Fin Wall Mount Foraker, Alaska
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Once upon a time, in the forties, fifties, and sixties, way back in the dark ages of alpinism before modern ice climbing had even been invented, Alaskan climbing was all about gnarly glacier travel. Go ahead, take a look at Waterman’s High Alaska: those old-timers knew how to get through some heinous looking terrain….
These were my thoughts as I orbited high above the Yentna Glacier on a bright spring day in May, 2006. I was staring one of the Alaska Range’s best kept secrets, the 4,000 foot South Face of the Fin, right in the face. The Fin is technically a sub-summit of Mount Foraker; it’s only recorded ascent was part of the epic first ascent of Foraker’s massive Southwest Buttress – an old school route if ever there was one. The South Face had terrain vaguely reminiscent of the ultra-classic North Buttress of Hunter or South Face of Denali, except it was arrayed in a tight, inhospitable concave cirque. But it wasn’t the wall that really worried me, it was the approach: a virtually impenetrable icefall blocked the flow of the Yentna glacier five miles below the wall. Between the icefall and the wall, the valley was threatened by countless hanging seracs and avalanche slopes. The place made other notoriously scary Alaska glaciers I had visited – The N.E. fork of the Kahilta and the East Fork of the Tokositna – seem benign in comparison. Taken altogether, the Fin was a challenge like none I had seen, combining new-school technical terrain with an old school, balls-to-the-wall glacier approach and descent, in a true wilderness setting. I seriously doubted if it was possible to even reach the start of the climbing. But it was precisely that kind of uncertainty that captivated me. I had to give it a try.
Over the next few days we watched the icefall and the wall, while further exploring the area by making two first ascents on peaks surrounding basecamp. Peter and I first went for a warm-up climb on the Northeast face Peak 8,900, located a short distance from BC. The 3,500 foot face was mainly steep snow, with a couple short mixed pitches that went at M5. It seems that we were likely the first party to ever summit this peak, and this being Pete’s first Alaskan climb, he got the honors of naming it “Rogue Peak”. Descending down a long snow gully to the south, Pete triggered a memorable windslab avalanche (In general we found the snow pack on the Yentna to be thinner and more unstable than elsewhere in the range – more continental than maritime). Two days later, Ben was feeling better and so we decided to go investigate the alluring, Himalayan looking ridge at the head of the Northwest fork of the Yentna, for a final tune-up. We had taken to calling this stunning, multi-summited ridge “the MANtok Group”. At dawn on a perfect Alaskan morning we soloed up a thin, winding couloir that stretched down the east prow of the Mantoks’ northern summit. We climbed ninety percent of the route unroped, only belaying for two or three pitches of mixed climbing (again, M5).
Feeling acclimatized to the area and ready, we packing for the main event. Our plan was to run the gauntlet past the icefall early in the morning, bivy as close to the wall as we safely could, and then try to tackle the climb to the summit of the Fin the next day. It was hard to know exactly what we would find, scoping the climb from eight miles away. But it was clear that the upper Yentna would not be a safe place during a storm: we knew once we were past the ice fall we were committed.
Twice we woke up at 3 AM, only to call it off because the weather looked unstable. Finally, we were greeted by clear, cold stars. We skied through the lower icefall to gain those slopes to the west, than took off our skis and carried them up a 40 degree snow couloir (heavy packs!), traversed over some cliff bands before dropping back down to the glacier. We had circumvented the icefall. Skis and skins back on, we moved towards the face, generally trying to eye-ball a line in the middle of the glacier, as safe from serac fall as possible. We stopped to discuss our options about a mile before the wall, but didn’t feel quite good enough about the spot to pitch camp. Ahead, the enormous serac that forms the lower right side of the face loomed threateningly. It was off to the races: our only choice was to sprint past this objective hazard and find a bivy at the base of the wall. With Peter in the lead, we put our heads down and moved at a purposefully pace, not quite a sprint. After a hasty stop to cash our skis, we post-holed directly under the serac, moving up and left to gain elevation and get above the deposition zone as quickly as possible. Finally, at the very bershrund, we stopped and caught our breath. For the first time since we past the ice fall I felt totally safe from objective danger. We scouted for the best spot to install our bivy, finally deciding to pitch our tent about a hundred meters above the schrund under a steep rock wall. We were resting in our sleeping bags by 2 PM.
