Spring climbing came once again… and once again I started trolling for partners. Many options and many ideas were voiced but Yvonne and I finally announced we were going to the Alaska Range; to the Ruth Gorge. Everyone wants to go to the Ruth – and suddenly Yvonne and I had 2 other partners (Bryce Stath and Austin Thayer) to share camp and contacts with.
I hadn’t been to the Alaska Range since 2004; I hadn’t been to the Ruth since 2002 when I skied a bunch and attempted the Moose’s Tooth. Driving into Talkeetna I glanced at the familiar sights – we ate an awesome breakfast at the Roadhouse, we chatted with friends at the NPS building and then we dumped our gear outside of Talkeetna Air Taxi and went inside to hand them our hard earned cash.
Around 2pm Paul Roderick piled us all into his Turbo Otter. Riding in a Turbo Otter is an experience and I was psyched! In the Alaska air taxi world it’s the equivalent of flying first class in an airbus. You don’t have to squeeze in a seat more suited for sled dogs rather than people with a pack on your lap. The plane took off without a whine and we drifted towards the mountains with hardly a bump.
After flying into areas I’ve never been before for the past few years, the flight into the Ruth was calm and familiar. We drifted over Petersville Road, Peter’s Hills and soon we flew up the turbulent moraine of the Ruth Glacier and before I knew it, we were banking past Mt. Johnson and coming in for a landing.
Paul pulled our gear out for us and then buzzed off. We drag our gear 100 yards off the runway and start digging camp. The Ruth scene was familiar: a half dozen tents with climbers sitting around looking up at the walls, lamenting conditions. It was hot… too hot. Avalanche danger was high and the ice was melting fast.
For the next couple of days we ski toured and assessed conditions. Our first day out we skied up to 747 Pass and climbed a few hundred feet up Mt. Dickey to check out the route. Skiing down was painfully slow due to poor conditions and Yvonne and Bryce who opted for light mountaineering skis (while Austin and I opted for heavier skis) were having a hard time. They were slowly working their way downhill when a HUGE snow bomb came off Mt. Dickey’s south face directly over Yvonne and Bryce’s heads. “RUN!” I start screaming. “RUN- RUN – RUN!” Bryce and Yvonne suddenly remember how to rip turns and were soon at the bottom hyperventilating as the powder cloud settles.
After our close call we reassessed conditions… It was way too warm to climb. Even the climbers getting up at 2am were finding soft snow and running water on the routes.
After day 3 the avalanche danger subsided and weather started to cool so we opted to give Mt. Barrill’s Japanese Couloir a try. The Japanese Couloir is a beautiful couloir that splits the east facade of the imposing Mt. Barille (7,650′). It was first climbed in July of 1975 by a team of Japanese climbers who encountered steep mixed conditions up to 70 degrees. However – when you climb the route in May, it’s a relatively easy couloir all the way to the notch.
We woke at 2am on May 5th to find warm temps and precipitation and sat around discussing options. Finally we opted to just ski to the base to see what the snowpack was like.
We were at the base of the route at 5:30 am and soon climbing up. We stayed roped up until we climbed over the bergschrund and then untied and packed the ropes. The snow was good and the precipitation minimal so after a short discussion, we decided to keep going. We then set off, each of us taking turns breaking trail up the couloir. One person would climb fast for 10-15 minutes, then pull off and let everyone pass by and get in the rear. The next person would then lead for about 15 minutes and then pull off. We continued this method all the way up the couloir. After about 500′ the snow hardened and we easily front pointed up the crisp snow with Yvonne leading us through the tight bottle-neck chimney that is just below the col.
We reached the col at 8am and roped up. I led out from the col and traversed 200′ across an exposed slope where I placed a couple cams and a pin. Everyone else tied into the same rope and we simulclimbed the traverse and then another 200′ up a SW facing couloir to gain the West Ridge.
