Archangel Ridge – A First Ski Descent- Mt Foraker
090628 – After a wonderful bit of hospitality at the Kahiltna landing strip, Ryan and I left base camp in the early evening and ventured off towards Mt. Crosson. We were able to skin the lowers and experienced good boot packing on refrozen ice/shale before making camp at 8750ft. It was only a three hour push but the weather remained promising and we were finally in position.
090629 – Seven hours of skinning brought us to camp 2 just below the summit of Crosson. Single carrying was great for the head space but torture on the spine.
090630 – 45 minutes to the top of Crosson @12800 ft. The view is incredible from Crosson; it feels like the heart of the Alaska Range being perched between Denali, Hunter and Foraker all at once. We casually made our way to the beginning of the sultana ridge as clouds began to envelope Foraker. Since this was our last shot at scoping archangel, we broke camp and did our best to rest up while we waited for our window.
090701 – Departed camp at 2300h the previous night in beautifully clear, calm conditions. We were able to keep our ski’s on for the duration of the sultana which was a relief considering the amount of crevasses and cornices we were tip toeing on. The glorious and sometimes exposed sultana is aptly named. Three hours later, Ryan and I were on the Foraker end of the sultana ridge at 11000ft. From this point we could see the enormous scale of our original exit plan via the Foraker glacier to the town of Denali. It looked painful, but feasible. With some steep skinning and a wee bit of booting, we made our way to 14800ft where we paused our ascent for a healthy rest. In my opinion, there is nothing better than a quick nap in the mid day heat. A couple more hours of climbing took us to Foraker’s summit at 17400ft at 1630h; we had been climbing for 17hrs.
Now that we had reached the high point of our journey, it was time to shift our focus to Archangel Ridge. This line off Foraker’s North side drops you into some seriously wild country. There is no one and nothing to help you if things go wrong. Rescue would be difficult and slow if possible at all. From the bottom, you have two choices, walk out, or come back over the mountains to the Kahiltna landing strip. This is the reason why Archangel had remained unskied for so long. It’s a logistical nightmare but Ryan and I were confident in our tactics and the current conditions of our objective, so we tentatively dropped in.
Things quickly became interesting for me. Two hundred feet off the summit I hit some blue ice and went down to my hip. All my attempts to self arrest were futile. I took a terrifying ride that only ended thanks to some sastrugi which gave my edges the little bit of purchase needed to stop my low angle ride. I was shaken to say the least. I owe Ryan a special thank-you for the patience he displayed while I got my head on straight again.
The skiing on the upper two thousand feet was a mix of wind board, glacier ice and dense snow that had seen many melt freeze cycles. Fortunately, somewhere around 14500, the conditions turned on and we were blessed with thousands upon thousands of vertical feet of powder. It was like being in a dream. Better snow than Ryan or I could have imagined. The pictures tell the story better than I ever could.
The glory did come to an end eventually. The lowers can only be described as edgeable ice through complicated and exposed terrain. It was stressful, no fall skiing for what felt like an eternity. Heavy packs and fatigue exponentially increased my anxiety. On top of which, our line required one 35 meter rappel below a serrac zone – a spot neither of us felt comfortable hanging out in. Despite a few glucose low conversations however, we kept our show together and made it to the Foraker glacier safe and sound a full 24 hours after leaving our last camp on Crosson. There we got about 10 hrs sleep.
090702 – We began the mission down Archangel with two exit strategies in mind. The first and obvious strategy was to climb back up (11,000ft) the way we skied and mediate the objective hazards of icefall and avalanches as best we could. The second, our favoured option, was to walk out to the town of Denali via the Foraker glacier. The walk out would require multiple river crossings over days and days of walking on the tundra but we had enough calories with us to make it happen. The advantage of this route was that at least we would not be entirely at the mercy of high mountain weather. Fortunately, Ryan spotted a third option for us during our decent. It looked possible to go back up and over Mt. Crosson via the NW ridge.
In the early morning light, Ryan and I solidified our plan to head back up Crosson. After two thousand feet of scree scrambling from Foraker glacier, we gained the ridge and made steady progress by skins with only minimal boot packing required. We had zero information on this climb. Every corner, every crack, every knife edge was a potential shut down. We were gambling, but it paid off. Ten and a half hours later we were looking down on our tracks heading towards the sultana after completing this enormous loop. It was a nice feeling to be back in charted territory. We quickly finished the remainder of our Crosson ascent and began our atrocious ski down to the Kahiltna glacier. Some of the skiing on this five thousand foot decent was mediocre, some was absolutely horrible. More rock than snow at times. All we could do was laugh about it and keep limping down towards camp. We arrived at the Kahiltna glacier landing strip after a total of 14 hrs on the move, ecstatic and exhausted. The Crosson exit proved both functional and beautiful, in my mind equally as aesthetic as the Sultana the day before.
Special thanks to all the folks at mountain trip and to the parks service for all their support.