Don set the plane down near the National Park boundary across the Kahiltna Glacier at 7000 feet, where earlier he had landed several parties for McKinley’s West Buttress. Don took off again almost immediately into gathering clouds for Kahiltna Pass, where at 10,000 feet he hoped to pick up a serious frostbite casualty from an ill-fated McKinley expedition.

The clouds thickened as I pitched camp. I was alone, very much alone with my thoughts. How much my old friends, Charlie Houston, Timmie Brown, and Chychele Waterston, would love to be there. They had made the first and only other ascent of Foraker on August 5, 1934 from the western side. (A.A.J., 1935, 2:3, pp. 285-297.) It began to snow. Just as I was settling down for the night, I heard voices. Poking my head out of the tent, I saw the broad smile of a slight blond fellow, Jeff Duenwald. Behind him were Jim Richardson, his beard and hair longer than ever, and Margaret Young. Now that they had arrived from making the first crossing from the Ruth Glacier to the Kahiltna, at least four of the ten members of the Milton Mount Foraker expedition were assembled.

As Jim shoved a freeze-dry pork chop into his mouth, he explained, "We weren’t unhappy to leave the Moose’s Tooth.” (See Climbs and Expeditions in this Journal for his account of their attempt. — Editor.) "Once away from that awful place and out in the freedom of the glacier, our spirits revived and we cached our excess gear and hardware to be picked up by Sheldon later and with as little as possible proceeded to the Ruth Gap. This took until afternoon of the fourth day from our Moose’s Tooth high camp. It became slowly obvious that Ruth Gap would be a very difficult climb and that we would be better off to climb 1000 feet higher and cross to the East Fork of the Kahiltna by following the route to the crest which had been taken by the Thayer party in 1954 when they climbed the South Buttress. Though we waited until night for the snow to harden, the fairly steep snow didn’t set very well and we waded often over our knees. Nearly halfway up, I got a gash in my head from a falling rock. Later I recovered enough to relieve Jeff of the chore of kicking steps up the 40° slope, now on firm snow. It got steeper and the snow overlying blue ice thinned out to nothing. We were in no place to put on crampons. Moreover, without them, we could not use overboots and our feet were now at that numb stage which precedes frostbite. It was delicate work before we reached easier going where we could warm our feet before getting to the ridge top at 5:30 a.m. We set up the tent with the intention of descending the same afternoon, but clouds and snow forced us to stay overnight at 12,000 feet. The next day it cleared late in the morning and we started off, luckily hitting absolutely the only break in the ice cliffs and thus avoiding a rappel. It was a long hike down the East Fork and then down the main Kahiltna until we found your stubbly face here, Ad.”

It was nine days, from June 21 to the 29th, from the time I was landed until the last of the team had been ferried in. During any break in the doubtful weather Don Sheldon brought one of us in and flew back out someone of either Dick McGowan’s or Hans Gmoser’s party, who kept appearing from up-glacier. Jim Sise, Jerry Halpern, my sons Peter (age 15) and Larry (age 14), Dr. Harry McDade, and finally Harry Eldridge were deposited on the glacier. But this was not lost time. The food cache had been organized, the beginnings of both the southeast and the northeast ridges had been reconnoitered and a sizable amount of supplies carried three miles across the Kahiltna from Airstrip Camp to Base Camp. The proponents of the icefall-and-northeast-ridge route dwindled as they watched tons of ice break off high on the east face, cascade downward and sweep relentlessly in a billowing cloud out across the icefall and onto the rocks far beyond.

Base Camp was a gorgeous spot, lying at 6500 feet close to but not within avalanche range of Foraker’s east face. Just to the north lay Crosson’s pyramid and to its right, ten miles up the Kahiltna, McKinley dominated the scene. Hunter rose impressively directly across the glacier. But our eyes lay more often on the southeast ridge. This ridge was abutted by a steep, 8100-foot snow dome, which we called the "Toe”. It then rose gently until a precipitous rock step swung abruptly upward for over 2000 feet. We knew our only hope lay in turning the step on the back side, though this was not visible from Base Camp. Supplies went forward, and Jim Richardson, Jeff Duenwald and Margaret Young were established at Camp I on the summit of the Toe on July 1 to undertake a reconnaissance. The route would go, they reported, but the slopes were such that only a few inches of snow would halt all traffic. Also parts of the route were raked by falling ice and rocks; we should have to move fast and at night with light loads. The obvious decision was a hard one: a summit bid by only two. We should all carry a camp as high as possible with adequate supplies for these two for ten full days. It was to be a team effort. Jim Richardson and Jeff Duenwald would have the first try.

