#SkiTheBig3 — Sweet Sultana — Foraker TR Part 2


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

(see part 1)

Aaron leads us up, up and up the Sultana.  It was mind boggling how long we could do the same motion for so long.

Aaron leads us up, up and up the Sultana. It was mind boggling how long we could do the same motion for so long. Click images to enlarge.

Jordan climbing across one of the last bergshrunds on the way to one of many false summits.

Jordan climbing across one of the last bergshrunds on the way to one of many false summits that Mount Foraker presents on Sultana Ridge.

Day 6 (May 20)
Mother spanked us a bit, but she’s nice today. We’re still camped on the ridge between Mount Crosson and Mount Foraker, in position to climb Sultana Ridge to the Foraker summit. The wind has abated to the point where climbing looks possible. Learning from past day’s frigid morning starts, we know it is not worth being up before the sun warms our little piece of ridge. After going through the somewhat drawn out process of getting ready, we leave camp at 9:20.

Retracing our steps from before it is clear that Aaron is on a mission. We make a plan to stop every 1000 vertical feet to eat and drink regardless of whether we feel it’s necessary or not. Aaron leads us at a nearly a perfect 1000 ft per hour pace up the Sultana. The cramponing is as flawless as it gets for switch backing French stepping (a crampon technique similar to climbing on skis with skins, in a series of angled switchbacks instead of straight up the fall line).

And oh, did I mention that there is barely a breath of wind — we hit the window! We climb and climb and climb some more, through a half dozen false summits as 5000 ft of Alaska range ascent finally comes to a merciful end at the apex of Mother Sultana. The scale here just never calculates appropriately. It always takes double, triple, or quadruple the time it seems it should.

Summit pic.  Those smiles were real though.  Hard fought battle is halfway over.

Summit pic. Those smiles were real though. Hard fought battle is halfway over.

A group hug and high fives ensue and we take food and water. The summit holds perhaps a 5 mph breeze and despite the weather being as perfect as it gets in the Alaska range, we opt for transitioning quickly rather than waiting around to get cold in the -10 F temperatures. It’s always a funny feeling having temps be that low with such clear sunny weather. One thing that’s always true up this high — and when it’s this cold — is that if the cramponing was good the skiing will be ultra firm.

Jordan skiing on the upper Sultana ridge.  What a day.

Jordan skiing on the upper Sultana ridge. What a day.

We ski the whole Sultana ridge Canadian (group heliski) style as the likelihood of avalanche was about as slim as it gets. We finish skiing to Sultana saddle and finally get a second to sit down. It’s hard not to freeze in position and stare back up at what we’d just climbed and skied and be amazed at what we accomplished as a team.

Anton skiing right on by Hunter.  Glad to have mother and son under his belt so far.

Anton skiing right on by Hunter. Glad to have mother and son under his belt so far.

The walk back to our camp takes about an hour, but it’s hard to notice the work as we saunter along with tired smiles for having finished our second of three intended summits. Our normal routine had been to get back to camp and go straight for our sleeping bags. But not tonight; tonight we put on as many down layers as we have and hang outside watching the sun go down and cooking dinner. With smiles on our faces we finally head off to sleep knowing that we have one more really big day ahead of us, involving getting ourselves and big packs down more skiing on Crosson, and across the Kahiltna to base camp.

Aaron coming down on a single edge.  This guy is the real deal.

Aaron coming down on a single edge. This guy is the real deal.

Evan pointing the way to the next objective. Denali.

Evan pointing the way to the next objective. Denali.

Jordan and Aaron heading back to camp.  Ready for a good nights sleep.

Jordan and Aaron heading back to camp. Ready for a good nights sleep.

Sunset as we take in and reflect on one of our bigger summit days yet.

Sunset as we take in and reflect on one of our bigger summit days yet.

Day 7 (May 21)
Kahiltna Basecamp is indeed calling. We wake up and get our usual late start, but still manage to make it out of camp by around 10 am with our packs loaded down and gypsy wagoned (stuff dangling everywhere) for the last push out. We head back across the ridge with it’s many ups and downs and eventually make it back to the traverse across point 12,472. It’s hot. It’s scorching on this south facing slope, and we hustle across the slightly sketchy downward traverse towards Crosson.

