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Denali's Forgotten Wall
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June 2009 :: United States :: Alaska

Tyler Jones from Idaho and Joel Kauffman from Montana won a 2009 McNeill-Nott Award from the AAC for an attempt on the so-called Forgotten Wall: a 1,700-meter technical face between Denali’s northwest ridge and the Wickersham Wall. To avoid the serac-threatened direct approach to the face, they hatched an ambitious plan: They would descend from Denali’s west buttress to the Peters Glacier, climb up the northwest ridge to 3,900 meters, and then rappel 700 meters to the base of the Forgotten Wall. From the top of the wall at 5,000 meters, they planned to continue to the north summit of Denali at ca. 6,000m. Here is Jones’ report:

“In the Spirit of the Ladies” was to be the mantra that would drive our Alaska season for the spring of 2009. Joel and I had been fortunate enough to obtain a McNeill-Nott Award that would let us climb in the style that we cherished most—and as a tribute to two of our role models and friends. After a few preparatory acclimatization trips for each of us, we’d be primed for our Sue- and Karen-inspired mission: a new route up Denali’s north side.

I had made it to 14K on the west buttress a couple of days prior to Joel with my friend Jason Thompson, in order to set up an adequate Party Tent, including speakers and a full kitchen set. When Joel arrived, we packed up and headed down toward the 11,000-foot camp to start our traverse over to the Forgotten Wall. However, a veil of clouds over Kahiltna Pass prompted us to reverse course back to 12,000 feet. We decided to climb one of the many mixed lines on the direct west buttress, and then traverse across the upper Peters Glacier.

We began our ascent with the sun low on the western horizon and three days of food and fuel. After soloing the first 500 feet, we roped up and simul-climbed steepening alpine ice into an obvious right-tending weakness. Higher, we swapped leads on calf-burning 60-degree ice, broken up by some interesting mixed steps.

The sun rose again a couple hours after setting, and we gained the ridge top at 16,000 feet. We found a flat spot, set up our Firstlight tent, and crawled in for some sleep under our single sleeping bag. We would mobilize after hearing the weather report from our friends Greg and Leighan at 8 p.m. The verdict for 14K and above was “wind from the west at 15 to 20. Low: minus 10 degrees. Synopsis: low pressure system moving inland from the Gulf of Alaska will bring snow and high winds tomorrow.”

With two days of food remaining, we headed across the upper Peters Glacier to reach the northwest buttress. A sprint under a small serac and some moderate glacier climbing brought us to the ridge. We spotted a house-sized boulder a few hundred feet below us, and climbed down to it in order to get a better view of the Forgotten Wall.

From our perch, we could see the lower Peters Glacier and the long approach to the northwest buttress. We spent an hour scoping the Forgotten Wall and weighing our options before deciding that rappelling and traversing onto the unclimbed wall with weather moving in would not be the best decision. Instead, we unroped and made our way up the northwest buttress and on to visit the north summit of Denali.

On top, I used my ice axe to inscribed “RIP Karen and Sue” in the snow. Joel and I embraced and then turned to descend toward our Party Camp as a lentincular cloud grew over Denali’s south summit.

We would like to thank the American Alpine Club for the McNeill-Nott Award and for believing in our objective and us. We will return to the Forgotten Wall armed with the knowledge gained from this climb, in the sprit of the ladies.

The McNeill-Nott Award, sponsored by the AAC and Mountain Hardwear, supports amateur climbers exploring new routes or unclimbed peaks with small, lightweight teams. Learn more or download an application here.