By Dakota Jones
[Greg atop the approach gully below the Mooses Tooth. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
The plane took off from the Talkeetna airfield and we quickly rose above the tops of the trees. Without that sight barrier I could suddenly see for miles. Talkeetna sits on the Susitna River next to a broad flat floodplain. As we gained altitude I struggled to pick out the main course of the Susitna from among its many weaving braids. The landscape below was covered in snow and ice blurred by the leafless trees, and was completely flat for hundreds of square miles. Looking out the front window I could see our destination. The Alaska Range rose out of the plains with an immense power. Its bulk towered above the Alaskan lowlands. Everything I knew of Alaska seemed to be proving itself: vast, open, empty landscapes cut by rivers of unimaginable size fed by ice and snow from some of the biggest – and coldest – mountains in the world. As we flew north the mountains dominated the way ahead, a magnificent massif of rock, ice and snow characterized by the three biggest peaks: Hunter, Foraker and Denali.
[Approach flight. From left to right: Foraker, Hunter, Denali. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
As we neared the mountains they began to solidify into shape, and I was soon able to recognize landmarks I knew from maps and photos. The Ruth Glacier spilled out into the floodplains in a great frozen curve, spreading laterally as it thinned into the forest. Sharply to the left I could see the distant Kichatna Spires. Ahead, where the Ruth curved north, I could see the beginnings of the Great Gorge, where the Ruth narrows into a valley of inconceivable beauty, where the great summits of the Ruth rise thousands of feet from the glacier in unbroken vertical sweeps. To the right of that I could see our objective – the Mooses Tooth. Its rampart of dark rock stood above all else on the east side of the range, and I gazed at it intensely, searching out the features we hoped to climb.
Tony circled us throughout the range in a great sightseeing tour, flying up the center of the Ruth Gorge and looping around the magnificent amphitheatre at its head. I was overwhelmed, and simply tried to take in as much as possible while we had such a unique aerial view. All the while I was taking photographs without any idea of how they were turning out, and when we finally landed in the center of the Ruth Glacier, I even took a video, expecting a wild landing. But it was nearly as smooth as any commercial flight, and before I knew it we were out of the plane, sitting on our gear while Tony revved the engine back up and took off down canyon. The flight had been forty minutes of adrenaline-pumped flying. Now we now found ourselves in supreme quiet and what appeared to be complete isolation. Having no reason to expect for the next three weeks anything other than the solitude we now felt, we dutifully loaded up the sleds, ate a perfunctory lunch, and set off up the glacier.
[Setting off up the glacier. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
The Ruth Glacier is the second-largest glacier in the Alaska Range. At 35 miles long it is second only to the Kahiltna, which serves as base camp for virtually every climb up Denali, Hunter and Foraker, the Ruth is, according to the guidebook we had brought, “the playground of the Alaska Range”. Above the Ruth Gorge where we now skied, the peaks rose no higher than 10,500 ft. However, considering that the elevation of the glacier was less than 5000 ft., the vertical relief was stunning. The eastern aspects of five major summits define the grandeur of the Ruth, all of which were named after lame-ass politicians. From south to north, they are Mt.’s Johnson, Wake, Bradley, Dickey and Barille. We were to spend most of our time roughly even with Mt. Barille at the north end of the Gorge, and spent many happy evenings admiring its 3,000 ft. east face. But without a doubt the award for the most stunning rock wall in the Gorge goes to Mt. Dickey. It’s eastern façade rises unbroken for 5,000 ft. from the glacier to its summit at 9,545 ft. Various snow and ice fields on the face continually loose avalanches of ice and rock. Looking at its imposing sweep I could hardly believe it climbable. But it has been done several times.
[The east face of Mt. Dickey. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
On our first day we skied up the glacier for several miles, enjoying a firm snowpack that allowed us to pull our 100+ pound sleds without much resistance. As the sun curved around from the south and started working its way north and west for the evening (the sun’s arc in these northern latitudes was fascinating), we began to feel ill at ease with our situation. Though we had enough gear to make ourselves comfortable, precisely how we were to use it to become comfortable remained a bit of a mystery. We knew we had the tools, but were unsure of their application. On top of that, we were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the place. Hours of skiing brought little discernible change in position measured against the massive peaks on either side. We had come expecting this, but the reality was still surprising.
