American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Bear's Tooth

Teaching the new dogs old tricks

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Jim Bridwell
  • Climb Year: 1999
  • Publication Year: 2000

Except for myself and Glenn Dunmire, our team of five were alpine neophytes. The group had been hastily put together at the biannual Outdoor Retailers Show in Salt Lake. Four of us—Glenn, Brian Jonas and Fly’n Brian McCray—met at my house in Palm Desert, California, to pack the many bags for the flight. The fifth member, Terry Christensen of Canada, would meet us in Anchorage. Our objective was the formidable 4,700-foot east face of Peak 10,070', a peak I had previously named the Bear’s Tooth.

On the morning of our departure, I awoke to the excruciating lower back pain of a recurring injury. The pinched nerve was debilitating, but we couldn’t miss the flight. My wife ordered a wheelchair at the Palm Spring airport and gave me the last of a couple of muscle relaxers. We were off to Alaska.

In Talkeetna, Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick thought we should fly as soon as possible, so we arrived on the glacier the next day to see the beast. It had become one of my demons; this was my fourth attempt to purge it. For the others, it was their first view. The lower pillar’s stunning beauty captures the eye with sweeping elegance, a coy distraction from the upper half of the route. On my third effort, with Mark Wilford, we had climbed a few hundred feet shy of the pillar’s top. An inner voice had whispered then, “Above lies the test for success.” But Wilford had been struck in the calf by an errant ice missile that ushered in the defeat of our hard-fought battle.

After camp was pitched, Glenn set up the telescope for each to have a look while I described the route to my previous high point with Mark. It was May. Hoping for less snow on the wall, we had come a month later than Mark and I had previously, but the conditions were much the same as before.

The next day, we approached the wall carrying light loads. Though the weather was a little unstable, it looked good enough to get some work done. Glenn took the lead over the bergschrund and up the steeper snow above to the base of the pillar. Being primarily a mountaineer, Glenn’s forte was snow and ice. He was not a technical rock whiz, but I knew he was a hard worker and had solid expedition skills. Still, the leaning, ice-choked, mixed comer that loomed above was probably not his cup of tea. Who would step forward?

Fly’n Brian seconded Glenn to join him at a small stance, leaving the rest of us below. Brian’s ice experience was limited to following me on two pitches in Lee Vining Canyon on the east side of Yosemite. I turned to go back to camp as the two of them discussed the immediate future. My back was still giving me fits, so I would give it some time to get better and let the others have a chance to gain experience.

Fly’n Brian was half way up the lead by time I reached camp. Brian Jonas joined me shortly to share the box seats at the telescope. Fly’n Brian finished the pitch as the weather took a turn for the worse. Terry followed; he and Brian Jonas would lead the next day. Glenn, who had a barometer on his watch, started a weather log that evening. From my past knowledge of the area, I knew the necessity of climbing in bad weather.

Two climbing days later, we had managed only three more pitches. I’d hoped for better progress, but having led most of the first 12 pitches before, I knew this was a tough climb to cut your alpine teeth on. Terry had only been climbing five years, and Brian Jonas’s 5.12 free ability would likely not be of great value on the dubious rock of the Bear’s Tooth. Protection was usually poor, far between or just not possible. Big wall aid climbing skills were the ticket, and only Fly’n Brian and I had seats to the game.

Bad weather kept us grounded for a day, but the next afternoon Fly’n Brian and I hauled supplies and set up a hanging tent at our high point. We melted snow and settled in for the night. In the morning, in bad weather, we climbed four more pitches and returned to the tent. Terry and Brian Jonas hauled more food and fuel, and I spent the night with Terry, who had never slept in a hanging tent. The weather was atrocious the following day, so Terry and I rappelled to save food and fuel. Late the next day, four of us hauled food, fuel and another hanging tent to spend the night when the weather turned to shit.

Avalanches of spindrift cascaded over the fragile tents though the black hours. In the morning I peeked out the zipper door to a winter wonderland. Real horror show stuff... an avalanche brought rapid door closure. I brushed the snow off me into the tent bottom and snuggled back in the bag to do the hang.

Around noon, Fly’n Brian could hang no more.

“I’m going up,” he declared with purpose in his voice. I spent the night in the tent with a crazy guy, I thought.

“Really,” I said. “Have you looked out?”

An hour later, he was on the ropes. I was impressed. I have never seen anyone climb technical rock in conditions this bad. I remember this being the most technical pitch to my previous high point. A pendulum to loose hooking…lots of it…with little protection, then looking for two rivets on the snow-plastered wall.… This ought to be good, I pondered.

