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People always call it luck when you’ve acted more sensibly than they have.
– Anne Tyler

East Kahiltna Peak, May, 2001

It was the middle of the Alaska night when our taxi groaned to a stop in front of the Earth B&B in Anchorage. A tall, stately woman greeted us and directed us to the back with our bags. Soon, we were in a tidy room. The Earth B&B was the first of many pleasant surprises on this Alaska trip. In the morning, the kitchen filled with eager climbers en route to several different destinations ranging from Logan to Denali. The Earth B&B proprietor, Margriet van Laake, and her partner Bill Merchant regaled us with coffee, bagels and stories.
Margriet van Laake in front of the Earth B and B in downtown Anchorage Margriet van Laake in front of the Earth B&B in downtown Anchorage
After picking up our fuel cartridges at REI, attending to other chores and grabbing a quick halibut burger at Humpy’s, it was off to Talkeetna. After the obligatory beers at the Fairview Inn and a sleep, it was take-off time for the rush toward Kahiltna International. As always, the Great Land grabbed my soul like a cosmic cry.
Foraker as seen through One-Shot Pass Foraker as seen through One-Shot Pass
One-Shot Pass skimmed under the wings as Foraker loomed ahead. I was here in part to reflect on my previous ascents. I first climbed Denali in 1963, and wooed by her beauty, I vowed to climb Foraker on that trip, a promise I kept in 1975. Then, the Cessna raced past Mount Hunter’s West Ridge that I climbed in 1994. Then, boom, there was the Great One.
Denali as seen from near Hunter's West Ridge Denali as seen from near Hunter’s West Ridge

East Kahiltna Peak is just in front of the Great One
We were coming in high and hot to get a view of the route, the south ridge of East Kahiltna Peak. At 13,440 feet, East Kahiltna Peak is the fourth highest peak in Denali National Park. The goals of this trip were to climb the fourth highest and bask in the views of the other three. East Kahiltna Peak is just southwest of Denali, and is located in the middle of the big three. For me, I was heading into the center of the universe.
East Kahiltna Peak seen during our aerial reconnaissance East Kahiltna’s south ridge is the sun-shadow ridge right of center

Denali looms behind during our aerial reconnaissance
The Cessna buzzed the bottom of the route, and it looked deceptively simple from the air. There was one great crack in the ridge up high, and the pilot went farther up the East Fork to look for a way around it. After spotting an end run on the right, the plane zoomed back to Kahiltna Base. I first landed at this site with Don Sheldon in 1963 when we threw pine boughs out the window of Don’s Super Cub to mark the runway. Before we could land in ’63, we had to toss half our gear out the window as well to lighten the plane. In 1963, we had the Southeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier and most of Denali to ourselves. In 2001, the runway was marked with numerous orange sleds stuck vertically in the snow. Our landing in the super-charged Cessna was like giving candy to a baby; it was smooth as soy milk. The plane taxied up to more sleds, which were the “gates.” Each gate was marked with the initials for a different air service. There were five gates. After meeting Lisa, the basecamp manager, I marveled at the tent city before me. There must have been more than 100 people in basecamp. How times change! I feel privileged to have seen this pristine place with Don Sheldon in 1963. I could also see the peak and route to the northeast through the notch between Mt. Francis and Denali’s South Buttress.
East Kahiltna Peak in front of Denali, as seen from Kahiltna Base East Kahiltna Peak and Denali as seen from Kahiltna Base