Having no guides and little expedition experience, we learned as we went. In every matter we did our best on our first try and then better on subsequent tries. The campsites were very much a learning experience. The good thing about them was their malleability. This being April, and on a glacier, we found we could make our campsites into whatever we wanted them to be, since we were on what appeared to be a bottomless base of snow. The best example of this was the cooktent. Jon Webb had persuaded me to bring along a floorless Mountain Hardwear Kiva tent in order to have somewhere to cook and hang out. Though I was skeptical at first, this turned out to be a fantastic decision. No matter the weather, Greg and I always had a separate place to spend time, which left our tents cleaner and more welcoming each night. Since the cooktent was floorless, we could mold the kitchen however we liked, and with just a few hours and a snow shovel I crafted a long curving bench around a central platform to cook on, and over time we added shelves and storage areas for the various items we used. By the third day using it we had built ourselves a roomy and comfortable space to make food and spend time together.
[Camp. Mooses Tooth in the background. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
For the tents we dug a big pit. At our first camp the pit was only about two feet deep, but at our second camp I got ambitious and dug more than four feet down. This turned out to be a problem when we got a big snow, since the pits had a tendency to fill up easily, meaning we were forever getting out of them to dig them out. But the reasoning was sound – north winds commonly sweep down the Gorge, so to minimize them we wanted our tents to be as inconspicuous as possible, which we accomplished by digging the pits and piling the snow on the north side. On the first day we had camp set up in a little over an hour, and were soon in the cooktent melting snow for water. The next forty-eight hours were spent building routines such as this which would make our time on the glacier enjoyable.
[Skiing in the Ruth Amphitheater. Mooses Tooth in the distance. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
Certain chores that had to be done every day. Paramount to survival was the melting of snow for water. Every morning and evening we spent at least an hour tending the stove and melting snow so that we could have enough water to drink. We made a serious effort to stay hydrated the entire time, because we knew that dehydration is a major contributor to frostbite, and with nighttime temperatures dipping well below zero we didn’t want to risk any of our toes or fingers. We also had to dig a crapper pit, because trying to aim a dump into a small can in frigid temperatures while the wind is blowing snow and ice particles into your bare skin is super lame. In addition to all that we had certain personal chores to attend to. Every night before going to bed I would change into dry socks and wipe my feet clean and dry with alcohol swabs. Small tasks such as this, learned in Colorado and applied here, kept my body safe from things like frostbite or even trench foot.
[Greg Poettgen. Rooster Comb in the background. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
We spent our first week learning how to survive in the unique conditions of the Alaska Range. I had little experience with winter camping, and the Ruth Gorge felt very isolated. Only the airplanes that occasionally passed overhead offered any sense of connection with the outside world. Though we had come to climb, I found that I needed first to make a home for myself in the mountains before I could have the courage to climb anything. Perhaps I have a nesting instinct, but without a warm and dry place to which I could return each night, the thought of climbing anything steep and dangerous was not appealing. This “settling-in” period lasted almost a week. We spent one whole day ski touring around the area to get our bearings of where we were. We spent another day climbing moderate snow near Mt. Barille. Then we spent a day just sitting in our tents waiting out a storm. We eventually decided that we should head for our main objectives on the Mooses Tooth, and on our fifth day we packed up camp and moved across the glacier to where we were just in line with the icefall coming off of the Root Canal glacier below the Tooth. There we settled in for more than a week.
Our two primary climbing objectives were called “Ham and Eggs” and “Shaken, Not Stirred” on the south face of the Mooses Tooth. We had originally hoped to set up base camp on the Root Canal glacier, but upon arriving in the Ruth we realized we would not be able to get our gear up the icefall. So we decided to set up base camp in the Ruth and then climb the Tooth in big pushes from there. The first full day at our new base camp we climbed up to the Root Canal to see what the approach was like, and were glad we did. It was more technical than expected. This took a few hours and we gained more than two thousand feet, plus we got a better look at our routes. Back at camp that night we made the plan. Up at 3:00, leaving by 4:00. We would turn around no later than 3:00 pm.
[Headed back down the approach gully. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
We left camp the next morning at 4:18. The approach to the Root Canal was a grind, but we accomplished it in a pretty good 2:30. As we passed the Shaken, Not Stirred couloir I was surprised to see people lining up for it. One party was on the lower section and another was waiting its turn. Seeing so many people felt maddening. “What is this, Ouray?” I thought angrily. “I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to wait in f***ing lines.” I thought Ham and Eggs would be even worse, but we decided to check it out anyway.