By the time we reached the West Ridge, the storm was in full blast. However for the most part it appeared to be wind and blowing snow with little accumulation. The SW slopes had all of 1 inch of fresh snow so we kept going.
Austin led the top portion; when he gained the mellow slopes above he had one hesitant moment with a suspect slope, cornice and zero visibility. However – a slight clearing allowed him to see where we needed to go and he was able to traverse the corniced slope with little danger.
We reached the top at 10:30 am. We could see absolutely nothing in any direction so we spent little time admiring the “view” and were soon on our way down.
The descent was straightforward but time consuming. There were 4 of us so we shared all the rappels – a total of 6.
We reached the base at 4:45 pm happy to be down as the storm continued to increase. After the ski back to base camp we slept well and awoke to clearing skies.
The storm ended up depositing about 4 inches at base camp – but we figured there was more snow up higher. Instead of opting to hang out in base camp waiting for conditions to stabilize, we packed up camp, loaded up the sleds and headed up the Ruth Glacier to take a look (and possibly attempt) the West Face of Mt. Dan Beard (10,260′). Mt. Dan Beard’s first ascent was via the West Face in 1962 – however I had found little information concerning any attempts of that West aspect since then. Given the nature of Alaska’s receding glaciers, I had an inclination that the West aspect would be an icefall, but opted to go give it a try anyways.
We left camp around noon and skied about 8 miles up glacier meandering around dozens of huge crevasses until finally making a camp at the toe of the Northwest fork of Ruth Glacier in the shadows of the Rooster’s Comb (11,300′) and Mt. Dan Beard.
It was much colder up where we were so we opted to wake at 5am and by 6:30am on May 8th we were skiing up the glacier. Austin was feeling ill from some sort of respiratory infection so he stayed behind and I led us up the glacier working my way through a maze of gaping crevasses and probing snow bridges until we finally reached the upper cirque that lies between Denali’s East Buttress and the Southeast Spur.
The sun finally lifted from behind Mt. Dan Beard and we stopped in a safe zone and checked out the West Face. As I feared, a serac band threatened the route. The bottom of the route is moderate snow – and the top of the route looks downright easy. However an icefall that looked no more than 300-400′ split the route from left to right.
I didn’t feel comfortable with the route; perhaps I’d feel differently if I camped and watched it for a day or two to see how active it was – but not wanting to get on it right away we turned around and skied back down.
We made it back to our camp around 10am, then loaded up the sleds and trudged back down the glacier to base camp where once again everyone was sitting around waiting for it to get cold.
Austin, who needed to be back to work, flew out that evening.
The temps dropped a little and high pressure moved in so we decided to give Mt. Dickey (9,545′) a real attempt. It was May 10th – Yvonne’s birthday – and she loves climbing big mountains – so the perfect birthday present was a climb up Mt. Dickey.
We awoke at 2am and were climbing by 3:30. We reached 747 Pass at 6:30am after an exhausting climb where sometimes we were on skis, and sometimes booting while carrying our skis. However, once we reached the col, we found crisp snow and after transitioning from skis to crampons, we easily began booting up the crisp snow with the snow hardly covering our boots.
Clouds covered the initial portion of the route but we soon climbed above them.
We easily booted up to the traverse where you need to choose between the Ridge and Face route. Instead of traversing the entire slope to gain the ridge via a moderate ramp, Bryce led us straight up the 50 degree slope, up and over a short cornice. I followed, belly flopping up over the lip while kicking out all the steps for Yvonne. As a result Yvonne floundered on a steep lip with no feet until finally also throwing herself over the lip.
Above the cornice we traversed some mixed terrain until finally gaining the West Ridge proper and making fast progress up the route.
The West Ridge goes up and over little bumps and rises until you are finally deposited on a snow gendarme that you must ascend and then downclimb to gain the final snow slopes that take you to the summit. Along the way we had spectacular views of Mt. Bradley, Hunter and Huntington. (Unfortunately Denali was covered with clouds all day.) To our right the southeast face of Mt. Dickey fell away for 5000′ and we climbed along continuously looking down into the void.
