Seventy-one sleepless hours during a first ascent on the southeast face of Mt. Foraker, in the Alaska Range.
By Bjørn-Eivind Aartun
Sometimes you meet someone who easily shares your dreams. On first meeting Colin Haley I could see that he was an open minded, highly motivated climber not easily distracted by mere obstacles. He was keen to explore all the possibilities within singlepush climbing. While together in 2009 on Mt. Hunter, we discussed our ambitions, discovering a shared goal of climbing the Cassin Ridge on Denali in a day. The weather during our final week in Alaska that year didn’t allow for anything big, so we skied over to the southeast side of Mt. Foraker to scope a line on the unclimbed rock face leading to the crest of the French ridge. The seeds of next year’s climbing had just been planted.
May 2010. The constant roar of Talkeetna Air Taxi’s powerful Beaver engine left each of us in our own thoughts as we flew back into the Alaska Range. During the flight in, we passed directly in front of the southeast face of Foraker. As it came into view I could feel it right in my stomach. We planned to climb this huge wall without bivi gear. Treating such a route as a day climb was a step up for me. But based on our experiences last year on the north buttress of Hunter, it seemed the right thing to do, a perfect dose of the unknown. Could we quickly unlock its steep, rocky secrets on our way to the ice slopes above?
Immediately after landing on the Kahiltna Glacier, we started skiing toward the 14,200-foot camp, where we would acclimatize. Our time there was both fun and a test of my patience. Camp life had its own challenges. The toilets were both funny and disgusting. It seemed like the rangers had deliberately exposed them to the living area, placing them directly in the path leading to the board where weather forecasts were posted. Images of old men doing their thing are still horribly burned into the back of my eyeballs. But eating pancakes and fighting with the Dutch and Belgians was fun, as was learning about “zvaffeling.” To acclimatize, we skied a lot and climbed Denali twice by different standard routes, but the weather never gave us much to work with. Time was running out and we worried that we’d leave the range without even attempting our dream climbs.
Finally we had to take action. Despite a less than ideal forecast, we left for the Cassin Ridge with a couple of screws and a 20-meter rope for the approach down the Seattle 72 Ramp. We stopped at the bergshrund below the Japanese Couloir to brew and rest before starting out at night.
The first half of the Cassin was great fun, as there were sections of technical climbing. It was intense and invigorating: going “naked” required focus. Being able to move with a very light pack and no gear on a big mountain is pure pleasure for the freedom of movement it allows, much more than mere speed or record-chasing (we hoped to beat Mugs Stump’s 15-hour ascent, set in 1991). But at some point above the Knife Edge ridge it started snowing, which slowed us considerably. The upper half of the climb was easy snow and ice slopes, which would be fine if the weather were good. But wallowing in deep fresh snow was not fun. We summited totally exhausted 17 hours after leaving the shrund.
After descending to the 14,200-foot camp, we felt the only reasonable thing to do was pack up immediately and ski down (thank god for the skis) to Kahiltna International Airport, where we could start looking up at Mt. Foraker while counting the hours to our flights back home. Or was there still a slight chance of trying our main objective?
On June 12, three days before we had to fly out from KIA, we crossed the Kahiltna Glacier on skis to the foot of the face just to “have a look.” The forecast called for a single day of good weather, coming tomorrow. It snowed during the night, but we woke up at 4 a.m. to clear skies. After careful consideration, we decided to go for it.
Knowing we could expect deteriorating weather on the descent, we brought two full 225-gram gas canisters just in case. We discussed taking only one rope, but decided on two ice twin ropes to have an extra margin there as well.
With such small backpacks containing no bivi gear, it took us only two hours to cross under the dangerous seracs guarding access to the wall itself. Going all out for safety, acid burning in our legs, our hearts pumping at full speed, we continued past crevasses and then easy runnels and ice steps up past the seracs until we were just under the wall. While jumping one of the gaps down low, I lost my sunglasses, so I pulled my beanie down whenever I could to protect my eyes.
A brew stop at the start of the big rocky wall gave room for thoughts about what lay before us. From the tent we had seen that this first part would be easy climbing with serac danger. The wall itself was harder to predict. It was a thrill to sit there, getting ready to venture into the unknown.
Colin started leading. The first part was really nice: ice runnels with trickier mixed bits in between. A couple of pitches up, I followed a dead vertical dihedral. My picks found good slots, while front points rested on small edges. It was good climbing, with good protection; I felt inspired and happy. This was what we had come for. Smiling, I joined Colin on the belay, and he immediately off for a steep pitch of ice.
The sun disappeared behind the French Ridge and it was my turn to lead. The terrain was easier here. Mostly moderate ice took me to the big right-trending ramp in the middle of the wall. We simul-climbed a lot on this section, making good speed. I was excited to have reached the ramp. Studying everything from below, we had predicted the difficulties quite accurately. Reaching the ramp resolved one of the mysteries. We expected that the last part up the wall and out onto the icefields would also have a crux.
At the end of the ramp, fun mixed climbing took me onto steep snow—really steep at the end. This should have been Colin’s lead: he’s good at it. He even likes it, whereas I don’t. Almost through, I got a creepy feeling and peered out over the edge to the right. Yes, it was just as I feared: I was about to ascend an overhanging mushroom as big as a car. My heart raced and I quickly tried to move left. There was no protection. My last screw was 20 meters away when finally I could build a belay in sound ice. Looking down, I was awestruck by the precarious snow formation. It looked like it was hinged in 30 cm of loose snow; my tracks cut through just where it would someday break.
