Climbing Mount Foraker
by Steve Bragg
"...last year Foraker drew a total of... 13 climbers. The year before was even lonelier, when two tried Foraker... Foraker's success rate over the last decade was 34%... Foraker offers pure wilderness conditions. Climbing teams are generally isolated. Rescue on the peak is possible but unlikely. Most of the routes are steep, too, and some involve long treks just to start climbing. Foraker's most climbed route -- the Southeast Ridge -- is a killer. Two Anchorage climbers [Mick Pratt and Dan Daugherty] and two Canadians [Ian Bult and Dan Guthrie] were swept three thousand feet to their deaths three years ago on a notorious avalanche slope halfway up the ridge [at 11,000 feet]. (see the end of this story for more commentary on the accident)
Another Anchorage mountaineer, Willie Hersman, was carried three hundred feet down in a slide lower on the same route in 1983. Hersman and his partners were uninjured... Hersman returned to the Southeast Ridge the following year "with some reservations" since a week before yet another team had been avalanched off. "We landed at the base and watched for a couple of days and decided not to do it." he said."
This article appeared in the May 13, 1990 issue of the Anchorage Daily News. I'd flown to Anchorage on May 18, and was reading the article in Paul Randall's house, twenty minutes from the airport. We were going to attempt the Southeast Ridge of Foraker in a few days, and the article did not improve my estimation of our chances. I also knew that in the period from 1987 to 1989, 23 people attempted the Southeast Ridge. Five succeeded. Four died. Our expedition name was apt -- The Wienie Roasters. The name came from the popular rock climbing tee shirt designed and sold by Kinnaloa in San Diego. It read, "This ain't NO *@*@* Wienie Roast." This would indeed be no wienie roast.
Paul Randall and I had discussed climbing Foraker the previous fall, when I'd proposed that we climb Ararat in Turkey and Elbrus in the Soviet Union in a single trip in 1990. However, Paul had just moved to Alaska from Colorado, and was intent on doing an Alaskan peak. He suggested either McKinley, Foraker, or Logan. Foraker took less time to climb and I was short on vacation days, so we selected it as our target.
Mount Foraker, at 17,400 feet in altitude, is the sixth highest peak in North America. It has a north and south summit, separated by a half-mile wide plateau. The smaller, seldom climbed south summit is 16,812 feet high. The mountain stands ten miles west of Mount Hunter and is fifteen miles southeast of McKinley; it lies almost entirely within the wilderness boundaries of Denali National Park. The original Indian name for the mountain was Sultana (now the name of the easiest route up the peak), which meant "woman" or "wife" of McKinley. In 1899, Lieutenant Joseph S. Herron saw this mountain and renamed it Foraker, after Joseph B. Foraker, a senator from (and former governor of) Ohio. Senator Foraker was eventually driven from public office for accepting fees and loans from an oil company.
Paul enlisted his roommate, Bill Richards, as our third member. Bill's boyhood climbing partner, Dan McLaren, was added at the last minute as the fourth member of the expedition.
Bill Richards and Dan McLaren grew up together in the Seattle area, and had extensive climbing experience in the Pacific Northwest. They had attempted the (still) unclimbed Peak 8,900 in Alaska the previous year, spending most of their time in base camp due to bad weather. Bill was the best rock climber in the group, with a body fat percentage of 3%, and was able to climb 5.10 (on a scale of 5.1 to 5.14) routes. Bill worked for an environmental consulting firm in Anchorage. Dan had just completed a geology degree, and worked in a ski shop in Vail, Colorado. Dan was a very low key and amiable person; we knew conditions were desperate when even Dan started swearing.
Paul Randall and I had met in junior high school in Massachusetts, and had climbed together since the ninth grade. I subsequently moved to Denver, and he was posted by the Army to Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, so we continued to climb together in Colorado. Paul had left active service a year before and moved to Anchorage, where he worked for the National Guard. He had climbed 20,320 foot Mt. McKinley via the West Buttress route, two Mexican volcanoes, and 22,204 foot Mt. Huascaran in Peru.
We dredged up all of the topographical information we could find about Foraker. The average angle of ascent, from the base to the summit, was 44 degrees for 4.7 miles. A 45 degree angle is rather steep, but manageable for a climber carrying a heavy pack. A 50 degree angle appears convex to the climber and requires more balance, but can still be handled. A 60 degree angle requires the use of your hands against the side of the mountain for balance, as well as the extensive use of a short ice axe. A 70 degree angle appears to the climber to be nearly vertical, and requires front pointing (using the front points of one's crampons to dig into the snow or ice) at all times.
