Adventure in the NW Fork of the Lacuna Glacier

“..adventure – in the grand old manner – is obsolete, having been either exalted to a specialists job or degraded to a stunt” -Peter Flemming, Brazilian Adventure (1933) 

Flemming's book is about the exploration of the Amazonian interior in the 1920's. It is a story about getting lost in the wilds of the world, exploring what was then a large blank spot on the map. I first read this quote when I was twenty years old, while pinned down on the weather stricken west coast of New Zealand. I took the word 'specialist' to refer to 'climbers', and took pride in being one of those who might be able to participate in adventure 'in the grand old manner'. I was in the process of cutting my teeth amongst the steep ice and rock of the Southern Alps and chasing dreams that I hoped would one day lead me to the greater ranges. This exploration of the unknown was the drawcard. This was the reason for my dreams and for my planned progressions into the big mountains.

Five years later, a relativity short amount of time by many accounts, including graduation from University, seven expeditions, and seemingly countless months on the road, had put me in a different realm of thinking about the world and the mountains. I had found that many of the far away places were in fact well known, that the discovery of the new areas was an opportunity to be relished and sought but was not always easy to find. So I continued the progression on routes new and old, always with a keen ear to the ground for these lands unknown.

In the winter of 2010 my good friend and climbing partner Mark Allen called me about a photo he had come across of a glacier in Alaska of which we had never heard. We determined that it was possibly accessible with skis from the epicenter of Kahiltna Basecamp and by all accounts unknown. With a bit of work, photos lined up to maps, together showing steep terrain and big relief, our excitement built. We planned for the Alaska range in the spring.

In the lower 48, Mark and I trained and watched as winter loosened its grip for the year and we prepared for another trip into the big mountains. Between us, we had taken more than a dozen expeditions into  the Alaskan Range and because of this the process of getting into the mountains felt routine. Before long we were on the glacier with our heavy rations of pork product, quesadillas, and whiskey.

Our goal was to access the Northwest Fork of the Lacuna Glacier, a small area located between the Yetna and the massive bulk of Mt Foraker. We knew that some of the peaks had been climbed from the opposite (Yetna) side by our friends from New Hampshire during previous seasons, but we had found no evidence that anyone had climbed from the Lacuna (east) side. So we set our sights to cross under the South Face of Foraker and wander into the unknowns beyond.

It took us four days to reach the NW Fork on our first trip. Two areas on the map that looked to be low angle and no big deal turned out to be heavily crevassed icefalls surrounded by loaded slopes.  With patience and persistence we eventually reached our goal having traveled a total of 27 kilometers from Kahiltna. And while it might not have been remote compared with the old timers who walked into the range, we both felt as though we might as well have been on the moon.

Entering the NW Fork was magnificent as we were greeted by the massive Southern and Eastern features of unclimbed peak 12,213 with it's series of aesthetic buttresses pouring down at steep angles towards us. To find an untouched zone, and within it such a peak, was a combination of intimidation and dream come true.

We immediately set up a camp at its base and the next evening started an attempt on one of the buttresses on the right side of it's South Face. Excellent mixed climbing led to desperate and terrifying ridge climbing. Moving slower than expected we made it through the worst and reached the broader ridge above, where we spent a comfortable night on a well protected and almost big enough perch. The next day, on the ridge to the summit, what we had anticipated to be easy climbing was in fact deep, faceted, dangerous snow on steep aspects. With three weeks left in the range we bailed, with the intention of letting the mountain cure, in order to make the transition out of the dangerous winter snowpack into the safer and faster spring conditions we needed.

So we returned to Kahiltina; to the pork, the whiskey, and the people. To fill our time we climbed the West Ridge of Hunter, a classic in the true sense of the word. While not on route we caught up on podcasts, watched Lord Of The Rings, shot a thug life video, and waited.

Within a week the conditions had improved and it was time to return. This time the ski to the Lacuna took us two days and we felt much more comfortable with our setting. The longer steeper buttresses in the middle of the face seemed to offer more technical climbing with less scary ridges and we happily opted for this option.

Starting the next evening we embarked onto some of best mixed climbing I have experienced anywhere: wild exposure and aesthetic steep technical climbing with a few bits and pieces that I wouldn't wish on anyone. The cornices and ridge climbing were also still very much present and accounted for, but we made it back to the summit ridge without too many dramas. Upon reaching the ridge we were forced to look out with disdain on the large black clouds close at hand. The remoteness and the high consequences of heavy snowfall on our descent had us turned around and back on the glacier a few hours later, watching the clouds swirl on the peak above.

The next morning we found ourselves near the end of our trip, two days from base camp, with dwindling food and clearing skies. As we lounged, awake in the sun-warmed tent, resting from the 26 hour push the day before, we independently considered the proposition of heading back up on the mountain. By the time we finally started the conversation it was already clear that we were going to stay in Lacuna a little longer.

Slowly we packed, ate our meager rations, and continued to rest. Essentially we were to use our food for getting back to Kahiltina for one last attempt on 12,213 and therefore would ski back without food. We both knew we could do it. We both also knew that it would hurt. But subtle glimpses of magic are always afoot and we found in the bottom of a bag two packets of instant coffee which to two fellas from Western Washington might as well have been gold. With bags packed and the face out of the heat of the day, we slugged down lukewarm strong coffee and felt the power surge back into our bodies.

Six hours later we were standing on top of 12,213, having climbed a direct coulior on the South Face, an easier but more threatened 4,500ft line that we were able to simul-climb in two super long pitches. The climbing consisted of brilliant steep neve with the odd moderate mixed move, and fantastic fast terrain. On top we were able to look down over the Yetna and into the wide open tundra beyond. The ski back was no longer a concern,  simply a matter of continuing the perseverance and good decision making a little while longer. We had achieved our goal of climbing a new mountain and had an adventure 'in the grand old manner,' just as I had dreamed of so many years before.