We reached the summit at 1pm under beautiful skies to look down at the Ruth Gorge 1 mile below us and across the void at the Moose’s Tooth / Bear Tooth / Eye Tooth massif.
The Moose’s Tooth massif (Moose’s Tooth / Bear Tooth / Eye Tooth / Broken Tooth).
After a quick snack and a few photos we set off and downclimbed the route reaching 747 Pass just after 5pm and then skiing down after a short break. Avalanche danger was a bit less severe this time around – however the icefall had recently let loose about 100 tons of ice blocks, which made for an eerie traverse.
We were back at base camp around 6:30pm – making for a 15 hour day.
After a rest day we opted to give “Freezy Nuts” a try. Freezy Nuts is a route that climbs to a col between Werewolf and London Towers. Some friends who climbed it last year had given it glowing reviews so it ranked high on my list of routes I wanted to attempt. The route is about 2500′ tall and for about 1500′ you ascend a very narrow couloir with short ice steps.
We packed ice tools, some screws, an alpine rack and two ropes and at 2am were awake and getting dressed. Yvonne had caught the cold bug that Austin had so she opted to stay behind so just Bryce and I headed out at 3:30am.
The approach to the route took all of 20 minutes on an icy crust and by 4:30am we were booting up the initial couloir. We booted up for about 1000′ until the couloir started to narrow and then pulled out behind a rock outcropping and roped up.
I led out placing cams, nuts and pins when cracks presented themselves and placed pickets when the runouts got long. The snow alternated between perfect styrofoam to knee-deep funk. However – as I got higher, the snow turned to snice (a mixture of snow and ice). We simul climbed about 500′ until reaching the first ice step where I had Bryce pull off and give me a real belay.
After the first ice step the climbing got really fun. We would climb short 30-40′ steps of ice and then up easier snow to the next ice step. Some of the sections were hardly 4 feet in width! To our left huge ice curtains plastered the walls. About half way up we reached a chockstone that was easily passed via an ice runnel. After that we swung leads up the rest of the ice – and finally up 3 pitches of steep snow to the final crux: a steep cornice with a tunnel through it!
Bryce led the cornice pitch and crawled through the tunnel. I followed gingerly tiptoeing under the cornice and quickly worming my way through the rabbit hole wondering where it would take me.
We topped out and looked at both the routes up Werewolf and London Towers – but both required way more effort then I was willing to give. After checking out a potential descent off the backside (which is definitely not viable), we ate some lunch, drank some water and then began rapping down.
My dislike of downclimbing steep snow turned me into a rap anchor madman and I built / backed up a total of 11 anchors. All told I ended up leaving 5 pitons and three nuts. We equipped 4 of the stations with rap rings and cut away old webbing where we found it.
We reached the base at 9pm (no speed record for us!) and were back at camp by 10:00.
By far the best resource for the Ruth Gorge is Joe Puryear’s book Alaska Climbing. His book details numerous routes in the Ruth Gorge and has route topos and full page color photos of routes. Joe’s book can be bought at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage or at SuperTopo.
Puryear also published an in-depth article listing known routes in the Ruth Gorge in the 2006 American Alpine Journal. That article can be downloaded here.
CascadeClimbers.com has a number of Ruth Gorge trip reports that detail various routes. Here are a few selected write-ups:
Jason Kuo and his partner were in the Ruth in 2008. He has a number of photos of ascents of Ham and Eggs, Shaken not Stirred, the Japanese Couloir and Freezy Nuts in a Flickr slideshow.
Talkeetna Air Taxi’s blog updates weather and route info throughout the season.
And finally… don’t forget to check in with the National Park Service. After all this is a National Park; if you have qualms about bureaucracy and liberalism then you can climb anywhere else in Alaska and not have to sit around camp extolling your libertarian philosophies.
