American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Foraker's Southwest Ridge

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1978

Foraker's Southwest Ridge

Erik LeRoy

THE massive southwest ridge of Foraker is a labyrinthine collection of ribs and buttresses which, with meandering nonchalance, rises out of several different glaciers headed in several different directions. The point of confluence for these subordinate ridges is a 13,800-foot-high spot, essentially a peak itself, known as “The Fin.” The Fin was first noticed and named by the original-ascent party in 1934. It is the guardian of Foraker’s southwest flank. Regardless of where one begins, the Fin must eventually be traversed. Of the three expeditions that have atttempted this lengthy and convoluted ridge, no two have chosen the same beginning line. In 1976 a Portland party gained the ridge that separates the Lacuna from the Yentna Glacier and was headed Finward when a loss of vital equipment prompted them to beat a prudent retreat. This past spring a party from Anchorage approached the ridge from the north along the Herron Glacier: they had succeeded in traversing the Fin before a fall, an injury and a rescue made them withdraw.* In early May of this year we chose for our efforts a ridge separating the east and west forks of the Yentna Glacier. This southwest ridge would deposit us, after approximately seven kilometers of climbing, in a snow bowl at the foot of the Fin about seven kilometers from the summit.

After our first few days on the glacier we were still, with blissful ignorance, undaunted by the considerable length involved. In stark contrast, by the morning of our sixth day on the glacier we were each beginning to wonder what oblique reasoning could have possibly motivated our choice of ridge and mountain. The storm that had tormented us for the prior four days had peaked the night before. By morning it was little more than a blizzard, a mere shadow of its former self. The objective hazards of the storm were behind us and were not the subject of our concerns. We no longer feared that our remaining tent would rip apart as did our first the night before. We had accounted for all essential equipment though some amenities had taken flight. Most importantly, Chris Liddle had been recovered from the shreds of our first tent where he had been clinging to sleeping bags determined to effect their rescue. However, we each were plagued with paroxysms of doubt and we discussed the advisability of choosing another mountain and route that would require less commitment. Doubts had begun to spark because, after that first night all crammed in together, we were coming to the realization that if, as expected, our route would prohibit the construction of snow caves for some time, then we four would spend a taxing amount of time in a four by four-by-six-foot box tent that bore more resemblance to a sauna than a tent. We were, on that sixth day, rather worried about our abilities to be as socially forgiving and flexible as it was obvious we would have to be if we were to complete the climb.

We did not, however, retreat to a mountain of less stature nor did we change our chosen route. We let ourselves be guided by the climber’s favorite axiom, “let’s give it a try.” The application of our abilities on a formidable problem seemed, to each of us, more important than more assured success on a lesser route. In retrospect those haunting doubts were but fuel for the fires of our ultimate satisfaction. When planning had begun months before, the unknown characteristics lurking on Foraker’s little-visited southwest side immediately captured our imagination. The presence of an unclimbed ridge and the uncertainty of our ability to succeed on it solidified interest into commitment.

Besides our choice of a ridge of such uncertain proportions, we had, in our planning, made one other more controversial decision that was to prove invaluable in those early days of adjusting to the confines created by four personalities living in a two-personality tent. We invited as our fourth member an individual with a reputedly “unextinguishable spirit.” Controversy arose over the discovery that our fourth was a woman, neither wife nor girlfriend of any of us. The attitudes towards women exhibited by other climbers were fascinating. One particularly revealing comment coming out of our community was, “What? Climb with a woman? No, I want to climb.” In Talkeetna the attitude was not much better. One reknowned Denali guide was struck dumb with Nancey’s reply to his ill-considered question, “Ah ha! And who do you belong to?” Nancey fixed him with a steely stare and replied, “I don’t belong to anyone. I belong to myself.” He wilted and quietly walked out the door. On too many mountains for too many years the sport of expeditionary climbing has been the sole domain of men. The exclusion of competent women from attempts on taxing new routes is difficult to justify if the attitudes of climbers we were confronted by is anywhere near the norm. For us on that sixth day, having gained hardly 500 feet in elevation, surrounded by the wreckage of a previously well-placed camp, and anticipating 14 kilometers of climbing we were buoyed by Nancey’s native optimism and good spirit. It felt fine to have her in the partnership.

