American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Ruth Gorge, Mt. Johnson, East Buttress, Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Mt. Johnson, East Buttress, Attempt. Flying into the Ruth Glacier, it’s hard not to notice the sweeping expanse of rock that forms the east buttress of Mt. Johnson. A strong team composed of Jim McCarthy, Yvon Chouinard, Henry Barber and several others made the first attempt on the route in 1971. The group was stymied about 1,000 feet up where a few small ledges ended beneath a smooth, steep wall. The following year, Barber returned again with Chouinard and two other climbers, determined to push around to the south from the ledges and then up the buttress. Their attempt again failed to go much beyond the ledges at 1,000 feet. In the 1980s, Mugs Stump began his long fascination with the route, making at least four attempts, once with Renny Jackson in 1991. But even though the route is spectacular looking, the quality of the rock leaves much to be desired.

Paul Roderick of TAT flew Renny Jackson and me onto the Ruth Glacier below Mt. Wake on June 23. It rained the next morning but cleared in the p.m., allowing us to fix the first three pitches. The first pitch off the glacier was one of the cruxes: wet, thin 5.10+ crack climbing. We launched June 25. Climbing in the 5.7–5.8 range got us to a small ledge atop pitch 7, where Barber et al went further left along the ledge. We went straight up a few pitches that had been previously climbed by Mugs and Renny in 1991—the key to the whole climb. It had three 5.10 pitches, with two of them traversing straight right into a hidden corner system. Renny had the sharp end on “Mugs’s Traverse,” and as he climbed, our respect for the MAN increased sharply.

It started to rain again as Renny finished the ninth pitch, so we descended to the ledge (too marginal to pitch the Bibler on). The next day, the weather never improved so we left our haulbag on the ledge and rapped the route, leaving the last three pitches fixed. The route dried by June 30. We made good time to the ledge and Renny finished the “Traverse” and then continued on 5.9–5.10 terrain in a dike/corner system. Swapping leads, we led well into the night. At around 2 a.m., we called it quits and got some shut-eye while hanging in our harnesses at a belay station.

We started July 1 with a full blown, six-and-a-half hour aid pitch (A3+) that once again had me in awe of Mugs. Another pitch brought us to a bivy ledge, where we decided to leave the haulbag. On July 2, we fit everything we needed into one pack and climbed from pitch 18 to pitch 33. The climbing was easier, but the rock was really starting to deteriorate. At the top of the “Slip-Slide Slab” pitch, Renny, having a personal moment, dry-heaved from the ridiculously scary and desperate climbing. And the rock continued to get worse. At the top of the 33rd pitch we found a protected flat spot to set up the Bibler. We were now under the prominent tower on the ridge.

On July 3, in five pitches of absolutely hideous climbing, we reached the top of the tower. On one pitch Renny had to climb a crumbly slab of rock that could only be crossed by chopping steps in it with his hammer (piolet desperate). The desert-style method of protection was the only available option for the next several pitches. Once on top of the tower at the top of pitch 38, we could see that the climbing continued for quite some time on this horrible rock. At the tower we had a short discussion about going on, but we both felt as though we were surviving on luck and that we should leave while we had the chance.

On July 4, we did 28 rappels down the route to our base camp. Luckily, we left a rope to aid on the descent on the “Mugs’s Traverse” pitches. On July 5, we skied the five miles up the Ruth Glacier to the Mountain House, where Paul picked us up that afternoon.

Doug Chabot

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