The south ridge is the sun-shadow ridge in the center of the photograph
By noon, I was enjoying the first glorious downhill mile to the main Kahiltna Glacier. After marching up the snow highway on the Kahiltna Glacier that everyone uses en route to Denali’s West Buttress, I left this main route, turned toward the East Fork and took the path less traveled.
The path less traveled The path less traveled
My excitement rose as I pulled away from the path of least resistance, and entered the sanctuary of a glacier valley where I had never been before. The reality of the steepening uphill grade, the deceptive distance and the long day wore on me. After pitching basecamp in the evening, the views and silence were already sufficient reward. In the morning, I examined the privileged position in the middle of the East Fork between Denali’s South Buttress and East Kahiltna Peak. The south ridge was directly above to the north, and it looked more serious than it had from the air.
East Kahiltna Peak as seen from our East Fork basecamp East Kahiltna Peak as seen from the East Fork basecamp
To my surprise, I also had a stunning view of the Cassin Ridge on Denali. This is North America’s finest mountaineering line, and it showed me why.
The Cassin Ridge on Denali as seen from our East Fork basecamp The Cassin Ridge on Denali as seen from the East Fork basecamp
I spent the day organizing gear and resting. During a snooze in the tent, I heard a load roar. I wondered if this was something that I needed to pay attention to, but after unzipping the tent for a view, I had my answer. I scrambled from the tent, stood, turned and faced a huge cloud racing toward me. As I ran past the tent, I grabbed my boots and ice ax and trotted uphill while snatching glances back at the approaching monster. It looked more and more like I would just get dusted, but you never know. Still in my down booties, I paused 50 yards from the tent as the cloud rolled over me. The sun disappeared as the fine ice dust covered my turned back, leaving me white. Back in camp, I kicked myself for not zipping up the tent before fleeing. There was a half-inch of ice dust on the tent. When the cloud cleared, I saw that the nearest debris was far from camp near the base of the face. Nevertheless, I dubbed basecamp, “Camp Hazard.”
One of several slides that dusted the East Fork One of several slides that dusted the East Fork
In the late afternoon, I did a recon over to the base of our 4,400-foot high route, weaving to solve the crevasses between camp and the start of the steep climbing. The next morning’s sun warmed steady steps above Camp Hazard onto the initial slope leading to the crest of the south ridge. On the ridge I expected to find a flat crest for a commodious camp. Ha! The ridge was knife-edged and after casting about in dismay, spent several hours digging a platform for my large tent. I pitched the tent with great care to avoid dropping a tent pole. Inches from the edge of the tent, the snows fell away at dizzy angles. I had talked about bringing a small tent for tight spots like this, but this climb was supposed to be easy. What on Earth was I thinking? A steep peak right under the Cassin Ridge easy? Not likely. I had flown in with four ice screws, but after the deceptive view from the airplane, left two of them in basecamp. Now, I had to use one of the two remaining screws to anchor the tent. However, once set, this comfy camp with a view quickly became known as, “the Perch.”
At the Perch Perching
On May 19th, I stirred at 6AM to begin summit day. I spent some time fiddling with a makeshift, but light pack. To further save weight, I decided to take only one camera and leave the case behind. A few hundred yards above camp, I met the challenge on an icy traverse.
Foraker soaring above the Kahiltna Glacier as we begin our summit climb Foraker soars above the Kahiltna Glacier and the Perch
After some initial steepness, the angle moderated, and engrossed in the effort, I found my head, which had been screwed on sideways up to this point. Anymore, I seem to spend more time lamenting the fact that I am getting too old for this steep stuff, but if I concentrate on climbing instead of complaining, age doesn’t matter.
Gerry leading toward the still distant summit Gerry leading toward the still distant summit
The route rolled up, over and around slopes punctuated with nifty knife-edged ridges. I felt like I was climbing a high altitude roller coaster, and cruised over these delightful obstacles in stride until there was no longer any sign of that easy route I had spotted from the Cessna.
The upper peak looms The upper peak looms

