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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)