The Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier
An overview of Alaska’s legendary alpine valley
Set in the heart of the central Alaska Range, the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier is a massive geographic rift that has shaped a climbing area like no other. More than 20 peaks border the sides of the north-south-trending valley, with walls up to 5,000 feet rising directly off the smooth and gentle glacier that lines the floor. Although not often compared to Yosemite, up north this is the Valley, Alaska-style. With easy approaches and huge walls just a short distance from a fly-in base camp, the Ruth Gorge may be North America’s ultimate alpine climbing destination. However, climbers won’t always find endless splitters, perfect granite, plastic ice, and ideal weather. Instead, they will find some of the most intimidating mountains in the world. Written into the history of these walls are stories of struggle, survival, and death, but also of triumph, camaraderie, and, above all, respect for an immensity found in few places in the world.
The Ruth Glacier, nearly 35 miles long, feeds off the slopes of Denali and Mt. Silverthrone. Numerous forks of the glacier merge into the huge icefield known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheater (a.k.a. Ruth Amphitheater). This vast snow arena encompasses some 25 square miles. Then, with nowhere else to go, the great mass of ice is pushed down a mile-wide constriction rimmed by walls up to 5,000 feet high. With so much ice being squeezed through such a narrow slot, it’s no wonder that the glacier has been measured to be more than 3,800 feet deep and moving at a rate of over three feet per day. Without the ice, this canyon would have a sheer 8,700-foot rise to the top of Mt. Dickey.
The western side of the Gorge holds most of the great stalwarts—huge granite monoliths rising abruptly out of the glacier. Any one of these peaks would be a major destination. The east side, although generally less impressive, still holds several 2,000- to 3,000-foot walls. One of these is perhaps the area’s most remarkable peak: the complex façade of the Moose’s Tooth. This, along with several other “Tooth” peaks, creates a seemingly impenetrable alpine bastion that oversees the entire Ruth Glacier.
In the minds of most climbers, the Gorge historically has had two strikes against it that have kept it from becoming popular. The legendary Alaskan weather has been responsible for numerous epics and has left many climbers empty-handed. However, although major storms do occur often, the snow tends to quickly slough off the steep routes, and the rock dries rapidly after even torrential rainstorms. The area also has gotten a bad rap over the years for poor and occasionally treacherous rock. This is definitely true for much of the Gorge, and climbers looking to do first ascents should be ready to attack the infamous “Cracker Jack” granite that can literally require one to chop steps. Also, atop many of the western-side peaks is a layer of black schist that has been likened to ascending stacked china dishes. That said, there are long stretches of exceptional and highly textured granite on several formations, including the south face of Bradley, the Eye Tooth, the Stump, and Hut Tower, to name a few.
A Brief History
The first humans to venture into the Ruth Gorge were the infamous Frederick Cook and a guide in 1906. Cook claimed to make the first ascent of Denali via this approach, but this was soon discredited as a hoax. They succeeded only in climbing 5,350-foot “Fake Peak,” a small bump on a side glacier. Cook named the Ruth after his stepdaughter, Ruth Hunt.
In 1910 Belmore Browne and Hershel Parker wandered up the gorge on a quest to debunk Cook’s claim. Naming peaks as they went, they weren’t overly creative, designating some with individuals’ names like Johnson, Wake, and Dickey. They named the most fantastic peak they saw Mt. Hubbard after the president of the Perry Arctic Club. This name fortunately was changed to the Moose’s Tooth, a translation of the indigenous Athabascan name. With names like the Gargoyle, Werewolf Tower, and the Bear Tooth, the rest of the peaks on the eastern side also fared much better.
A group of four from Oregon’s Mazamas was first to surmount a peak in the gorge with their climb of Mt. Barrill by its northwest slopes in 1910. Bradford Washburn surveyed much of the area in 1955 and climbed Mt. Dickey by its western slope. It was Washburn who perhaps first realized the extensive potential of the area. In his 1956 article in this journal, he wrote, “It would be hard to find a spot more easy of access where glorious glacier walks, easy lower climbs, and magnificent major ascents can all be accomplished out of the same air-supplied base camp, set amid North America’s finest scenery and hardly a day’s travel from New York!”
The first technical climb in the gorge was on the Moose’s Tooth in 1964, when its long west ridge was climbed by a German party. Defining the bold style that came to dominate climbing in the Ruth Gorge, they ascended the entire spine of the Moose’s Tooth in a single push from a camp low on the route.
