Photo: Bob Goforth, 18,000 feet on the Harper Glacier, Denali AK, 1976
Remembering Robert Goforth 1953-2016
Bob and I were the first to descend to the West Buttress high camp at 17,200 feet. Two days earlier we had stood on the highest point in North America, the summit of Denali 20,310. The 17,200 camp was a forlorn and crowded spot. The wind had scoured the snow leaving a flat hard surface. Tents were pitched between piles of frozen urine, excrement and garbage, a sharp contrast to the pristine condition of our summit route, the Muldrow, which we had to ourselves.
With a sigh of relief, we slipped off our eighty pound packs and turned to watch our companions descend the steep snow slope, named the Autobahn, from Denali Pass. It was May 17th 1976 and we were 35 days out from Wonder Lake, Alaska on a ski traverse of Denali. We were exhausted, starved, and ready to go home.
Bob and I watched our companions slowly descend. Bill was suffering from altitude sickness and fatigue. We had put him roped between two others. One-third the way down the Autobahn Bill fell, but was caught by the ropes connected to his partners on either side. It was surreal seeing Bill suspended between the two other climbers. He slowly regained his footing; no easy task with a heavy pack . Bob and I let out a collective breath. They descended another 200 feet when he fell a second time. Again, his fall was arrested.
I turned to Bob. We looked at each other and without saying a word, we put on our crampons and harnesses, tied into our rope and headed back up to aid our companions. By the time we reached them, they were most of the way down. Bob grabbed Bill’s pack and carried back to camp. I remember thinking how lucky I was to have Bob as my partner. Bob didn’t fall. He was solid and dependable.
The next day we slowly made our way down the rocky West Buttress and fixed ropes to the 14,200 foot camp. There we spent the night with a group of Alaskan hang gliders hoping to make the first hang gliding descent of Denali. In the morning, we said goodbye and good luck to our new friends. Roped together for safety from hidden crevasses. Bob, Mike and I skied around Windy Corner, past Kahiltna Pass, down the Kahiltna Glacier and up the Southeast Fork to basecamp and the airstrip. The views were sublime. Clouds, blue sky, sun and snow framed by the giants of the Alaska Range: Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker and rising above all, the massive south face of Denali.
Photo: Bob and Mike on the Kahiltna Glacier with Mt. Hunter in the background
The late spring sun was low in the sky when we reached the glacier airstrip. We were out of food, our thirty day supply stretched and consumed. We were scheduled to fly out the next morning, but the mountain had other plans. The next three days we sat in our tents listening to the wind howl and the roar of avalanches coming off the north side of Mt Hunter. With no food left, we relied on the charity of other parties pinned down by the storm. In one of those groups, was the famous climber and photographer Galen Rowell. We packed in his tent, passing the time, while he regaled us with adventure stories. He was a great man. Sadly, he died in a plane crash in 2002.
As I look back at this forced extension, I realize how special it was to spend this time decompressing before we returned to civilization. We were hungry, but safe. We kept warm in the glow of our accomplishment: seven 22 year old kids skiing up, and over, the highest mountain in North America. I will always remember Bob and his ice beard. He was a special man.