50/50 Chances in Alaska's Ruth Gorge
“You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run…" – Kenny Rogers
These wise words played in my head on a steady loop, laying in my sleeping bag, staring at the tent walls for the 8th day in a row.
Alpine climbing in Alaska’s mountains is the real deal. Steep faces, huge glaciers with deep crevasses, weather that can be crap for days, and an ever-present sense of just how little and insignificant I am in the grand scheme of this incredible landscape.
In April, I had the opportunity to guide a trip into the Ruth Gorge with two strong climbers, Pete Moore and Ben Vo. It was my 15th expedition in Alaska, but the second our ski-equipped turbo Otter taxi took off from the glacier, that familiar feeling of vulnerability immediately returned as we looked up at the steep walls of the peak named Moose’s Tooth.
It’s Pretty Damn Western
The route we had our eyes on, Ham & Eggs, is a 1,900' couloir with vertical ice and rock pitches and a long summit ridge with an unofficial difficulty rating of — “pretty damn western” — all the way to the summit. The combination of these features requires climbers to be on their toes mentally and physically for the entire ascent and descent. On our first day, we flew into the range with Paul Rodrick, owner and pilot of Talkeetna Air Taxi.
We entered the Ruth Gorge under partially cloudy skies. Everyone’s face was plastered against the windows, trying to absorb the beauty of the striking sentinels we passed at 130 mph. Our hopeful landing on this first attempt was actually thwarted by a pesky cloud located so that it precisely covered the entire runway. So, we returned to the tiny tourist town of Talkeetna to try again in the morning. The weather forecast indicated that the weather window would only last about 48 hours. After that, low pressure would set in, making a summit climb impossible.
On the second day, we went for it and were able to land on the glacier safely and set up camp. To pass the time that afternoon, we slayed the powder that blanketed the 300’ of vertical that was our own private, backyard powder field. It was a perfect way to burn off the nervous energy that naturally builds before any big climb.
At O’Dark Thirty the Alarm Went Off
The air was cold enough to make the thought of unzipping the sleeping bag just silly. I did it anyway. The boot's shells in the vestibule were exceptionally stiff. I wrestled them on and went out to fire up the stove in the kitchen tent as my toes slowly went numb. The three of us sipped coffee and got ready.
It was a perfectly clear night, and we were blessed with a display of northern lights dancing over Denali. This was a good sign and made the climb special — even before it started.
Ultimately, the climb went off without a hitch, just the way I like it. The crux pitch was a little cruxier than usual due to the lack of ice. In years prior, this section is a 30’ vertical section of thin ice. This year the thin ice had been broken off or had not formed, leaving only slabby granite with no cracks to climb. The rock's only weakness were little grains of granite that stuck out a few millimeters. These little “nubbins” as we call them, required full focus to keep our ice tool picks and crampon front points precisely positioned in order to not pop off and “take a ride.”
We were able to keep it together and pull through several hard moves. Finally, swinging into the first piece of solid ice above this section, where it grabs the ice pick with unquestionably strong holding power, allowed a welcomed sigh of relief.
After 1900' of climbing, we finally reach the top of the couloir. A brutal Alaskan wind kicked up and didn’t subside the remainder of the climb. Ben and Pete were awesome — climbing with the skill and poise of seasoned veterans. We reached the summit, gave high fives all around, and tried to sear this wonderful feeling of accomplishment into the long-term part of our brains.
The Second Half of the Climb: Tedious but Fluid
We had fifteen rappels to complete with three people. No small feat, to say the least. The workflow went something like this: build new or inspect the existing anchor, thread the rope, load devices, double check, remove tethers, rappel, find next anchor, clip in, next two rappel, pull ropes, clear snags… and repeat.
Everything continued to run smoothly, until the last rappel. As I was pulled the ropes for the final time, the knot that joins the two ropes became stuck. I couldn’t free it… and I was exhausted. So instead of re-ascending the rope, I just left it and we walked back to camp under an amazingly beautiful evening sky. Mission one was complete, it was time to celebrate.
The next day, we basked in the afterglow of a huge accomplishment. It was the perfect way to enjoy our surroundings. That evening, I climbed back up to retrieve the stuck ropes. The weather window closed, as predicted, and we enjoyed some hang time in the tent for a couple of days. Our Chogori™ was the perfect shelter to weather out the storm.
Once the skies cleared, we took a 15-minute flight over to the base of our next objective, Peak 11300. This is a 4000’ rocky, snowy steep ridge straight to a summit elevation of — you guessed it — 11,300’. The route is actually a great litmus test climb for the much sought after Cassin Ridge Route on Denali.
We had our Plans to Climb…
The weather had plans to be crappy. And so, we sat, and sat, and sat — waiting for a better forecast, waiting for an opportunity to climb this beautiful route. It never came, and we ran out of time to try. That is one of the realities of climbing in Alaska. Weather rules all … and it’s grumpy more often than not. We were able to have success on the Moose’s Tooth, and for that I am thankful — Peak 11,300 will have to wait until next year.
Mark Smiley is an avid photographer, filmmaker, adventurer, and mountaineering guide in Alaska, Peru, and beyond. His most recent project is an online course for the latest proven techniques for ski mountaineering and backcountry skiing delivered by video.