Haley/Artun—Mt. Foraker, Alaska
Bjørn-Eivind Årtun and I have just come out from a 37-day trip to Denali and Mt. Foraker, which was partially funded by a Mugs Stump Award and the Norwegian Alpine Club (NTK). Here is a report of what we did.
We flew onto the Kahiltna Glacier on May 13, and immediately started up Denali’s West Buttress route to acclimatize. We soon established a basecamp at the 14,200 ft. camp on the West Buttress to stay for a while. On May 21 we attempted to climb and ski the Orient Express route, but turned around and skied from 17,500 ft. in the face of dangerous wind slabs. On May 25 we climbed to the summit of Denali via the Messner Couloir and returned to the 14,200 ft. camp in 9:15 roundtrip. On May 29 we climbed to the summit of Denali again via the West Buttress route in 8:10 roundtrip.
On the evening of June 6 we departed the 14,200 camp with light packs to attempt the Cassin Ridge, with hopes of breaking the speed record established by Mugs Stump in 1991 (he climbed the Cassin Ridge in 15 hours, and 27.5 hours roundtrip from the 14,200 ft. camp). The forecast was marginal, and our attempt was preceded by a lot of new snowfall, but we had already waited too long for a good weather window. Rather than descend all of the lower West Rib route, we opted to approach via a variation to the West Rib, the “Seattle ‘72 Ramp,” established in 1972 by Alex Bertulis, Jim Wickwire, Robert Shaller, Tom Stewart, Charlie Raymond and Leif-Norman Patterson. This approach worked excellently, and we were soon melting water in the bergschrund at the base of the Japanese Couloir.
We crossed the bergshrund at 22:40 and began climbing up the Japanese Couloir. Above Cassin Ledge we made a route-finding error and accidently climbed a mixed chimney that was more difficult than necessary. While climbing the first rock band the weather took a turn for the worse, and the mostly cloudy skies turned completely cloudy and started snowing. We had decent snow conditions until the top of the third rock band, at 17,000 ft. (although much more hard ice on the icefields than most years), but then began to wallow considerably in deep, fresh snow. We had made excellent time up to 17,000 ft. (about 11 hours) and were confident that we would break the speed record, but that hope began to disintegrate as we worked through snow sometimes waist-deep on the left (west) side of the ridge. The snow worsened closer to the summit ridge, and the final 1,000 ft. to the summit took us over three hours. We finally reached the summit at 15:43 for a time of 17 hours from the base. We took our time down the West Buttress route, and when we arrived back at the 14,200 ft. camp 28 hours had elapsed. We brought a 20 meter rope for the approach, but simul-soloed all of the route.
After our climb of the Cassin we packed up our camp at 14,200 ft. on the West Buttress and descended down to Kahiltna basecamp. Ever since our first week on the glacier we had not experienced consecutive days with good weather, and still the forecast was not optimistic, so it seemed unlikely that we would attempt the main objective of our expedition: a new route on the Southeast Face of Mt. Foraker. After a few days in basecamp the weather forecast called for one day of high pressure, and we thought we might as well pack our backpacks and ski over to the base of the face to check it out. We skied to the base of the face in a whiteout, and never even once that day were able to see the wall that we hoped to climb. We set up our tent in dumping snow, and assumed that in the morning we would simply ski back to basecamp. However, we awoke at 4:00 am the next morning (June 13) to clear skis, and made a hurried decision to launch.
We skied from our campsite up the glacier to the base of the face, and then cached our skis below a protected rock buttress at 6,800 ft. The lower portion of the face (before we branched off of the previous route, False Dawn) is serac-threatened, and so as soon as we left our skis, at 6:00 am, we set off simul-soloing as fast as we possibly could. We raced up a narrow snow couloir to the left of the main serac (but still threatened by a serac on the French Ridge) with steps up to AI3, and then made a right-ward traverse to above the main serac and out of danger. We spent a total of two hours and ten minutes in what I consider dangerous terrain, although we never saw anything come down from these seracs.
Above the dangerous terrain we climbed up a hanging glacier, and then departed False Dawn, climbing up to the base of the large diamond-shaped wall that we hoped to climb. At the base of the wall we stopped to rest, eat, melt snow and bust out the ropes. The wall itself is about 3,000 ft. tall, and comprised of first a large left-trending ramp system, and then a large right trending ramp system. We climbed a lot of ice runnels, and some tricky mixed bits. The rock was mostly good granite, but the technical crux came on a section of crumbly M6R.
At the top of the rock wall we had hoped to brew up, but there was still not a single ledge big enough to chop a butt-seat, so we kept climbing through the night up interminable 60-degree ice slopes to the junction with the French Ridge. Climbing through the night, combined with severe dehydration, caused me to develop frostbite on my big toes.
At the junction with the French Ridge we stopped to rest and melt snow in the dawn light. Eventually we got on our way again, and slowly began the long plod traversing under the south summit and on towards the true summit, quite exhausted. We finally reached the true summit at 13:00, 31 hours after leaving our skis. The skies were clouding up however, and we scurried off almost immediately, heading down the Northeast Ridge.
We quickly descended 5,000 ft. down the Northeast Ridge, and then stopped in a convenient crevasse to melt snow out of the wind. We had planned to continue descending via the Sultana Ridge variation, but when we exited the crevasse we were greeted with complete whiteout and 50 mile-per-hour winds. After a brief attempt along the ridge we returned to the protected crevasse. A little while later we tried to start out again, but again realized we had no chance to continue along the Sultana Ridge in the blizzard.
Back in the crevasse we discussed our options. We had half a canister of isobutane left, a handful of energy bars, no sleeping bags, and no tent or sleeping pads - staying long was out of the question. We spent the night sitting in the crevasse shivering hoping for the weather to improve. When in the morning it was just as bad we decided our only reasonable option was to descend via the original Northeast Ridge route, established in 1966 by a Japanese team, as it would be much less exposed to the wind than the Sultana Ridge. We had no information about it, and I don’t think it has been ascended or descended in at least a decade, although probably two or three.
Slowly we fought our way down the 1966 route. Low down the original route traverses off the rib into an extremely broken icefall, underneath seracs. We decided it would be safer to stay on the rib, and began rappelling directly down the unclimbed rock buttress instead. It was sometimes quite tricky, and included a couple completely overhanging rappels, but finally we made it down to the glacier. Once far enough away from the face that we felt relatively safe from avalanches, we stopped to melt snow once more, and then began the long post-holing session back to Kahiltna basecamp. When we finally reached basecamp we had been awake for about 71 hours, and I was hallucinating a lot. The toes that I had frostbitten during the ascent had re-warmed during the descent, and had been excruciatingly painful for most of the descent and hike back to basecamp.
My frostbite looks as though it will heal up just fine (although I might not manage tight rock shoes for a bit!), but in basecamp I could not yet put on boots, and Bjørn-Eivind retrieved our camping gear and skis from the base of the route with the help of our friend, Chris, from Colorado. The whole climb and descent felt massive, and made the Cassin feel like a small, non-commiting route by comparison. We named our route Dracula, and the numbers are: 10,400 ft., M6R, AI4+, A0. June 13-15, 2010.
Southeast Face Route Lines:
GREEN: Southeast Ridge (bottom not shown), 1963, 10,400 ft.
RED: French Ridge, 1976, 10,800 ft.
YELLOW: Infinite Spur (bottom not shown), 1977, 9,000 ft.
PINK: False Dawn, 1990, 10,400 ft.
ORANGE: Viper Ridge, 1991, 6,000 ft. (climbed only to junction with SE Ridge)
BLUE: Dracula, 2010, 10,400 ft.