On July 4 the whole group was away from Camp I on the Toe shortly after midnight. A gentle snow ridge rose some 500 feet to the foot of the rock step. We climbed to the left of the step onto the lower of the two hanging glaciers that cling to the southern flank of the ridge. No one wasted time in the traverse over the solid snow of the glacier as angry scars from falling ice blocks and rocks made it obvious that this was no place to dawdle. On the far side, Jim had just fixed a rope up the 60° slope to the crest of the spur that led onto the second hanging glacier above. Once on the crest we were grateful for the steps made during the reconnaissance, now frozen into buckets, ideal for crampons. Luckily the spur parted the upper hanging glacier, making an easy step from one onto the other. We kept moving rapidly uphill though occasionally séracs and crevasses complicated the route finding. Clouds blew in, making visibility nearly zero. Finally, at just about 11,000 feet we called a halt while groping up to a crevasse, whose upper lip rose perpendicularly into the mists. The whole team had done its work. The rest was up to Jim and Jeff.

They did it well! Jeff Duenwald describes the summit climb:

"Here at 11,000 feet Jim Richardson and I dug into the snow slope on the lower lip of the crevasse below a ten-foot ice wall, which provided good protection from avalanches. The tent was periodically bombed by little snowballs rolling off the unstable, steep slope above. Only the night of July 4 was spent at this camp.

"The morning of July 5 was partially cloudy with some light snow. When in the afternoon it cleared slightly, we were able to pick out a route up to the ridge. We got up the ten-foot vertical ice wall behind the tent by cutting steps and handholds. The rest was steep snow, up to 45°, but the last pitch before the ridge was 120 feet of blue ice in which we again chopped steps. We belayed along the delicately corniced main ridge until it widened sufficiently at 11,650 feet for us to pitch our high camp.

"We spent July 6 resting for the hoped-for assault since the weather was bad, but it cleared on the morning of the 7th so that we could move at three a.m. The ridge up to 13,000 feet was broad and rounded with two steep sections of blue ice which required step cutting. From 13,000 to 15,000 feet it was heavily corniced, but we were able to move along it rapidly as the snow was mostly very good and provided magnificent cramponing. Rotten flutings and cornices made this part of the route objectively the most dangerous of the whole climb. From 15,000 feet a gently sloping snow cone rose to the summit, just a long walk with beautiful snow conditions. We arrived on top at two p.m. The view was tremendous, from Mount McKinley on one side to the green tundra on the other. After a short lunch on the summit, salami and a can of beer brought along by Jim, we began the descent. Everything went well until at 16,000 feet all at once we were in a white-out. It was impossible to tell what went uphill and what went down. We were finally reduced to playing tracker on our hands and knees, searching for the blue of the crampon holes, until we got off the summit cone. Our willow wands were too far apart to do any good. On the corniced section of the ridge I would lead 120 feet on belay, looking for tracks and familiar landmarks. Luckily I rarely spilled off the ridge and never seriously. What a welcome sight it was when at eight p.m. we finally stumbled onto our tent, after seventeen hours of climbing!

"During the day of the 8th the weather was again so stormy (but still without appreciable snowfall) that we were unable to descend further, but toward evening it cleared and the descent was made to Camp I and then the next day to Base Camp.”

A second summit attempt failed because of bad weather.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Alaska Range.

Ascents: Mount Foraker, 17,400 feet, July 7, 1963 (Duenwald, Richardson) — First ascent of southeast ridge and second ascent of the mountain.

Peak 8460 (6 miles southeast of Foraker), July 6, (A. Carter, L. Carter, P. Carter, Eldridge, Halpern, Sise, Young) — Second ascent. Attempted Ascent: Peak 8650 (2 miles west of Hunter), July 11 — (A. Carter, L. Carter, P. Carter, Duenwald, Eldridge, McDade, Sise) — Attempt on east ridge failed 200 feet below summit when sundrenched snow threatened to avalanche.

Personnel: H. Adams Carter, leader; Lawrence Carter, Peter Carter, Jeffrey Duenwald, Harry Eldridge, Jerry Halpern, Harry McDade, M.D., James Richardson, James Sise, Margaret Young.