American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Alaska Range, Mt. Foraker, The Infinite Spur, Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

Mt. Foraker, The Infinite Spur, Ascent. On May 18, Carl Tobin and I flew into the West Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and established our base camp to attempt the third ascent of the Infinite Spur on the south face of Mt. Foraker. We invested May 20-24 in an acclimatization trip up Mt. Crosson. On May 25, we skied over the first pass and buried a cache below the second pass. Skiing back to our base camp, we were absolutely surprised to meet Glen and Gren just below the first pass, hauling to attempt the same route. The Spur's first ascent was in 1978, the second in 1989. In 22 years it had seen two ascents and possibly a couple of attempts. Now it was seeing two parties on it at the same time. Glen and Gren are both in their early twenties, Carl is 47, and I am 41. We dubbed Glen and Gren “the Lads.”

On May 26, Carl and I skied from base camp to our cache, excavated it, and climbed over the second pass unroped, profiting from the Lads’ steps. A 27-meter rappel slid us onto the glacier on the far side and we followed the Lads’ steps to camp as close to the face as we felt comfortable.

On May 27 we started toward the face, passing the Lads’ camp, which was framed by two recent avalanche run-outs. We spotted the Lads heading into a large gully that rises from climber’s right to left and serves as drainage for any serac collapses and/or snow avalanches that fall from the left of the Spur. Two tumbling glaciers and two hanging glaciers with 200- to 400-foot seracs all calve into this gully. Although a route picture in Bebie’s account in the 1990 AAJ has an ascent line drawn close to this gully, that line, and that gully, must be con- sidered erroneous. Future parties should take note of the route line drawn in the 2000 AAJ: it is the safest way up the Spur and has been confirmed by George Lowe as the line of his ascent.

Carl led across the bergschrund and up 700 feet of fourth-class to establish us on the face. At mid-day, I heard frantic screams from the Lads, whom I could no longer see, then the thunder of an avalanche blasting down their gully. I saw the debris run out linearly onto the glacier and heard one last loud scream, then silence. I shouted and yodeled, but heard no response.

Carl and I conferred at our next stance. We hoped that the Lads were OK, and we decided that if they needed help that they would have to get themselves to the glacier, as neither of us were willing to go anywhere near their gully.

Carl led the first fifth-class pitch, which proved to be one of the cruxes of the route and indicated the nature of most of the climbing on the Spur: 5.4-5.9 mixed climbing with crusty snow cover from a recent moist storm, iced-up cracks in excellent granite that yielded great dry tooling (we’d resort to hand holds maybe ten percent of the time), and good protection and anchorage. What made the route very physically demanding was leading pretty much all of it with our full “Alaskan” packs, and seconding pretty much everything with them too. Repeated calls and yodels raised no response from the Lads, and Carl and I feared that they had been overwhelmed by the avalanche. From our camp atop a flattened-out snow feature capping a rock pedestal, we were unsuccessful in our attempts to contact Denali Park by radio to report a probable accident.

On May 28, Carl and I made contact with the Park in the morning and reported the possibility of an accident. The Park conducted a fixed wing reconnaissance and later in the day a military helicopter search in misty conditions. The Lads were not spotted.

Carl and I climbed on to about 10,500 feet, where he, in the lead, heard voices and was pleasantly surprised to make contact with the Lads, who were bivied down in the tumbling glacier. Carl and I climbed on to where we could pitch our tent. We were unable to make con- tact on the radio, but were able to talk with both of our wives on Carl’s cell phone. Carl’s wife relayed the fact that the Lads were alive to the Park.

On May 29, we made contact with the Park on the radio and directed their Llama heli- copter to us, where they made a positive sighting of the Lads, who were thankfully abandoning their avalanche chute route and climbing over to join Carl and me on the Infinite Spur proper. At mid-day, we all gained the “Ice Arête,” which was blanketed in several feet of snow. Half of its length was overcome with that classic climbing tool, a shovel. We left the arête for the small granite wall that parallels it as soon as we could.

Reaching the intrusive black wall atop the arête, Carl and I hacked away ice for two and a half hours until we got a partial pitch for our Bibler I-tent. The Lads dug a long narrow ledge for their bivy sacs. That night it stormed. Carl and I sat out the 36 hours of storm in relative comfort.

On May 31, we resumed climbing, opting to turn the black band on the left. Future parties should climb a beautiful grade 2/3 waterice gully between our route and the first ascent route. We couldn’t see into the gully until several hard pitches put us above it.

Above, we skirted along on snow on the left side of the Spur for several rope lengths and ended up chopping into ice again for one and a half hours. On June 1, we all gained the horizontal finish to the Spur, where Carl and I again profited from the Lads’ steps and shovel work. Carl and I skirted the last pale granite buttress on the left and scampered up immaculate mixed ground between it and the tumbling glacier. The Lads took the buttress direct and Glen took a 30-foot fall. Against the edge of the glacier that caps the Spur, Carl and I scampered right and quickly up a snow gully. The Lads caught us, profiting from our steps, and we all traversed back into the glacier and into a huge ’schrund that yielded an easy camp and bivy with no chopping.

On June 2, we continued on fourth-class ground up a large gully right and into the clouds. At the top of the gully, we unroped and by and by reached the very top of the south face and a fine flat camp against a crevasse and sheltering wall.

On June 3, Carl and I plodded over the top of Foraker and descended the Sultana Ridge. At 2:30 p.m., we choose to rest in the tent and brew for five and a half hours. We then continued through the night, traversing the five miles of ridge to Mt. Crosson, reaching the edge of the Kahiltna and finally the airstrip. Carl and I were very tired lads.

Barry Blanchard, Canada

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