Conquering an Alaskan giant
Special to the Sun
Walking into the Forest Service office in Talketna Alaska the numbers spoke clear, 1105 climbers were registered to climb on Denali in 2009, the highest peak in North America, and only 17 climbers were registered to climb on Mt. Foraker, the second highest peak in the range at 17,400 feet. No surprise considering the success rate on Foraker is much lower and that there is no easy route to the summit. So why would someone consider skiing Mt. Foraker? Well because it has snow. And mountains with snow need to be skied.
On May 21 I boarded a plane for Alaska, where I would meet Fred Marmsater, Courtney Phillips and Andrew McLean. If all went as planned we would have 19 days to climb and ski Mt. Foraker. Talketna is the stepping-off town for the Alaska Range and is where we had to convince bush pilot Paul Rodderick to fly us over the Sultana ridge on Foraker so we could see what our proposed route looked like.
Paul was keen on a fly-by, and an hour and a half later we were standing on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna glacier staring at Mt. Foraker and the 4-mile ridge that connects it to Mt. Crosson. One reason Foraker sees such little traffic is its difficult ridge to Crosson that must be crossed to descend. Climbers could easily get stuck on the ridge for days if the pressure dropped and weather turned bad.
After loading our gear into the sleds we would haul across the Kahiltna glacier to the base of Mt. Crosson. We said goodbye to the park rangers, the last people we would talk to for the next 19 days. Since our base camp would be only 2 miles from the glacial airstrip where we landed, we decided to bring a massive amount of food in case the weather gave us a proper Alaskan lashing. Bacon, sausage, popcorn scrabble and even a handle of Scotch bulged out of sleds.
Arriving at the base of Crosson, we were excited to get moving and see how the route would actually climb. After our first night at base and#8212; hardly night since the sun barely dipped below the skyline and#8212; we woke up and decided to see how far we could make it up the 5,800-foot climb to the top of Crosson.
Five hours straight up and we were reminded that the scale in the Alaska Range is hard to comprehend; everything in Alaska is large!
Sitting in camp gazing at the turns we had just made on Crosson better helped us decide on an attack plan to ski from the summit of Foraker. Our route would take us 5,800 feet up Crosson, then descend 2,000 feet to the 4-mile traverse to reach the base of Foraker, where we would have to climb another 5,400 feet to the summit. We thought four days would be enough.
That night low pressure was moving in, according to the park rangers’ report, which meant we were looking at some tent time. Knowing this, we decided to haul food and fuel up Crosson to bury in the snow; we would then return to base and wait off the storm.
The next nine days allowed me to catch up on sleep and reading, and play lots of scrabble. Each night at 8 we would gather around our radio to listen to the Denali weather report with hope that the low-pressure system would move out, giving us the weather needed to climb.
After eight days the weather forecast reported that we should get three to four days of good weather. Yes! Finally our waiting was about to pay off. In the morning we would start up Crosson and head toward Foraker.
Snow from the storm had plastered the slope and made the climbing challenging and#8212; deep and slow. But we were headed up and new snow would hopefully help higher on the mountain. Spending the night on Crosson allowed us a good view of Denali and Foraker. The 4-mile ridge to Foraker looked to be in good shape and got all of us excited for the climb ahead.
Traversing the ridge between Crosson and Foraker was fun and full contact! It was really broken; the terrain looked liked a puzzle that was not quite put together. Full of crevasses, it dropped away for 11,000 feet to the west and 6,000 feet to the east. It was straight forward but exciting and#8212; the kind of challenge that climbers like. About a quarter of a mile from the Sultana ridge, our route on Foraker, we dug a camp into the ridgeline.
We set up camp, hydrated and ate. Five hours later as the sun began its slow descent below horizon, we strapped on our crampons and began the climb up the Sultana Ridge, aiming for the summit. The 5,400 feet of crevasse-riddled slopes kept all of us focused. With each step we were gaining elevation and losing oxygen. Although Foraker is only 17,400 feet high, we all felt the lack of the energizing oxygen that keeps you moving.
Cresting the plateau and heading for the summit, I could tell we were all feeling it. The elevation, long day, new snow and tricky terrain was wearing us down. Seeing the summit allowed me to relax a bit, knowing it was almost time to ski down. I also realized that clouds were moving in and the wind was picking up. We didn’t have much time before the weather would get bad.
Clicking into my skis helped me breath easier, but it also made me realize what was about to happen. There was a reason no one had skied what we were about to. With the conditions being and#8220;goodand#8221; and the group feeling ready, we pushed off with caution.
Skiing down a mountain like Foraker is different from skiing at a local resort. Although the motion is the same, your concentration and focus are greater. The slope was not too steep, but we skied it slower than we would have if we were at Squaw. Falling would have been fatal.
One great component to ski mountaineering is that even at a slow, controlled pace, you descend quickly. Each turn down allowed me to breathe easier and feel better. The crevasses that presented problems on the way up seemed harmless skiing down. The firm snow up high softened down lower, and pretty soon the skiing was actually enjoyable. Looking around at the massive relief, thousands of feet down to the glaciers and the size of Denali at 20,320 feet, was amazing. By this time winds and clouds were chasing us off the mountain.
We all wanted to scream in excitement as we approached the high camp, but we knew we still had to cross the ridge and ski down Crosson. Plus, we were all wiped out from 12 hours of climbing. Only when we were back at the airstrip would I relax and revel in the accomplishment.
Back at high camp, wasted, the winds really picked up. The storm was on us; the clouds and the winds began to flex muscles. All we wanted was to eat and sleep for a while before we began the climb across the ridge. Instead the next hour was spent securing camp so we wouldn’t blow off the ridge.
When you set out on a climb like this, you know that you will go through times of suffering and questioning. Why am I doing this? But you also know that before too long, you will be back at base dreaming about the next adventure and laughing about your struggles.
Crossing the ridge and skiing down Crosson went quickly. Up high the skiing was great but deteriorated fast. And with 3,000 feet to the glacier, things got sketchy again. What was snow on the way up had melted out to some ice and dirt. Our camp stared up at us, and we begged to be there. Slowly and cautiously we crafted each turn perfectly so we would not to fall.
Finally at base camp, we finished our scotch and cheered to the mountain that had let us survive. In the morning we would had back to the airstrip and fly to Talketna. The Alaska Range is very accessible for climbers and sightseers. I would recommend it to anyone; it is an easy way to see some of the grandest mountains in the world.
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