The weather near Foraker is execrable, with temperatures plunging to as low as -40 degrees at night. Snowfall usually comes from the south and is both frequent and deep. This spawns avalanches on many routes, and can even sweep across valley floors, killing anyone in their paths. The area had received a record snowfall that year. Given the conditions we were to encounter, I purchased a bivouac bag to improve the temperature rating of my sleeping bag, as well as super gaiters and alveolite liners for some improvement in the temperature rating of my plastic climbing boots.
Paul sent me a letter in December of 1989, in which he mentioned making arrangements with Doug Geeting Aviation to fly us into the southwest fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, next to the foot of Foraker, for $220 each, which was $20 more than the landing on the regular southeast fork, where everyone lands for McKinley trips. Geeting was also willing to rent us a CB radio for $50.
Early in 1990, Paul wrote, "I got a decent look at the Southeast Ridge while flying back from a trip to Nome and Kotzbue. In a scheduled airline, we did not get close enough to check snow and ice conditions, but I did get a good shot at the route... it looks very much within our capabilities."
Following five hours of flying from Denver and two time zone changes, I arrived in Anchorage and was met by Paul. We drove to his house to meet Bill and Dan -- and Zeppelin the cat. Zeppelin was a young cat who had not yet learned to disdain humans, and had an annoying habit of crawling around my legs. I'm extremely allergic to cats, and so spent the rest of the day either dodging Zeppelin or drop-kicking it into the bushes. Since sleeping with Zeppelin in the house was impossible, I set up Paul's expedition tent in the yard. Zeppelin immediately slipped inside, and was ejected only after a ferocious battle. Even then I couldn't sleep, since the neighborhood's husky feeding time was 10 p.m., and sounded like a wolf attack. Also, the sun didn't go down until 11 p.m. and rose again at 3 a.m., so there wasn't much darkness to help induce sleep.
We were up early the next day and loaded a remarkable amount of equipment into Paul's Toyota truck and Bill's Subaru. The gear I brought weighed 76 pounds. We drove through scenic downtown Anchorage, which is filled with trucks, unsequenced traffic lights, and taxidermy shops.
Anchorage is sandwiched between several mountain ranges and the ocean. A valley runs north away from the city. We followed this valley for 2 1/2 hours to Talkeetna over a good paved road. The area we crossed has a large Indian population. During the trip north, Paul pointed out several couches by the side of the road. Indians liked to sit there all day, drinking beer and watching cars go by.
It was Miner's Day in Talkeetna. The road was blocked by a group of bagpipers. We skirted the parade by bouncing down aside road, and parked next to a hot air balloon. We then stopped at the ranger station, where we were lectured by a morose ranger about the dangers of the Southeast Ridge. McKinley and Foraker climbers must submit individual registrations before their climb and sign in and out at the Talkeetna Ranger Station. An expedition name is also required. The alternative names we were going to submit were the Existential Rastafarians, Iliad Heroes, Screaming Headers, Inspired Cretins, Screaming Ninja Demons, and Timid Flatlanders.
We also talked to the Doug Geeting Air representative in town. After some confusion about our possibly flying into the glacier that day, we were informed that Doug Geeting was sick, and that we'd have to wait until the next day for our flight. With the afternoon to kill, we wandered down the dirt main street of Talkeetna, past the hand-lettered "Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Talkeetna" sign, watching people sledgehammer a car for dollar, drive around in Honda four wheelers or Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and get drunk. Doug Geeting was there -- looking quite healthy and playing a guitar with some friends. We took up space on a bench in front of the liquor store (a thriving establishment) and watched the unique population of Talkeetna in action. The average male Talkeetna resident is not in a hurry, sometimes shaves, and never wears a tie. The women were not especially civilized either, since one smoked cigars and another sitting next to us got outrageously drunk. Japanese and French climbers with terminal sunburns wandered around in a daze, having presumably just come back from McKinley. A friendly local offered us all a Bud from his 12-pack, while consuming the remainder in a powerful solo effort. Following dinner, we sat around our campsite, warding off mosquitoes with baseball bats. The Alaskan mosquito is the unofficial state bird, and has been known to knock over cement trucks.
On May 20, we breakfasted in Talkeetna. On the way back to the cars, Bill noticed a large husky walking by -- with a moose's leg in it's mouth! We drove a quarter mile to the Talkeetna Airport and loaded our equipment into one of Geeting's Cessna 185 airplanes. These planes are painted red, and are easy to distinguish because they're very loud. Their three-blade propellers make more noise than a traditional two-blade propeller. Paul and I climbed in with Geeting, and we took off at 11 a.m. Geeting didn't want to leave any sooner, since the snow on the southwest fork of the Kahiltna is too frozen to land on any earlier in the day.