From the col below Crosson we know that we have one last crushing ascent left on this ridge. Back to Aaron leading the guide pace of 1000 ft hour, no stops. It goes well, and feels incredible to be on top of Mount Crosson again, knowing that the only climb left is heartbreak hill (up from the flats of the Kahiltna Glacier to the base camp area on the Southeast Fork, where the bush plans land on the nieve).

Anton has some of the better skiing form most people will ever see.  There is no form for this kind of snow.

Anton has some of the better skiing form most people will ever see. There is no form for this kind of snow.

That said, Crosson is one tough SOB and isn’t done with us yet. The upper slopes ski rather similar to the upper Sultana, but with much less effort of the lungs. Then it’s time to suffer again. Somewhere around 11,200 we hit the penitentes. Remember before that we mentioned that the dirt was doing work on the snow pack. Apparently the entire time we were up high, these slopes were doing nothing but baking in the sun, because they had become the most messed up ski conditions any of us have ever seen.

Aaron sending the final shrund at the bottom of Crosson

Aaron sending the final ‘shrund at the bottom of Crosson

We made it down by pure perseverance — nothing else helped. The sun cups had turned into full on black ice penitentes rising out of the snow like sabers, and only skied by traversing in Z cuts like a patroller doing avalanche mitigation. Truly the most messed up skiing imaginable. I couldn’t have dreamed up conditions this bad.

Below 10,000 feet, conditions improved slightly to mashed potato penitentes that you could link turns in, albeit still sitting back with tips high, a truly tiring task with heavy packs. This may be the one point in the trip where Aaron had a bit of an advantage being on a snowboard. Mank surfing!

Finally we make it to the 8,000 foot camp location on Crosson where the angle steepens again. We retrieve our cached climbing skins and continue down. The snow has become smooth and refrozen, a true blessing after the past 4,300 feet of super crud. In about five minutes we are skiing past the last bergschrund on our way to the flat Kahiltna. Beer ahead!

Wasting no time, we put our skins on and blaze on to Kahiltna base in about an hour and a half. Significantly faster than our approach. We arrive finding basecamp to have become significantly more crowded (some of the more than 1,000 climbers who will attempt Denali/McKinley this season). We set to work digging out a new platform, drinking beer, digging up caches, and cooking dinner before going to bed somewhere around 1 in the morning. Sleep comes fast and easy as we all look forward to a couple days of drying stuff out and leaving the boots in the tent doorway to rest the tired beaten dogs otherwise known as our feet.

Anton's general feeling after a 10 hour push back to basecamp describes pretty well how we all felt.

Anton’s general feeling after a 10 hour push back to basecamp describes pretty well how we all felt.

Next, we head up Kahlitna Glacier to position for Denali.

(‘Ski The Big 3 is an Alaskan ski mountaineering expedition cooked up by four deprived (or perhaps depraved?) guys who never get enough ski and snowboard alpinism. Aaron Diamond, Evan Pletcher, Anton Sponar, Jordan White. The idea is to ski Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition. They’ve got six weeks worth of food, enough camera gear to outfit a small army and brought along one of the strongest snowboard alpinists around to keep everyone honest. We wish them safe travels and we’re enjoying being their blog channel. As far as we can research, the team’s ski descent of Foraker was the fourth done from the summit and the second of Sultana route. A few other descents have been done from just below the summit. What’s most interesting about human events on Mount Foraker is that it’s strongly overshadowed by Denali in terms of being a climbing objective. For example, this season the Park Service reports 1,062 climbers are registered so far to try Denali, while 8 have registered for Foraker (including us)! Check out the Park Service stats page.)

Ski The Big 3 routes both done and proposed. Metrics: Kahiltna Base is at 7,000 feet elevation, Denali (Mount McKinley) tops out at 20,322 feet, 6,194 meters. Click to enlarge. Derivative work based on screen grab from paid DeLorme subscription.

Ski The Big 3 routes both done and proposed. Metrics: Kahiltna Base is at 7,000 feet elevation, Denali (Mount McKinley) tops out at 20,322 feet, 6,194 meters, Sultana (Foraker) is 17,400-foot, 5,304 meters. Derivative work based on screen grab from paid DeLorme subscription. Click to enlarge.

