Haines residents Jenn Walsh and Jessica Kayser Forster are likely the first women to summit the 6,400-foot Mount Emmerich in the Chilkat Valley, also known as Cathedral Peaks.
They made the trek in early July with Chris Downer and Kevin Forster. Local climbers say fewer than ten ascents of Emmerich have happened since the first one in 1976, and Forster and Walsh are thought to be the only women to complete the climb.
“I think it was about 2 o’clock in the morning or 1 o’clock in the morning and Kevin looked at Jess and me. And Kevin said, ‘You guys this is it. If we are going to turn around and get back to our tents or off the snowfield before the sun hits the snow, then we need to turn around now,’” Jenn Walsh remembers.
That moment in the climb where Kevin Forster asked his companions if they wanted to turn around happened because of unexpected conditions. The group had made their base camp in the Cathedral Cirque – a glacier bench at about 3,700 ft. Right away, they noticed something different.
“It was really surprising how little snow and ice there was,” said Jessica Forster.
Forster had been to the cirque two times before.
“There [was] about 20 to 30 feet less snow,” she said. “So you have this mountain up there that’s being exposed for the first time because it’s been covered in snow and ice for so long. Which brought about a lot of objective hazards now.”
Less snowpack meant more technical snow and rock climbing than they expected. They also were a group of four, which slows climbing down. Kevin Forster had summited Emmerich before, and his trip up from the base camp and back down took nine hours total. They could tell that that was not going to happen this time. The group was less than halfway up when they had to make a decision.
“We were like you know, we’re way behind schedule,” Jessica Forester said. “There’s no way that we can get up there and come back down in time and not be in the heat of the day. And so we were like, well the other option is we know it’s gonna be calm and 80, so it might be safe to climb through the night and spend the day on the summit. So the other option is we just keep climbing through the night and spend the day on the summit. And we decided to do that.”
Forster and Walsh say they climbed during the night because colder weather makes for safer conditions. Trying to climb at that elevation when it’s sunny and 80 degrees would be dangerous because the heat makes the surfaces less stable.
It took 14 hours to climb up from their base camp to the summit along the south ridge of the peak.
“To be with your friends right there and know you just did something that took everything is amazing,” Walsh said. “And I feel like we’ve done some big things together before but maybe I just haven’t felt that kind of emotion and it just opened up gates and I think we all felt it. That was my moment.”
Their view was a sea of mountains, which they had hours to take in, since they couldn’t descend during the hot daytime hours.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life because usually you get to the top of a mountain and you just turn around and go back down, you don’t spend much time on summits. But in this instance we peaked out at 7 o’clock in the morning and we spent 10 hours on the summit,” Forester said.
They made little tents out of trekking poles and extra layers to shield themselves from the sun. Ten hours later, the group started the climb down. It took 11 hours to get back to the camp.
Forster and Walsh say the most physically exhausting part of the trip wasn’t the summit. It was hiking out of the cirque. The group had arranged for a plane to drop food into their base camp. And leaving, they had to carry leftover supplies out on their backs. The lack of snow also made that part of the trek more difficult. It took 13 hours.
“This was so incredibly difficult,” Walsh said. “I kind of like activities that involve some suffering but this was incredible. It was a lot of work but it was really a lot of staying mentally focused. I think coming back down, I thought to myself I might not be strong enough for this.”
Walsh and Forster are probably the first women to summit the Cathedrals, but since some ascents are not officially recorded, it’s hard to know for sure. Jack Tackle was one of the climbers to make the first ascent of Emmerich in 1976. He and Haines climbing enthusiast John Svenson say they don’t know of any other women to who have summited Emmerich. The American Alpine Club also did not know of any other female climbers who have reported summiting the Cathedrals.
Forester and Walsh give credit to Kevin Forester and Chris Downer, but they say they wouldn’t have done it without each other.
“There’s so much more when there’s another woman with you,” Forester said. “And I can’t really explain it but it just makes you stronger. I don’t know why. Sometimes you rely on guys to do things for you but all of sudden when there another woman is there I feel like I can do anything. Which doesn’t make any sense, but it’s pretty cool.”
Forster says the scene from the adventure that stays with her the most is when they were hiking back along the glacier after the summit climb. It was one in the morning and the moon was bright in the sky. The whole horizon was lit up bright pink and red. They walked in silence between jagged mountain peaks, and the whole Chilkat Valley was beneath their feet.