You can see the route’s crux, a big crack in the ridge
In the saddle below the upper loom, I stopped for a break and brewed up. After earlier low-water ascents on Hunter, King Peak and St. Elias, I had taken the precaution of bringing a small stove on summit day. This turned out to be one of my better moves, and the extra water was a great help. Refreshed, I tackled a steep slope that quickly turned into one of the route’s cruxes. In an effort to end-run some air-filled snow, I traversed right only to find more crummy snow over ice, with a crevasse running through it. After scraping up this unexpected obstacle, I moved on up to the expected crux, the big crack in the ridge.
The expected end-run on the right held four inches of foofy snow over hard Alaska Blue. For those that don’t know, that’s ice so hard that you can barely nick it with an ice ax. With only one ice screw, I was woefully under equipped to tackle this slope. I needed the four screws that I flew in with. With the end-run cut off, I now peered up a widening, vertical ice cliff. The slope under the ice cliff ended in a huge crevasse.
A rope-length higher, I spotted an improbable semi-ramp with vertical ice below and above.
After leaving the pack and camera, a few anxious minutes later I balanced at the end of the semi-ramp, reached around the corner and placed a tool. Expecting Alaska Blue, hoping for something softer, the tool went chunk, and stuck! I rocketed up the slope above the ice wall.
Thus, poised high and above two cruxes, with one picket and one screw, I started for the summit with the shirt on my back. It was pure.
The summit ridge was beyond pure. It was an Alaska Classic. Climbers in the French Alps would turn triple flips to find a ridge like this. Unlike the crowded Alps however, I had this privileged position to myself.
The peak’s east and west ridges converged above, and I stomped up to the apex of these ridges and the south ridge. The summit. I had expected the summit to be a dome, but it was little more than a point. The view was beyond my already grand expectations. To the north, Denali filled half the horizon. I peered down into the depths of the Kahiltna’s Northeast Fork, across and up at the famous West Rib Route.
I studied the Cassin Ridge carefully and photographed its details with my mind. I have no dispersions of climbing this route.
Looking northwest, I saw the tundra. In this world of snow and ice, I had forgotten about things green. The view twanged my heartstrings. I have had a long relationship with this great range, and have spent many days on the tundra north of the great peaks. I had already invested much of my soul in climbing both Denali and Foraker from Wonder Lake in the tundra north of the peaks. Like all views Alaskan, this one was hard to grasp. That’s why they call it the Great Land.
Turning my back on Denali, the view opened to the southwest, where Foraker flew above it all. More than Denali’s queen, it really is the perfect peak. Alone and aloof, Foraker’s summit is a point few reach. Turning again, there was Hunter, Denali’s child. I had proclaimed this summit beyond me for most of my climbing career, then climbed the mountain in 1994.
As I spun round, the great peaks surrounded me. This is what I had come for. I was indeed in the center of Denali’s universe. Denali is the starting point for the great backbone of mountains that support the Western Hemisphere, and I consider the summit of East Kahiltna Peak to be Earth’s fulcrum. I stomped a huge “HI” in the snow. It was my summit register. Perhaps some climber on the West Buttress saw it and pondered the fact that there is more.
The lack of a camera was a technical annoyance. However, I saw more keenly without it. I had to impregnate the view on my brain forever. Perhaps, the following photos can help others.
Mount Hunter as seen from near the summit of East Kahiltna Peak Mount Hunter as seen from near the summit of East Kahiltna Peak
Mount Foraker as seen from near the summit of East Kahiltna Peak Mount Foraker as seen from near the summit of East Kahiltna Peak
The south side of Denali The south side of Denali

East Kahiltna Peak is in the lower left
The grandeur that surrounded us in Earth's fulcrum The grandeur surrounding Earth’s fulcrum
If I was not human, I could stay on the summit forever. Alas, I descended.
Descending the semi-ramp Descending the semi-ramp
Back at the Perch after an 11-hour climb, I was not tired, and spent hours enjoying the long Alaskan evening. There was no room to strut, so I just perched. The rest of the world would return soon enough. For now, I was free.
Gerry at the Perch after the summit climb Gerry at the Perch after the summit climb
Tinkling Freedom Freedom
Copyright © 2001-2017 by Gerry Roach. All Rights Reserved.
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