American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Moose's Tooth

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1965

The Moose’s Tooth

Walter Welsch, Deutscher Alpenverein Translated by H. Adams Carter

On May 5 we four members of the Section Bayerland left Munich on our long trip. Arnold Hasenkopf, Klaus Bierl, Alfons Reichegger and I were headed for the mountains of Alaska, far north towards the midnight sun.

Once that our journey by automobile from New York to Alaska was over, our last minute preparations in Anchorage were quickly accomplished. On May 22 we were ready to take off with Don Sheldon, the famous glacier pilot. Originally we had two objectives for our expedition: the first ascent of Mount Huntington and the climb of Mount McKinley. However, since a French expedition led by Lionel Terray was already on Huntington, our group turned to the yet unclimbed Moose’s Tooth (10,335 feet).

We flew on May 22 to our field of operations. I was the first to be transported in the small, two-seated Piper Supercub over the northern wilderness to the steep, precipitous mountains. The rise is so high in such a very short distance that they count among the peaks with greatest difference of altitude from base to summit in the world. This first flight also served as a reconnaissance. I had to decide in no time at all what the route of ascent should be and whether our map study and the information we had received was correct. From the plane the south side did appear to be a possible route.

After landing in the gorge of the Ruth Glacier, I set right to work establishing Camp I at 5000 feet. However we did not really occupy the camp as such, but used it as a food and equipment dump. We set out that very "night” across the crevassed Ruth Glacier and up a long and steep icefall to a nameless glacial basin at the foot of the perpendicular southern slopes of our peak. Here, early in the day, we set up Camp I at 7500 feet. This was our real Base Camp.

Several days of bad weather followed. Then we shoved ahead up the steep, snow-covered ice slope that descends from the mountain toward the south and deposited loads of food and equipment below the summit wall. We wanted to set up Camp III there at 9675 feet as our final high camp. After resupplying ourselves from below, we returned to establish the high camp. However when we got to its site and inspected and probed the feasibility of climbing the summit wall, we became convinced that this abrupt rock face, which was badly frost-shattered and unstable, could only be climbed by spending days of boring rock to place expansion bolts. The decision to turn back was a hard one, but we had no other choice.1

A quickly improvised attempt up a steep gully above Camp II directly toward the summit had to be given up because of great avalanche danger.

Thoroughly depressed, we evacuated Camp II of all our food and equipment, nearly 1000 pounds. It was laborious work. At the end of a week we realized that nothing had been accomplished and that we would have to start again from the very beginning. These two abortive attempts had gained us only one advantage, which was soon to aid us more than we then thought: we were in incredibly good shape, carrying 80-pound packs with the same ease (or difficulty) as 40-pounders in the Alps.

It became obvious that the Moose’s Tooth was a very coveted peak. As we rested at Base Camp, three Americans, Fred Beckey, Eric Bjornstad and Bob Baker, turned up with the same objective. We joined together in a common attempt on the west ridge.2 The next day we climbed to 7900 feet along the "Moose’s Back” as we called the broad spur which led up to the west ridge. Here we set up our assault camp, Camp IIa.

The first rope, Arnold and Klaus, left camp at six A.M. on June 1. Alfons and I followed a little later. Even the couloir by which we reached the west ridge from the Moose’s Back gave us a foretaste of what we could expect. Then it went better. There were no particular difficulties along the ridge before we reached the west summit. (The west ridge leads over the west and middle peaks to the main summit.) The route was just long and tiring since there were many rope-lengths of up to 45° ice.

We had to keep far down on the south side of the ridge because of the mighty cornices. Traversing was unpleasant since the soft loose snow kept sliding off the hard ice. Once I slipped and hurtled fifty feet down the steep, slick ice before Alfons brought me up on belay. We caught sight of Klaus and Arnold for the first time from the western summit. They were working their way toward the middle peak, apparently with great difficulty.

We had to rappel 65 feet into the col between the west and middle summits, named by us "Englishmen’s Col” since the British pair had quit there in 1962. And then it got really difficult! A rope-length of unbelievably steep, hard ice, knife-edged, extraordinarily airy and exposed, a real ladder to Heaven! While they were traversing another such step of polished ice, we watched Klaus hold Arnold as he plunged down onto the rope. This climb to the middle peak was certainly the most difficult part of the route. As from the western peak, we had to rappel several rope-lengths from the middle summit. The route snaked artfully down an interrupted, perpendicular chimney. Here we left a fixed rope, as we had already done in the Englishmen’s Col, for the return trip. After several unpleasant traverses, we finally reached our two comrades in the col between the middle and main peaks.

This whole description makes it sound too short; actually one must bear in mind that we were already some 16 to 18 hours underway and had not even paused except to belay, which we did continuously from incredibly poor stances. On and on we climbed, complaining about our rucksacks, fighting fatigue and thirst, observing the weather with anxiety.

After a short rest, we found the steep stretches of the summit ridge easier than anticipated. The views of the cliffs which plunged to the north were extraordinarily beautiful. With a steepness such as we had never seen and ever changing shapes, the slopes shot down to a bottomless nothing; above they were crowned by cornices anywhere from 65 to 150 feet in length which looked like the crests of gigantic breakers.

We were nearing the summit. Excitement welled up in me just before reaching our goal. We were about to step for the first time onto the summit of an untrodden peak. About four o’clock in the morning of June 2 we stood on the highest point, a mighty cornice. The Moose’s Tooth, against which we had struggled for twelve days, was no longer an unclimbed mountain.

During the descent, which went off uneventfully, we met Bjornstad and Baker, who decided to return. (Fred Beckey had remained in camp sick.) They roped onto us and by the time we reached camp it was 40 hours since the time of our departure.

Editor’s note. The four Germans were flown to the Kahiltna Glacier, where they climbed Mount McKinley by the West Buttress route. Sensing that good weather would not last indefinitely, they climbed the peak from their Camp III at only 14,000 feet. It took them forty-one and a half hours, which included a seven-hour bivouac in Denali Pass at over 18,000 feet. Although they climbed from a much lower camp than is advisable (dangers from pulmonary edema and weather are ever present on McKinley), thanks to their superb conditioning and continuing good weather, they made the climb without incident, reaching the summit at eleven p.m. on June 12 .

Summary of Statistics Area: Alaska Range.

Ascents: First ascent of the Moose’s Tooth, 10,335 feet, June 2, 1964 (whole German party).

Mount McKinley, 20,320 feet, by West Buttress, June 12, 1964 (whole German party).

Personnel: Walter Welsch, leader; Klaus Bierl, Arnold Hasenkopf, Alfons Reichegger, German party; Fred Beckey, Robert Baker, Eric Bjornstad, Americans.

1. This route had been reconnoitered by James Richardson, Jeffrey Duenwald and Margaret Young in May and June, 1963. They reached almost exactly the same spot as the Germans before turning back. See A.A.]., 1964, 14:1, p. 165 — Editor.

2. This was the route attempted by the English climbers Barrie Biven and Anthony Smythe in July, 1962. They reached the gap beyond the western summit before turning back. See A.A.J., 1963, 13:2, pp. 467-8. — Editor.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.