Explorer’s Peak, Mooses Tooth & Ruth Gap

Brad Horning, Jeff Young and I flew into the Ruth in the hopes of first climbing the Moose’s Tooth and then skiing up the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier, ascending Ruth Gap and then descending down the other side to reach the Kahiltna Glacier and ultimately Denali Base Camp. There Jeff would fly out and Brad and I would continue up the West Buttress of Denali. We had a lot of trouble getting information about Ruth Gap – but knowing that it had been done twice before we decided to give it a shot. Before we flew in we told our pilot what our goal was – but that if we were unable to get over the Gap we’d return to the original landing strip. The following are entries from my journal from May 30th – June 6th.

West Face of Explorer’s Peak

May 30th We flew in out of Talkeetna under perfect skies and landed next to the Mountain House – West of Mt. Barille. Right now I’m sitting in Brad’s tent with Brad Hornung and Jeff Young. We’re taking a much needed rest day.

Unloading the plane

I flew into Anchorage on Sunday May 20th and spent a week at work cranking out last minute changes before I disappeared from the computer world for a couple of months. Brad and I spent the week organizing food and packing. And finally we drove to Talkeetna and flew – souring up until we reached 6000′ at which point our pilot pressed play on the CD player and our headsets were filled with the melodramatic sounds of ‘Enya’ coursing down our ears. I started to rip the headset from my head, but of course was overcome by the view of Denali, Hunter and Foraker gleaming in the distance. And so I have a feeling that from now on everytime I hear the Enya I will think of Denali (sort of like everytime I hear Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ I think of Pink Elephants thanks to Fantasia).

We landed and hauled loads down from the landing strip and around a corner where we dug out a tent site that has a viewpoint in all directions right at the mouth of the Gorge.

The Ruth Gorge is amazing. Mt. Dicky, Barille, Johnson, the Mooses Tooth, Eye Tooth, Bear Tooth and countless other peaks are all massive walls that tower above everything. Mt. Dicky has a 5000′ wall of rock and ice that shoots straight up off the glacier like a fortress wall. And the Mooses Tooth – an amazing mountain. The South face is so incredible that one cannot comprehend the size until it is viewed up close.

Ruth Gorge Camp

Today is a rest day. We’re recuperating after yesterday’s climb, which was a 14 hour day. We decided to begin our trip with an ‘easy’ peak. And so after much deliberation in the tent over a map we chose Explorer’s Peak. It’s a mountain due North East of our camp. It began with a five mile ski to the base of the route – three miles of which was across wide open glacier where we unroped and skate skied. Then we entered a crevassed region where for one mile we wove through easy terrain. And finally we skied for a mile up a corridor with seracs on either side of us. At the end we skirted around an ice wall and stopped at the base of an 800 foot gully. Here we unroped from our glacier gear, cached our skis and roped in climbing style (meaning we tied into the ends of the rope with 200′ feet between us instead of all three tied into one rope with only 50′ between us). The we ascended 800′ up a 40 degree snow gully, climbed over a small cornice and then traveled for a mile across a slope and down into a bowl. Finally we reached the base of the route and began climbing.

Upper Slopes of Explorer

The climbing consisted of deep sugar snow. Brad lead 800′ of steep (45 degree) snow where at times he wallowed through chest deep snow. I took the lead next and lead about 1000′ of moderate snow that was still deep in places (at times I had to crawl to avoid breaking through into the bottomless sugar snow underneath the crust). And finally Jeff took over – leading across a crevassed area, up and over a bergschrund, and up the final 600′ snow slope (of nice hard snow) to the summit. Brad and I followed and we topped out at 7pm (10 hours after starting). Then we turned around and retraced our steps down the ridge, down the lower slopes and finally back to the glacier and tent.

View of the N. Face of the Mooses Tooth from the top.

West Ridge of the Mooses Tooth

June 1st Once again it’s a rest day. Time to dry gear, eat and read. Yesterday we got up at 5am and we were skiing out of camp by 6:30am. We skied due east across a jumbled glacier, past the ‘Gargoyle’ – a 2000′ wall of immaculate granite, and to the base of icefall that comes off the West shoulder of the Mooses Tooth. Here we cached our skis and began climbing. The icefall creaked and groaned but held it’s place and soon we were above it and worked our way across a glacier and up onto a snow shoulder which we followed to the base of the route.

The approach below the Gargoyle.

The route began with 400′ of steep snow (up to 45 degrees) which we climbed until we reached a short rock band that we ascended to reach a belay consisting of a bunch of slings over a horn of rock.

Up to this point we had been simul-climbing but at the belay we stopped and waited until everyone was together. Then the true climbing began: Jeff started the route with an unprotected 200′ traverse over snow and rock to a fixed pin. Then we worked our way into the steep couloir and ascended 80′ to another fixed pin where Jeff set up a belay. Brad and I followed and upon reaching Jeff I took the lead – breaking off right from the main couloir and ascending up and right through a narrow gully into another steep couloir. Here the angle steepened to around 60 degrees.

Rock slab traverse to reach the couloirs.

