Ham and Eggs on the Moose’s Tooth
A new route on Kichatna Spire. The winter and spring had been spent scheming and psyching up for it, but we just couldn’t seem to get decent cards. After waiting several days for flying weather, Tom Davies, Nate Zinsser, and I were finally in the air, but by the time we arrived over the Cathedral Spires they were hopelessly socked-in once again. The thought of more days—maybe weeks—in Talkeetna hit hard. My ambition was pickling and coordination growing shaky from endless hours spent compulsively tipping cans of Oly in Evil Alice’s and the Fairview.
“Tough break there, boys.” Hudson turned the plane around.
“Tom, what would you say about going to try Johnson?”
“Yeah? Tell me about it.”
“Really, no jive this time. Looks pretty in the photos. That big, smooth buttress south of Dickey. Steepest part’s right off the glacier.” “A map, Jon. How are we going to know asses from elbows there without a map?”
“No sweat, Nate. I’ve seen a million slides of the Ruth Gorge.” “Mount Johnson. What the hell, why not?”
“What the hell, why not?”
“Sweet Ever-lovin’ Mama, I do hope we haven’t finally gone over the edge.”
The Cessna turned again and we raced the storm front to the Ruth Amphitheatre, eighty miles to the northeast. That night we teetered down the Ruth as far as we could with three ghastly carries each, and there made our Base Camp. It turned out to be right beneath the east wall of Mount Barrille when the clouds lifted. The next day we skied down to Johnson, but didn’t see any continuous lines on it and the rock looked bad. No need to fret though—we’d just try that pretty little (if a bit steep) east face of Barrille, conveniently located right above our camp.
Little, like 2500-feet-little, we were to discover. 500 virtually ledgeless feet up on the wall, I got to a seam that was crumblier than I had nerve to try without dipping into our meager bolt kit. Eight hundred difficult, dead vertical feet lay between me, the first apparent bivvy ledge, and the first snow for water. Having planned for Kichatna Spire, we’d flown in only ten bolts, three small water bottles, and one hammock. No way. I decided not to waste our bolts. “… humility to retreat rather than continue in bad style.” Right, humility. A nice euphemism, anyhow.
A couple of days later, we did make it to the summit of something: “Mount Cosmic Debris”—an ugly thousand-foot pile of loose rubble and avalanching snow south of the Moose’s Tooth, but I’d be a happier soul today never having been on that mountain.
A week was gone and my self-image was not good.
“I’ll tell you, Jon-boy, some people are going to laugh pretty long when they hear what happened to our bold, skillfully executed bid on Kichatna Spire, and I don’t believe that I’m going to think it’s funny at all.”
“I think you have a point there.”
From the otherwise worthless summit of “Cosmic Debris,” though, we had glimpsed an amazing couloir on the south face of the Moose’s Tooth. The line caught our eyes immediately: rock at the bottom, then what looked like a hairline of steep, grey ice rising directly to the west ridge, topping out just west of the true summit. A reconnaissance up to the high shelf beneath the couloir reinforced the hope that we’d blundered across a beautiful unclimbed route. On the Moose’s Tooth, no less! Nothing to do but give it a go.
On July 11, the last of seven clear and balmy days, we humped a bad load up the easiest-looking icefall on the southwest side of the Tooth. We set up camp on the glacier beneath our couloir after sweating for twelve hard hours over, between, and underneath wild séracs and thin snow bridges. With the glacier’s constant groaning and creaking came terrifying thoughts of lake Breitenbach’s end, but our beer- and tobacco- filled histories kept us from moving any faster. From this 7400-foot camp we hoped to make one, go-for-broke, alpine-style attempt.
The next evening we started up the south face under a grey sky. The first lead was a loose dead-end. Tom tried another line, and this one had a future. Three of the first four pitches were rock, thin free climbing that seemed hard in mountain boots and packs, with a bit of aid now and then. Three leads up steep, mashed-potato-like snow followed. This was Alaska—why was it so warm? Even though rock was never far away, anchors were hard to come by in the rotten, frost- riven granite. We used axes and snow flukes in the soft snow. On pitch 8 the couloir turned into a bizarre, two-foot-wide, hollow ice hose. The ninth pitch needed a bolt before I could finish hooking over a very short, but overhanging wall, and that was the furthest up the mountain that crampons were not on our boots.
