By Dakota Jones
The four days after our climb of Ham and Eggs passed with us in camp or ski touring nearby, first resting and then waiting out weather. When we finally felt we could again climb, we left camp an hour earlier than before to beat the crowds. We were at the base of Shaken, Not Stirred before 6:00 am, but the weather was unsteady. We stood about in biting cold while clouds swirled above us. I wanted to climb so badly. We had come so far. I knew we would not be willing to do the long approach to the Mooses Tooth again, and this was our last chance to climb it on this trip, whether we were stormed out or not. Looking at the clouds, they seemed neither dark nor menacing, just unpredictable. We decided that we could at least try the route, and if the weather worsened we could turn back.
[Shaken, Not Stirred. Unpredictable clouds brewing. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
The climbing was superb. We found three pitches of steep ice right off the deck, followed by five of steep snow. We ascended into a deep couloir even narrower than the one on Ham and Eggs, and the walls on either side framed the views behind us of the Ruth Gorge and its stunning peaks. By the time we reached the snow slopes the weather had revealed a magnificent day, and we enjoyed clear and cold weather as we climbed. The only clouds to be seen were drifting low along the Ruth Glacier thousands of feet below us. At the top of the snow slope the couloir tightened into “The Narrows”, a steep gully filled with water ice that was at most two shoulder widths wide, and at its narrowest was difficult to squeeze my body and my pack through. The Narrows was far and away the most fun ice climbing I have ever done, and as I moved upward I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “no matter how cold and uncomfortable alpine climbing can be, this is why I will be doing this for the rest of my life.” The section was unbelievable. Never before have I had to stack my feet in order to climb vertical ice. Some sections were half-chimneying, half-ice climbing. I still dream about it.
[From the top of the second pitch, looking up. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
Above the Narrows a steep snow slope separated us from the crux pitch, and beyond that were two or three moderate snow pitches to the top. We were nearly there! Greg climbed up to the base of the crux and belayed me up to him. I took stock of the situation: a massive chockstone wedged in the crack, over which poured water ice. The pitch was about thirty-five feet high, and the ice was thin and broken towards the top, a reminder of how many people had recently been on the route. I led upwards, placing a screw about halfway up and then another four or five feet above that. The second screw broke through the back end of the ice about halfway through its length, meaning it was essentially pointless. I clipped it anyway.
[The Narrows. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
A great bulge had formed at the top of the chockstone, meaning I was essentially climbing overhanging ice. My left foot was on a tiny rock nub and my right foot balanced on unreliable hanging ice. Fortunately, my axes were able to make good placements. As I pulled level with the snow slope above I experienced an odd wind current. Snow was rushing down from the slope above, so I couldn’t look up, but wind from below blew snow straight upwards along the line I was climbing. I was at the crux move of the crux pitch, and realized I couldn’t look either up or down without getting a faceful of snow. I paused for two seconds, nearly panicking, and then did the only thing I could do – I pulled the move. Three feet further up and visibility was no problem. Weird.
I belayed off a v-thread about 100 feet higher, and that’s when I noticed the weather. What had an hour ago been beautiful clear skies had now turned into a wall of storm, advancing toward us at an unbelievable rate and obscuring everything in its way. In the time Greg took to climb the pitch we were enveloped by clouds, and our decision to bail was no longer a choice. We had to go down immediately. We instantly tied the ropes together and threaded them through the anchor, but before we could go the first spindrift avalanche hit, taking us completely by surprise. Spindrift avalanches are light snowslides along the top layer of snow, but they can pack a serious punch. We had to deal with them all the way back down to the base of the route as conditions worsened considerably.
To describe our descent I will quote directly from my journal, written the next day.
“The last four rappels were the worst. Crammed into a narrow gully, we caught the full force of all the snow on the slopes above being loosed by the winds. The spindrift was huge and powerful, and growing stronger. To make things even more difficult Greg dropped his belay device, which meant he had to rappel with a Munter hitch, which twisted the ropes like crazy. This made pulling the ropes especially hard.”
“The vision that remains with me is of us standing at a belay in this section. The clouds were thick around us, leaving rocks and horizons faintly visible even up close. Above us loomed the great rampart of the Mooses Tooth, dark and gray in the storm. Sheets of snow blew off the many high ledges and buffetted about. We were pulling hard on the ropes, fighting the friction of the twisted ropes, when a big spindrift avalanche hit.”
“A great river pour vast quantities of snow directly onto our heads and chests, the force nearly enough to knock us from our stance. We braced hard and took it, waiting for an interval of peace to continue pulling the ropes. But after a full minute of this coninual pounding we realized it was not going to stop, that it would only continue to grow as the storm grew more fierce. So we did the only thing we could do – we started pulling the ropes through it all. By the time we reached the base we were exhausted.”
[The oncoming storm. We turned around two pitches from the top. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
But we didn’t have time to be exhausted. We needed to get back to camp, which would involve much glacier travel and five more rappels down the steep approach gully. With low visibility the danger of falling into crevasses was much heightened, and we hoped our footsteps from earlier that day would still be visible. They were, luckily. In fact, the storm was much less fierce once we were off the route, and the horizons, though faded, were nevertheless clearly distinguishable. We didn’t move quickly, but we were able to maintain a consistent pace all the way back to camp, which we reached eighteen hours after leaving. The snow was coming down hard at that point, and we ditched the idea of a big dinner, opting instead to make Ramen and freeze-dried soup in our tents. We were soon warm and dry in our sleeping bags, already reliving the experience.