“I think we can take a brew stop after this last steep pitch,” Colin said as I re-racked, heading up. I had to climb a belt of rotten rock to get to a fine corner higher up. Gently balancing on my crampons, I tried to kick away loose stones to find secure footholds. I felt a rush of warmth to my head. With next to no protection, falling was out of the question. It wasn’t really hard, but delicate and dangerous. Eventually I wiggled onto an ice tongue, put in a good screw, and once again felt invincible. But there was no ledge on top, so when Colin arrived, we continued without a brew. This proved unwise; we should have forced a hydration stop, even if it meant a semi-hanging belay. Colin developed frostbite on his big toes during the torture of the never-ending 60° ice up to where we met the French Ridge. It’s hard to know if he could have avoided it by drinking more, but I think it would have helped.
The first rays of morning sun hit us some 200 meters below the ridge. We were totally worked when we finally finished the last simul-climbing pitch and could lie down on the ridge crest. I hitched a sling around my waist and clipped it to my tool to get a couple of minutes of sleep while waiting for the snow to melt.
Later that morning, after 31 hours of climbing, we stood on top of Foraker. The last part had been easy snow plodding. Smiling as we looked around at nearby Hunter and Denali, we felt happy but anxious to get as far down as possible before bad weather might catch us.
Our first goal was to reach the saddle where the Sultana Ridge traverses toward Crosson.
From there it should be “easy” to follow the distinct Sultana Ridge without getting lost in foul weather. We moved as fast as possible, butt-sliding crevasses. This was really painful for Colin, as by now his toes had warmed up again and they hurt badly. I fed him painkillers, but that didn’t help much.
When we reached the saddle, we found a sheltered crevasse in which we could make dinner and melt snow. Happy to have made it down there, we felt secure and upbeat. So far, the weather was holding. But when we tried to exit and continue our descent everything had changed. A full-on blizzard raged outside.
After two attempts to continue along the ridge, we had to escape back into the crevasse. It was impossible to go on. Strangely enough we felt quite calm. My Norwegian background—filled with cold mountains—allowed me accept the fact that we just had to wait it out, even if we weren’t equipped. Sooner or later there would be a small break in the storm and we’d have just enough visibility to get us going again. Inside, we alternated between small jokes and big worries. Most of the time we had to work hard to stay warm. We could never lie down; instead we did knee bends and swung our arms in endless repetitions.
I frequently went out to have a look at the weather, afraid to miss improving conditions. After 12 hours, a new day brought some visibility—just barely enough to find our way along the ridge. By now we had decided to try down climbing the original northeast ridge route, established in 1966 by a Japanese team. It had not been climbed in decades, but it was more sheltered from the wind and seemed the only feasible option.
Navigating crevasses and down-climbing ridges, we slowly got out of the wind. Colin did a great job of finding the way. During a little down climb on a loose and steep ridge, I noticed that when tired Colin became even more careful. That made me trust him even more. I’m also like that. Whenever I’m tired or exhausted, I keep calm and put extra energy in to making things safe. It was a long and arduous journey down to the glacier, including overhanging rappels down a rotten rib of rock flowing with water. The last rappel fed us into the Big Moat of Evil. It took us a vertical pitch of ice climbing to escape. While running between fresh ice blocks dropped by hangers on both sides of the rock rib, I leaned all my weight into the rope in order to ease the load on Colin’s frostbitten toes. Finally out of the danger zone, we used our last gas to melt water. We were now safe, although we didn’t look forward to the slog back to KIA.
When Colin suggested naming our new route Dracula, I felt it was good. We had both read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, about a dark and powerful figure who operated at night, recruiting souls to his frightening empire. During our massive descent, our minds and bodies moved ever closer to another reality. I’m not saying we were becoming vampires (though that could have been interesting), but we were slowly exceeding our limits both physical and psychological. As we crossed the Kahiltna Glacier in rotten snow, dodging hungry crevasses, every step took us closer to real life, but also brought us deeper into a parallel universe. Our bodies buzzed with fatigue, our minds hallucinated. When we finally saw camp I felt greatly relieved, and yet strangely out of place, as if I belonged somewhere else. Camp, once so familiar, was now the unknown landscape. This experience was both scary and alluring. Flying home to Norway, I felt like I was sitting in a spaceship returning from another dimension.
Area: Alaska Range.
Ascents: Denali: Simul-solo of the Cassin Ridge in 17 hours from bergschrund at the base of Japanese Couloir (28 hours round-trip from 14,200-foot camp) on June 7, 2010, by Bjørn-Eivind Aartun and Colin Haley.
Mt. Foraker: First ascent of the rock wall on the southeast face. Dracula (10,400′, AI4+ M6R A0) starts by climbing the hanging glacier on False Dawn before reaching the prominent rock wall. Aartun and Haley then descended the rarely climbed 1966 Japanese northeast ridge route. They carried no bivouac gear and made the round-trip from camp in a sleepless 71 hours, June 13–15, 2010.
A Note About the Author:
According to Colin Haley, Bjorn-Eivind Aartun resembles an archetypical Viking with his angular face, blue eyes, and shaggy blond hair. Only 44-year-old Bjorn-Eivind is “gentle, polite, and kind.” A professional photographer by trade, he lives in Oslo, Norway.