Talkeetna is located on a flat plain from which the Alaska Range springs up and thrusts into the sky to the north. The view from the plane was spectacular. There are few places on the planet with this kind of scenery. We roared through 7,600-foot One-Shot Pass with 200 feet to spare. Foraker's Southeast Ridge appeared. I was petrified. The central section of the route was extremely steep and was overhung by a hanging glacier. A hanging glacier sits up on a peak and calves icebergs onto your head.
Geeting floated down over the southwest fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, passed by another group's camp, and set down a mile from Foraker. We threw our gear out onto the snow and Geeting took off to pick up Dan and Bill. While we waited for the return flight and marked out the runway with garbage bags and marker wands, our two neighbors walked over from the other camp. They were the Wizzo Climbs expedition, comprised of David (English) and John (Californian). Upon hearing their expedition name, I immediately launched into the Monty Python skit about not being able to tell Wizzo Butter from a dead crab. David was not pleased. They had climbed most of Mount Hunter, having been turned back from the summit by bad weather. They had then scouted a new route up the sheer south face of Foraker, and were going to try that next.
The second flight arrived an hour later. Geeting warned us to be careful. We assured him that we had no intention of dying on this trip. He said, "Yeh, that's what the six guys I took here last year said, too. I had to contact all of their wives." He jumped into the Cessna and took off, leaving us unhappily staring at each other. We thought that he meant six more people had died on the Southeast Ridge of Foraker the previous year. We later found out that all six deaths occurred on McKinley.
We dug holes at least two feet deep, within which we set up the tents. Walls went up as well, so that even the highest point on each tent was protected by a wall of snow. The winds can be vicious on the glacier, requiring such protection. Dan was a natural ditch digger, and plowed out a latrine and kitchen area after digging his tent platform.
Late in the day, a cloud shaped like a star destroyer from the Star Wars movie advanced up the southeast fork of the glacier, ponderously wheeled, motored up the southwest fork instead, and settled over our camp, obscuring the sun and abruptly dropping the temperature. This was a good example of aggressive Alaskan weather.
Wizzo Climbs had recommended that we turn our CB radio on to channel 19 at 8 p.m. for the daily weather report broadcast from the Kahiltna Base Camp, where the flying services paid a woman named Lauren to maintain their runway for McKinley climbers. We turned on our cheap Radio Shack radio at the prescribed time, but got lousy reception. The antenna appeared to be broken.
I awoke on Monday, May 21, to the sound of snow landing on the tent. It was 3 a.m. Even at that hour, we still had to get snow off the tent and see if there'd be enough visibility for climbing. I struggled into my plastic boots with a sigh. Getting up at odd hours is one aspect of expeditions that you tend to forget.
We shoveled four inches of snow off the tent. Since visibility was nonexistent, it didn't look like we'd be doing any climbing that day. I crawled back into the sleeping bag and turned on the Walkman. Reception from Anchorage, at least 100 miles away, was fairly good. The best rock stations were KWAL ("K Whale") and KGOT ("K Goat"). I drifted in and out of sleep until 9 a.m., when we crawled outside and had an oatmeal breakfast while the weather slowly cleared.
We decided to try a variation on the Southeast Ridge, which was a narrow subsidiary ridge that merged with the normal Southeast Ridge route a couple of thousand feet up. It appeared to be safer than the normal route, since it avoided a traverse across a questionable snow slope. It would take two trips to pack all our gear up the ridge, so we loaded nonessential items into our packs (fixed rope, fuel, and food) and left camp at 10:40 a.m. The temperature was 25 degrees.
Our base camp was situated one mile from the bottom of the route, at an altitude of 6,500 feet. We linked up into two rope teams and walked across the glacier on snowshoes through clearing mist, wanding our path in case there was a sudden white-out on the return trip. The ridge before us sprang suddenly from the glacier and ascended rapidly on a narrow, corniced ridge for two miles to a junction with the steep, avalanche-swept portion of the route.
Paul led up a steep snow slope at the base of the ridge. Dan was last and heaviest, and waded through thigh-deep snow that the rest of us could walk on without breaking through the surface crust. The snow was deep and steep, and melted as the sun rose into the sky, warming the ridge. We paused continually to stare at the magnificent French Ridge to the west. It had been climbed by a French expedition that used 24,000 feet of fixed rope to ascend the breathtakingly narrow ridge to the top of Foraker.