When the weather finally broke, the first order of business was to push the route to the crest of the ridge 2800 feet above Base Camp. Steep snow, rotten ice and worse rock slowed our efforts and we were forced to place Camp II on a precarious ice ledge, 900 feet below the crest of the ridge. Once on the ridge the pace livened; though extremely exposed, the travel was not difficult. At 10,300 feet, approximately 3 kilometers from Base Camp, we crested over a knob to discover that the next almost 2 kilometers of climbing involved an extensively corniced knife-edged ridge peppered with rock gendarmes. We had brought only 1800 feet of fixed line with us theorizing that we would remove it and replace it as we stepped from camp to camp. It was obvious that the continuation of our ridge would require closer to 3000 feet of fixed line to assure its safe traverse.

“How about if we drop down into that bowl just below us there and then up that couloir?”

“Yeah, don’t fall out of bed while you’re dreaming.” But as unlikely and circuitous as the couloir appeared, it promised to be a means of returning us to the ridge we had chosen. Its 2000 feet of climbing would leave us on the far side of the knife-edge at the western foot of the Fin. Leading it was some of the most enjoyable climbing of the entire ridge. It consisted of 50° to 55° of hard ice completely protectable by solid piton placements in the granite at its sides. Carrying loads on it provided some of the most painful moments of the climb. Cramponing on hard ice for hours at a stretch with heavy packs does little for one’s temperament and less for the condition of one’s ankles and feet. We left our fixed lines in the couloir and climbed over the Fin using only an occasional ice screw for fixed protection. We placed Camp V at 13,000 feet at the base of the long final sweep of the ridge rising to the summit. We traveled light to our one-night stand at 16,300 feet, only occasionally belaying but often stopping to take in the remarkable view down to and beyond the Lacuna Glacier to the south and out to the endless stretch of tundra beyond the Herron and Foraker Glaciers to our north.

We had since Base Camp been plagued with storms, avalanches and rockfall. As the trip progressed and while we made considerable progress each day the summit seemed no closer than it had when we first viewed it from the glacier below. Frustration bred discontent and several times we spoke of turning back. Once, when the difficulty of the major couloir had worn down the defenses of one of us and talk of “you three” began to fill the air, we collectively made a choice that eloquently described our processes. “Either we all go to the top or none of us do. The summit is of secondary importance.”

On June 15, day 36 of our climb, we walked arm in arm to the summit of Foraker. It took ten days to retrace our steps down to Base Camp. That time involved several major storms along the way. We removed all of our fixed line and left at rappel stances only what was necessary to insure a safe anchor. In all we spent 47 days in the Alaska range on Mount Foraker. During our climb we relied less on technical skill than on judgment, less on daring than on caution. We had skilled technicians among us and used their ability often. But perhaps from luck, perhaps from skill, we made few mistakes and many good decisions. It was this combination which was for us the key to untangling a lengthy and varied ridge, a spectacular and highly enjoyable climb.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Alaska Range

New Route: Mount Foraker, 17,400 feet, via the Southwest Ridge, from May 9 to June 25, 1977, summit reached on June 15 (Nancey Goforth, Erik LeRoy, Chris Liddle, Murray Marvin).

*This expedition started out with six members led by Earl Redman in March. They went up the Swift Fork of the Kuskokwin, across the Chedotlothna Glacier, over a 7000-foot-pass to the Herron Glacier. Four of them from there climbed a narrow ridge to the west ridge and to the Fin. A 400-foot fall was halted in a schrund, but both climbers had broken ankles and had to be evacuated by air from 12,400 feet. The remaining two descended on foot but also suffered a bruising fall. Battered, they managed to walk all the way out to civilization.

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