The South Face of Mount Foraker
Trying harder in the Alaska Range
by Steve Larson
July 4th, 1998, and I am spending the weekend with Joe TerraVecchia sport climbing in Rumney, New Hampshire. We are in the parking lot, outside Joe’s truck. Joe reaches behind his seat and pulls out a black bag. Before he opens the bag, he looks over his shoulder. The check is quick, but thorough: no one is watching.
Joe produces a photo he took while flying out from the Moonflower Buttress of Mount Hunter in 1997. He and Carl Tobin had Paul Roderick, owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi, fly by the Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker to check it out. Luckily, it was a perfect day. When Joe got home and saw the photos, though, it wasn’t the Infinite Spur that caught his eye. Instead, he recognized a line beginning to the right of the Infinite Spur that gained the beautiful dia- mond-shaped wall above.
Joe went to Alaska in the spring of ’98 to try the route with Carl. 1998 was an El Niño year, and they never got beyond Anchorage. Now, Carl is becoming a dad, and Joe has asked me to take Carl’s place. Joe and I had met on the Moonflower, each of us members of separate parties. That was more than a year ago, and I am now looking for a route to provide similar climbing. One look at the line seemed to show that the upper half would be steep enough. Joe did not have to ask me a second time. By the end of the weekend, we had agreed to return together the following spring to the Alaska Range.
Joe and I were fortunate to receive the Mugs Stump Award for an alpine-style attempt on the south face of Mount Foraker. We had Paul Roderick drop us off on the Kahiltna Glacier at the base of the southeast ridge of Mount Foraker, rather than the traditional airstrip on the southeast fork. This not only put us closer to the start of the route, but, with both the southeast ridge and the French Ridge of Foraker just across the glacier and the bulk of Denali looming above the head of the Kahiltna, we had an extraordinary setting to ourselves.
Our proposed route on the south face of Mount Foraker begins with a long gully to the right of the Infinite Spur at 8,000 feet and ends with a mantel 7,000 feet higher. The gully, which keeps the climber to the left of any discharge from the hanging glacier above, provides the first 2,000 feet of climbing and ends at the Rock Step, the route’s first technical challenge. The Rock Step accesses the Shoulder to the left of the hanging glacier. At the top of the hanging glacier lies a 3,500-foot, diamond-shaped wall. The route follows a line of weakness just right of center, exiting about 400 feet right of the wall’s apex at 15,000 feet, where it joins the Infinite Spur. The Infinite Spur gains the apex of the south face from the left, and our route joins the Infinite Spur at that point. It then ascends another 1,800 feet to the broad summit plateau and finally ends on the north summit at 17,400 feet.
We left Base Camp on May 23 with 12 days of food and 14 days of fuel for the climb. We knew we would have to cross two ridges to get to the base of the south face but were surprised to find that the second one involved technical pitches. That was the end of the road as far as our sleds were concerned. We pared down and left a cache.
Crossing the second ridge was a difficult day, climbing with enormous packs and eventually getting caught in the sun. We cut through the sheath of our haul rope hauling the first pitch, and trashed the rope in the five pitches it took to get to the top of the ridge. We had decided to bring a 7.6-millimeter rope for a haul rope. We were expecting too much from too little. Tired and frustrated from our day, we went to sleep thinking the route might be over before it had even started.
The next morning we both woke with the same idea. We would return to BC to wait for Paul to fly in another rope. The up-side was that we could retrieve our cache and sleds and bring it all back to BC. At least we would not have to clean up after ourselves once we had returned from the route.
Eventually, Paul arrived with an old rope he found laying around in his office. After nearly a week’s delay, we had replaced our rope and covered the approach for the third time, finally getting our first view of the face on May 31.
We moved to within half a mile of the base of the route during a storm and were in position when the weather finally broke. We spent June 3 watching the route to assess activity on the face. We were especially concerned with the effect that direct exposure from the sun might have. The entire day passed without any rock-or icefall, and we started toward the bergschrund once the sun went off the face.
We planned to minimize our exposure by climbing the initial gully at night. While we were on the fan approaching the bergschrund, the gully avalanched. Fortunately, it was just a powder avalanche, but it would have been quite a scene to witness: catching sight of the enormous cloud of powder heading toward us, we each dropped our packs and ran in opposite directions. Tied together, of course.
As I was leading the second pitch, Joe called me back to the belay. He had noticed that our lead rope had two inches of core exposed about 60 feet from my end. We discussed retreating but finally decided we just hadn’t tried hard enough yet to cash in our chips. We decided to tape up the sheath and continue to lead on the rope. Our rationale was that leading on the rope would subject it to less abuse than hauling with it.