After ascending a rope length I belayed off a piton driven into a shattered rock band and a picket pounded into the snow. Jeff and Brad followed and upon reaching me Jeff took the lead again and lead the rest of the couloir up to the ridge – which was about 500′ of climbing. Brad and I followed simul-climbing to the ridge and then across a shoulder of snow to a big boulder that had a fixed pin and bolt.

Upper couloirs.

Here we regrouped again and Jeff lead up and over a mass of snow to reach the final ridge to the summit – which Brad and I climbed partially belaying each other and partially simul-climbing. The climbing consisted of steep 60 degree snow and ice next to massive cornices. Around us the clouds were swirling so we couldn’t see how far out the cornices extended. Everything was engulfed in a white flat light – and not being able to see the exposure beneath us both comforted and increased our nervousness at the same time.

Summit Ridge

We reached a high point and after a short discussion (which basically consisted of everyone saying – “I’m too tired to continue – how about you?”) we snapped pictures of the true summit (which lies one mile away and can only be accessed from the West Ridge via a nasty double corniced ridge) and the West Summit which only lay 1/4 mile away – something we could have reached in an hour. But the weather was threatening to close in on us and we were cold, hungry and thirsty – and 5000′ above our tents and stove.

Rapping down the W. face couloirs.

So we turned around and retraced our ascent route – rapping off of v-threads, pitons, chocks and rock horns – finally reaching the easy ground where we could travel fast back to our skis. We down climbed the icefall and soon were skiing back to our tent. We reached the tent 19 hours after starting.

West Fork of the Ruth Glacier

June 2nd (am) – Yesterday we woke up late – 11:30 – and didn’t get up and move around until around noon. We milled about drying gear, reading and eating until we finally got motivated and decided to move camp up glacier towards Ruth Gap. We skied about five miles with extremely heavy (80 lb.) packs across the Ruth Amphitheater and up the West Fork of the Ruth until we set up camp at the base of the Rooster’s Comb. This area is very intense – to the east lies Dan Beard and the Amphitheater – dominated by the Mooses Tooth severe south face. To our north is Peak 11,300′, to our south the Rooster’s Comb and west of us is the spectacular north face of Huntington and the French Ridge.

Up the W Fork.

Today we will ski about 5 miles up glacier and position ourselves for an attempted climb of either Ruth Gap or a pass between Huntington and Hunter. Either way will require steep climbing with heavy packs – and perhaps raps down the other side to either the Tokositna or Kahiltna Glaciers.

June 2nd (pm) – Base of Huntington Pass We skied out of camp today and up the West Fork about 6 miles. The trek took us up about 1000′, through a crevasse field and then up a slight incline. We’re camped now looking at the pass which looks to be quite steep. To our south lies the face first used to gain access the Huntingon’s French Ridge by Terray in the early 50’s. It is steep and constantly calving gigantic ice blocks – not a place I’d like to be.

Jeff below the Roosters Comb.

Tomorrow we’ll head up – over an icefall and across a basin to the icefall and across a basin to the base of the gap. We’ll haul a load in the hopes of establishing a line and then going for it the day after tomorrow. If we can’t get over the pass we’ll ski back to the mountain house and catch a flight over to Kahitna Base Camp.

Ruth Gap

June 5th (am) – Base of Huntington Pass Back in the tent – another rest day after a long day yesterday (we left camp at 11 am and got back at 2:30 am).

The morning began simply enough – we awoke at 8 am, turned on the radio and soon we were up, dressed, eating oatmeal and gearing up. We left camp at 11, shouldered our extra food and gear and began skiing up glacier towards an icefall.

Too close for comfort…

Once we reached the icefall Brad (who was leading) began meandering around crevasses. They began to worsen and Brad, who was leading, was forced to continually backtrack. We kept skiing when suddenly Brad stopped and said ‘Oh shit’!’ I looked up expecting to see a big crevasse when I heard the roar: Up and to our left an avalanche came ripping down – the powder blast covering our tracks.

“Well at least she let us pass first,” was Jeff’s comment. Brad and I said nothing but Brad picked up the pace and lead us right into a huge debris field underneath a massive jumble of unstable seracs. Ice blocks as big as soccer balls littered our path and we tip toed though quietly hoping not to awaken whoever was above us. We made it through without another stir from above and continued up – climbing up a steep hill and finally reaching a basin beneath the start of the Denali’s South Buttress route.

Our plan now changed from climbing to the top and caching gear to instead climbing to the top to see how difficult it was. We cached our loads and transferred gear – continuing up on skis to the Gap that loomed above us. We soon entered into a massive serac fall area. We continued skiing trying not to imagine what would cause ice blocks the size of economy cars to come crashing down.

Ruth Gap

As the terrain grew steeper we removed our skis and belayed Jeff up through the debris. “Are you familiar with ice falls?” I asked Brad. “I’ve always thought of them as a chaotic mess that fall at random.”

“That’s all you need to know about them,” Brad reassured me.

“Yeah.. but they normally move when it’s warm or after a storm – Right?”

