The Toose’s Mooth
Mixed adventures on the north face of the Moose ’s Tooth
by Seth Shaw
In the summer of 1994, Scott Simper, Kevin Sweeney and I, having climbed the relatively benign West Ridge route of the Moose’s Tooth, stood on top of the West Summit and looked down the north face of the Tooth to the narrow Buckskin Glacier a dizzying 4,000 feet below. Deep in shadow, it looked cold and forbidding. Climbing it was the farthest thing from my mind.
I didn’t give much thought to climbing the Moose’s Tooth again until a couple of years later. Paging through some old climbing magazines, I was captivated by an aerial photo of the east and north faces. I also was familiar with the epic tale of its first ascent by Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell in 1981. From the comfort of everyday life, the adventure sounded enticing.
In late April, 1997, Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi eased off the throttle of his Cesna 185 and glided softly through champagne powder. Scott Simper and I hopped out.
“Here it is, boys. The Buckskin.”
The two of us stood gawking at our immense surroundings. The glacier is barely half a mile wide, and surrounded by 4,000- and 5,000-foot walls on three sides. We felt small.
Scott and I had hoped to find an ice route up the 5,000-foot east face of the Moose’s Tooth, but the reality of a dry winter had adorned the face with meager smears of ice separated by long stretches of kitty-litter granite. We turned our search to the expansive north face. At first sight, it looked hopelessly fortified by a broad hanging glacier. We watched frequent megaice bombardments as they launched completely airborne for 3,000 feet. The dust clouds filled the entire valley. We felt small.
Directly under the West Summit, a continuous ribbon of ice snaked down the mountainside. Maybe this could be our route. The next day, under light snowfall, we made our way up-glacier, giving the active hanging glacier we nicknamed The Menace as wide a berth as possible. Unfortunately, we discovered that our hoped-for route started underneath a particularly wicked section of this feature.
We discussed the possibility of sneaking along its right-hand edge—of how we probably could be out of harm’s way in a matter of hours.
Our recently proposed route was completely obliterated by an easy 500 tons of ice.
“Boy, that was a clear message, wasn’t it?”
“Makes ya feel kinda small, doesn’t it?”
We continued to search the face for a weakness. A thinner mixed variation, which bypassed The Menace and intersected with the obvious line a third of the way up the mountain, became apparent.
Scrape…catch. Crampon gouging into the weathered granite. Tick…tick…tick. Ice pick barely in the centimeter-thick ice.
“Wouldn’t wanta come off here, bro.”
“Gotta tipped out number 4 in, so go easy on the jumars.”
Snowflakes in the air. The face comes alive with spindrift. Time to flee.
Back to our tiny tent. We brew up and watch the hostile face—watch spindrifts big enough to wash insignificant climber specks to an icy grave. Fear creeps in. Thoughts of loved ones drive home the foolishness of alpine climbing.
Scott and I discuss the merits of spending a minimal amount of time on the face.
Four quarts of water, two days of food, butane stove, two cartridges, three-pound tent, down jackets. No sleeping bags or pads.
Dark, cold morning. Fingers freezing. Dark specter looms over us. Fear.
We walk toward the face like automatons. Boots squeak in the cold snow. We methodically ascend our four fixed ropes. Body hot, hands cold. Four a.m. Black sky turns gray. Drop the bottom two ropes.
“Time to haul ass, bro.”
Scott scritches up a grainy chimney to a marginal belay. Ice smears and rock give way to a steep snowfield. We are forced to simulclimb with no protection between us. Vulnerable.
“OK, mountain, don’t send anything down on us now.”
Finally, I reach an ice tongue and whip in a couple of shorty ice screws. A sigh of relief.
Tying our two ropes together, we can stretch 70 or 80 meters out of a pitch. Still, our progress, relative to the task, is slow. Pitch after pitch of 60° and 70° ice. A two- to eight-inch-thick ribbon of it winds through a vast granite landscape. Calves bum, but no time to slow down.
“OK, tied off.”
Quickly eat, drink. Scott clips in, hands me gear.
“You’re on, gone.”
Landmarks we had scoped from the glacier unfold. Six pitches on the Serpent. Go right at the Headstone. Progress. At 10 p.m., we enter the fluted summit area. We’ve been climbing for 18 hours, and it feels it. Ice gives way to cold cohesionless snow.
“That’s me,” Scott yells up.
No more rope and no anchors. Frustration and exhaustion. I root around for ice under the snow. Nothing. I set our two pickets into the snow, find a feeble ice crust for screws and tie the whole mess together. Internal sirens scream, yelling back and forth. Danger. The encroaching darkness. The dizzying abyss.
We simulclimb with one good screw and the rat’s nest between us. Only 100 feet to the summit, to safety. I carefully shaft each tool to the head, hands numb from the cold. Kick each foot several times, wishing for a solid placement in the sugary snow. The pitch steepens. I feel like my feet are going to shear through. Finally, a wall of ice rears in front of me and my tool bites into something solid. I sink an ice screw to the hilt. To my left, I can see a three-foot- wide snow ledge—the only bivy ledge we’ve seen all day. I give Scott the good news in darkness.
Inside the tent, stove hissing. The cold dry snow slowly produces cups of water. Fighting off sleep is difficult; our damp clothing sucks away precious body heat. Nod off. Wake. The task of scooping snow into the pot is not appreciated. Nod off. Wake. Shiver. Finally, hot water for food, and we eat ravenously. Sleep overpowering. Wake up stiff and shivering, gas canister empty. Our last gas canister. Huddle close to the stove. Sky turning gray.
Our theory was that the early morning sun would heat the tent and we could sleep for a few hours, thaw our gloves and boots, then deal with the final pitch over the summit cornice. Reality: The low sun angle does not heat the tent noticeably. Shiver, nod off. Wake up, shiver.
“Good vacation.” Cynical smirk.
Sun leaves the face.
“I guess we should get going.”
Neither of us move.
“I guess we should get going.”
Fight our way into frozen boots. Fight with the frozen tent. Our perch looks scarier in the light. Cold works into cores; the traverse right is frighteningly exposed. Dig away at the cornice. High stepping on a picket, I watch it slide out. Headfirst and backward I go. Luckily the ice screw holds.
The next attempt is successful. Summit and sunshine.
“You’re tied off.”
Scott jugs off my body weight while I counterbalance on the opposite side of the ridge. We praise the sun, its heat slowly penetrating our chilled bodies. Far below, we see climbers on the West Ridge route. Humanity. Our hearts warm. Time to descend.
We weave along the exposed ridge, careful not to let our guard down. Footprints in the distance. We are psyched that a trail down is broken. I can’t believe our good fortune as I clip in and belay Scott over. Big smile: Scott sees I’m clipped into double threads and a wrap ring. Rappel anchors are in place the whole way down. Easy descent. We stop to chat with some climbers on their way up. Life is good again. Soon we are striding down gentle slopes, luxuriating in the sun and the beauty. We hike over a pass, leaving the Ruth Glacier behind. Back into shadow we go. Only 1,000 feet to descend and we will be back on the Buckskin. Complete luxury awaits us.
Slack line—punch through to deep nothingness. Almost got caught. Guard goes back up. Several rappels down a huge serac. Last chance for the mountain to kill us. Indifferently, it lets us pass.
Base camp. Huge feast. In warm sleeping bags, we drift off.
Summary of Statistics AREA: The Alaska Range, Alaska
NEW ROUTE: The Toose’s Mooth (Alaskan Grade 6) on the north face of the Moose’s Tooth (10,335'), May 1, 1997, Seth Shaw and Scott Simper