American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mount Foster, H.W. Tilman Would Have Approved

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1997

Mount Foster

H. W. Tilman would have approved by Dan Mannix

I’m a Colorado Boy. The ocean is as foreign to me as the dark side of the moon. In Colorado we keep our water safely controlled with modem inventions like bathtubs and drinking glasses. Our largest natural lake is imaginatively called “Grand Lake”—and it ain’t so grand, a mere pond by most standards. The climbing in Colorado is accessible to the extreme; roadside crags abound, approaches are laughably short, and rescue is a mere cell phone call away.

So what the hell was this Colorado boy doing throwing up over the side of a pitching sailboat, with no hope of rescue, battered by the endless westerlies of the Drake Passage, on the way to climb a peak that no one has even heard of? For a neophyte sailor such as myself to even attempt the “Furious Fifties” and “Shrieking Sixties” of the Drake Passage was pure folly, analogous, perhaps, to a skydiver doing his or her first ever jump—out of the space shuttle.

I can’t blame my predicament entirely on H.W. Tilman, although he is the first scapegoat to come to mind. In 1967, Tilman attempted Mount Foster on remote Smith Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, but was beaten back by the mountain’s impressive defenses of constantly calving glaciers, rugged surf and remote location. In 1977, Tilman, the quintessential adventurer, was en route to climb the mountain again, this time at the tender age of 79. He apparently met his match: his boat, the En Evant, disappeared without a trace, leaving nothing but a mystery and an unclimbed peak. In my present situation, joining old H.W. in Davey Jones’ locker looked like a viable way out of my misery.

I was not alone. Cramped onto this pitching, pounding, steel-hulled hole in the water were seven other people whom fate had somehow brought together. Greg Langreth and Keri Pashuk, the owners of the 15-meter ketch, Northanger, are arguably the best high latitude sailors in the world. The Northanger was, after 400 years of attempts, the first English registered vessel to traverse the Northwest Passage, and Greg has the dubious distinction of being one of the only people to completely circle the Americas in a sailboat.

Coming part and parcel with the Northanger (and along for a final trip before they became ex-ex- co-owners) were Kiwi ex-co-owners Bruce Dowrick and Jo Anne Stratford. Bruce is talented to a fault: a true renaissance man, expert sailor, climber, equipment designer, cartoonist, and all-around nice guy. Jo and Bruce were, for a short time, co-owners of the Northanger with Greg and Kerri. Because of philosophical differences they were parting ways; this trip was to be one of their “payments.” And, as if we didn’t have enough Kiwis, the crew was rounded out with New Zealander Rodger Thompson and his girlfriend Ann Kemp, a Victoria, British Columbia, street kid.

Greg described our voyage as “superimposing a major open ocean sea voyage onto a world- class mountaineering expedition.” Don’t try this at home, kids, unless you have a specifically built boat such as the Northanger: steel hull, retractable keel, wide beam, open cockpit. “Why the open cockpit, Greg?” I asked.

“You can see better, and you won’t fall asleep at the wheel in an ocean full of icebergs,” he said. (I now drive my car at home with no windshield for the same reason, and have yet to fall asleep at the wheel.)

When we caught up with the Northanger in Punta Arenas, Chile, we had no idea what we were in for. By “we” I mean myself and my wife, Veronica, the documentary team who were destined to play the part of much-reviled film crew on the four-month voyage. What Greg forgot to mention in his description of our voyage was that we were going to try and make a little documentary of it. The film proved to be the hardest part.

After nearly seven months of sailing the Northanger from Vancouver, B.C., to Punta Arenas, the aforementioned crew was like Gulag prisoners who had finally been set free. Relationships are difficult enough on land; on a 49-foot boat on the high seas, every burp and fart is fodder for discussion. Veronica and I had unwittingly stepped into Peyton Place in a bathtub. Our proposed film was seen as Geraldo Rivera shooting in the Northanger’s sordid little living room. As Rodger so succinctly put it, “I don’t want you packaging my neuroses for millions of fat Americans to watch.” Lots of luck scheduling his interviews.

Fortunately, the sheer adventure and audacity of a small private party attempting what we were going to try ended up being our major driving force, and most personal complaints were put aside. Our plan was this: sail around Tierra Del Fuego for a while, sightseeing and honing our climbing skills, and then sail across the dreaded Drake to our objective: rugged, unmapped Smith Island on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Since Tilman’s original attempts on 6,700-foot Mount Foster, expeditions had been few and far between. Apart from two eight-week attempts by the British Army (in which one man was choppered off, stark raving bonkers, and much gear was left behind), and an attempt by Greg years earlier with another crew on the Northanger, little interest had been shown. We heard many stories: Too hard to get to, too hard to see it when you got there, too hard to climb it when you could see it. The waters around Smith Island are a churning surf of broken icebergs, the shore an endless cliff of constantly calving tidewater glacier, and the mountain a grinding, groaning series of death seracs. When I first saw Mount Foster poking up out of the remote, frozen distance, my balls just shriveled up. It looked horrendous. No wonder it was unclimbed—you’d have to be crazy just to try.

As we approached, our main problems became apparent. There was no place to park (Colorado speak for “anchor”) the boat, nowhere to access the island, and no ridge that looked possible to climb. Fortunately, my companions were exceedingly clever and industrious folk, and these problems fell by the wayside like so much kelp. Upon closer inspection, one small point—a mere 100 yards of safe shoreline in 50 miles of glacial shore—was found. By coincidence, the only possible route up Mount Foster rose straight like an arrow above this site. I sensed a trap, but was quickly overruled.