The weather grew more unstable as the afternoon progressed. It was your classic Alaskan snow squall – not very thick cloud coverage; just the faint whispering of snow flakes on the tent fabric. Unfortunately, the precipitation was enough for the wall to start shedding, and the concave nature of the face above us began to serve up some impressive spindrift. By 4 PM Pete and I were outside, shoveling constantly to keep the tent from being pushed off the mountain. I decided to begin work on a more solid shelter. Wet and tired, we moved into our new cave accommodations by 8 PM. So much for a peaceful afternoon of rest.
The alarm went off at 3.30. Ben poked his head outside, announced that the sky was clear, and immediately started the stove. I quietly thanked god for such solid partners. After our little spindrift episode the previous evening, I’m not sure if I would have had the motivation to get going on my own.
I took the first block of the day – a tricky mixed pitch got us on to the wall proper, followed by two pitches of moderate ice and some devious route finding up steep, rocky snow slopes. We were aiming to work our way right into the prominent couloir that rises from the left edge of that big serac. Pete took over after a while, found the couloir, and we were soon simul climbing into the steep corner feature that marked the top of the couloir. It seemed obvious that Ben’s block out of this dead end would be the crux. Thankfully, the steep granite wall was split by a perfect chimney system. This 600 foot feature dished up some awesome thin-ice and mixed climbing that reminded us of the classic winter terrain found on our home crag, Cathedral Ledge. As had happened the previous day, the weather slowly deteriorated as the afternoon wore on.
After four pitches, we excited right onto the steep snow ramp that we hoped would lead to the final exit slopes from the face. I took over the lead again, knowing that a leg-numbing thousand feet of terrain still separated us from the top of the wall. We climbed through frequent squalls; one minute it’d be snowing and we couldn’t see anything, the next the skies would crack enough to see the Yentna far below through a window of cloud. By the time we cut through the final band of rocks and began the final steep slog to the ridge, I was crashing pretty hard. I put my head down and focused on getting to the summit ridge, where we could atleast rest and brew up. I crested the onto the Southwest Buttress of Foraker, some three hundred feet below the summit of the Fin, at 9.30 PM. A lenticular cloud hung over the South Summit of Foraker; a thick bank of clouds washed over the rest of the range to the east.
Photos by Freddie Wilkinson.
Ben and Peter joined me, we sat on our packs and got the stove going, and began to discuss what to do next. Ben wanted to keep going and tag the summit of the Fin, Peter wanted to begin the descent, and I felt pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. As we melted snow, the weather moved in and out. We hadn’t received a single forecast since we left Talkeetna. In fact, we hadn’t had any communication with the outside world at all.
By the time we had re-filled all our water bottles and eaten a pack of instant oatmeal, we had gradually came to consensus decision to descend. I won’t speak for Ben or Peter, but for me, it was ultimately the commitment of the approach that tipped the scales. Even in a full-on storm, it is relatively feasible to rappel a steep alpine face. But to cross miles of avalanche and serac threatened glacier, through heavily crevassed terrain – that was not a risk I would willingly accept.
Ben took over for the midnight rappels. It was spindrifting at first, then the weather seemed to abate. A stuck rope added an few extra hours to the descent, but we made it back to our cave by eight AM, about twenty six hours after leaving it. We had a quick brew and fell asleep for three hours. By the time we woke up in the afternoon it was beginning to snow again. We hastily loaded up and sprinted under that serac again to reach our skis. The rest of the descent – skiing roped up with heavy loads in flat light, carrying our skis up and over the cliffband traverse, down climbing the approach couloir, skiing through the lower ice fall – well, it was about what you’d expect. We were worked by the time we reached the glacier below the icefall and it began to snow in earnest. We returned to basecamp at around 11 PM. By noon the next day, three new feet of snow had fallen.
Among some Alaska Range devotees, our ascent of the South Face of the Fin rekindled the perennial debate as to whether a summitless climb should be considered complete. I won’t hold any punches here: our original goal was to climb the face to the summit of the Fin, so by our own standards, we failed. Still, when I look back on the experience, I am proud of what we did. When Paul landed three days later to pick us up, I left the Yentna feeling complete.