A Hard Freeze Away

On the first ascent of the Swamp Donkey Express, the South Face of the Moose's Tooth. Photo: Renan Ozturk.

Talkeetna in June feels like a slow afternoon at a forgotten country fair. The sky is alternatively bright and steamy, or dark and wet.  Typically a mosquito hatch is on and the kings are running.  Princess Tours pumps a continuous convoy of air-conditioned, 55 passenger buses down the spur road, buses teaming with anxious tourists behind high, tinted windows, depositing a fresh infusion of dollars into the town’s seasonal economic machine.  There’s not much to do. The tourists find a handful of bars, Nagley’s general store – with attached liquor establishment and the West Rib,  greasy-spoon deluxe, the park service building, river boat rides, overpriced pizzas and overloaded breakfasts. It’s a good place to celebrate. Or lick your wounds for a day or two…

Zack Smith, Renan Ozturk, and I flew into the Ruth Gorge on Monday, May 17th, psyched to find perfect conditions: hard freezes at night, but daytime temps that were warm enough to comfortably wear rock shoes. After taking a day to pack and scope in basecamp, we left camp at 6 a.m. the following morning in order to do the objectively exposed approach from the Gorge to the ‘Root Canal’ camp beneath the Southwest face of the Moose’s Tooth in the morning shade.  I had navigated this same ice fall seven years ago, and was surprised to note the amount of traffic it had apparently received this year. Several distinct boot tracks left by different parties criss-crossed up the glacial canyon – some more exposed to hanging seracs and avalanche slopes than others.

We arrived at the Root Canal by 1 p.m., and were soon ensconced in our friend Seth Hobby’s base-camp — Seth having arrived with two clients via the direct flight.  We waited out a day of squally weather, then crossed the bergshrund and began soloing up the snow slopes between Bear’s Tooth and Moose’s Tooth.  The South Face of the Moose’s Tooth is an obvious challenge that had been attempted sporadically for several decades. Badly rotten rock and a deceptive section of gendarmed ridge had defeated all teams within the first hundred vertical feet of climbing above the Bear’s Tooth / Moose’s Tooth col. The real challenge for our team was not letting these discouraging reports effect our morale before we even started the real business.

After two hours of soloing and simul-climbing, we arrived at the base of the South face proper. Zack transitioned to rock shoes and the show began. He found the rock loose and the climbing run out – but we were able to make progess. Then came a significant aid pitch that demanded the combined efforts of two men and one hand-drilled bolt six hours to overcome. Several more wet and loose pitches with challenging route finding followed. But then the angle of the climbing decreased and soon I was cramponing up for a few easy mixed pitches that lead eventually to the southern end of the M.T.’s summit ridge. Zack, Renan, and I stood just below the tip of the mountain’s highest dollop of cornice at approximately eight p.m.. We quickly rappelled Ham and Eggs (which, in it’s modern iteration, we found completely equipped with rappel anchors every thirty meters) to arrive back at the Root Canal camp around midnight. Though tired, we chose to press on and descend to the Gorge immediately in order to take advantage of the cooler night time temps. An hour after we had exited the canyon and skied out into the center of the Gorge, rockfall exploded off one wall, showering the glacier with debris.

“That was death on a stick,” Zack murmured.

Back down in base camp, the weather was good.  Then it got too good.  We started on our ultimate objective, a traverse of the entire Moose’s Tooth massif from Espresso Gap to Ruth Gap. Unfortunately, the glacier was barely freezing at night and we encountered deep, isothermic snow that made for frequent and frustrating transitions between rock shoes and mountain boots as we climbed the South Ridge (Ozturk/Smith, 2009) of the Sugar Tooth. Renan took an unexpected fall while seconding a bouldery gendarme, badly cutting our sole lead line. Then we dropped an ice tool. We eventually bivied very near the summit of the Sugar Tooth.  In the morning, somewhat disheartened by these setbacks and our generally slow progress in the sub-par conditions, we traversed across the summit and decided to rappel the couloir between the Sugar Tooth and the Eye Tooth to return to basecamp to re-supply and re-psyche.

The next day, as we were relaxing in camp and contemplating another attempt, something came down Hut Tower. Something big. I skied close enough to see flecks of color in a fresh debris field at the base of the ice climb Freezy Nuts. Later that evening, a NPS helicopter picked me up to confirm the worst: two climbers were dead. They had been camped a few hundred yards away from us and sadly, I realized, I never got their names. When we flew back to Talkeetna on June 2nd the Ruth Glacier had not experienced a hard freeze in over a week. We relaxed in town, drank more beer than was healthy, and enjoyed the company of old friends.  I don’t think any of us regretted our decision to leave the mountains early.

The tragedy happened almost exactly a year after we lost our good friends Micah Dash, Johnny Copp, and Wade Johnson in a similar event in China. Mountains become far more dangerous as the temperature rises – at an elevation of only five thousand feet, the Ruth Glacier is a temperate place despite its northern latitude. There is a definitive transition that occurs each and every spring when it simply becomes too dangerous to climb the Gorge’s gullies and couloirs. As individuals and a community, we should always remember to approach objectively threatened situations with vigilance and respect. For popular moderate mixed objectives like Freezy Nuts, Ham and Eggs, and the Japanese Couloir on Mount Braille, I strongly recommend the month of April as the optimal time to plan an expedition.

Sincere thanks go to The Copp/Dash Inspire Grant, The Lyman Spitzer Award, and the American Alpine Club for supporting this expedition, as well as Mountain Hardwear, Sterling Rope, Julbo, and La Sportiva for supporting me personally.

We’ll be back – hopefully in colder temperatures.

Summary of activity: First ascent of the South Face of the Moose’s Tooth via The Swamp Donkey Express: 5.9+ A2+ with some mixed. Climbed May 21st, 2010, by Renan Ozturk, Zack Smith, and Freddie Wilkinson.

2 Responses to “A Hard Freeze Away”

  1. Lance says:

    Could not agree more with your late season assessment. Glad you made the safe decision to bail. I was there 2 years ago for 10 days in mid April and we did not experience one freeze for the first 5 days. We ended up skiing instead of climbing.

  2. Federico says:

    Hey, im a guide from Argentina, Patagonia, and i would like to say that you guys are my heroes!!! hahaha keep going with this greate aventures, that inspires me a lott !! thanks !! ;)

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