Mountain Drool: The Underated Mount Foraker

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Sultana with Little Switzerland in foreground. (All rights reserved)

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!

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Our Military and the Mountain Tradition

Last weekend I was going through a stack of books I acquired through a donation to my local section of the American Alpine Club and I came across a reprint of the American Alpine Journal from 1946. Don’t get too excited; it’s not really that old. My copy is the reprint from 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which was established for specialized mountain warfare during World War II on November 15, 1941.

The 1946 volume — marked as “Special War Number” — contains articles on the service of members of the American Alpine Club where they were involved in the mountains or employed their mountain knowledge. It was also the first edition of the journal printed since the beginning of the war, the only hiatus in publishing the journal since it started in 1929. Paging through it, there is an article on the 10th itself by Albert Jackman, about the effect of high altitude on humans by Charles Houston — who would later write the definitive treatise on that topic, an article on the improvements on equipment by Bradford Washburn and several more pieces on other matters.

One thing was clear from reading these articles: the war’s unique problem was its global scope, which meant it would be fought on all imaginable terrain. That introduced challenges especially for the Allies of the US, Canada and Great Britain; they had not before fought on alpine mountains, though the Nazi and Italian forces, in particular, were trained and prepared to do so. The Ally militaries turned to experienced mountaineers to fill in the knowledge gap — many of whom included pieces in this journal.

The preface to the 1991 reprint puts the effect of the war on mountaineering and climbing in general into proper, historical perspective. While grand climbing accomplishments were halted, there were significant advancements in other areas. Without the challenge of winning the war on all fronts — including in the mountain ranges — the innovation in climbing gear would not have occurred at such a rapid pace. The biggest improvement was the development of the virtually unbreakable nylon ropes we use today. Before then, they were made of hemp and other fibers… and they broke, with relative frequency. (Thoughts of the legendary fall on the Matterhorn spring to mind!) By comparison, William House writes, “[T]he best grades of [hemp rope] could be stretched only to approximately 13% of their length before breakage, whereas the nylon rope would stretch over 39%.”

In addition, the role the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division played a significant role in creating America’s mountain culture after the war. They established many ski resorts throughout the United States. I first learned of the 10th through my trips to the Adirondacks and the Whiteface Ski Resort in particular. Later I started coming across memorials for the unit on backcountry trails, like the one on the western side of Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We may not think of or realize it, but the mountain enjoyments we enjoy in the United States — especially skiing — was made accessible because of the World War II veterans of the 10th.

It’s easy to say on Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada) that we wouldn’t know the life we enjoy without the sacrifice of those that paid the ultimate price. While that’s unequivocally true, we also appreciate the contributions of the veterans that survived the war and how they have shaped the world we enjoy.

So, happy 70th birthday to the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which Tuesday, and have a happy Veterans Day tomorrow!

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Fritz Wiessner and Dudley Wolfe on K2

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K2 on Fire. (All rights reserved)

I just finished reading The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 by Jennifer Jordan (2010).  Jordan will be at National Geographic tonight presenting on this book.  I was planning on going to see her, ask some questions and report to you tomorrow, but unfortunately, I have a conflict that is unavoidable.  In any case, here is my review of her take…

Jordan tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the wealthy American on the 1939 K2 expedition lead by Fritz Wiessner.  However, the story of Wolfe on K2 is the story of that tragic expedition and its leader.

Wiessner was a German-immigrant and was the finest mountaineer in America at the time.  Until later in life, he always struggled with debt and having sufficient income.  He deferred the leadership of the 1938 K2 expedition to rival Charlie Houston because of his business obligations at the time.  The team in 1938 was experienced stars, but for a variety of reasons, personal and economic, Fritz could only put together a second-rate team – most of whom, except Wolfe, never went higher than Camp IV.

I have read a couple of different takes on the 1939 attempt and Jordan’s book follows the pattern of most others, but brings the available research together more thoroughly.  The questions Jordan tries to answer, or at least provide the best information about, was whether Dudley Wolfe belonged on the expedition, was he qualified to reach the high camps and remain there for an extended period of time even though his outlook on summiting was dim, and lastly, was he stranded out of negligence or the occupational hazard innate in mountaineering?

Wolfe reached Camp VIII only with Wiessner’s assistance.  Eventually, Wiessner had to descend for supplies – or possibly help to get Wolfe to the top.  There is a lot of speculation here on why this really happened.  Wolfe managed to descend to Camp VII and he never climbed any lower.  He would spend nearly two months in those high camps withering away and likely suffering from cerebral edema.

Wolfe was the first casualty of climbing K2, and for a variety of reasons (both justified and muddy) he was left stranded and helpless in Camp VII.  Jordan discovered his body at the base of the peak while visiting the K2 base camp in 2002 while writing her first book Savage Summit.

This book paints Dudley Wolfe in a more favorable portrait.  Ed Viesturs and David Roberts in K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain make Wolfe seem more incompetent – but to say he was unqualified (which Viesturs and Roberts do not) to be high on the mountain is wrong too.  It is worth the read to see the relationship between Fritz and Dudley.  Wiessner wanted to the summit desperately for glory and notoriety.  Wolfe was an adventure junkie and needed Wiessner to get him as close to the top, if not the top itself, as reasonable.  This arrangement, and the affects of altitude, which were not fully understood, was their collective undoing.

As a mountain junkie, I don’t recommend this book unless you are either interested in the mysteries of the 1939 expedition or want to know everything about K2 specifically.  There are other more informative K2 books, like Viesturs’ and Roberts’ story, and better climbing stories in general.  On the other hand, Jordan’s story might also appeal to readers that enjoy the age of romance in mountain exploration as it tugs at that string.

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