“Hey, now. A bolt? On an alpine route like that? Doesn’t this dude have any yarbles?” I can hear it coming. It was just that a month earlier, on a virgin Yukon wall with Dave Roberts, I had taken a 45-foot nose-dive trying to force the route through a blank section. We had to retreat from seven-eighths of the way up the wall because we didn’t have a bolt or two along. Pragmatism has since shaped my alpine mores —in wild mountains the game can be real enough for me without contrived rules.
On pitch 11, rain coming down, we hit the first 90° ice step. Tom took care of it skillfully, front-pointing up the disintegrating ribbon of ice, and eventually aiding on wobbling Warthogs with spectacular cursing. A thick film of water poured over the ice, down Tom’s sleeves and into his boots, soaking him. The rain came down harder, but lulled by all those earlier sunny days and reluctant to fold our hand in the face of what was turning out to be a rich pot, we wouldn’t believe that we weren’t just being bluffed by a passing squall.
By the time I started the twelfth lead the trickle in our couloir was a waterfall. That pitch ended with another 25 feet of rotten 90° ice, and long before I finally aided over the rock at its lip with wooden hands, I, too, was very wet. At a stance out of the water, I yelled down to Nate to come on up. Then something let go. The waterfall doubled in volume. Chunks of ice hummed past from high above. Nate tried to jiimar in the torrent but immediately retreated to the belay ledge, drenched from only a few seconds on the ice. Man, who was bluffing whom? A low straight trying to scare four queens up can lose big.
A yell from below: “What are you doing?! Let’s get the hell out of here before we get ourselves killed!”
“OK! OK!” I screamed back over the roar, “just clean the pitch and we’ll leave!” Nate swung reluctantly back into the water and struggled upwards. A few feet from security, ice-water splashing over his helmet and pouring through his rain gear, he got stuck. In the confusion, Tom had begun jümaring up the same rope, pinning Nate’s ascenders under the lip for a few bad minutes.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!! GET OFF THIS F***ING ROPE! HURRY! PLEEEEASE!!!”
“WHAT? OH! Sorry there, Nate.”
“JUST GET OFF!!! FAST!!” At this, Tom went quickly down, and Nate shot up to my stance, soaked to the skin, mumbling nonsensical phrases.
We began descending immediately. After ten rappels and some unpleasant down-climbing, exhausted, shivering, and on the verge of hypothermia, we crawled into our tent and wrung out our half-bags.
Sixty hours later, we were still in that stinking, dripping tent, lying in soggy Polarguard amid puddles and filthy dishes, wondering when it was going to stop coming down outside. We inventoried the remains of our food and iron and decided, with some ambivalence, that we had enough of both to give it another shot. All we needed was a two-day break in the storm—time to dry out our bags and clothing and make a light, fast push up the 2500 feet to the summit ridge. On the night of the fourteenth it suddenly cleared, but only long enough to fool us into putting our clothes out to dry so they could be buried by a foot of wet snow in the wee hours of the morning.
The break in the storm brought sudden insomnia. I lay with racing thoughts and twitching legs in fear and anticipation of what was to be the morrow’s climb. Then the snow came and, at first, I was greatly relieved. Now we couldn’t go back up there—I grew euphoric over our good luck. We made a raid on the first-aid kit, and were soon laughing heartily, cheered by a good dose of Percodan and Dalmane. Lovely snow! Let it bury the tent!
The storm continued, snow turning to sleet. I began to think about blowing a chance to put up a good Alaskan route, and how it would feel next fall having washed out to the tune of more than five-hundred dollars. The post-Percodan depression hit and my initial relief became renewed disappointment.
We resolved to ration our food and wait as long as possible for fair weather. Fears of the couloir were intensified by having to sit impotent beneath it for so many wet, wretched hours. Thoughts about the climb were relentless—neither reading nor conversation were successful diversion for long. My morbid imagination got carried away and the waiting got worse. I just wanted to do the damn climb, without having to think another thing about it, and then get the hell out to friends, music, and beer.
