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Mount Foraker: Alaska’s Third Highest Mountain

Fast Facts About Mount Foraker

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While lower than Denali, Sultana AKA Foraker is a much more difficult mountain to climb.

Mount Foraker/Sultana towers above base camp below Denali in the Alaska Range.

Photograph © Doug Hatfield

Elevation: 17,400 feet (5,304 meters)
Prominence: 7,248 feet (2,209 meters) 3rd Most Prominent Mountain in Alaska.
Location: Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Alaska.
Coordinates: 62°57′39″ N / 151°23′53″ W
First Ascent: Summit of North Peak by Charles Houston, Chychele Waterston, and T. Graham Brown on August 6, 1934.

Fast Facts:

  • Mount Foraker, also called Sultana, is the third highest mountain in Alaska and the United States (after Denali and Mount Saint Elias), and the sixth highest mountain in North America. Mount Foraker is an ultra-prominence peak with 7,248 feet (2,209 meters) of prominence, making it the third most prominent mountain in Alaska.

  • Mount Foraker, as seen from Anchorage to the south, looms as a giant twin peak to Denali or Mount McKinley in the Alaska Range. Although Foraker is about 3,000 feet lower, the mountains appear the same height. Foraker is 14 miles (23 kilometers) southwest of Denali.

  • The Tanama Indians, who have long lived in the Lake Minchumina area northeast of the Alaska Range, called the great snowy mountain Sultana, “The Woman,” and Menale, “Denali’s Wife.” Their name Denali translates as “The High One.” Many Alaskans still call the mountain Sultana, honoring the name that the ancient ones bestowed on it.

  • British Captain George Vancouver, while exploring the Alaskan coast in May 1794, made the first recorded reference to Mount Foraker. He reported seeing “Distant stupendous mountains covered with snow, and apparently detached from, one another.” He declined to name the high mountains.

  • Sultana was renamed in the 1830s by members of the Russian American Trading Company, who were mapping Alaska’s interior lands. Their 1839 report named a group of mountains Tenada, which included Denali, and a nearby massif Tschigmit, which included Sultana and its satellite peaks. The names were later eliminated from Russian maps and were forgotten when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million; critics called the frontier purchase Seward's Folly for Secretary of State William Seward and thought it a waste of money. The Russians also called the two mountains Bolshaya Gora or "big mountain.”

  • Sultana was given its current non-native name on November 25, 1899 by Lt. Joseph Herron of the 8th U.S. Calvary on a reconnaissance expedition. On that day, Herron saw “...a second great mountain in the range, 20,000 feet high, which I named Mount Foraker.” The mountain was named for U.S. Senator Joseph Foraker from Ohio who was later expelled from politics for his involvement in an oil kickback scandal.

  • Many Alaskans and climbers have lobbied to have both Mount Foraker and Mount McKinley renamed with their native names of Denali and Sultana. The first effort was by Reverend Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal missionary who co-led the first expedition to climb the South Peak of Denali/Mount McKinley in 1913. In his classic book The Ascent of Denali, Stuck condemned the “ruthless arrogance…that contemptuously ignores the native names of conspicuous natural objects.” His plea fell on deaf ears since the mountains still officially have the non-native names.

  • Hudson Stuck was also the first person to describe Sultana. He wrote about a view of the mountain from the summit of Denali: “About three thousand feet beneath us and fifteen to twenty miles away, sprang most splendidly into view the great mass of Denali’s Wife…filling majestically all the middle distance…never was a nobler sight displayed to man than that great, isolated mountain spread out completely, with all its spurs and ridges, its cliffs and its glaciers, lofty and mighty and yet far beneath us.”

  • Mount Foraker was first climbed by a five-man expedition in 1934. The group was organized by Oscar Houston and his son Charles Houston, who later became a Himalayan mountaineer and pioneer in mountain medicine. The Houstons along with T. Graham Brown, Chychele Waterston, and Charles Storey set out on July 3 with an outfitter and packed into a base camp on the Foraker River. The men slowly climbed up the Northwest Ridge of Foraker, with Charles Houston, Waterston, and Brown reaching the summit of the North Peak on August 6. They were unsure that they had reached the high point so they also climbed the lower 16,812-foot South Peak on August 10. The expedition finally returned to Denali National Park headquarters on August 28 after an 8-week climb. The route is now rarely climbed because of its long approach.

  • The Infinite Spur, one of Alaska’s greatest alpine routes, ascends the mountain’s South Face. Michael Kennedy and George Lowe made an audacious alpine-style first ascent of the spur in 1977. The route, an Alaskan Grade 6, ascends an elegant 9,400-foot-high rock rib that splits the face. The pair began climbing on June 27 and reached the top of the spur on June 30, after climbing many pitches of 50- to 60-degree ice, loose 5.9 rock sections, and three pitches of difficult mixed climbing, including the crux—a long lead of rock and ice up an intimidating gully led by Kennedy, then publisher of Climbing Magazine. They reached the summit on July 3 after a storm, were in an almost-disastrous avalanche while descending the Southeast Ridge, and reached base camp on July 6 after 10 days of climbing. The spur’s second ascent was in June 1989 in 13 days by Mark Bebie and Jim Nelson (USA).

  • The Southeast Ridge of Sultana is the standard route to the summit. It was first climbed in 1963 by James Richardson and Jeffrey Duenwald in 1963. The route, rated an Alaskan Grade 3, is popular because it’s easily accessed from Denali basecamp. About half of all ascents of Foraker are on the Southeast Ridge, although the route is prone to avalanches.

  • Other notable first ascents on Sultana/Mount Foraker are:
    Talkeenta Ridge: First ascent in July 1968 by America climbers Alex Bertulis, Warren Bleser, Hans Baer, and Peter Williamson (USA). This was the fourth ascent of Foraker.
    Archangel Ridge: First ascent in July 1975 by Gerry Roach, Barbara Roach, Brad Johnson, David Wright, Stewart Krebs, and Charles Campbell (USA). Barbara Roach was the first woman to climb the mountain. Route is up the North Ridge.
    French Ridge: First ascent in May and June 1976 by French climbers Henri Agresti, Jean-Marie Galmiche, Gerard Creton, Herve Thivierge, Isabelle Agresti (FRA), and Werner Landry (USA) up the South-Southeast Ridge.

  • The late Mugs Stump, an Alaska veteran and Utah climber who was killed in an avalanche on Denali in 1992, described the mountain: “You see Foraker from McKinley and it’s just floating out there. It’s like a mirage: You can see it, but you can’t touch. It’s like the bride you can’t approach.”
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