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North America, United States, Alaska, Alaska Range, Denali National Park, Bear's Tooth, You Can't Fly

Bear’s Tooth, You Can’t Fly. A six-man Polish Alaska 2002 expedition operated as two independent teams. Two younger climbers repeated routes in the Ruth Gorge, while the four more experienced ones were interested in climbing a big new route on one of the east faces of the Moose’s Tooth massif. The latter team, probably the strongest Polish alpine climbers at present, consisted of Jacek Fluder, Janusz Golab, Stanislaw Piecuch, and Grzegorz Skorek. They departed from Talkeetna and landed on the Buckskin Glacier on the afternoon of June 4. They could not identify the exact line of the 2001 Beast route, or the other attempted lines, on the 800m-high monolith of the Moose’s Tooth left pillar, but saw fixed ropes hanging on the pillar. So they chose the Bear’s Tooth’s left-hand pillar, which is less monolithic but offered a totally new line up the full height of the wall.

On June 5 they crossed the small bergschrund and fixed 300m of rope on rock terrain (UIAA VII A1) dominated by wet and lichen-coated slabs and cracks filled with moss. Next day they installed their first portaledge camp above the sixth pitch. On June 8 they started a continuous push but retreated the next evening in a snowstorm. After six days of snow, the weather was sunny on the 14th, and they pushed again, though both portaledges had holes made by stones. First Skorek led and next Piecuch, in mixed but mostly rock terrain up to UIAA VIIA0-A1. The day ended at about 2 a.m. with Piecuch leading a section of A3 on pitch 16, just above the second portaledge bivouac. The next day Golab and Fluder fixed 300 ms of rope above the second bivy (up to pitch 23), first finding orange rock—the best of the route—followed by totally wet corners and slabs. At the end of a giant, 100m long, deep groove they made their only tension traverse. On June 16 again Piecuch mostly led, meeting much rotten rock. They established their third bivouac on pitch 32, just above a significant outcrop that culminates the main prow of the pillar. The terrain then became gentler, with steep steps and snowy ledges, and Fluder led in plastic boots.

At night on the 17th the leader of the leading pair fixed the rope on the highest rock, five or ten meters below the top, where he found the highest piton from the 1999 Bridwell route, then rappelled to bivy. The top consisted of a corniced, snowy arête, and the Poles made probably the first ascent to the true top from this side of the mountain. (According to Bridwell’s report, his team found the final cornice too unstable; see AAJ 2000, p. 45.) On the 18th at 1 p.m. the whole team reached the top in clouds and worsening weather. After a short stay they started to rappel, clearing the fixed ropes. They bivouaced, then continued rappelling through wet snowfall, reaching the base on the night of the 19th.

They spent 10 days on the wall. The climbing itself took six days, plus two days waiting in portaledges during storms and two days to descend. The height of the route is nearly 1,400m, 41 pitches with 60m ropes. They climbed mostly free, at overall US grade VI and UIAA rating VIIA0-A1 with one A2 section (on pitch 35) and one serious A3 section (on pitch 16, with skyhook and a few bird beak equivalentsæ“figure-of-one pitons,” known in the Tatra Mountains since 1955). This hardest section started directly above the second portaledge camp but seemed possible to avoid by slightly easier terrain. The one tension traverse was on pitch 23. Rock was generally poor and crumbly, but not as bad as reports of other routes led the climbers to expect. The rock was quite sound on pitches 17–23 but really rotten on pitches 27–29.

The rappel line is well to the right of pitches 1-6 and to the left of pitches 17-20 and 26-29. The team used 350m of fixed ropes, which they removed during the descent.

On the lower third of the route they found rappel stations from an unknown attempt that joined their route from the left (probably via a big chimney), at a snowfield on the 9th pitch, and continued to the 13th pitch. The anchors had slings that looked no older than three years and pitons made in Austria.

After descent by rappel, the team had only a dozen pitons remaining, so they abandoned plans for other climbs and left the mountains earlier than originally planned. They left for Talkeetna on June 23. The name of the route, You Can’t Fly, reflects the words they heard too often as they tried to depart from Europe, from Talkeetna, and returning home.

You Can’t Fly is the first big-wall route established by climbers from Poland in North America (though later in the year Poles established slightly harder routes on Mt. Thor on Baffin Island and on El Capitan.) (These are covered elsewhere in this journal – Ed.) (Based on written reports by team members and talks with G.Skorek and J.Golab)

Grzegorz Glazek, CDW PZA