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Scare of a climber's life: When a 6.1 earthquake triggered avalanches on Mount Foraker

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: June 24, 2016
  • Published March 22, 2016

Caroline Byrd, a mountaineer, former National Outdoor Leadership School instructor and friend does not walk around wearing a sign that says, "Hi, I experienced a major earthquake and avalanche on the side of (17,400-foot) Mount Foraker." It's also not the first, second or 50th thing she shares about herself. She talks about her daughter, her work, something she read.

But recently, she told me this story about the earthquake and avalanche during a casual conversation, and it seemed unbelievable. So I busted out Google and found this from the 1991 Denali Park and Preserve Mountaineering Summary:

"The 1991 mountaineering season on Denali began with a rumble as a major earthquake hit the range on April 30. Measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale, the epicenter was just south of Mount Foraker. Huge avalanches were observed throughout the range, as well as several reports of close calls among climbers. Luckily there were no injuries."


Admiring Foraker

I decided to sit down and have another conversation with Caroline. It turned out that surviving the avalanche on the side of Foraker was only one of several mountaineering accolades. She was also the first woman to climb the northwest buttress of Denali in 1989.

On why she and her team climbed Foraker, she said, "Almost the whole time you're on Denali you're looking right at Foraker, and it's really compelling. We'd had such a remarkable experience on the northwest buttress, we said, 'Let's come back and do a similar route on Foraker.' "

She didn't come from a mountaineering background. Originally from Los Angeles, when she was 12 years old she wanted to become a mountaineer. "Every time I talked to people who had done big mountains, it was like, 'Oh - - -' -- Caroline's eyes got wide -- 'How do I do that?' I was a weird kid."

She met her climbing partners during her 15-year career with NOLS. "Our agreements were basically to climb the mountain, do it well, stay friends and return with all of our digits. Safety was No. 1."

They knew Foraker in particular was dangerous because it's very avalanche prone. "When people asked us about it, I even remembering saying the only thing that could get us would be an earthquake." Although she instructed many mountaineering courses and had avalanche training, Caroline had never been in an avalanche.

The Foraker climbers brought a month's worth of fuel, food and gear to take a longer route that was less dangerous than the usual way up.

On day 10 of the hike, they arrived at Foraker Glacier at the base of the mountain. The glacier split to go up two valleys, with a big rock ridge in the middle. They selected their base camp behind the ridge. "This turned out to be a very good selection," Caroline said.

5-day storm

They started up the mountain just in time to meet a big storm.

"We were sitting in our tents for five days. It was a classic Alaska storm. ... We were supposed to be up and down already (and) we were still another two days from the summit. So we had to come back down and re-gear and rethink what we were going to do.

"We come back down, storm's over. It's 11 p.m. (with) beautiful alpenglow on the mountain. We're laying in our camp. I'm in a single-wall tent with Willie, and Tom and Allen are in our VE25 (tent). The ground starts shaking.

"I'm from California, my friend Willie is from Winnipeg. He's saying 'What's going on?' and I say 'It's an earthquake.' So we pop out of our tent, and Tom and Allen pop out of theirs. At that point I had really good eyesight, but all three of those guys have glasses, so they're wiping their condensation off their glasses.

"I'm looking up at Foraker and it's just shaking its shoulders. You've got this huge mountain of snow and ice and it's all coming down because it's shaking. So I'm looking up, 'Oh, f---. We are ---ed.' "

Somebody had the idea to go under the big ridge. They grabbed boots, bags, a shovel. There was no dissension. Once they were huddled under the moraine, the air blasts hit.

It had been three minutes since the earthquake. Caroline explained that avalanches create not only the debris of the flow, but also suspend a huge amount of snow in the air.

"(The air blasts) lasted 3 to 4 minutes ... We're all in all these layers, we're in our sleeping bags. But we have snow next to our skin between each layer and filling our bags. We were behind this fire hose of snow. I remember being under there thinking, 'We can breathe, we can breathe.' "

"It's the only time I remember thinking, 'OK, I'm with my friends, I'm in a beautiful place, I'm doing what I love, this could be it.' "

'Get the hell out of here'

"But it stopped. We shook ourselves off, and crawled out of the boulder and looked around us. Our campsite selection was brilliant because there was debris all around us -- but we were shielded.

"We spent the next bunch of time shoveling out the tents, getting ourselves warm, assessing the damage.

"We woke up the next morning and said, 'What are we gonna do?' We looked at each other and said, 'Let's get the hell out of here.' "

"We had this interesting trip out … some interesting conversations. It was a lot of, 'What just happened?' 'Why didn't we climb the mountain?' 'Whose fault was that?'

"Then we caught ourselves: It was nobody's fault. It opened up a sense of mortality for all of us. That's not a comfortable place. I was in my early 30s.

"That was just an awesome natural event. We had been smart. We had used good judgment. So I didn't have doubts. We were really lucky to experience it, but it wasn't one of those 'I could have died and it was my fault.' It was more … that was awesome. Truly awesome. It didn't in any way dampen my desire to keep climbing. I felt incredibly fortunate to have seen that and to have come out unscathed.

"We all know this: It's dynamic out there. Mountains shake. Mountains move. And it's humbling to know that mountains don't stay put. Our vision of the solidity of a mountain is false.

"The thing that I love about that experience is I can literally still see it, how many years later -- 25 years later that image of seeing that mountain move and shed its snow and ice is so incredibly part of my visual memory."

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.