After several hours, a high rocky gendarme (rock pillar) barred the route. I led around the left side of the gendarme without a rope, balancing on slippery frozen mud. I pushed the route another fifty yards past an outcropping and up to a notch, from which there was a view of a large avalanche slope made of bottomless, coarse granular snow that we would have to cross. The slope below my position was equally unpromising; a slip on my part would mean a thousand-foot slide to the floor of the glacier, possibly setting off an avalanche along the way. I was unhappy. Dan brought over a rope and piton anchor for me to tie into, followed by Paul, who pushed my lead out a short distance into the avalanche slope. He returned with news that there was clear avalanche danger ahead.
Dan moved back to a safer location while Paul attempted an unconsolidated ramp leading up to the gendarme. That route let to an unacceptably tenuous position near the top of the gendarme. Having exhausted all possible routes up the ridge, we descended to a safe spot and decided that this ridge was too dangerous to follow any further. Dan's altimeter read only 7,600 feet. We hiked miserably back to base camp. Our climb had only gone 1,100 vertical feet, and had required seven hours to do so. We crossed the path of Wizzo Climbs on the glacier floor. They were off to try the south face of Foraker.
We had a discussion over dinner about just how desperately we wanted to climb Foraker. We had all climbed dangerous peaks, but Foraker was special. It was dangerous, it was steep, and it was big. If we climbed it, we would look back on it as the most difficult ascent of our lives. However, the central third of the peak was simply too dangerous. If it were just steep, we would have been eager to go after it. However, the climb seemed more like an elaborate form of suicide than a heroic ascent, with the overhanging glacier continually dropping massive chunks of ice down the route. Our heart had been taken out of the climb by the problems on what had appeared to be an easy subsidiary ridge. We decided to attempt the main Southeast Ridge route, avoiding our disastrous variation of today. This new route required a move of the entire camp a mile down the glacier, from which we would be in a good position to make a rapid exploratory ascent of the route.
Actually, I think we had written Foraker off already, and were making this last attempt just to say that we had tried all possible routes on the Southeast Ridge. I was already thinking about an ascent of 12,800 foot Mouont Crosson, some four or five miles down the glacier; it had a classic pyramid shape, with a ridge running straight from the glacier floor to the summit at a 45-degree angle.
During the 8 p.m. radio call, I had an inspiration and plugged the headphones from my Walkman into the antenna jack of the CB. It worked fine, and Lauren at Kahiltna Base could hear us "loud and clear."
On Tuesday, May 22, we woke to a temperature of 8 degrees. It took several hours to break camp and load our equipment onto sleds. We moved in bright light to the base of the Southeast Ridge. On our way, two Chinook Army helicopters circled the glacier, one landing near our old camp. They appeared to be practicing landings. The glacier crossing was beautiful, with Mount Hunter rising up directly in front of us, and McKinley blocking the horizon far down at the other end of the glacier.
After the one mile march, we arrived at our new campsite. The snow was like cement, and was very hot work to dig through. Having some time available, we built an elaborate complex, including massive snow walls, a kitchen, and a latrine. After taking a break to cool off in the tents, we roped up again and wanded a route to the base of the ridge. Then, anticipating a trip to the base of Mount Crosson within a few days, we also wanded a route around the ridge and through a short crevasse field that would have to be traversed to reach the foot of Crosson. Retiring to our camp for a huge evening meal, we examined McKinley in the distance and could see the cattle path used on the West Buttress route to go from the camp at 14,200 feet to the ridge camp at 17,200 feet.
Our mood in camp was not good, with everyone gloomy about our prospects on Foraker. One way to assuage the problem was to drink from our bottle of "medicine." Everyone had a coughing fit after dinner, necessitating a slug of Yukon Jack to alleviate the condition. I was also dreading the thought of a sticky night in the sleeping bag, since I was covered with sweat from the last two days, and was destined to wear the same pair of underwear for the entire trip. It was time for a snow shower. Hunkering down behind the latrine's privacy wall, I stripped down and rubbed snow into the sweat accumulation spots, such as the elbows, knees, and face. I dried off with a few precious sheets of toilet paper.
The 8 p.m. radio call was typically entertaining. Here is an example of what we heard:
"This is Lauren at Kahiltna Base with tomorrow's weather report. We're expecting light snow and warmer temperatures with no wind. Kahiltna Base is clear."
"Hallo, hallo. Tomorrow we go top. We go top!"
"What? Hello, this is Kahiltna Base. Who are you and where are you calling from?"
"We German expedition. We at 17,000. Tomorrow we go top!"
"Well that's nice. Have a good day. Kahiltna Base is clear."
