Mount McKinley, aka Denali, saw nearly 1,200 mountaineers climb its flanks for the 2012 “spring” season, and as of Friday 126 were still there. Forty-four percent, or 484 climbers, made it to the summit, which is accurate presuming that everyone’s objective was the top; sometimes it isn’t nor does it have to be. Even for a mountain as large as Denali, it can start to feel like a ski resort with all of your friends from your neighborhood showing up on your route.
I’m certainly not a Denali naysayer, but there has to be a better way. Fortunately, you don’t have to go far.
Denali’s largest neighbor, Mount Foraker (17,400 ft./5,304 m.), aka Sultana, sees far, far, far fewer climbers. According to the National Park Service, only six climbers registered for Foraker’s 2012 spring season and they all left the mountain without reaching the summit. The annual disparity between the attraction to Denali and Foraker are usually this vast: The number of climbers flocking to Denali has increased in the last 20 or so years and the number of attempts on Foraker have remained relatively steady — about 10 or so.
I think those few Foraker climbers knew or appreciated something about climbing the 1,200 people on Denali may not have. Perhaps they already climbed Denali. Perhaps they wanted a wilderness experience. Perhaps the idea of climbing the biggest peak in the range wasn’t exclusive enough.
It makes me wonder whether the majority of big mountaineering routes are done on only a handful of the most notable mountains.
While Denali towers an additional 1,100 ft./800 m. or so over Sultana, Foraker is still the sixth highest mountain in North America and the fourth highest in the United States. In terms of foot traffic, it seems it suffers worse than Lohtse, which is the 8,000-plus meter peak immediately neighboring Mount Everest.
Foraker has been climbed moderately — rather than extensively — since it was first climbed in 1934 by the great early American alpinist Charles Houston — best remembered for his two attempts on K2 — the adventurous English climber T. Graham Brown and their partner Chychele Waterston. Waterston is supposedly related to actor Sam Waterston (but that could just be rumor.) Because of its under-appreciated, Foraker’s routes, other than widely traveled ways like the Sultana Ridge (which has been quite popular lately,) might only have had a handful of successfully completed ascents. Other routes, have only been repeated a very few times.
Lines like the remote Infinite Spur on the south face first climbed by Michael Kennedy and George Lowe in 1977 is occasionally attempted and rarely repeated. For instance, the second ascent by the Infinite Spur didn’t come until over a decade later in 1989 by Americans Mark Bebie and Jim Nelson. They cut down on the Kennedy-Lowe time to reach the summit of 18 days to 13.
In a day-and-age when the general public is talking about how dangerous climbing Everest is and alpinists are repeating routes up in conga lines, there are places that are off the “radar” of the critics. Good news and sad news happens here. Loss still happens in these places: Sue Nott and Karen McNeill made an all-female attempt on the Infinite Spur and were never heard from again.
More recently, in 2010, Colin Haley and Bjorn-Eivind Artun made a new route on Foraker, which got a lot of attention. Haley and Artun climbed their new route, which they named Dracula, after climbing what they believed, by comparison, was a more moderate route on Denali: The Cassin Ridge.
On a personal note, my back is doing better. Not perfect, but I’m sleeping later into the night, which is somewhat of an improvement. I’ll also be roping up again with Chris in the next couple days as part of my “treatment.” I’m looking forward to it!