We spent the next day lying in our tents while the snow piled up around us. By the time it cleared the following day we had at least two feet of fresh snow, and we spent much of the day shoveling out our camp and setting our damp things out to dry. By this point we had only one week left, and we held a meeting to take stock of our situation. What we found was disturbing.
The food was nearly gone. We had planned minutely for our meals, and had enjoyed to that point full, varied meals that left us comfortable and happy. But we had not brought enough food, a fact that surprised us greatly, considering that when we left we thought we were greatly overburdened with food. We simply had not realized how much food our bodies actually needed in that environment. That we would eat a lot makes sense – it’s a cold place, and we were working hard – but we come from warmer climates, and though we had tried to predict our calorie intake, we had clearly underestimated. Not only were we eating more than we expected, but we were losing weight. I probably lost ten pounds during that trip (all of which I have now regretfully gained back), even though I was eating more than ever. The lesson here is that if you want to lose weight, go alpine climbing.
We took stock of our food situation on Saturday and realized we had at most enough food to last us until Wednesday, a full four days earlier than we had hoped to leave. Our next objective had been either Mt. Dan Beard or Peak 11,300, both big peaks several miles away from us. Given our pace of getting prepared for both Mooses Tooth climbs we could not expect to be able to reasonably make an attempt on either of those peaks until Tuesday. And since both of those climbs were either two days long or one super long day, we would need a lot of food to complete them. The statistics just didn’t add up.
After much hemming and hawing, much stomping around in the snow, much running hands through hair and especially much Wild Turky, we realized we were going to have to concede our final peak in favor of our health. We could have gone for those climbs, but we would be risking greatly the possibility of running out of food in dangerous places where help was a long way (and a lot of effort) away. Furthermore, even if we completed the climb in time, what if a storm hit? We would be famished and possibly stuck for days. I am an ultrarunner – I know what it’s like to run out of food on a big effort. I have done it enough times to know that it SUCKS and I NEVER WANT TO DO IT. As much as we hated to admit it, we knew our trip was finished.
We couldn’t really change our goals and attempt smaller peaks, either, because all the good rock climbing in the Ruth doesn’t come into condition until at least June, and anyway, every peak there is absolutely huge. Our climbing trip was over. That said, we didn’t just throw in the towel and bail immediately. We determined to stick around until the last moment, when our food really did run out. So that Sunday we packed up camp and moved close to the Mountain House airstrip, where we would be picked up. This left us two days to do whatever we wanted, and we utilized those days to take long ski tours across the glaciers, learning what we could about the mountains so that we would be better prepared to come back next year and climb. My favorite of these tours was a day up the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier, which took us around the north end of the Rooster Comb and directly in view of Mt. Huntington’s massive north face. The first climbing magazine I ever got was an Alpinist with a profile on Huntington, and ever since then I have idealized it as the perfect mountain. Finally seeing it in person was very powerful, and I hope to return soon to climb it. If ever there was a mountain worth climbing, it is Mt. Huntington.
[Huntington's North Face. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
[The Ruth Amphitheater. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
On Wednesday we flew out of the mountains. A very bittersweet moment, to be sure. On the one hand, the Alaska Range is probably the most impressive mountain landscape I have ever seen, and I want more than anything to go back and continue climbing. On the other hand, once I realized we weren’t going to be able to climb anymore I lost some of my enthusiasm for being there. I was ready to come back to my normal life and start training for the running season ahead. But even before we left I was already planning big things for next year’s trip to Alaska, and we were fortunate to have a super cool pilot to fly us out. Instead of taking the normal route out of the mountains, he adhered to my request and flew us up the West Fork and then almost completely around Huntington, coming very close to the west face so that we could get a look at the lines on that aspect. I could have stared at that mountain for hours. But after far too short a time he veered back and took us all the way out of the mountains, so that in less than an hour we went from a world of rock, ice and snow to a world of trees, dirt, cars and people. The mountains are behind us, at least for now.
Since then I have spent my time with my good friends Dan and Carlea Simpson in Wasilla. We have done all the things that are required after an expedition such as ours. We have watched movies, eaten pizza and ice cream, and drank lots of beer. I am thankful now that we ran out of food, because it afforded me this time to decompress before launching into the next adventure. The running season is nigh, and I have several records to work on reclaiming. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season holds.
I have since come to terms with the fact that our Alaska trip was less of a climbing trip and more of a learning experience. Since we forced ourselves to figure everything out on our own, we necessarily had to make many mistakes to learn the best way to do things. We didn’t climb as much as I wanted and we never even reached a summit. But we learned not only how to survive, but how to live comfortably on expedition in the Alaska Range, and these skills will carry over into far more than next year’s expedition. I now feel like I understand the basics of how to be an alpine climber, and I can’t wait to continue to apply those basic skills to big mountains in the future. Best of all, we came home safe, and we came home friends. That in itself spells success for me. And like any good expedition, I now have even more goals and plans than when I started.
- Dakota Jones