"This is Wizzo Climbs calling Kahiltna Base, Wizzo Climbs calling Kahiltna Base, come in, please."
"This is Kahiltna Base, Wizzo. Over."
"We are at 10,800 feet on the South Face of Foraker, with seven days of food and ten days of fuel. Over."
"Good, take care of yourselves. Kahiltna Base is clear."
"Wizzo is clear."
"This is Genet Swanson at 14,800 feet on the West Rib. The weather is still poor up here, looks like we'll be staying in camp tomorrow."
[The Genet Expeditions organization had several expeditions climbing McKinley at once, so each one used the name of its expedition leader to differentiate its call sign from the other Genet groups]
"Kahiltna Base, this is Genet Schroeder. We are sending down two Germans from the West Buttress. One has frostbite. They are at 11,000 feet."
"Genet Schroeder, this is Kahiltna Base. Do they require assistance?"
"Negative Kahiltna, they do not require assistance. Genet Schroeder is clear."
"Kahiltna Base is clear."
"Kalhiltna Base, this is the Fantasy Ridge expedition at 14,800 feet on the West Rib. We have set up camp in a bergschrund. The situation looks good. Over."
"I read you, Fantasy Ridge. Good luck. Kahiltna Base is clear."
"Kahiltna Base, this is Genet Seagal at the 17,200 camp on the West Buttress. Can you call KWAL and have them play some Rolling Stones? Over."
"I [garbled transmission] have the phone number [garbled transmission]. Kahiltna Base is clear."
"Genet Seagal is clear."
A K2 plane buzzed overhead on the way to our original landing spot, apparently dropping off another Foraker Southeast Ridge climbing group.
I was awakened late in the night by the sound of a chain saw. It was Dan snoring. I pitied his tent mate Bill, who didn't sleep the entire night, and looked like a vagrant by morning.
On Wednesday, May 23, we got up at 6 a.m. The temperature was eleven degrees. We packed quickly and cruised up the wide, scree-covered ridge from 6,500 feet to 8,300 feet in two hours, finishing next to the area swept by the hanging glacier. We had followed two sets of footprints coming down the ridge. Perhaps someone had managed to successfully complete the route (we later learned that a two-person team had ascended via the steep Pink Panther route and descended the Southeast Ridge).
There wasn't much talk about pushing the route any further. The climb turned into a picture-taking session instead, as we posed for each other with McKinley and Hunter as backdrops. Looking down on our camp from above, we realized that it was built over a very large crevasse! We dropped down off the ridge in one hour, avoiding a long line of cornices to one side of the route. Back in camp, we slept through the afternoon in our tents. The heat was terrific, easily over eighty degrees, and we sweltered while lying on top of our expedition sleeping bags.
The evening radio report forecasted light winds and partly cloudy skies the next day. We talked to the Wizzo Climbs expedition on the South Face of Foraker. They wanted us to try the Southeast Ridge anyway, since they planned to descend by that route. If we fixed our 1,200 feet of rope on the route, they'd have a much easier time getting down. We begged off, and told them we'd be going around the corner of Foraker and would be out of range of their CB the next day.
On Thursday, May 24, we awoke to cloudy skies and a temperature of 23 degrees. After breaking camp, we loaded the sleds and set out across the glacier in flat light conditions. Flat light is dangerous on a glacier, because you can't see crevasses until you're on top of them. The traverse was easy, on flat, hard snow. The Sultana Route of Foraker unfolded to our left as we circled around Foraker and approached the base of the Southeast Ridge of Mount Crosson. The Sultana Route goes up Crosson and along an undulating ridge to the back side of Foraker. It is considered the easiest way to climb Foraker, but it is very long.
It took two hours to move about four miles down the glacier. We could see a swarm of tents on the other side of the glacier where the Kahiltna Base Camp was located. An extraordinary number of airplanes buzzed in and out of the base all day long.
We stopped at our new campsite, a quarter mile from our route on Crosson. Again the snow was quite hard, but we managed to have the camp dug out by 12:30 in the afternoon, followed by naps in our hot tents. There was a constant stream of avalanches rumbling down the right and left sides of Crosson. We had gotten used to the mutter of avalanches falling from the heights, but still looked around for the source of the noise. Our prospective route appeared to be free of avalanches.
I awoke to a thoroughly miserable Friday morning, and had no desire to leave my warm sleeping bag. The temperature was twenty degrees, and a chill breeze rustled the walls of the tent. I have rarely had less desire to climb a peak. After a wretched breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate, we strapped on heavy packs. Since the lower slopes of Crosson melted in the afternoon and could avalanche, we had decided to carry some equipment up to an intermediary camp and stay there through the afternoon, rather than risk coming down the avalanche slope.
