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On March 10 Masatoshi Kuriaki made the first solo winter ascent of Mt. Foraker (17,400′), the “wife” of Denali, in the Central Alaska Range. The above photo shows avalances racing down the nearby Mt. Hunter (14,573′), the “child” of Denali, where Kuriaki witnessed more than fifteen avalanches of this severity from Camp 1 in a single month. Kuriaki has also soloed Denali in winter, and plans to return to Hunter next year to complete the entire Denali “family” in the same style. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki

Masatoshi “Masa” Kuriaki of Japan made the first winter-season solo ascent of Mt. Foraker (17,400′) in the Central Alaska Range via the Southeast Ridge on March 10. Foraker is his second winter solo ascent of the Denali “family” (the native names for Foraker [Sultana] and Mt. Hunter [Begguya] mean the “wife” and “child” [of Denali]). While summiting Denali’s (20,320′) West Buttress on March 8, 1998, Kuriaki decided to embark on a challenge to climb the other two peaks in the same style: solo, in winter. The “Japanese Caribou,” a self-applied nickname from a trans-Alaskan walk that happened to coincide with the caribou migration, has spent more than ten years climbing in the Alaska Range, mostly on the Denali family, mostly solo and–perhaps most surprising–mostly without mishap. He hopes to climb Hunter next year to complete the trifecta.

Masa had made four solo attempts on Foraker before his success this year. Poor snow conditions denied him the peak in 1996 and 2002 (during the latter attempt, Masa unexpectedly burst through cornices on three separate occasions). In 1999 and 2001, he summited Foraker via the northeast (Sultana) and southeast ridges, respectively, narrowly missing the timeframe for a calendar winter-season ascent (April 3 and March 31). This year Masa flew into the Kahiltna Glacier in late January. He spent a couple weeks ferrying supplies to camp alone, then worked up the rarely-climbed southeast ridge. Although a relatively easy route during the summer, the line offers classic Alaska Range severities in winter: steep snow and ice, and long, exposed cornice ridges.

Masa’s patience has kept him alive; he routinely spends two full months or longer attempting each solo winter climb. But when it gets dangerous, he turns around–“too scary,” he says of the avalanche conditions and hanging glaciers that sent him packing on Hunter in 2004. Even the most careful are not immune, however. Descending from the summit of Foraker in the spring of 1999, Masa (with only one ski and no poles due to an avalanche that buried some of his gear) fell deep into a crevasse on his descent with 120 pounds of gear. Strapping thirty pounds to each side of his body, he spent an hour chimney climbing out of the crevasse, then pulled up his remaining supplies, to which he had tied his rope. “It was the worst thing that’s happened in all my ten years of winter trips.”

Kuriaki’s camp below Mt. Hunter in 2005. Next year he plans to climb Hunter’s northeast ridge, accessing it from Denali’s basecamp. The Tokositna Glacier, which provides direct access to the ridge, has proven difficult to land on by plane during Kuriaki’s past three attempts on Hunter in 2003, 2004 and 2005. [Photo] Masatoshi Kuriaki

Hoping to complete his decade-long dream, Masa will return to Mt. Hunter next winter. Like Foraker, this will be his fifth solo trip to the mountain. His plan to climb its northeast ridge from the Tokositna Glacier–which he hoped to do in 2003, 2004 and 2005–was thwarted by the difficulties of landing a plane in the narrow glacial valley’s deep snow. Rather than compromise and attempt the west ridge (Shortcut Route), as has happened all three of those years, Masa plans to begin at Denali’s basecamp and climb a steep ice gully that connects to a col that will take him to Hunter’s northeast ridge.

Sources: Masatoshi Kuriaki,