“Sure?” was his answer. But here wasn’t too much emphasis in his voice.

Nice “solid” bridge….

OK… not so solid…

Jeff lead up to the bergschrund and I followed with Brad stopped below at our skis. After I had climbed around 100′ the icefall groaned and I turned around to see Brad self belaying himself up at high speed – his face in a grimace. We regrouped at the bergschrund and Brad lead out; up and towards a snow bridge that crossed over to the upper slopes. It was easy climbing and Brad was enjoying it, planting the shafts of his ice tools and kick stepping up. Suddenly a massive ‘whoomp‘ sounded, followed by a sharp ‘crack‘. The entire snow bridge collapsed with Brad on top. About 25′ wide and 15’ tall – perhaps a ton of snow – collapsed and dropped into the bergschrund below.

I jumped backwards clutching the belay – Jeff grabbed the rope as well and we felt the slope tremor. It only took an instant and when we regained our senses I immediately yelled “Brad – are you OK!”

His voice sounded out of the hole – “I’m fine -I’m alright!”

“How far down are you?” I yelled.

“About 10 feet,” he answered and began climbing out. He crawled out of the hole laughing but terrified – his eyes wide and his body completely covered in snow.

“I’m fine! I’m fine!” he reassured us. He stood around for a second looking back at the gaping hole where a minute before there had been a huge snow bridge. He then tried again – and attempted to climb over the bergschrund again on a steep section that was perhaps 10 feet high but bulging with loose sugar snow.

He fell twice- each time I help my breath expecting the bergschrund to break apart more. After his second fall he down climbed to us. “Jeff, you can try it,” he said.

My feet, knees and teeth were all shaking and I must have been as white as the snow around us because he didn’t offer the lead to me.

Jeff lead off; falling off the bergschrund twice until he was finally able to get over it (with a heel hook in deep snow) and up and onto the steep snow above. After catching his breath he lead off – protecting the snow with pickets until he reached the end of the rope and was able to dig down beneath the snow to good ice and set a screw.

I followed – clipping my ascender to the line and jugging up and over the bergschrund and then climbing the steep snow with one hand on the rope and with my axe in the other hand. I reached the belay, tied in and then Brad jugged up.

After Brad has tied in, Jeff lead off again with me belaying while Brad began chopping a platform and v-thread anchors for us to descend from. Jeff continued up the 60 degree snow – protecting with pickets and until he reached the end of the rope and once again dug down to place a screw.

Jeff leading….

Meanwhile the weather was deteriorating. Visibility had dropped to where we could see only as far as our cache (about 1/2 mile) It had started snowing lightly – but nothing to be worried about.

I followed Jeff up to the belay – which consisted of one screw in bad ice and one picket. “don’t put too much weight on it,” Jeff warned me.

Brad followed and once again Jeff lead off. It started snowing harder and by the time Jeff finished the lead I was shaking hypothetically and the light snow had turned into a blizzard. Brad had kept warm by chopping out a gigantic platform and snow bollard but I had been belaying and was freezing.

Jeff belayed me up the steep snow, passing pickets and a piton to the belay. I was frozen so Jeff belayed Brad up while I tried to get warm.

One pitch remained to the top and it was snowing hard. Neither Brad nor I were in any shape to lead so Jeff lead off again with Brad belaying, while I began to chop a platform and set up a v-thread. I managed to extricate natural pillar for use as a v-thread. Jeff, meanwhile, struggled up the steep pitch – up to 80 degree, unconsolidated sugar snow, using rock, ice and snow and protection.

Lots of debris was coming down on Brad and I, including spindrift avalanches which continually streamed down and covered us. Brad and I huddled in the cave I had dug out – each of us shivering and pressed up against each other trying to stay warm.

Jeff finally finished the pitch after battling the deep snow and poor protection. He was five feet from the lip, set a screw and yelled down, “Off Belay!”

I was shivering violently and looked at Brad “I’m over it,” I confessed.

“Me too!” he replied and we shouted up to Jeff to rappel.

Jeff rappelled down to find Brad and I shivering violently and covered in spindrift. We then continued down. Three complete raps off a v-thread, bollard and screw, got us to the bergschrund which we jumped with an exciting leap. Once down we roped up and down climbed to our skis and the cache. We had all mutually decided that going up and over the gap had too many objective hazards and was not worth the risk.

Rapping down in the dark in the middle of a storm with loaded slopes. One of those “one day your luck will run out” kind of shots.

Back at the cache we re-shouldered our loads and began the ski back – down the hill, pass the serac fall, through the crevasse field and finally back to the tent at 2:30 am where we had tortilla, rice and bean soup. Then we all crashed and slept until 1:20 am – waking only once to feel an earthquake which knocked down a massive avalanche near by.

June 5th (pm) – Ruth Gorge Landing Strip – We packed up camp today and skied all the way back to the landing strip – making the total run in less than 5 hours. Most of it we were able to ski unroped – roping up for only a bridge here and there and for the final crevasse field.

Now we’ve set up camp at the landing strip and hope to fly out tomorrow to Denali Base Camp.