Paul led through a short crevasse field to the base of Crosson. Here the going was much steeper, going up at a fifty-degree angle. Paul immediately crashed through thin cover into a small bergschrund and hung on the edge of it, legs waving, shouting for tension on the rope. I hadn't noticed him falling into anything, though it did seem odd that only his upper body was visible. I quite improperly gave him no tension at all, so he rolled off the edge of the bergschrund on his own.
The snow above the bergschrund was of the worst kind, with a thin layer of crust that barely held a climber's weight, and frequently did not, sending one of us crashing through to the waist. Dan was again both heaviest and last, so he spent most of his time wading through the snow. At one point Paul simply could not lead any further, since the crust cracked every time he tried to put some weight on it. Also, the slope appeared to be in imminent danger of sliding out from under us. Bill, leading on the other rope, led off to the left side in search of safer snow, and broke trail over to the Southeast Ridge line.
We scrambled up very loose scree to the prospective camp site about 1,400 vertical feet above the glacier. I dug a hole into which we put our sleeping bags, three days of food, sleeping pads, a tent, fuel, and a stove. With our packs thus lightened, we continued on through lousy snow conditions. We instituted a leader switching system where Paul would lead first (leading being the hardest work, since you have to break trail), followed by me, Bill, and then Dan. We stopped for a break at the "fickle finger of fate," a rocky outcropping on the ridge from which the view of the glacierbordered on spiritual. McKinley loomed up on one side, Foraker bulked high on the other side, and Hunter squated down across the southern end of the glacier. Paul started suddenly and pointed at a flock of huge snow geese sweeping past, not a hundred yards away, which flew towards Foraker and then disappeared. If only we had wings.
The angle steepened and the snow became firmer. We strapped on crampons and continued. Dan was on lead when we came to the first of three "headwalls." These were at about a sixty degree angle. He front pointed straight up the first two headwalls, driving his hands into the snow for support. Afterwards, the route angled back down to the usual 45-50 degrees, and continued on interminably. It was Bill's turn on lead when we reached the last headwall. Just like Dan, he powered straight up the face and over the top.
Shortly after that, Dan grunted and rolled forward quickly; he had started to plunge through the crust into a crevasse, and reacted quickly enough to avoid a fall. The whole route was laced with crevasses, mostly of the smaller one-foot-wide variety. However, one crevasse was larger than that -- not enormous, but just wide enough to make us think about turning around rather than risking a jump across it. Dan was leading at the time and could not find a way across the fissure. Paul spotted a tenuous crossing point that might collapse. He edged out as far as he could and then leaped across the gap. He hit the far side and scrambled away from the edge. We all made the crossing in turn.
Paul continued leading up towards the summit. We were all getting very tired, and needed a good strong lead effort by Paul to get us as close to the top as possible. He came through with a very impressive trudge through deep snow and several small crevasses. I was deeply impressed and promised him a beer at the Fairview Hotel in Talkeetna (it turned out to be a whole pitcher). Paul finally had to stop for a rest. It was Bill's turn to lead, but I was feeling good after watching Paul's gut-wrenching performance and elected to push it on lead all the way to the summit.
For the first half of my lead I felt very strong and climbed too fast. This pissed off Paul, still tired from his lead, since I pulled him off balance with the rope as I churned up the slope. However, the initial enthusiasm turned to a dull, grinding need to keep moving, no matter how slow, as the combined effects of high winds, cold weather, and six thousand vertical feet of climbing through lousy snow conditions began to wear me down.
The most physically difficult climb I have ever been on was a 22 hour, 26 mile, 9,000 vertical foot ascent of Mt. Rainier in a storm (with Paul, as usual). Leading to the summit of Crosson was not as far or as high, but was nonetheless a soul shattering experience. The climb was not technical, but we were edging up the edge of the peak to avoid a vicious wind, and consequently I broke trail through sometimes knee deep powder that had accumulated on the lee slope. Crevasses were a continuing, though fairly obvious, danger. Each person was completely alone. With a howling wind and Paul 70 feet away at the other end of the rope, it was impossible to talk.
The slope suddenly flattened and I found myself on a wide featureless plateau. The summit! Paul staggered up and we hugged each other, whether in triumph or because we were holding each other up, I wasn't sure. Damn, it felt good not to be climbing anymore! The wind was howling around us and kicking up a mist of snow particles at knee level. It was very cold. Bill and Dan came up, all smiles, and whipped out their cameras for an orgy of picture taking. I will continue to climb for many years, but may never again see such a beautiful view, surrounded by massive peaks in clear weather after a tough climb with good friends.
