The McNeill-Nott Memorial Route
A new line on the south face of Mt. Foraker.
Was the sky falling? The serac had avalanched with a vicious cacophony. The moment was surreal: the mind trying to recognize the cause of the roar, the delay between sight and sound too difficult for the brain to assimilate immediately. We had descended merely hours before, and now we watched a serac pummel our route, filling the entire cirque at the base of Mt. Foraker’s south face with a cloud of powder blown up by debris. Thirty minutes earlier, Max and I had stood chatting with Karen McNeill and Sue Nott at the very spot where the debris had landed. After the cloud subsided, we could once again see Karen and Sue, unharmed, two dots at the bergschrund at the base of the Infinite Spur. After much swearing and exclamation, and then silence, we continued up to the shoulder, headed back to base camp. It was 8 a.m. on May 14, 2006.
Maxime and I rested on the shoulder for over an hour. I sat in the blazing sun, nauseated by the irony of our mad descent in fear of a storm that hadn’t yet materialized, only to barely miss being pulverized by a serac avalanche. I was relieved to be safely off the south face; I felt like we had made the wrong decision; Maxime was disappointed, saying it was like the “Magnificent Failure.” I apologized—we had descended due to my ambivalence about the weather. Maxime generously offered that it could have gone either way, the storm could have moved in and swallowed the mountain with its gales. We were up against an essential alpine paradox: Alpine climbing is not about summits; without a summit an alpine climb is incomplete.
In March 2006, Maxime Turgeon and I were given an American Alpine Club Lyman Spitzer Cutting Edge Award for an attempt on the south face of Mt. Foraker. We pushed a new line up to the French Ridge by way of a snow-covered ice gully followed by stacks of brilliant thin-ice and mixed climbing, including two of the hardest and most dangerous mixed pitches I have ever done in the alpine.
At 6 a.m. on May 12, as we surmounted the bergschrund at the base of the face at 8,000 feet, the “above-the-schrund” enthusiasm swept over me. We dispensed with the initial gully rapidly and swept upward on sublimated thin ice that trickled down the steep granite gullies and corners. It was really happening. We were light and fit and moving fast on virgin terrain on a proud alpine face, actualizing all of the dreams and hard work that a devotion of one’s life to climbing embodies. The thunk of a well-placed tool in ice, the scrape of a crampon skating off an edge of rock, the steady, regular heaves of deep breathing; the distillation of my existence happens here, the coming together of the past, the present, and the future. The scorched smell of steel striking granite doused with adrenaline-laced sweat washes memories of mountain euphoria over me.
The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The culmination of the crux pitch involved solid M6 climbing while wearing my pack, a pendulum into a shallow, melted-out chimney filled with loose spikes of granite suspended in lacy, meringuelike snow-ice, and then no gear till the belay. Upon reaching the stance, Maxime congratulated me heartily for the lead. The euphoria now gone, I turned to him and said, I m done. Let’s go down. This is too dangerous. I have kids.” Maxime’s lip curled into a smile of disbelief. I imagined his unspoken thought: “And this fact is just occurring to you now?” Maxime argued that the initial snow gully would be too slushy at this time of day to descend safely. He encouraged me, saying he thought we were past the crux. We continued upward; Maxime led the last two stellar mixed pitches brilliantly. Directly above, a gargantuan serac emerged into view. I realized with feelings of fear and guilt that we had spent most of the day climbing directly under its menacing hulk.
After the initial 2,500 feet, the route consisted mostly of hard alpine ice and reasonably well- consolidated snow, with occasional moderate mixed terrain. As we slogged up the concrete ice of the hanging glacier that fed the serac (now safely below us), I noticed that a tune from the musical West Side Story was stuck in my head. I feel pretty. My toes throbbed. I feel pretty. My feet cramped. I feel pretty and witty and gay. My crampons were worn, stubby shells of their former selves, so dull it was hard to believe they had been brand-new that morning. And I pity any girl who isn’t me today. We’d been listening to West Side Story incessantly before I left for Alaska—my girlfriend, my two daughters, and me. I smiled thinking of the photos I had taken of Karen and Sue at base camp, nestling a scarlet Beanie Baby lobster on their shoulders. The doll was the mascot of my eldest daughter’s third-grade class. They had sent Lobby the Lobster with us to Alaska as our base camp mascot. I was looking forward to showing the girls the pictures of Lobby with these two amazing, inspirational women. Somehow, I imagined that just having those pictures justified the trip, regardless of how our climb went.
