American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Ruth Gorge, Mt. Bradley, South Face, The Gift (That Keeps On Giving)

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

Mt. Bradley, South Face, The Gift (That Keeps On Giving). Taking advantage of weather patterns allegedly caused by El Niño, and assurances by Park Ranger Darryl Miller that the winter in the Alaska Range had been “extremely mild,” Jonny Blitz, Steve House and I flew onto the Ruth Glacier on February 28. The first few nights at our 4,400-foot base camp were quite cold (-25 to -30°F), but temperatures moderated thereafter. The camp received approximately ten hours of daylight, increasing by seven minutes per day, and just five hours of sunlight, as the sun rose from behind the Hut Tower and disappeared behind Mt. Wake.

After some reconnaissance and ski touring, we chose a line on Mt. Bradley. Our first attempt ended in retreat. Ice conditions were not ideal: much of what we counted on being ice was thin ice over powder snow or simply frothy snow plastered on the rock. I made a false start on pitch two before backing off and traversing around the offending difficulties. Jonny ran out of rope and ice and eventually, after spending a lot of time searching for anchors, had to belay off his tools. Steve made two attempts on pitch four before finally hanging his pack on a screw and leading through without it. Unfortunately, these mistakes ate up the daylight and after deciding no one was psyched to lead the sixth pitch, and with no way to aid climb around it, we retreated.

On March 7, we attempted the line again. The sixth pitch, dubbed the “Super Third Eye Opener,” though quite dangerous, wasn’t as difficult as expected and led us out of the initial dead-end gully. We climbed ten pitches the first day, fixing a rope and bivouacking at the bottom of the ninth pitch. Climbing through the headwall on day two was hard enough that we only managed four pitches before another bivy. The most striking pitch on the route, pitch 14, “The Super Giant Waterfall of Love,” was led by House. Steep, bottomless snow led to moderate mixed climbing into a cave behind a free-hanging icicle. House pulled on to the icicle and made three moves before it snapped off above his tools. He rode it down, ripping the first piece of gear before simultaneously hitting the snow slope and being stopped by a good cam. After a rest, he climbed back into the cave, onto the remaining ice, and through to a steep, but thin pillar. The pitch was very sustained, with dubious protection for 35 meters to a semi-hanging belay below a huge chockstone and snow mushroom—a true two-and-a-half hour lead.

On day three, we opted to leave the bivy gear behind and go as fast as we could for the top or to where difficulty stopped us—“fast” being a relative term, as the 15th pitch (A3) took Blitz three hours to lead. The “Super Three-Hour Pitch” involved aiding off ice tools used as hooks, tied-off knifeblades, real hooks and a lot of back-cleaning (the rack was too small for the type of climbing encountered). The gully opened up above it and we made good progress to a dead-end below another massive chockstone. Two difficult mixed pitches got us past it on the right, and led to more moderate snow. As darkness fell, we confronted yet another chockstone, but managed to sneak through “The Glory Hole” behind it on 90° ice. At 8 p.m. we reached the col at 8,700 feet. Four hundred feet of easy snow separated us from the summit, but true to my nature, we started rappelling, reaching our bivy at 1:30 a.m. We arrived at Base Camp on March 10 after a leisurely descent the next afternoon.

The Gift (That Keeps On Giving) follows a huge gully system west of The Pearl, a difficult rock route put up by Andy Orgler on the most obvious pillar dominating the south face. The Gift… is 3,200 feet high, and 23 (60m) pitches if you use the rope all the way. Thirteen of these pitches are “hard.” The technical ratings are 5.9 A3 WI6 XX. Our grade, a Texas “two star,” is as ambiguous as any other alpine grade and means absolutely nothing.

Mark F. Twight, Groupe de la Haute Montagne

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