Mount Crosson is the beginning of the Sultana Route, which winds up the backside of Foraker. The route drops a thousand feet off the other side of Crosson and then traverses a high, narrow, and very corniced ridge for several miles before ascending a forty-five degree angle up the final snow slopes of Foraker.
I was exhausted on the descent, and couldn't feel my fingers until we dropped a thousand feet and were beyond the jet stream winds surrounding the summit. The temperature increased as we approached the headwalls, which we descended by facing into the slope. The weather was still extraordinarily clear, and we snapped innumerable photos on the way down. The large crevasse was easily jumped over on the descent, since we could get a running start before leaping.
As we approached the site of our camp for the evening, we noticed three people far below, traveling towards the foot of Crosson from the Kahiltna Base Camp on skis. We might have visitors the next day.
We arrived at the cache of equipment we'd left hours before, and plunked down on the rocks of the ridge, devoid of energy. We had ascended 6,000 vertical feet and descended 4,400 feet in twelve hours. We were nearly out of water, so Paul melted snow on a stove while everyone else built a tent platform out of the snow and sorted through our equipment.
Our site was phenomenal; 1,600 feet above the glacier on a narrow ridge, with Foraker on one side, McKinley on the other, and Hunter across the glacier from us. I have never camped in a more beautiful setting. Stunned by the view, we sat quietly, eating freeze dried lasagna and snacks as the sun set on a cloudless sky.
That night, the four of us were stacked into the three person tent head to foot, but the overcrowding didn't matter. We were much too tired to care. Sometimes during the night I straightened out my legs and banged into Dan's head. He was too far gone to notice.
We arose at 5 a.m. on Satrurday, May 25. The temperature was 25 degrees. The group down on the glacier proved to be Germans who passed by the tent at 3:30 a.m. Paul got up to talk to them. They weren't too happy about the snow conditions. We broke camp and moved out at 6:30 a.m. The weather had clouded over during the night, so we descended in flat light conditions, wondering if the weather would allow us to fly out that day. The footing was typically crappy, involving some plunge stepping. Bill led most of the way down, and cut loose some choice expletives while struggling through the more insane sections.
Near the bottom of the descent, I slipped and shot down an icy slope for a few yards before self arresting just above the berschrund. Even if I'd kept going, the berschrund was covered with snow, and might have allowed me to slide right over it.
We hiked back to camp through increasingly cloudy conditions and packed the equipment we had left there. We spotted some dots high on Crosson that might have been the Germans. The weather high on Crosson looked poor. They were probably not enjoying themselves. Leaving at 9 a.m., we traversed to the Germans' ski tracks and followed them back across the glacier. From above we had seen the day before that the Germans had found a very straight path across the glacier, and it made sense to follow their route back to the Kahiltna Base Camp.
The glacier bulged up perhaps 150 feet near its middle. We toiled up the hump and then walked downhill toward the far side of the glacier. A sparrow followed us and scooted under the protection of our sleds during rest stops. Our sleds proved to be cantankerous on a down slope, sweeping to either side of us or up our heels. Sled towing turned into a climber versus sled game. The sled would creep up directly behind me and then suddenly shoot out in an unexpected direction, tangling the hauling ropes between my legs. After some bitching and fumbling, I'd straighten out the mess and the sled would promptly slide off in another direction. Also, whoever was at the front of each rope team had to deal with his rope being trapped under the sled, which created additional friction and meant more pulling to move the sled.
We merged with the main trail from the West Buttress route on McKinley. This is a wide cattle path, used by about 1,000 climbers per year. During the week we were on the glacier, 391 climbers were on the West Buttress route. An additional 49 climbers were on the Cassin route, five were on the Muldrow route on the far side of McKinley, and 50 more were attempting the West Rib route.
We followed this path a half-mile to a sharp left turn that led to the infamous Heartbreak Hill. This was a steep hill you had to climb to reach Kahiltna Base Camp, which lies at its top. We determined that a group of climbers coming down Heartbreak Hill were rookies, because they were not yet tanned black, wore too many clothes, had no beards, and had piled their sleds too high with too much equipment.
We paused at the bottom of the hill for a breather so we could make a powerful, triumphant finish in front of the other climbers already staying at the camp. We slogged uphill past a latrine and into the main camp, which was a warren of abandoned tent shelters and flag-marked equipment caches. Some forty bored climbers watched us hike in to the finish line next to a small snow-packed airstrip. We left our equipment in a heap and walked over to a large Genet tent at the rear of the compound to meet Lauren, who proved to be amiable and chubby, with thick glasses. She was not a very good camp administrator, since she preferred to talk to climbers instead of organizing groups for their flights out, which was her job. However, the bush pilots only paid her $100 a week, so her lack of enthusiasm was understandable.
