The Fin Wall

Exploring one of the forgotten corners of the Alaska Range…

SAT phones, accurate weather forecasts, and close air support have fundamentally changed modern Alaskan climbing.  Don’t get me wrong — I’ll happily avail myself of all the latest trickery if it means I get to do more climbing. In April 2007, Ben Gilmore, Peter Doucette, and I attempted the first ascent of the Fin Wall, a 4,000 mixed face tucked into the rugged chain of peaks that forms the Southwest Buttress of Mount Foraker. But despite the best intentions, a decidly old-school experience awaited us on the Yentna Glacier.

Photo credits: Ben Gilmore, Peter Doucette, Freddie Wilkinson

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The southwestern approaches to Mount Foraker. The highest summit on the right is the Fin (13,300 feet); Mount Lorens (10,000 feet) is on the left-hand margin of the photo. Both peaks have on recorded ascent. Everything else in the photo was unclimbed as of April 2007.

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Pre-expedition carbo-loading. My partners Peter Doucette (left) and Ben Gilmore sample some of Anchorage's finest Mexican food.

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After Paul landed us on the Wilderness Boundary, we ferried loads to a base camp approximately four miles further. The next day, Peter and I took advantage of the perfect high pressure to bag the first ascent of a 9,700 foot peak we dubbed Rogue Peak. Here Peter finishes the last hundred meters of ridge to the summit. Featured prominently behind him is the Mantok Massif.

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The splitter weather continued, and after a day of rest, we set our sights on a thin couloir snaking up the north buttress of Mantok I.

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Peter cruising up moderate terrain. This was one of only two pitches we belayed on.

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A virgin summit calls for a silly face: Topping out the summit ridge of the Mantoks. Basecamp is located in the rocky moraine crest in the middle of the glacier to my right. Mount Lorens, soloed by the mysterious Austrian prince/alpinist Thomas Bubendorfer, is above my right shoulder.

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After two "warm-up" climbs, we realized it was time to focus on the main objective. An up-close view of the Fin Wall. Mitigating the considerable objective danger to reach the start of the face was perhaps the biggest challenge of the project.

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Descending into fickle weather after a reconnaissance of the icefall.

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After several days of rest, packing, and stressing, we began the approach at 5 AM in the morning.

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We skirted the left edge of the lower icefall, then climbed a snow couloir and dropped back onto the glacier above the obstacle. Another three miles of skiing under seracs led to the concave basin at the start of the wall.

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After several hours of defending our tent against constant spindrift, we made the decision to abandon ship and dig a cave. In a moment of high drama, Gilmore suffered from mild carbon-monoxide poisoning while trapped inside the partially buried tent as Peter and I rushed to finish our new home.

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The next morning, clear skies tempted us to continue onto the face. We decided to climb without bivy gear, trying instead to summit and descend to our cave at the base of the face in a single long push.

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The first pitch was a wake-up call.

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Relaxed mixed climbing lead into a snow couloir that dead-ended in a steep wall. Here, Peter worked on his tan as Gilmore led several sustained pitches up a vertical mixed chimney.

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After Ben's crux block, I took over for an epic session of step-kicking. Peter snapped this shot of Ben approximately 400 feet below the summit ridge.

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By the time we reached the summit ridge, it was clear that the weather was turning. After a soul-searching conversation, Ben, Peter, and I made the team decision to descend. Though it is feasible to rappel a steep Alaskan face even in a storm, I was not prepared to navigate the six-plus miles of icefall and avalanche slopes between the face and basecamp in a whiteout.

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The descent took 24 hours, and as we finished the final slog around the ice fall, the storm broke in earnest. By morning, two feet of new snow had fallen.

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The uncompleted Fin Wall (Doucette-Gilmore-Wilkinson, 2007) in red, and the Southwest Face of the Bat's Ears (Gilmore-Turgeon-Wilkinson, 2008) in blue.

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The North Face of Rogue Peak (Doucette-Wilkinson, 2007) in red, and the All Talk Couloir on the Mantok I (Doucette-Gilmore-Wilkinson, 2007).

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