Foraker’s Infinite Spur
WEATHER FOCUSES YOUR CHOICES
in the mountains. Jim Nelson and I read many books during the three weeks we spend at the 14,000-foot camp on Denali. That, and a lot of skiing—the storms are dropping much dry powder. We are on Denali trying to acclimatize and become comfortable with the range before we try Foraker. Some people create fantastic snow shelters, and I also notice that the trail between camps and the leftover-food dump is well packed. During a break in the storm cycle, a volleyball game even breaks out. A packed stuff sack is the ball, and a rope is strung between skis for the net. With some twenty countries represented, this international social event is no wilderness experience. It almost seems urban. One Korean calls it “McKinley City.” Small groups materialize from time to time to discuss how they all can deal with the lousy weather, but no amount of talk can change matters—mountains aren’t moved by democratic vote.
Our time is running, so if we are going to climb Foraker, we had better get going. We blunder our way down toward the landing strip in a storm, until we lose the wands. We spare ourselves the frustration of trying to rediscover the trail, and we camp where we are.
The next day is the start of a long period of good weather. It takes us two days to recognize this, as we lazily prepare for Foraker, sharpening tools, organizing food and helping to smooth out the rutted landing strip. Noticing that the weather pattern has indeed changed, we make plans to leave.
Just after midnight on June 14, we begin the ten-mile approach to the Infinite Spur. Alpenglow distracts the flight of butterflies in my stomach. This is the biggest, most remote climb I have ever attempted. Without a decent photograph, the description of the first ascent is little more than a collection of words. A lot of unknowns. And who are we? Just a couple of guys from the Cascades. The only thing that is certain is that the route has been climbed once before.
We ski independently on the hard snow to the first pass, where we rope up and travel on foot the rest of the way. Even at this early hour, the warmth of the day has changed the last bit of the couloir over the second pass into waist-deep sugar. That minor aggravation is soon taken care of. One rappel leads to a camp on the flat glacier as a light drizzle starts. The rain lasts only through the night, and in the morning we turn the shoulder for our first view of the Spur. It is immense. As we walk up to its base, we mentally break the climb into pieces. This huge puzzle begins to fit together. There is surprisingly little snow on the lower rock, even after Anchorage’s wettest May in 55 years.
We decide to start on a rock buttress left of center. Abandoning sleds and ski poles, we begin punching up the avalanche debris. Approaching the rock, I see rappel slings from a previous attempt. Since the initial rock is steep and our packs are heavy, we haul the leader’s pack while the second jümars the pitch. By eight P.M., we have climbed five pitches. We stamp out a platform at a snowy spot on the rock spur and begin the two-hour evening routine—water, nuts, ramen, tea. For the first time in a month, we are really climbing and glad to have this project under way.
The next day is varied: easy rock, hard rock, pack hauling, unconsolidated snow over rock, and a snow slope with mixed bands leading to our next bivouac at midnight. The tent doesn’t fit so very well here. In this land of 24-hour daylight, our schedule is not subject to that of the sun. We sleep and eat when we need to, and climb when we can. We leave our site at noon. As we climb, the weather deteriorates. After six pitches, we are at the ice arête, and it is pointless to continue in a snowstorm. After we have hacked the ice for two hours, the platform looks big enough, but the tent hangs over the edge.
By noon, we are moving again. A gorgeous day. The arête begins easily, step-kicking with ice-screw belays. At almost every belay, we take off our packs. They are just too heavy to wear all the time. There are no bivouac sites on this arête. We don’t want to cut another ice platform and so at midnight we start into the crux pitches.
At our bivouac later that morning, we reflect on the seriousness of those three poorly protected pitches. There we were, some 45 pitches up the route with no possibility of retreat, traversing a tremendously exposed loose wall, dulling our ice tools in a gully of garbage rock and thin ice. I remember the last pitch very well. Jim led it and dumped the most relentless barrage of ice, snow and stones that has ever fallen on me. We were even—I did just the same thing to him on the previous pitch. After two hours in that belay, I cursed anything and everything. Rarely had I been so cold. After two additional pitches of steep ice, the ridge leveled out and we stamped a platform on the only snow around, a pillow perched atop the ridge. Our anchors for the night were five ice screws about thirty feet away, and below us! Both of us had opened our water bottles during the night climbing by beating the frozen lids on our axes, but we find that both lids are cracked. Mine I repair with duct tape, but Jim’s is ruined. He tosses it. After 23 pitches in 20 hours, we are ready for a brew and sleep.