[Ham and Eggs just before starting up. The route climbs the snow and ice gully in the rock cleft. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
From below we found that only one climber was on the route, rope soloing. Feeling suddenly energized, Greg and I racked up, ate as much food as we could, and started up the climb ourselves, about three pitches behind the solo climber. This was a risky decision, since the Ham and Eggs couloir is very narrow in some places, meaning that anything the climber above us knocked down would almost certainly hit us. But we rationalized that danger by saying it was only one climber instead of two. Honestly, we took a risk in following someone, but we wanted to climb so badly that we decided to go ahead anyway. Fortunately for us, we avoided any serious rockfall issues for the entirety of our trip.
[Steep snow midway up the route. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
Our climb of Ham and Eggs went as smoothly as we had hoped. It’s not even a very good story, simply because almost everything went right. We began with a climb up steep snow and then a long traverse on snow into the couloir. Then we had one pitch of mellow water ice, and then the crux of the route on pitch three. It was a big step, maybe fifteen feet high, that from a distance looked like good ice but on closer inspection turned out to be overhanging consolidated snow. I stepped up as high as I could, clipping a piton at about knee height, but my tools couldn’t get any purchase in the snow. Fearing a fall, I backed off and looked around. On the right side was a crack with a cam and a fixed nut. It had very little ice and looked difficult. I started up it anyway, and soon had managed to clip both pieces. But the hardest moves remained, and I spent a long time inching my crampon points up thin water ice and thinner rock edges. My fingers lost sensation as I gripped the rock with my right hand and tried to get my axe into the better snow above the overhang. Every move was delicate, made especially so by the steep couloir behind me that gave way to a cliff that led, presumably, ten million feet straight down to a field of spikes and skeletons.
[Looking back at the Ruth Gorge from high on Ham and Eggs. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
[Steep and beautiful water ice high on the route. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
At this moment, unsure if I would be able to continue upward but knowing I couldn’t reverse the moves I had already pulled, I recalled talking to some guys the week before who had climbed the route. They had talked about a difficult step low on the route that they had to aid through. The connection was obvious, and I suddenly realized that I was being ridiculous. Why did I even care about the difference between aid climbing and free climbing? I’m not putting up any big new route; a fall would be way worse than not freeing the route. I grabbed the fixed stopper in the crack, and with its help I was able to shift my weight back to the couloir above the overhang. Soon I was twenty feet higher, connected to an anchor, belaying Greg up to me. He pulled the move and was soon at my stance.
We then simulclimbed up several hundred feet of steep snow before reaching the base of a steep ice pitch. I led up, taking a few minutes to climb to the slope above. The climb continued in this manner for many pitches. Steep pitches followed by mellow pitches, all protected by rock anchors on the couloir wall. We were gaining height, but we made the crucial mistake of not eating. I think we didn’t eat much because to eat we would have to stop, and we were cold. Very cold. Though we were climbing the south face, the couloir was angled such that we didn’t get direct sunlight until nearly 4:00 pm. In the shade, climbing snow and ice, temperatures were very low. We knew that stopping would make us cold, but we didn’t realize the extent to which depriving ourselves of food would make us cold and tired. By the time we surmounted the last difficult pitch we could tell that we had a problem. We had been on our feet for nearly twelve hours, and had eaten just two pop tarts, a Clif Bar and a handful of trail mix each. In the steep snow pitches high on the route, I watched Greg move as if he were high on Everest, taking slow steps and pausing frequently, and I wondered how I looked myself.
[Looking west at the Ruth Amphitheater on the descent. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
I looked at the time: 3:30. We were thirty minutes past our planned turnaround time, and moving very slowly. The weather was perfect, but to be honest I was very gripped. Though by Alaskan standards Ham and Eggs is a very small, moderate, non-committing climb, it was at the time the biggest route I had ever climbed. And we had come all the way from the Ruth Gorge, meaning we had to go all the way back too. I expected the descent to be long and painful, and the hike back to camp would take several hours at least. Most of all, I didn’t want to get caught in the dark. Overall, I felt very exposed up high on the Mooses Tooth, and even though we could have finished the route, we felt that descending would be the safest option. We wanted to be safe and responsible climbers, even if by doing so we run the risk of being total wusses. With that reasoning we turned back on Ham and Eggs when we were about three pitches of mellow snow climbing from the top. In retrospect we could have finished the route, but I would rather learn that the way we did, than to risk epicking high on the route. Of course, in the end the descent went quite easily, and we walked back into camp eighteen hours after we had left.
[You'd be amazed how welcoming this looks after an eighteen hour day. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]