After 40 hours on the face (including two rest stops along the way—one nocturnal, one diurnal), we reached 13,500 feet, the point where the French Ridge abuts the massive, towering summit structure of Mt. Foraker. The wind whipped up and the ominous darkness of a high-energy low-pressure system seemed to become visible to the southwest, over the Gulf of Alaska. Having endured two southwesterly Alaska Range windstorms at two different high camps, both of which lasted four days and nearly terrified the life out of me, I was unwilling to proceed. I carried only a summer-weight sleeping bag, no tent, and no shovel. I can’t imagine surviving a windstorm up there so equipped. Maxime was surprised by my assessment of the weather—it seemed good enough for him. So we continued. Shortly thereafter, around 10 p.m., my concern about the weather and the increasing winds influenced Max to concede and retreat.
We rappelled and downclimbed the entire face in nine hours, leaving much of our rack behind. We moved as fast as we could while rappelling the lower 2,500 feet, ridiculously exposed to the serac once again. On countless occasions we rappelled from single nuts, single pins, and single V-threads in four-inch-thick ice. We made our final rappel over the bergschrund shortly after 7 a.m. on May 14, pulled the ropes, stuffed them uncoiled into our packs, and ran out from under the face, still wearing our parkas and sweating profusely.
As we were downclimbing the gully, two figures approached in the cirque below. It was Karen and Sue, on their way to attempt the Infinite Spur. We reached them at the center of the cirque and explained why we had bailed. Karen remarked on our small packs with envy; we remarked on the size of their packs with sympathy. We chatted about the weather for a bit. Karen put on her hat and spun her ice axe, ready to go. Sue said with a grin as she turned toward the Infinite, “Well, hopefully we’ll see you in 10 days!” Her tone made it clear she was being optimistic. We wished them well and turned toward the shoulder that begins the retreat route from the cirque. We stopped partway and Max dressed his raw and swollen shins—too few socks. We began hiking again, and soon the serac calved and roared its menacing roar.
The perfect weather held. We watched Karen and Sue, two dots in the distance. We knew they must have been shocked by the magnitude of the serac avalanche—they probably were dusted by the powder cloud. I felt afraid and excited for them. The south face of Mt. Foraker is the most magnificent and yet the most terrifying place I have ever been. I secretly wished they would walk down the slope and come toward us and the comfort of the sun. But they did not; they just sat there. As we finally turned to go we gave one last look. Karen and Sue hadn’t moved.
After our climb Maxime and Louis-Phillipe Ménard climbed a significant new line on the south face of McKinley. [Editor’s note: See story on page 47.] I climbed the Mini-Moon-flower on Mt. Hunter alone and spent a lot of time brooding in base camp. We all started to worry about Karen and Sue after two weeks had passed. My girlfriend, Katy Klutznick, joined me at base camp at the commencement of the rescue effort. The U.S. Army Pave Hawks flew search sorties, and the National Park Service Lama chopper, dangling “the claw,” retrieved clues. All this seemed to exacerbate Katy’s existing trepidation about the intimidating Alaska Range. We climbed most of the approach couloir to the northeast ridge of Mt. Hunter. We skied around the glacier a bit. Mostly, we hung around base camp, hypothesizing about Karen and Sue’s disappearance.
I don’t think about Alaska 2006 without thinking about them; their loss cast a pall over the entire experience. Climbing is large; it contains multitudes. The south face of Mt. Foraker was beautiful and terrifying, a glowing success and a magnificent failure. While climbing I am most alive and also most aware of what I have to lose. Do I contradict myself? Max and I easily could have been the ones who disappeared on Mt. Foraker last year. And still, I am counting the days with nervous excitement until my return to the Alaska Range this spring.
Area: Alaska Range
Ascent: First ascent of the McNeill-Nott Memorial Route (5,200', WI5+ M6R A0) on the south face of 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker, reaching the 1976 French Ridge route at ca 13,200 feet, Will Mayo and Maxime Turgeon, May 12-14, 2006.
A Note About the Author:
Will Mayo, 34, is an insurance agent who lives in Northfield, Vermont. He loves his daughters more than anything else in the world.