We climb the next ten pitches of the Spur on the left side. The Spur gains little elevation here but is steep sided with a sharp crest. The ice is excellent, we are well rested, the sun is out and we are in a spectacular spot. But our ice tools are dull. Shouldn’t we have brought along a file? Looking back at our previous bivouac, we shudder to see that we were soundly sleeping atop a cornice.
Our 60th pitch leads onto the hanging glacier. Jim knows that I have no belay in the unconsolidated snow and so he looks as if he is being his usual safe self by putting in three screws in the sérac. But the sérac is giving him trouble. The ice is brittle. He is in an off-balance move to get around a bulge when he starts fishing with his tools in the powder snow. With only six feet to go before we are on easy terrain, he plunges off. I have always wondered about those Soviet titanium screws, but the top one stops him, full pack and all, after fifteen feet. Thoughts of broken ankles, pulled shoulders and other horrors flash through my mind. Fortunately Jim is only breathing hard. He says he spied good ice just before he peeled off. He is up on the second try, and I find it awkward even with his coaching. Knee-deep snow leads to a sérac where we have room to unrope for the first time since leaving the glacier below. The tent is soon up. We dive in as the weather deteriorates.
Our first avalanche arrives at about three A.M. It drops a foot of snow on the tent. We move the tent up closer under the sérac. The second avalanche comes in the early morning, but this time it goes over us. Countless avalanches pour over us during the four-day storm. Avalanches and wind-driven snow around the tent require constant attention to keep from getting crushed. We wait for lulls to make our exits and entrances in order to minimize the snow that blows in the tent door. Twice, we push with our backs against the walls to hold back the driven snow. The wind howls so loudly that we can’t hear each other speak. We read our books—both of them twice. After three days, conversation drifts around to how long we have each gone without food. We still have plenty, but how long is this storm going to last? From two A.M. until ten A.M. on the fourth day, the wind roars.
Then, suddenly, it stops. What has happened to four days of snowfall and avalanches? Scoured away by the wind! Even the knee-deep snow of four days ago has gone. A surreal staircase of footprints leads up to us from the last belay. Our original tent platform looks as if we had just packed up the tent. It is one of the most amazing mountain phenomena I have ever seen. There is no trace of fresh snow! It is as if the storm had never occurred.
The sun is out and the heat is unbearable as we plod out of camp. Higher, on the ice, the breeze picks up, and climbing is fun again. Pilot Doug Geeting flies by below us since we were expected out the day before, but he doesn’t see us. The summit at midnight. We brew up as we watch a beautiful sunset over the northern horizon.
By three A.M. we are down to 14,000 feet on the southeast ridge. Since we have cold conditions on the lower part of the ridge which will keep the snow hard, we continue our descent that evening. After the double-corniced ridge, we are forced to bivouac because of the clouds. We don’t sleep; we just eat the rest of our food. Geeting is buzzing around again, but he misses us once more.
When the clouds drop around midnight, we continue. The southeast ridge is not a trivial route. Belayed down-climbing leads to four rappels off rock. Shortly we are punching in to our knees in the slide debris. Soon, we are on the moraine and level ground where Geeting finally finds us. In the late June sun, we struggle with the soft, wet mushy snow, trying to get to our cache of skis, sleds and cans of fruit cocktail. Five miles later, we are at the landing strip. Beer rarely tastes so good. We toast to our safe return as we relate the tales of our 13-day adventure.
We are glad we went heavy: 11 days of food and, as it turned out, 15+ days of fuel. This enabled us to keep our strength up and to climb at a safe pace. A couple of days of “extra” food does not weigh that much on a climb this long. Instead of being tempted to go for it during a lull in the storm, we could afford to be patient. I have read many accounts of people heading for the summit with something like a single chocolate bar and no water—basically running on fumes, and a lot of hope. Here, the margin of safety is already thinned enough by the cold, and the conditions which can change. No amount of wishful thinking will ever tame Alaska.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Alaska Range.
Second Ascent: Mount Foraker, 5303 meters, 17,400 feet, via the Infinite Spur, a 13-day Climb, Summit reached on June 24, 1989 (Mark Bebie, James Nelson).