The sixteenth of July was clear. We dried gear in the sun, packed, and apprehensively started up at eight P.M., with the sky above cloudless, but a faint black line beginning to appear over the southern horizon. Having had the dubious advantage of several days with little to do but ponder each lead we’d done first time around, we flew up the first ten leads, but found pitches 11 and 12, the first vertical ice steps, greatly deteriorated. The ice was now even more hollow and rotten, and it was covered by a crust of rime that oozed water when pierced by an axe or screw. It took more aid this time, but we didn’t get as wet, and Nate started up new territory on the 65° to 70° ice of the thirteenth lead.
We were climbing confidently and well. Even though clouds closed in and it began to snow, cutting visibility to a rope-length, we felt well in control. All my fears during the unpleasant wait had dissolved after the first few pitches. I was completely absorbed by the climb. The sense of singular, unwavering purpose, as clear and definite as the straight line of our couloir, was a rare, incredibly good feeling.
Pitches 11 through 15 gave us the hardest climbing on the route. The ice hose here was at times no more than four feet across, frequently at an angle over 65°, and there were four short sections of very rotten 90° ice. Our Jümars no longer held on the frozen ropes, so we broke out the Gibbs. Pitch 15, the last of the very steep ice, went from 50° to 75° and ended with a twelve-foot vertical stretch that was capped by an overhanging mushroom of wet, crusty snow. I passed the mushroom, with difficulty, via a bad aid pin in a crumbling flake at its edge. A few feet above I ran out of rope and had to use another bolt for a belay in the blank rock. I didn’t trust quickly melting screws in bad ice enough to hang the jümar rope from them.
Nate led around a bend on pitch 16 to find solid, 55°, grey-white ice rising smoothly into the cloud. It stayed that way for six leads. Swing axe, swing hammer. Kick in right front points, step up onto left inside points. Swing, swing. Kick, step. Swing, swing. Kick, step. Now and then stick in something bombproof, occasionally alternate the aching upper foot. It was damn close actually to being fun.
The twenty-first pitch put us abruptly on level snow in a whiteout: the crest of the summit ridge! We sat down happily and brewed some tea, our first rest since leaving camp twenty hours earlier. The mountain seemed in the bag if we could find the top through the pea soup.
“If the clouds would just lift a bit.…”
“If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.”
But not ten minutes had passed when the clouds parted and the way to the summit was revealed. For a while we just whooped and yelled at the Ruth Glacier, 5000 feet below. Three hours later, after a cocky false start that had Tom and Nate up on an 80° sérac wall out on the north face, and two short, steep bits over the ’schrund at the juncture of the north face and west ridge, we sat on the corniced summit. We had made the second ascent of the Moose’s Tooth.
The descent was no fun. The storm was again on us when we got back to the top of the couloir. We unwisely decided not to bivouac, even though we had been climbing for twenty-four straight hours, and continued down into the cloud. It was hard enough just keeping our eyes open between rappels; little things like placing anchors, tying frozen webbing, and remembering which rope to pull down took real effort. By midnight, Tom and Nate, both bespectacled, were having trouble seeing. Wet snow came down heavily. We began hallucinating: spotlights flashed across the mountain, yells and car horns came from above and below. Nate took a Dexedrine to stay awake, enhancing his hallucinations but not doing much for his judgment. On the eleventh or twelfth rappel, the stiff, frozen ropes refused to come down. I whimpered. They stayed hung-up. More whimpering. Finally I had to go up and free them.
By the fifteenth rappel we were all nodding off frequently. I came down the nineteenth rappel to find Tom sound asleep, bent over a sling he was trying to untie for the next anchor. Finally, at five A.M., thirty-three hours after starting up the couloir, we fell into our beautiful, sagging tent and passed out. We had actually climbed the Moose’s Tooth, and put up a fine 2800-foot route in the process. Lord love a duck—we could go home now.
Summary of Statistics.
Area: Alaska Range.
Ascents: The Moose’s Tooth, 10,335 feet, second ascent via a new route, the south face, July 16 to 18, 1975 (Jonathan Krakauer, Thomas Davies, Nate Zinsser).
P 7200+ (1½ miles south of the Moose’s Tooth and ½ mile east of P 6720; “Cosmic Debris”), first ascent, July 8 and 9, 1975 (whole party).