On May 26 and 27 Scott Adamson and I completed a new route on the south face of the Mooses Tooth. Following ice runnels, chimneys, and cracks, we found our way directly to the main (east) summit. Shortly after Talkeetna Air Taxi dropped us off on the Root Canal Glacier [the pocket glacier beneath the south face of the Moose’s Tooth], we scrutinized our situation. Appearing like a siren one evening, in perfect light, a vertical ice-filled chimney caught our eye. The chimney, tucked away in a long corner system, was mid-height on the wall. It defined a huge pillar directly below the summit.
Earlier in our trip, we’d climbed Ham and Eggs on an “old-school style” tour from the Sheldon Amphitheater, rather than being flown to the Root Canal, as we later were for the other routes. (As an aside that may be of interest to anyone selecting a tent site, when we were on H. & E., a Walmart-size serac calved from atop Dickey. The powder blast traveled a mile and a half across the Ruth Gorge, climbed the 2,500-foot approach and dusted our tent site on the Root Canal.) Being neophytes and wanting another warm-up, we set our sights on The Unforgiven (M5 WI6), an excellent new mixed adventure that Anchorage fellows had put up the week before. Six killer full-length pitches of sustained mixed climbing brought us to a snowy arête leading to a subsummit of the Bear Tooth. Conditions being what they were, we didn’t continue to the subsummit but, in the interest of safety, rapped from excellent fixed stations and crawled back to the tent seven hours after we started. Scott felt ready for a go at our project, while I wanted to take another step first, finding comfort in a gradual progression to successively harder routes. We concluded that our imaginary line looked good and was in condition.
We waited for promising weather, and a few mornings later went to have a look. We wallowed through three feet of wet, unconsolidated snow and roped up to cross a southwest-facing avalanche slope leading to the base of the real climbing. We burned more time trying to free a pendulum two pitches above. Scott brought me to the belay and we conferred. Things were getting soggy, we were behind schedule, and we discovered four core shots in our two 8mm ropes. During our retreat we put another vicious shot smack in the middle of one rope. With snow pounding us, we crawled into the tent, soaked from the 60-70-degree heat.
Two days later we woke to a break in the storm. The weather was suspect, but we left camp at 3 a.m. with a light pack. With our track firmly laid we reached the ice ribbon in a few hours. Stretching our remaining 70m 9mm rope on most leads, we forged upward, finding steep ice, killer hand cracks, and good protection. There were two spots of overhanging M7 in the verglassed chimney around the fourth pitch, and a chossy 5.11 face sequence to enter the upper dihedral around pitch six. We topped out on the pillar in swirling clouds, hunkered down, and waited for the upper face to refreeze. We tried in vain to peer through the fog for a glimpse of what was to come. After a five-hour nap but no sign of where to go, we committed ourselves to a two-rope-length traverse into the upper face. They were the type of 5.8 pitches that defy grading: insecure and run-out. They gained us a huge corner we had been aiming for, just below the summit, but the corner lacked any discernable climbable features. So, feeling the need for haste as the storm intensified, we aimed for an escape route to the right. As I led through rivers of spindrift on very thin ice, my previous feelings of sun, fun, surf, and stone were replaced by more primal feelings.
The wind mellowed a bit as we reached the summit cornice and felt our way along, riding huge waves through an ephemeral white soup. Up and over the summit we went, searching for identifiable features that would bring us to the Ham and Egg rappels. We wandered in the clouds, feeling smaller and smaller as we descended, looking for something recognizable. Finally, facing a committing rappel, we realized we were lost and retraced our steps back up. The morning sun broke through and the clouds thinned, giving us a quick glimpse of our location. We did not recognize a single feature. Where’s Denali? Where’s Huntington? Where’s the Ruth? Nothing looked familiar. I sat on the edge of the Moose’s Tooth gazing at the Buckskin Glacier 4,000' below, swearing never to go again without a compass and map.
The storm’s fury increased as we continued back up, then descended the correct way into the Ham and Eggs funnel. Anchors were buried and avalanches were frequent, requiring us to time our rappels to the periodic vomit flushing from the upper bowls. We arrived on the glacier and more 60-degree weather, with another trashed rope. I crawled in to the tent at nine o’clock, thirty hours after we had started.
Waking 24 hours later and taking inventory, we were three and a half weeks and three ropes down, with rising temperatures. We stomped out a sign for TAT and waited for our turn. Two days later, the decompression on the flight out was surreal. Trees, birds, other signs of life that had been gone for so long, all seemed so vibrant as we sorted gear in TAT’s driveway.
We named our route Levitation and Hail Marys, after a good joke shared with one of the young bush pilots who flew for K2. We graded it V M7 A0 (for the pendulum), although I sense that grades mean nothing in this place. It was a fine outing, committing at the top with a quick decent. Long pitches, steep ice, good hand cracks, and painful knee bars characterize the meat and potatoes of the experience. We agreed that the Ruth was the rawest, most powerful area either of us had ever been to. The perfect place to find out how small you really are.