Comments

14 Responses to “#SkiTheBig3 — Sweet Sultana — Foraker TR Part 2”

  1. Luann White May 26th, 2014 7:36 pm

    Those penitents…look like sharp teeth!
    Running out of adjectives for the pictures and the dogged determination of these guys. One foot in front of the other endlessly. Then the (relative) freedom of the ski!

  2. John May 26th, 2014 8:07 pm

    Awesome in the literal sense of the word. Super cool to read

  3. Luann May 26th, 2014 8:24 pm

    Lou-From Evan’s SPOT and hour ago: 63.06789 , -151.09602

    Looks like they are headed for 14k camp tonight? Think they will stay high or sleep low…I know they must feel SOMEWHAT acclimated…. :-)

  4. Luann May 26th, 2014 8:34 pm

    Well…now the SPOT says: 63.07474 , -151.14728

    So back down I am thinking…

    btw I am using gpsvisualizer.com to see elevation more clearly. Many different kinds of maps to choose from once you have points.

  5. Caleb Wray May 26th, 2014 10:16 pm

    Jordan told me they carried a catch around windy corner today and are back at 11k camp. They will head to 14k camp tomorrow as long as the weather cooperates. Then the water and food olympics begin.

  6. janice byrd May 26th, 2014 10:19 pm

    All of you constantly amaze me. I dont understand everything of course but I feel like I get enough to get an idea. Very exciting stuff

  7. Erik Erikson May 26th, 2014 10:20 pm

    Wow – great pictures. Especially the one with the boarder gives an impression how big these peaks really must be. There is nothing comparable here in Austria.
    Thanks to wildsnow for posting this adventure!

  8. Ken Pletcher May 26th, 2014 10:21 pm

    I think you are right, Luann. Checking coordinates on a USGS topo map puts the first spot at 14K and the second one is back around the 11K location from last night.

  9. Daniel May 27th, 2014 12:49 am

    @Erik, I think you are spot on. I recall reading somewhere that Denali is the biggest Mountain on earth in terms of prominence against it’s surrounding topography. Hope my choice of words makes sense ;-)

  10. Lou Dawson May 27th, 2014 5:08 am

    Luann and all, they’re indeed progressing up the Washburn route, left a cache up around Windy Corner, back down to 11,000 feet, etc. I’ve got lots of info and more blog posts. Apologies for getting out of sequence, will ramp it up later today with new photos and text that get everything up to speed. It’s difficult to keep everything chronological when the posts get delayed, nature of the blog format and all… Comments as updates from you guys are good, to keep things current. Lou

  11. Ken Pletcher May 27th, 2014 6:47 am

    It’s nice to hear the name Washburn mentioned in conjunction with these fellas. I think he would have been proud of them. Again, thanks for the outstanding work, Lou, and to all the others for their great comments!

  12. Matt Kinney May 27th, 2014 9:55 am

    Beautiful ski story….Good luck on Denali guys.

    Washburn came to Valdez in 1936 and set up his first studio and took his first aerial photo’s of the Port. Later he flew from here to Mt. Luciana with Bates for that famous expedition. He returned to Valdez, gathered up his camera gear and never returned.

  13. Erik Erikson May 27th, 2014 11:54 pm

    @ Daniel: As far as I know Denali in fact IS the highest mountain if you measure not the absolut height but the height from where it beginns (about 500 Meters above sea??) to the top (over 6000 Meters above sea). So the vertical distance is over 5000 Meters. Not sure, if this is totally correct, but I could take a look at Denali about 20 years ago from the ridge in the east of it (something like Kesugi ridge, as far as I remember) and Denali was REALLY impressive compared to every other mountain I had seen before…

  14. Ken Pletcher May 28th, 2014 3:22 pm

    Matt, I assume you meant that Washburn never returned to Valdez. He, of course, made many more expeditions to Denali and other parts of Alaska.

    I’m pretty sure that Daniel and Erik are correct about the relative vertical rise of Denali above the surrounding region. The USGS points out, BTW (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanowatch/archive/1998/98_08_20.html), that the tallest mountain in the world is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which rises 4,170 m above sea level but also descends about 5,000 m to the sea floor.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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