We were in for a long stay. Geeting's backup pilot was visiting a sick relative and his spare plane had blown a cylinder, so he was reduced to flying in an average of once every two hours. While waiting, we were entertained by other arrivals, including a vast throng of Rainier Mountaineering people who straggled in and collapsed on the snow. There was also a boisterous Bulgarian who bragged so much that at first we thought he was French. He had just climbed a new variation on the West Buttress route, up vertical ice and rock, and had broken two ice axes during the ascent. We later met his more amiable partner in the bar of the Fairview Hotel. Also, a very pretty young woman flew in. It would not have been unusual to see her anywhere else, but the Base Camp was entirely male. Furthermore, these men had been out climbing for weeks, looked like derelicts and smelled worse, and hadn't seen anything remotely female during the entire time. She was surrounded by an awed, respectful silence wherever she went.
Paul and I flew out after a seven hour wait in murderously hot conditions. Bill and Dan decided to be polite and wait for the next flight, which wasn't for an additional two hours. Geeting was flying very overloaded flights, since he was trying to get everyone out in the fewest number of trips. I ended up crouched in the tail section of his Cessna with one cheek squished against the window and two duffel bags in my lap. The plane roared down the hill, bounced into the air a few times, and then reluctantly rose skyward as we ran out of runway. We had a rather bumpy flight out, but the still-spectacular views made up for the occasional air pocket.
Back in Talkeetna, we jumped out of the plane with one thought on our minds -- get out of that smelly underwear! I crouched down next to Paul's truck in the middle of the parking lot and pealed off my rancid expedition-weight long johns, which contained a strong accumulated odor from nine days of activity.
With our priorities firmly in order, we drove straight to the Talkeetna liquor store and purchased a twelve-pack of beer. We then walked to the ranger station to sign out. The ranger was singularly unimpressed with our Crosson ascent. We then drove to a tourist outlook of the Alaska Range, and finally pottered about the back roads of Talkeetna, waiting for Bill and Dan to fly in.
We met "The Iceman" at the Talkeetna Airport. This climber should have won an award for unique equipment. Geeting's assistant estimated that he had between 300 and 400 pounds of equipment for a solo ascent. He had no crampons, wore a plastic green raincoat instead of a parka, toted a massive homemade backpack with GM seat belts for shoulder straps, and carried seven gallons of ice, in case there was not enough water on the glacier to melt for drinking water.
Bill and Dan finally arrived at 8 p.m. Paul and I had cleaned up a bit, and were surprised by the smell when they climbed out of the plane. We handed them cold beers the moment they stepped onto the tarmac, for which they promised to mention us in their wills. Our remaining food bags had not made it onto the last flight, so Paul arranged to drive back to Talkeetna during a later trip to pick them up.
We drove to the Fairview Hotel for a few pitchers of beer. Several other climbers were at the bar, looking stunned and confused at their return to civilization. Several climbers took advantage of the three dollar shower at the hotel. The spirit of Talkeetna manifested itself when one of the locals gave us a free plate of freshly caught and cooked trout. You may not want to live in Talkeetna, but it's a great place to return to after an expedition.
Additional comments on 1987 Foraker avalanche deaths
["For (some) reason I ended up on your web page. I was looking for climbing accidents on Mt. Foraker. Specifically, a distant climbing accident on that mountain in May of 1987. The first article to come up from the search was yours. In it you mention two climbers that were swept away to their deaths in a 3000' avalanche.
One of the climbers was my climbing partner Mickey Pratt. We both climbed McKinley two years prior in a late winter ascent. We were close friends and I miss him dearly. Mickey asked me to climb Foraker with him but I declined with the excuse (that) I had a commitment, but privately I knew the dangers of that mountain and that this would be his last climb. They never found the bodies of any one of the four killed that day. As you know the immensity of that Mountain Range, and chances are minimal for any recovery. The ironic thing about your story is that you write about the date you landed in Anchorage, May 18th. That is around the date I believe Mickey died. No one knows the exact date, the avalanche was not witnessed. I just wanted to thank you for that article. Very little was ever written about Mickey’s death and/ or any fatalities on that Mountain. Unfortunately too much is written about the new breed of mountaineering accidents as a result of “buying your way onto the mountain”. Thanks again, Dave Louch"]