A long time passed after the pendulum, with occasional moments of disgruntled vocabulary. Hooking must have been tough with everything hidden under snow. Then came a crashing rattle of hardware and excited language. Soon after, a repeat performance was heard through the hiss of avalanches. A while later, a great sigh of relief signaled Fly’n Brian’s success. When I quizzed him that evening, he confessed, “I wanted to see what it would be like.” The following day, it cleared. Terry and Brian Jonas would try to fix two more pitches while the rest of us went down to get enough supplies to finish the route. That same afternoon, we hauled to the hanging bivy as Brian Jonas finished the second lead. The next morning, Fly’n Brian and I ascended the ropes to our high point. I began leading the rock-chopping pitch, which required chopping holes in the rotten rock to place camming devices. Fly’n Brian used the wooden belay seat as a shield while I worked through crumbly rock. I was literally breaking new ground. He followed, grumbling about the lumps he had received while belaying.

Pitches like these stretches the usefulness of the presently used rating system. We opted to rate this one PDH, which stands for Pretty Dam Hard. Fly’n Brian led the next two pitches before we came down to help set up hanging tents.

A logistical screw-up had tempers flaring. Brian Jonas had descended in the wake of a verbal altercation. The next day, Glenn and I pushed the ropes three pitches higher while tempers cooled. Things had worked to our advantage. Brian Jonas returned the following morning, bringing the last of our fixing ropes, while Glenn and Fly’n Brian took the lead. We were hoping for a snow cave or a tent platform at the top of the pillar, but as the day slipped away, we decided to dig a snow scoop where we were for the bivouac. When the lead team descended, they informed us that we had made the right choice. They had reached the top of the snow, and there was no suitable place above for a cave or a platform.

The weather was still holding well, and the next day we would have a go for the summit. Wake-up call was 4 a.m., and by 5 a.m. Fly’n Brian and I were headed up the ropes. As I jugged, I got my first bewildering view of the upper wall. A series of complex comers breached the wall above for several pitches before going out of sight. After a brief visual sort- out, I decided on the least horrendous and most direct of the group nearest our high point. Glenn was coming up the ropes as I finished the first lead. I yelled down to him to confirm that I was in the left-most of two large comers.

“Yes!”

Fly’n Brian joined me, then quickly started up his first true ice lead… ever. He moved up the thin, 80 percent ice-over-rock like a seasoned pro. I led another similar pitch around a huge snow overhang to a steep rock slab. Looking down, I could follow my route. It was marked by red blotches. Apparently, fingerless gloves were not the best choice of hand protection. Fly’n Brian aided up thin cracks and disappeared above an overhang. Brian Jonas joined me at the belay, bringing the last of our climbing ropes. Some clouds were filtering in when Fly’n Brian called down, “Off belay.” Despite the unsettled weather, I was full of optimism when I joined him. Looking up, I recognized our location from studying the route through the telescope at camp.

An intuitive chill challenged my usual aggressiveness, and I found myself hesitating, momentarily lost in an internal debate. Above, a thin sheet of ice clung to a shallow depression in the slabby face. To the right it was blank; featureless rock was on the left and at the top of the ice sheet lay unstable sugar-like snow. The only thing hopeful: a thin, straight-in crack. I might be able to reach it from the top of the snow. I fought the internal dialogue and the growing fear, then moved onto the ice. A long nightmare ensued.

The first swing of my blunt ice hammer shattered the ice; the second bounced off the rock beneath. Twenty-five feet up, I drove in a good ice hook piton for protection. Twenty feet higher I tried another, but it didn’t happen. Against better judgment, I continued 40 feet more to the snow. Once I left the ice and started climbing the snow, there was no turning back. A fall here was not worth contemplating. It was very rude to discover the crack I was banking on was only a groove and the snow I now stood upon was a foot-wide fin of sugar. I was in trouble. Eventually I called for a drill. The drill was two pitches below. I anxiously waited for Glenn to bring it up while I stood softly on my fragile stance. Eternity passed before I sent a huge loop of the lead rope down and brought up the drill. Damn, the bit was too big. Oh God, both the hammerheads of my tools had worked loose. Job had it easy! I drilled a shallow hole and placed a 5/16" rivet in the 5/16" hole and beat the hell out of it. I pounded a nut halfway into the groove and equalized the weight between it and the rivet. I said a prayer, and Fly’n Brian lowered me down. I tried down-climbing, but the snow wouldn’t hold my weight a second time. I reached the belay emotionally tattered.

Fly’n Brian took over the lead. He tension-traversed 40 feet right using my lower-off point and reached some ice-filled cracks. He yelled down that the cracks continued and that it looked like it would go. I had wasted a lot of time, and we had no more rope to fix. Snow was falling as I cleaned the pitch, and hope for the summit faded with the light.

Back at the scoop cave, tempers were flying. I listened to each grievance with as much tolerance and understanding as I could muster after the day I had. After everyone had aired it out and felt a little better, I turned our attention to my other concern: the WEATHER. Clouds had been moving closer for a couple of days and that afternoon it had begun snowing. We’d had unbelievable luck with the weather so far, but I feared it was about to end. The top looked reasonably close from our high point, and, weather permitting, we agreed to try the next day. Glenn set his alarm for 4 a.m., which gave us almost four hours to sleep.

