American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Ruth Gorge, Eye Tooth, The Talkeetna Standard; Mt. Dickey, Roberts-Rowell-Ward Route, Second Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 2004

Eye Tooth, The Talkeetna Standard; Mt. Dickey, Roberts-Rowell-Ward route, second ascent. Steve House and I were flown to the Mountain House on September 17. Dry conditions made this the only landing site available. That afternoon we skied down the Ruth Glacier to assess conditions and take advantage of the high pressure that was providing clear, calm, and cold conditions (-10°F at night, 25°F daytime temperatures). Our hopes of finding ephemeral melt-freeze ice lines were quickly dashed, as we were hard-pressed to find blue ice on anything, a mere dusting of snow on north faces, and dry south faces. Desperate to get on something while the high pressure lasted, we chose a line Steve had looked at on the Eye Tooth.

On September 18 we left camp on the Ruth Glacier around 8:30 a.m. A two-hour approach brought us to the base of a snow cone on the west side of the Eye Tooth (just right of the start to the Orgler route, Dream in the Spirit of Mugs). The cone provided access to a snow slope leading to névé runnels and short sections of ice up to 70°, with most of the snow in the 60° range.

We soloed and made good time to a point below a notch in the ridge between the Eye Tooth and the Sugar Tooth. The rock leading to the notch was steep and deteriorated, and we traversed a snow ledge left (north) to the base of a mixed pitch where we roped up. This 5.7 pitch led to a water ice pitch (V), which put us on easy snow by which we gained the south ridge of the Eye Tooth, having climbed 1,800 feet. Four pitches up the south ridge (up to 5.8) brought us to the base of a head- wall and a ledge where we excavated a bivy platform a little after 6:00 p.m. The next morning the headwall was negotiated, and the route continued to offer fun on excellent granite (up to 5.9, interspersed with ridge-climbing). We shared the final several pitches of the Orgler route to the summit. Returning to the bivy ledge at 5:00 p.m., we spent another night, as the weather was perfect, and we could not think of a better perch from which to take in the Aurora Borealis. The next morning we rappelled the ridge for two raps to a plumb-line descent, climber’s-left of our ascent route, to gain the lower snow slopes. We packed up camp on the Ruth and skied to our well-stocked camp at the Mountain House. The route gained 3,300 vertical feet, and we belayed 15 pitches, up to WI5 and 5.9.

The high pressure held, and while we could have flown out immediately and been satisfied with the Eye Tooth, we knew that you can’t turn your back on such weather in the Alaska Range. While skiing back up the Ruth, we looked at other lines. In the back our minds was the east face of Mt. Dickey—5,000 vertical feet, one of the biggest walls anywhere—with six routes and no repeats. On the Eye Tooth we proved we could climb rock in double boots—important knowledge, as Dickey is primarily rock, and we had not brought rock shoes. Steve said, “I think it’s time to step it up a notch.” We chose the 1974 Roberts-Rowell-Ward line, as it seemed the most feasible, given the conditions and equipment constraints.

We packed three days’ food and fuel and moved advanced camp down the Ruth to near the toe of the southeast buttress of Mt. Dickey, the general line that the route followed. The next morning, September 23, we started up, climbing three blocks using 75m ropes, for a total of 14 pitches up to 5.9 Al. By and large, the rock was good, outside of two rotten pitches just below the bivy, where we stopped at 10:30 p.m. Unable to find a sufficient ledge, we occupied a perch the size of the top of a clothes drier, where we could sit side-by-side in our single sleeping bag and lean against the wall.

Day two found the weather holding, and the morning sun got us out of the bag at 7 a.m. The second day proved to be both the technical crux and the route-finding crux (unless you consider the white-out descent). Five pitches brought us to an area of extremely poor rock and few feasible-looking options. After spending several hours looking for alternatives, we followed what seemed the only line of weakness out of the rotten-rock area. Just as it seemed our route was unlikely at best, we encountered pitons from the first ascent, driven directly into the rock, as David Roberts had explained to Jon Waterman in a letter we had seen a copy of. On the next pitch we encountered the only bolt placed on the 1974 ascent. While not overly joyous about a 29-year-old 1/4" bolt, I was thrilled to know we were on a route that was climbable. We pendu- lumed right, into the only obvious system, and I led into the night, mostly on aid, as snow began falling at 10:20 p.m. Three pitches and a short leader-fall later, I arrived at a snow arête that could be chopped down to form a platform; it was 2:15 a.m. The ledge was too small for cooking, the snow blowing too hard, and us too tired. We rigged a small tarp over us and tried to sleep.

On the third morning Steve led a 5.9 mixed pitch to a good ledge, where we were able to brew up. The three or four inches of new snow made climbing difficult and slow. Five more pitches (up to 5.9 A0) in constant snow brought us to the exit ledge, which we simul-climbed for 500' to the top of the face proper. Climbing moderate snow for another 650', we arrived at the summit plateau in a whiteout at 4:30 p.m. The altimeter told us we were within 100' of the summit, but had we been standing on it, we would not have known, the visibility was so poor.

The heavily crevassed descent was arduous in zero-visibility, though the compass bearings Steve had plotted proved invaluable. As we navigated major crevasses and a serac band, at times he was obscured 100' away. As darkness fell, just below 747 Pass, Steve fell in a large crevasse; the tight rope between us kept the event minor. Around midnight we found our tent, crawled in, brewed, and repaired ourselves with sleep.

It should be mentioned that while the first-ascent team fixed five pitches (ca 900') and had a cache on the summit plateau, their climbing this route in only three days in 1974 was an amazing achievement. Twenty-nine years after, we did little to improve on the style or time of the first ascent.

The climbing was never easy (much 5.7-5.9 in double boots and, on occasion, crampons), and we belayed the entire face in pitches. The vertical relief is almost exactly 5,000', and we climbed 31 pitches, up to 5.9 A2. Given the length of the route, the poor rock is minimal. Where it is poor, it is extremely so, but nothing worse than one would encounter in other great alpine ranges.

This was Steve’s second trip to Alaska at the end of September, and he is now “three for two,” having climbed a new route on the Moose’s Tooth on his first September trip, in 2000. Alaskans we talked to said there is usually a high-pressure spell sometime in September; we were lucky enough to hit it. Historically September is one of the greater precipitation months. A year ago Colby Coombs was trapped on the Eldridge Glacier in 6' feet of unpackable snow during the same dates as our trip this year. Just as teams have been able to start the Alaska season earlier in March and April and come away with great results, there is perhaps a good opportunity for late-season routes as well.

Jeff “Pouche” Hollenbaugh

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