American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Mt. Foraker, North Face, and Circumnavigation

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1998

Mt. Foraker, North Face, and Circumnavigation. Historically, getting to the north side of Mt. Foraker has been a serious endeavor. The conditions of the terrain during the climbing season tend to be horrible; there is usually poor-quality snow, raging rivers, aggressive alders, and swampy tundra that needs to be dealt with, while blood-thirsty mosquitoes attack continually. With horse-packing and airplane landings not permitted within Denali National Park, all but a few expeditions have approached from just outside the park’s western boundary. The other three groups experienced a 75-mile journey from Wonder Lake, the first two using horses prior to the park restrictions and the third beginning its epic with a nightmare approach. By the time many of the climbers reached the base of their routes, they found themselves behind schedule, poorly acclimatized, and pushing to make up lost time. With this increased commitment level, the end results have been few successful climbs and a higher percentage ofexpeditions requiring emergency assistance (i.e., food drops and rescues).

The thought of climbing in this area was especially appealing to us. All three existing routes (the Northwest Ridge, the Archangel Ridge, and the Highway of Diamonds) offered a true remote Alaskan climbing experience without the crowds seen on the neighboring peak, Denali. Additionally, the north face had fewer objective hazards than many areas in the Alaska Range. The ridges mysteriously lacked cornices, and the north side did not have a reputation for avalanches. Finally, an obvious line existed up the central spur of the north face, probably unclimbed only because of the hellish approach.

Limited by time, Rod Hancock and I considered approaching from a more accessible area, the Kahiltna Base Camp (7,200'). This would require traversing Mt. Crosson (12,800') to reach the north side of Mt. Foraker. We believed that this could be done in a week while providing the needed acclimatization for a quick ascent of Mt. Foraker. If problems occurred during the approach, we could redirect our energies to Mt. Foraker’s Sultana (Northeast) Ridge or easily retreat back down to the airstrip. On the afternoon of April 19, we flew into the “Kahiltna International.” Load carrying and unsettled weather started our adventure off slowly; it took us eight days to climb the southeast ridge of Mt. Crosson to its summit. During the ninth day, we left a cache of extra food and gear at the junction of the Sultana Ridge. After overloading our huge packs, we began to explore new territory in alpine style.

We headed west over a couple of sub-peaks to a camp at 11,500 feet on the West Ridge of Mt. Crosson. The descent of this ridge involved moderate, albeit interesting, climbing. We downclimbed short, airy sections of ice and weaved around crevasses to reach a couloir that dropped southwest off the ridge crest. Descending the 1,200-foot couloir put us at 6,000 feet on the Foraker Glacier. The temperature was sweltering as we crossed the glacier, but it quickly cooled off as we went into the shadows of the 11,000-foot north face. Taking advantage of the continued clear weather, we began climbing up a steep snow couloir to a 200-foot ice headwall. I belayed Rod up this 65°, consolidated ice-cube wall and then followed. Exhausted from a long day with dusk beginning to steal our light, we found a place to dig out a camp at 7,500 feet.

The next morning, we awoke in a snowstorm with six inches of new snow. With ominously steep slopes above us, we were easily persuaded to move out of avalanche terrain. We climbed to the top of a small sub-peak and onto a large glaciated area below the central spur. Circumnavigating left around large crevasses, we reached the beginning of the spur at 9,000 feet. The weather began to improve as we continued up a couple hundred feet to a fairly flat, but crevassed, tent platform. The following morning, we left this camp in excellent weather and ascended a beautiful knife-edged ridge. As the ridge blended into a steep, crevassed snow- field, we continued upward until we reached the base of the crux rock buttress (12,300'). Challenged by our overloaded packs on another day of beautiful weather, we climbed up excellent alpine ice along the left edge of the clean, white granite. As the angle let up, we traversed onto the rock and scrambled to the top of the central spur and our final camp on the north face (14,800'). Once again, blue skies and the frigid morning air greeted us with excellent views of Denali. Concerned about the weather taking a turn for the worse, we decided to forego a planned acclimitization day and head for the summit. We broke camp, shouldered our heavy loads, and began the long, slow trudge to the top.

A cold breeze quickly drove us off the summit and forced us to begin the knee-jolting descent of the Sultana Ridge. Exhausted from a long summit day, we slept at 13,000 feet. The following day, we continued the descent into a whiteout at 11,000 feet, where we were forced into our tent for another day. As the weather cleared, we were able to reach our cache, thus completing a circular path mentally and physically. Practicing a minimal-impact philosophy, we loaded everything into our packs and, with shaking legs, headed for the Kahiltna Glacier. We descended Mt. Crosson cautiously as the intense solar radiation deteriorated the snow conditions. Dealing with horrendous snow balling on our crampons and a close call with rock- fall, we finally reached the glacier. After an evening ski across the glacier, we were back in base camp enjoying a beer with friends. We named our route Full Circle (Alaska Grade 4).

Stuart Parks

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