It cleared in the night and the sun was still on us when we reached the end of our ropes. I needed to rest my left leg after climbing the ropes, so Fly’n Brian took the first lead. The climbing was slow going: chop the ice away, try a piton, the crack bottomed, try something else. Fly’n Brian was doing the best he could, but everyone was anxious. We were all gathered at the belay, dodging falling ice. Eventually, the inevitable happened. A large piece hit me in the back. I wilted in pain. I was hurt, and I knew it. I tried shaking it off, but I couldn’t lift my arms without intense pain. What now, I thought; this wasn’t just my climb. Would Fly’n Brian be able to lead us to the top?

I cleaned the pitch to see how I felt. It was all I could do to follow, so Fly’n Brian heroically led on. The bear was showing his teeth again.

The upper part of the route was even more demanding than below. Fly’n Brian led on and on without a complaint. After five pitches, he called me up to hear my judgment of the route, but moreover of our situation. When I joined him, he told me he was spent and would lead no more. What looked like a few hundred feet had become ten pitches, and it wasn’t over yet. I quickly surmised that, all things considered, we had to go down. There was enough light to keep climbing, but we were all tired, hungry, and getting cold. It had the makings of an accident. We had no ropes to leave fixed, which meant reclimbing the day’s efforts (if we got another chance). There was nothing else to do. The next day, we sadly rappelled the route in perfect weather. Everyone was exhausted from the long days with little sleep, and we needed more food and fuel.

It was early when we got back to camp, and we decided to go back up the next day if the weather held. The barometer remained steady throughout the day while we packed our wall supplies and ate massive quantities of carbos. We turned in early and got up early. Glenn and Fly’n Brian started ahead with the goal of fixing two pitches. The rest of us would haul food, fuel and our last two ropes to the cave scoop. By late afternoon, we were melting ice for dinner. Glenn and Fly’n Brian came down in the evening with the good news that they had accomplished their mission.

Optimism was high in the morning. I led the ice pitch that Fly’n Brian didn’t want to repeat. It had tested his ice experience above his comfort zone. Fly’n Brian then took us to our subsequent high point and brought me up. He lowered me down and around right into a corner of easy ice. We were moving well, I thought, as he came up. He started the next lead and I told him to take care passing a large flake perched in the overhang directly above the belay.

What looked like a routine pitch wasn’t. Above the overhanging start, Fly’n Brian disappeared left, following a windscoop of snow. A long wait with nothing, then rushes of snow falling, covering me. Again and again the same reassurance, and then finally he called for slack, but slowly. After more than an hour, he called out, “Off belay!” I thankfully swung out into empty air and ascended the rope.

A tension traverse to the right across rock covered in sugar snow had taken us to yet another evil specter. The difficulty wouldn’t let up. I was forced to climb up fragile ice over rock with shit for protection directly off a dubious belay. After the scary bit, I crossed over a ridge and found an easy snow slope. Another pitch up a narrow ice gully and I thought it was over. Wrong!

It takes too long to describe how two rope lengths of snow could take FIVE AND A HALF HOURS. For the sake of saving face for all of us, I’ll say no more. I could feel frostbite setting in in my toes and I almost declined the summit, but the words “it’s just a snow slope” didn’t ring true. Glenn would not be denied and took us home. At 10:30 p.m., we stood five meters below the cornice summit, unable to stand on the tippy-top without tempting an incident.

The descent was long but orderly. I arrived last at the scoop at 4 a.m. It was obvious after removing my boots that I wouldn’t be climbing for awhile. Who was the rookie?

We were finished, and so was the good weather. I was beaten up but happy—happy that the big guy hadn’t pushed the “off’ button. We’d be back.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Ruth Gorge, Alaska Range, Alaska

New Route: The Useless Emotion (VII 5.9 WI4 A4, ca. 4,700') on the east face of Peak 10,070' (a.k.a. the Bear’s Tooth), May 3-21, Jim Bridwell, Terry Christensen, Glenn Dunmire, Brian Jonas, Brian McCray

About the Author: Jim Bridwell was born in 1944 and began climbing in 1961. He first visited Yosemite Valley in 1962, quickly becoming one of its most instrumental characters. He started Yosemite Search and Rescue in 1967, introduced the “a,b,c,d” subgrading of the Yosemite Decimal System, ushered in America’s first 5.11 with the route New Dimensions, and pioneered more than 100 first ascents, from Sea of Dreams on El Cap to the Snake Dike on Half Dome. His alpine ascents include the first complete ascent of the Compressor Route (southeast ridge) on Cerro Torre, the east face of the Moose’s Tooth, and, with the Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love route, made the first winter ascent and first American ascent of Pumori. He lives in Palm Desert, CA, with his wife, Peggy, and son, Layton.

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