INACCESSIBLE, MODERN ROUTE ON THE FIN

Posted on: May 11, 2007


The Fin (13,350'), on the southwest side of Mt. Foraker (17,400'), Central Alaska Range, Alaska. Freddie Wilkinson, Peter Doucette and Ben Gilmore made the first ascent of the south face's technical wall, visible here, from May 3-5. Although they reached the top of the wall, ca. 400 vertical feet from The Fin's summit, bad weather on the ridge above convinced the trio to return to base camp. [Photo] Freddie Wilkinson

Editor's Note: Freddie Wilkinson, Peter Doucette and Ben Gilmore just returned from The Fin (13,350') above Yetna Glacier in the Central Alaska Range. Their ascent of the previously unclimbed south-facing wall fell 400 vertical feet shy of The Fin's summit, adjacent to its parent peak, Mt. Foraker (17,400'). As they reached the apex of the wall to find bad weather on the summit ridge, the team felt satisfied calling the new climb a "modern route". Their trip was supported by a 2007 Mugs Stump Award.

Paul Roderick dropped Ben Gilmore, Peter Doucette and I on the Yentna glacier on April 20. The whole upper Yetna is within the Denali National Park Wilderness Boundary in the Central Alaska Range—and that means no commerical plane landings. Instead we skied up-glacier into the Wilderness zone to establish a base camp in the cirque below the ice fall that leads to The Fin. To warm up, we did two new routes out of the North Fork of the Yetna. Both were about 3,500 feet, featuring mainly steep snow and neve climbing to 70 degrees with short mixed cruxes to M5. I have yet to find any documented info on either of these peaks, so it is very possible our climbs could have been first ascents as well, though I'm not sure yet. Point 8,900 we christened "Rogue Peak"—Peter and I climbed it via the northeast face (M5, 3,500'). In the Mantok group, we climbed Point 9,300 via a thin, east facing couloir we named The All Talk Couloir (M5, 3,500'). All this was warm up for the main attraction...

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The Fin's south face is ca. 4,000 feet and had never been attempted, that I've heard about. But it is impossible to separate the route from the approach and descent. The face is guarded by a complex 3,000-foot, six mile glacier featuring a burly icefall. To circumnavigate it, we traversed slopes to the north of the icefall, which were objectively safe but would become highly avalanche prone in bad weather. Above the icefall, one must run the gauntlet for a couple of miles past seracs to reach the 'schrund, which is the only truly safe camp on the approach.

Our climb took three days, from May 3-5. On the May 3 we did the approach in approximately seven hours, carrying skis to past the ice fall and then skinning as high as we could before sprinting under a serac to reach the relative safety of the 'schrund. Unfortunately, the face is concave and spindrifts in almost any conditions. Our tent sustained a few light rips due to rock fall as well, necessitating a move into a hastily dug snow cave. On May 4 we left our bivy gear in the cave at the 'schrund at 6 a.m. and climbed the entire wall to the summit ridge in fifteen hours. We followed the path of least resistance, which linked snow couloirs and traverses with occasional steep mixed pitches. The crux of the route was a sustained vertical mixed chimney that Ben Gilmore led in three pitches. The weather throughout the day was overcast with clouds building. We reached the summit ridge at about 12,900 feet at 9 p.m. and decided to brew and watch the weather. There is no walk-off on The Fin; we knew we were commited to rapping the entire face and then reversing the approach. The summit appeared to be two hours of semi-technical ridge climbing away. At 11 p.m. the weather hadn't improved and we made the decision to call our climb a modern ascent and begin the rappels.

We reached our cave at 8 a.m., more than twenty rappels later, and after twenty-six hours on the go. We brewed again and fell asleep for a couple of hours, only to wake to building snow squalls. Knowing the approach would turn nasty we immediately packed up and began the descent, arriving at base camp at 11 p.m. on May 5. By noon the next day, two new feet of snow had fallen.

We were carrying no communication with us on the route—we had a VHF aviation radio at basecamp, but no satellite phone or reliable communication at all. In fact, in twenty days, we only saw a single plane. Perhaps the route can best be likened in terms of geography to the routes on the south buttress of Denali, like the Isis Face, Mascioli's Pillar, and Kelly Cordes and Jonny Copp's route. In terms of commitment, it felt more serious then the Diamond Arete. I was originally drawn to The Fin because it combines classic steep alpine mixed ground with a true wilderness experience—Colin Haley and Jed Brown's Entropy Wall was a huge inspiration. If there's a future to Alaskan climbing, it's by combining "new school" steep and technical terrain like that found on the north buttress of Hunter or the south face of Denali with "old school" multi-day approaches and descents to reach locales that are inaccessible to planes.

Ben Gilmore leading through a chimney pitch on the south face of The Fin. Wilkinson said that "the face is concave and spindrifts in almost any conditions"—so after encountering increasingly bad weather over fifteen hours of climbing, Gilmore, Doucette and Wilkinson made the twenty-pitch rappel from the base of the summit ridge. [Photo] Freddie Wilkinson

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