When the sun finally hit us, we had no choice but to stop. We had been up for more than 24 hours. We each chopped a body-sized ledge and tried to sleep in the sun until the gully went back into the shade. Once things froze up, we got underway again. At the top of the gully, we found four mixed pitches through the Rock Step. Here the granite, which had previously been compact, offering few cracks and virtually none greater than a quarter of an inch in width, now became fractured with clean, sharp cracks. The rock would remain that way through to the top. The Rock Step brought us to the Shoulder, to the left of the hanging glacier. Elevation: 10,440 feet.
The sun played a much larger role than either of us expected. During the first five days, climbing in the sun was out of the question. Nonetheless, on four of those five days we got caught in the sun before we found a suitable bivouac. Not only did the snow turn to bottomless com, but the heat was oppressive, especially considering that we were dressed for climbing through the night.
We arrived at the Shoulder at the end of our second day and saw the 3,500-foot upper wall for the first time. Perched above the hanging glacier, the wall from this perspective was unrecognizable compared to our route photos. It was our second consecutive long day; we had gotten four or five hours of sleep in between. We were too tired and discouraged to piece together the route, so we just went to sleep.
With four hours of rest, we simul-climbed up the hanging glacier to the bergschrund. I was exhausted and felt as though I was not pulling my weight when Joe suggested that we bivouac in the ’schrund.
“Sure,” I said. “If you want to.”
Above the hanging glacier, the route steepens and begins its transformation into what we had come for. We gained the diamondshaped wall by way of a corner with a very narrow ribbon of ice up its center. This kept us left of anything funneling down from the snow fields between our route and the French Ridge. We climbed to the base of the Couloir, the obvious weakness through the steepest section of the wall. Elevation : 12,120 feet.
At the base of the Couloir, we tried to find a sheltered spot to bivouac. We were in the sun, and falling ice and rocks were coming uncomfortably close. Out of options, we chopped a ledge but hit rock before it was big enough for the tent. We set the tent up anyway at two-thirds its normal size, crammed into it and tried to sleep with our helmets on. That night it snowed, spindrift collapsed the tent and we had to get suited up and go out into the weather to install the awning that we should have put on when we set the tent up in the first place.
Both Joe and I dislike climbing with big packs. We had agreed that if the route was steep enough, we would haul the packs and enjoy our leads unencumbered. It had worked for me on the Moonflower.
Thirty pitches into this route, with another 30 to go, the fabric of our packs was failing. Titoune Bouchard, owner of Wild Things, had suggested we bring haul sheaths, but I had opted to save the weight. Both packs had numerous three- to six-inch rips, and the contents threatened to fall out. The problem got exponentially worse each day. Sewing the fabric back together became a daily routine.
The seven pitches up the Couloir provided fantastic climbing. Throughout its length, the Couloir was rarely wider than six to eight feet across. Virtually every pitch had sections to vertical or beyond. Only one pitch allowed for straightahead ice climbing; the balance of the climbing was mixed. Joe pulled off a couple of impressive leads here.
When we started the Couloir, we decided to switch our ropes, leading on the haul line that Paul had flown in for us and hauling with the damaged lead rope. As Joe was hauling the second pitch, the sheath blew apart where we had taped it on the first day. It had totally failed, and two feet of core was now exposed. We cut out the damaged section and tied the rope back together. From then on we would have to pass the knot every time we hauled a pitch. This knot would also make retreat a more complicated option.
The weather was deteriorating as well. Snow was beginning to fall and, as a result, spindrift was beginning to slough off the snow field above, funneling down the Couloir. I put on my ski goggles and headed up the next pitch. It was steep, but I figured that because it seemed to be all ice, I could get up it in spite of the spindrift. Even though I could no longer see well enough to place rock gear, I reasoned that, if necessary, I should be able to place an ice screw.
As I climbed the pitch, both the snow and wind increased markedly. In a matter of minutes, the goggles became so fogged I had to remove them. As I neared the end of the pitch, the ice petered out, but the angle had yet to ease. Screws were no longer a choice. My last screw was only halfway in, tied off and well below my feet. Joe says the spindrift was so intense that he was having a hard time breathing through it. At least I had figured one thing right: I couldn’t see well enough to place any rock gear.
My being was reduced to the next five or six tool placements. I have no idea how long it took, but it took more time than Joe had patience. I rapped off as soon as I got to some ice thick enough to take a screw.