Mt. Barrill – Japanese Couloir: Joe’s book details this route quite well. About all I have to add is to be aware that the route climbs two very different aspects. You first ascend the East facing Japanese Couloir to a col and then have to traverse a Southwest facing slope to gain the West Ridge. In 2007 Andre Callari, 33, of Salt Lake City and Brian Postlethwait, 32, of Park City, were killed in an avalanche when they didn’t take into account the SW facing slopes when assessing avalanche conditions in the couloir proper. When you traverse over to access the West Ridge you can place rock gear, but once you leave the SW couloir you have about 500′ of 30-40 degree snow you need to climb before you reach a safe zone. If the snow is at all suspect, dig a pit before leading beyond the safety of the rocks.
To descend the route we left one anchor at the top of the SW couloir. With two ropes this anchor will get you to the traverse. At the bottom of that first rap you can place a pin or small TCU to tie off on. Once you gain the Japanese col there are 4 rap stations down the couloir.
Mt. Dan Beard – West Face: This is the first ascent route, but whether it has changed drastically or I’m just not willing to tip-toe through icefall I can’t say. My inclination is to say that the glacier has changed to the point where the “easy walk up” the West Face is no longer a viable option unless you don’t mind the serac head-game. The route is benign up high and benign down low – but about 300′ is rather nasty looking. If you really want to do this route you could put a camp in the (highly crevassed) basin and watch it for a day or two. However – a better option might be to take a couloir that is climber’s left of the SW face route in Joe’s book. The couloir looks direct, has little objective danger and will get you high fast.
Mt. Dickey – West Ridge: This route is also profiled in Joe’s book. We opted not to take the face route due to the gaping crevasses on the West Face. However I’ve since had people tell me that the face route is sometimes a more viable option due to variable conditions on the ridge. And don’t take the route to and from 747 Pass lightly. The icefall is very active and snow bombs come off both Dickey’s south face and 747 peak turning the entire corridor into bomb alley. Climb up to the col in early morning – and ski down the route like a demon. There is a safe zone in the middle and at the bottom; don’t screw around anywhere else.
Werewolf Tower – Freezy Nuts: On 5/29/2010 there was an ave on this route that killed 2 climbers. Be aware that the upper slopes can hold a lot of snow and if an ave occurs while you’re in the narrows there is no way to avoid getting hit by debris. There is also a high risk of rock and icefall later in the day. The sun will hit the upper slopes by early afternoon and which point things will start coming down.
This route a high risk route with a lot of objective danger and has been the scene of two fatalities and a few near misses. I’ve been told that NPS Rangers do not recommend this route. The route is hourglassed shaped with lots of loaded snow up high and a thin narrow couloir which doesn’t allow any room for escape should something happen. It also doesn’t go to the summit but stops at the col between Werewolf and London towers. If you want to climb Werewolf via this route / North ridge, you’ll need rock shoes and or mixed gear. That said, it’s a pretty fun route albeit rather dangerous (but what isn’t high risk in the Ruth?).
The climbing itself consists of steep snow, ice and snice with numerous short ice bands. The first ascent party rated the route TD+, however we found rather moderate conditions and I’d say it’s a bit easier. The final 600′ is very steep snow that can be deep and suspect; the route culminates in a cornice tunnel so be aware of snow conditions if you reach the cornice and have to tunnel.
Gear: Take 2 ice tools, some pins, 5 or 6 screws, and some nuts and cams. The rock is really compact so a few smaller nuts and cams might give you more gear options; however for the most part the gear presents itself when you need it. We also carried 4 pickets which were more bomber than most of the screws and rock gear – but I’m a snow climbing wimp and we climbed it rather late in the season (May 12th).
Time: From the base of the route to the top took us 11 hours. Descending the route took us 5 hours – but much of that time was spent building anchors. If no one takes the anchors your descent time will be a fraction of that; if you have good conditions downclimbing the route would be fast as well. To use Joe’s ranges I’ll say 6-12 hours up and 3-6 hours down for the average climber.