We donned our survival suits, and, using a small Polaris raft, began ferrying eight weeks of food and equipment to Camp I, 18 inches above sea level at low tide. For added effect, the glacier that loomed above us kept calving huge apartment building-size chunks into the ocean, threatening to wash us of off our precarious perch. It was like living next to a busy airport as the low- flying seracs drowned out our conversation at five-minute intervals. A rising Tyrolean traverse allowed us to gain a foothold on a rocky ledge 150 feet above the crashing surf. Things were going so well that we decided to drop our shortwave radio and three weeks of food into the ocean as an offering to the gods. (Actually, I voted against this, but was once again overruled.)

Since the boat had left for a safer anchorage many miles away, there was now no way to communicate with the womenfolk. This was just as well; with storms and icebergs and such, they had problems of their own. Unfortunately, if they didn’t eventually hear from us they were bound to fear for our safety and come get us first chance they had—and this was bound to crimp our style.

The weather was holding remarkably well. As a five- or six-week climb was out of the question, we decided to go for it. On January 15, we quickly packed and the next morning took off. Storms were known to last weeks and weeks around here; people familiar with the area said they rarely saw the summit. Our plan was to go light and fast, bringing one dinner, a couple of snacks per person, and the hope that the weather held and we didn’t get trapped on the mountain.

The route we chose was painfully obvious (every other possibility was sure death on a popsi- cle stick). The ridge rose straight out of camp, easy at first, then steeper, then (though not worth belaying on) very exposed. Greg and I quickly established a plan—if one of us fell, the other one had to immediately hurl himself off into space on the other side of the ridge. Although this may sound like mutually assured destruction, in theory it would work—if you saw your partner fall, if you jumped soon enough, if the rope held and if you jumped in the right direction. I prayed fervently that we would never have to test this theory. Slowly and carefully we traversed this mile-long sidewalk-in-the-sky until the ridge ended in a headwall that we couldn’t see past, but which, we hoped, would lead us to the actual summit plateau.

The headwall looked promising, but when the weather started going south, we decided to bail. Laboriously, we reversed the ridge in deteriorating conditions until we were back at camp. Oh no, we were just another jilted suitor—it looked like we had used the rare good weather window to get on the island. We couldn’t count on another one of those for a couple of months.

I’d rather be lucky than good, and lucky we were. The next morning, January 16, dawned calm and clear. After a frenzy of packing and climbing we found ourselves once again at our high point beneath the headwall.

For some reason, I always assumed our route would be a sort of 1950s mountaineering route— ice ax in hand, the odd yodel, maybe cut a few steps in memory of old H.W.; but it now became rudely apparent that this climb was not going to be a pushover. I brought along my waterfall axes as props, never expecting to use them for anything other than breaking ice cubes for pisco sours (the national drink of Chile). Midway up the first serious pitch, I got my wake up call. Needless to say it looked like I was going to get some very dramatic footage. (I could only hope that a future expedition would find the camera with my body and return the film to my producer.) Eighty-degree ice plastered on steep rock continued for four long pitches as I swung leads with Greg, shooting whenever I could manage. The weather held nicely as Bruce and Rodger swung leads as a second team.

In due time, the headwall gave way to a truly remarkable ridge—sharp, steep, technically easy but incredibly exposed. Belays consisted of snow stakes driven as deep as possible into the consolidated snow. In place of runners, the rope was threaded through the “dragon’s back” formations of the ridge. We could now see out over the vast Southern Ocean, which was dotted with the occasional remote island. Never have I felt so alone or committed as at this moment. (Well, maybe once, when I forgot my lines in the school play; but here there was no one to cue me.) Our solitude was complete.

Four pitches of knife-edge ridge ended in a last, steep ice gully that Greg made quick work of. All that remained was 2,000 feet of rising plateau, and the summit would be ours. We had been climbing continuously for about 18 hours, so we took a break for a quick brew. Looking back on our route, I prayed that the weather would hold: there was no way we could reverse it if the weather changed, and one day’s food would provide slim pickings until next spring.

Then a miracle happened. The Supreme Being, whoever she is, saw fit at this time to alter the atmospheric conditions and allow us to contact the Northanger with our puny little hand-held marine radio. This is the equivalent of having trouble on the fourth pitch of the Naked Edge while someone yells out beta from the Boulder Mall. Eighty miles away, at 1 a.m., the worried crew had finally established contact with us. After a few pleasantries (“My God, you’re still alive!” “Yeah, I think so .…”) we got down to business, got a weather report, and made plans for pick-up in a few days.

All that remained was a hike into the night. At sunrise the next morning, the summit was ours. After the obligatory handshake and a YAHOO!!, followed by a moment of silent respect to H.W. Tilman, we became downward bound. The world is growing smaller all the time, unclimbed peaks rarer, shoestring expeditions more infrequent. As we descended in the growing dawn, I basked in the knowledge that we had pulled this one out of our asses. The old man would have been proud.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Smith Island in The South Shetland Islands off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula

FIRST ASCENT: Mount Foster (6,700 feet), January 17, 1996 (Bruce Dowrick, Dan Mannix, Roger Thompson, Greg Langreth)

PERSONNEL: Bruce Dowrick, Dan Mannix, Roger Thompson, Greg Langreth, Veronica Mannix, Keri Pashuk, Ann Kemp

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.