The storm passed during the following day, and we attempted the Couloir that evening for the second time. We ascended our two fixed lines and I re-led my ice pitch. As a sting-in-the- tail, the wind began to pick up again as I neared the top of the pitch. The wind and spindrift continued to intensify as Joe took the next lead, forcing him to stop several times to wait. Fortunately, the wind blew itself out and we were able to carry on.
We were finally high enough to climb during the day, and the sun felt wonderful. The climbing was outstanding as well. We climbed up and right from our bivouac (elevation: 13,230'), and gained a corner system that went for several pitches, allowing us access to a ramp angling up and left. A gully capped with a short wall brought us through a rock band to another snowfield. By the end of the day, the wind started blowing again and we needed to find a place to bivouac. It was a gift to find a snow arête where we could get the tent up without any chopping. Elevation: 14,000 feet.
Our final day on the face was spent in and out of the clouds. Eventually, the storm won out, but not until we were off the face. From its apex, we were able to follow a snow arête upward in blowing snow and white-out conditions. When the arête began to broaden, we decided to bivouac, because we were not certain we could stay on it and we did not want to wander into one of the bowls on either side.
The following day, June 14, the weather cleared by late morning and we started up the remaining 1,800 feet to the summit plateau. We spent several hours on a tedious slope of a single, unrelenting angle, trying to avoid isolated pockets of wind slab. We gained the summit plateau and moved toward the north summit. Eventually, the weather forced us to hole up for a day and a half 500 feet below the summit. By now the difficulties were basically over, but it was frustrating to be caught in another storm, on this side of the summit, with very little food.
Summit day dawned clear and remained that way for the first half of the day. The summit was calm, but high clouds suggested we not linger. After about 20 minutes, we started down. Joe had done the classic Southeast Ridge earlier in his career and knew that he did not want to do it again. We chose the Northeast Ridge to the Sultana Ridge over to Mount Crosson by default and dropped 5,700 feet that afternoon.
Traversing the Sultana Ridge would be a glorious way to spend a clear day, but that was not our lot. Fate provided us with deep snow, poor light and white-out conditions.
The weather improved the following day. As the sky cleared, the temperatures climbed. We now found ourselves in the sun, overdressed and overheating. I was stumbling along toward a spot on the horizon where I planned to shed some layers. Joe was watching me from behind when I disappeared from view. I fell what seemed to be a long way, pulling Joe off his feet and dragging him along the snow. Finally, I stopped in a chimney position, wedged between my pack, my hands and my knees. It took me a minute to decide that I was OK. Fortunately, I had an ice tool in each hand and was able to chimney up and out.
We continued up over the summit of Crosson and began our final descent to the Kahiltna. We had started with 12 days of food, but this was our 16th day. For most of the last week, we had been on half rations. As we descended lower, the snow got worse, and we decided to eat what little food we had left (less than one man’s portion for dinner) and wait for it to get colder. Later, when we arrived at a camp at 8,500 feet, we found an abandoned cache being tom apart by ravens: bagels and cheese, pita and peanut butter and cookies, cookies, cookies… fat city.
Once we hit the Kahiltna, it was a night of postholing and dead ends. It took several attempts, but eventually we found our way through a maze of crevasses and across the glacier. At 4 a.m., as the east face of Foraker was bathed in the alpenglow of another day, we arrived at the airstrip on the southwest fork of the Kahiltna.
Perhaps doing a big alpine route is all about dealing with a steady diet of problems with nothing more than reason, determination and a bit of duct tape, but that is not how I remember the experience. My journal reminds me of fatigue, mood swings dependent predominately on the prevailing weather, problems with gear and a concern with the lack of food. But my memory is of the climbing, the situation and my partner. So many pitches, for most of which there is no record; lovely answers to a constant stream of questions. All in a remote setting, a spectacular place, a place where our heroes have climbed. And yet, all of this would ring hollow if not for the partnership: that relationship between two individuals, committed and pulling hard for a shared goal, and what they, through the synergy of their mutual desire, can pull off.
Summary of Statistics Area: Alaska Range, Alaska
New Route: The South Face (Alaska Grade 6, 9,400') of Mount Foraker (17,400'), June 4-20, Steve Larson, Joe TerraVecchia Steve Larson, 43, a self-employed custom builder and woodworker, began his alpine career in 1976 in the Canadian Rockies. He had led his first 5.9 at his home crag that summer and had done a couple of pitches of aid, so it seemed reasonable to expect to give the North Face of North Twin a go. He settled for the North Face of Athabasca instead and has been learning from his mistakes ever since. He lives in Eaton Center, NH, with his wife, Tricia, and his two children, Brita, 10, and Michael, 8.