New Hampsherites Climb Wild Alaskan Wall

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CLICK HERE to download a 1200 pixel version of this image. The steep South Face of the Fin on the southwest side of Mt. Foraker (17,400 feet), guarded by a committing six-mile approach. The Fin (ca. 13,300 feet) is the right-hand summit of the twin peaks in the center.Photo courtesy of Freddie Wilkinson.

New Hampsherites Climb Wild Alaskan Wall

Peter Doucette, Ben Gilmore, and Freddie Wilkinson have climbed a steep new route up the 4,000-foot South Face of the Fin, a 13,300-foot subpeak on the wild and remote southwest side of Alaska’s Mt. Foraker.

The trio flew to the Yentna Glacier on April 20 and skied into Denali National Park’s wilderness zone to establish a base camp. To warm up, they climbed two new routes (and possibly made the first ascent of two peaks) above the north fork of the Yentna. “Both were about 3,500 feet, featuring mainly steep snow and névé climbing to 70 degrees, with short mixed cruxes to M5,” Wilkinson said in an email. “Point 8,900 we christened Rogue Peak—Peter and I climbed it via the Northeast Face (3,500 feet, M5). In the Mantok Group, we climbed Point 9,300 via a thin, east-facing couloir we named The All Talk Couloir (3,500 feet, M5).

Next up was the main attraction, the Fin’s South Face, which likely has never been attempted. The Fin itself may only have been climbed once, as part of the amazing 1977 first ascent of Mt. Foraker’s Southwest Ridge by Nancey Goforth, Erik LeRoy, Chris Liddle, and Murray Marvin, a climb that took 36 days, plus 10 days to descend.

Wilkinson said of the South Face: “It is impossible to separate the route from the approach and descent. The face is guarded by a complex 3,000-foot, six-mile glacier featuring a burly icefall. To circumnavigate it, we traversed slopes to the north of the icefall, which were objectively safe but would become highly avalanche-prone in bad weather. Above the icefall, one must run the gauntlet for a couple of miles past seracs to reach the schrund, which is the only truly safe camp on the approach.”

Ben Gilmore leads one of the crux chimney pitches on the South Face of the Fin.Photo courtesy of Freddie Wilkinson.

New Hampsherites Climb Wild Alaskan Wall

On May 3, the trio did this approach in about seven hours, carrying skis past the icefall and then skinning as high as they could before sprinting under a serac to reach the schrund. The next day, they left their bivy gear in a snow cave at the schrund at 6 a.m. and climbed the face to the summit ridge in 15 hours, linking snow couloirs and traverses with occasional steep mixed pitches. The crux was a sustained, vertical mixed chimney that Gilmore led in three pitches. With clouds building, they stopped to brew up and watch the weather at 9 p.m. on the summit ridge, at about 12,900 feet. “There is no walk-off on the Fin; we knew we were committed to rapping the entire face and then reversing the approach,” Wilkinson said. “The summit appeared to be two hours of semi- technical ridge climbing away. At 11 p.m., the weather hadn't improved and we made the decision to call our climb a modern ascent and begin the rappels. We reached our cave at 8 a.m., after 20-plus rappels and 26 hours on the go.”

The team slept for a couple of hours and then raced away from the dangerous face in snow squalls, reaching base camp at 11 p.m. on May 5. By noon on May 6, two new feet of snow had fallen. They called the route simply The Fin Wall (Alaska Grade 6, NEI 5+ mixed).

Much of the appeal of the expedition was the extreme remoteness of this corner of Denali National Park. “We were carrying no communication with us on the route—we had a VHF aviation radio at base camp, but no sat phone or reliable communication at all,” Wilkinson said. “In 20 days, we only saw a single plane. I was originally drawn to the Fin because it combines classic steep alpine mixed ground with a true wilderness experience. If there’s a future to Alaskan climbing, it’s by combining ‘new school’ steep technical terrain like that found on the North Buttress of Hunter or the South Face of Denali with ‘old school’ multiday approaches and descents to reach locales that are inaccessible to planes.”

The expedition was funded in part by a Mugs Stump Climbing Award.

Dates of Ascent: May 3-5 (The Fin)

Sources: Freddie Wilkinson, High Alaska.

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