British climbers Pete Graham, Ben Silvestre and Will Harris recently completed the tenth ascent (first British) of the 3000m long Infinite Spur on Mount Foraker (Sultana) 5,304 m, in Alaska.
Mt Foraker, originally named Sultana by the indigenous Tanaina Athabascan people, is the second highest peak in the Central Alaska Range. The Infinite Spur was first climbed in 1977 by American climbers George Lowe and Michael Kennedy. It has now had just 11 ascents.
The most recent ascent was an audacious and fast solo by American climber Colin Haley. Although Colin's ascent went to plan, he was hit by a violent storm on descent.
Below British climber Pete Graham tells his story of the Infinite Spur (Grade 6 5.9 M5 AI4):
When I bought a copy of Extreme Alpinism, around ten years ago, as a young aspiring alpinist, Michael Kennedy's foreword in which he describes his and George Lowe's first ascent of the Infinite Spur was probably the most inspirational thing I'd read about climbing in the mountains at the time. His described experience was everything I was looking for in alpine climbing, and the route has ranked highly on my list of dream climbs since then, as it has for Will and Ben.
“On our fifth day, near the end of twenty-four hours of continuous climbing, we came to the hardest part of the route, a steep mixed gully. George suggested that we bivouac so we'd be able to tackle the problem fresh, but I had a second (or third or forth) wind and went ahead.
What remained is one of my most powerful climbing memories. I recall very little of the actual climbing, the technical detail of the moves. What I do remember is looking up and visualizing myself climbing this section – which was probably the hardest climbing of that sort I've done at the time – and then some time later, looking back down at George as he came up. It is one of the few times I've gone outside my own consciousness, beyond what I thought or knew I could do, a feeling I've kept looking for since, in climbing, skiing, running, hiking. All the mountain activities we are fortunate to enjoy. As befits such rare gift, it has always come unheralded, never when I thought it would or should.”
Micheal Kennedy's Foreward to Mark Twight's Extreme Alpinism
Until this year, the Infinite Spur had been repeated seven times since it's first ascent in 1977, and never by a British team. Despite it's relatively close proximity to the main Kahiltna landing strip and relatively amenable climbing by modern standards, the length, commitment and serious nature of the undertaking has prevented it from becoming a trade route.
After acclimatising in poor weather on Denali's west buttress, on the 25th May myself, Ben and Will left Kahiltna Base camp for what would become some of the most intense and rewarding days of alpine climbing of our lives. We would bivouack twice on the route and twice on the descent.
On our second day while climbing the Ice Rib we started to hear voices. We wondered whether we might be descending into fear induced psychosis. But were pleased to discover that the voices were in fact those of Colin Haley and Rob Smith about to overtake us at break neck speed. As agreed before we set off, we would break trail or the first half of the route and they would the second. Colin and Rob went on to climb the spur in a record breaking 18hours 20mins.
Our ascent went mostly without incident, however on reaching the summit plateau we were hit by ferocious strong winds, which made us feel like we were crossing the Cairngorm plateau, but in a much, much more serious situation. On reaching the final summit ridge the wind fortunately eased, the torrents of spindrift cleared and we were granted a truly spectacular view across flat tundra to the north west, the low sun glinting off hundreds of individual tiny lakes. The relief of being out of the horrendous wind combined with the raw beauty of the Alaskan wilderness and the intensity of our experience on the route reduced all three of us to tears.
The descent down the Sultana ridge was long and involved, we bivouacked twice more before reaching base camp on morning of the 30th May.
On arriving back at our tent we were greeted by a surprisingly fresh looking Colin Haley. He and Rob had arrived back in base camp just the previous morning, but he was already preparing to solo something, but he wouldn't tell us what. Although we had a pretty strong suspicion of what he had planned.
On the morning of 31st May Colin left base camp with no bivi gear for the route, not a single piece of climbing protection and only a 15m length of 5mm cord to haul his pack on steeper sections. He slept below the route during the warmth of the day and started climbing early in the morning of the 1st June. Crossing the bergschrund at 3:43am. His free solo of the Infinite Spur took an astounding 12 hours 29 minutes. His ascent went smoothly and without incident. However after descending the top 1500m of the Sultana ridge the weather began to close in. Colin described the next 48 hours to us as being one of the most harrowing and intense experiences of his life.
You can get a glimpse in to his experience on his blog, which is quoted below:
“From the moment the bad weather came in on the evening of June 1, it took me nearly 48 hours to reach Kahiltna Basecamp. The descent was a long, harrowing blur, done entirely in storm, in which I became progressively more sleep-deprived, finally arriving in basecamp after being awake nearly three full days. Although my biggest concern beforehand had been crevasses, it soon became clear that my biggest concerns were visibility and avalanche hazard. During the course of my descent it snowed something like 50-60cm up high, with a lot of wind transport. Avalanche conditions were the sketchiest I have ever seen in 20 years of skiing and mountaineering, and I triggered at least 30 slab avalanches during my descent."
“Trail-breaking was brutally hard work with all the snow that was accumulating, and I’d estimate that I spent a total of 2-3 kilometers literally crawling on my hands and knees.”
Colin arrived back in basecamp on 7:30pm on June 3rd just before we were about to fly out. We had been worried about him over the past few days knowing where he was in the bad weather. We went over to congratulate him on surviving:
“Hey man, you ok?”
“Yeah I'm ok, but I think I might just have had the most intense experience of my life.”
“We'll see you back in Talkeetna in a day or so then?”
“Well I kind of want to solo the Cassin as well...”
After having survived such a serious epic it would seem incomprehensible to most people to have the desire to go straight out and solo something else. Colin's insatiable drive and motivation, never mind ability, is something that is paralleled by very few climbers in the world today.
Footnote: Ours and Colin and Rob's ascents weren't the only action the spur saw this season. Fellow Brits John Crook, Dave Sharp and Gav Pike reached a bivouac below the second rock band, but were pinned down by the same storm that hit Colin on his descent. They spent two miserable days trapped in their tent before they were able to descend. Having spent 6 uncomfortable hours on this ledge I can safely say this is an awful place to spend 2 days. A valiant effort despite the lack of summit.
Pete Ben and Will would like to thank the following companies and grant bodies for helping them with their trip: BMC, DMM, Rab and The Alpine Club, Climbing Mountain House Europe, Chia Charge, Khoo's Hot Sauce, Austrian Alpine Club (UK), MEF