In the mid-1970s the first big-wall routes started going up. The southeast face of Mt. Dickey (climbed in 1974 by David Roberts, Galen Rowell, and Ed Ward) was the first of seven major ascents on this monolith’s 5,000-foot south and east walls. Although fixed lines were employed on the lower 900 feet, this groundbreaking big-wall ascent set the standard for committing routes. The same year, in similar style, Gary Bocarde, Michael Clark, Charles Porter, and John Svenson climbed the sheer southwest face of the Moose’s Tooth—the second route to be climbed on this multifaceted mountain. On their “Moose Antler” ascent, the climbers carried an actual moose antler that proved easier to haul than the bags. Bocarde was a big mover in the early stages of climbing in the Gorge, accomplishing the first ascents of many of the peaks on its west side.
After a lull in the early 1980s, the Ruth Gorge saw a climbing boom when Austrian Andi Orgler came onto the scene. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Orgler and a few key partners were responsible for a surge in new-route activity, including major ascents on Mt. Bradley, Mt. Dickey, Mt. Barrill, the Eye Tooth, and several of the smaller east-side peaks. On his first trip to the Gorge in 1987, Orgler, along with Sepp Jöchler, raced up the nearly 5,000-foot east buttress of Bradley in a mere 14 hours. In 1988 he and Tommi Bonapace completed the 51- pitch Wine Bottle Route on Dickey. This was one of the finest alpine-style ascents accomplished in Alaska, climbed at a high technical standard without drilling a single hole. Orgler and partners went on to climb a huge route on the south face of Bradley—The Pearl—which, in addition to other Ruth Gorge achievements, gained them world recognition with the Piolet d’Or award in 1995.
The past decade has seen its share of equally impressive ascents. Hard, technical, early- season mixed climbs have been the biggest focus. The Elevator Shaft on Mt. Johnson was an extraordinary achievement on a dangerous ice climb that saw no fewer than four attempts and some major epics before it was finally climbed by Doug Chabot and Jack Tackle in 1995. The Gift (That Keeps on Giving) on Bradley (climbed in 1998 by Jonny Blitz, Steve House, and Mark Twight) was a bold and cold undertaking that brought mixed climbing in the Gorge to a new level. In 2002 Sean Easton and Ueli Steck undertook an audacious early-season climb with their ascent of Blood From the Stone on Mt. Dickey. Linking incipient ice ribbons, they pieced together a line directly up the mountain’s massive east wall—a line that doesn’t often form and had never seen a prior attempt.
There is still some great new-route potential for climbers up to the task. The 2005 season can attest to that, as major first ascents were accomplished on Mt. Bradley, the Moose’s Tooth, and Mt. Grosvenor. One of the Alaska Range’s last great problems is located on the east buttress of Mt. Johnson, which has thwarted attempts for over 20 years by some of the world’s finest alpinists, including Yvon Chouinard, Mugs Stump, and a noteworthy attempt by Renny Jackson and Doug Chabot, who climbed 38 pitches to a prominent tower on the ridge. After difficult free and aid climbing low on the route, the duo was horrified up higher when entire pitches required steps to be chopped with ice tools in 5.10 gravel. With many more appalling pitches ahead, they decided retreat was in order. Other major unsolved problems include the north face of Mt. Church—a 4,000-foot straight-shot ice and mixed route directly up the center of the face—and the direct north face of Johnson.
Climbing in the Ruth Gorge is best done from March through July. Although there are rumors of dry rock and late-season ice in the fall, the first winter storms have perplexed more than a few parties. Early season is best for technical ice and mixed routes, as they generally fall out of shape by mid-May. The best rock climbing season starts in June and tends to get better as more snow melts off the cliffs. Easier snow climbs can be done throughout the season, although crevasse and icefall difficulties can make late-season ascents interesting. The low elevation (between 4,500 and 10,300 feet) precludes much need for acclimatization.
A fly-in approach is necessary from the town of Talkeetna. Most parties start from the Mountain House airstrip above the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. For climbing the south-face routes on the Moose’s Tooth, the Root Canal airstrip can be used. Landing in the Ruth Gorge itself can sometimes be preferable, although it is often necessary for climbers to haul their gear back up to the Mountain House for pickup. The Ruth Gorge is located within Denali National Park. Climbers are required to pay a small entrance fee and are encouraged to register with the ranger station in Talkeetna. Check the NPS website (www.nps.gov/dena/home/mountaineering/ index.htm) for more details.
Although it is home to many of the most difficult routes in North America, the Ruth Gorge also hosts a variety of novice and intermediate routes that climbers have enjoyed for years. Nearly 80 routes have been opened, but the route lines shown in the photos in this article reveal as much of what hasn’t been climbed as what has been.
For nearly a century, Ruth Gorge climbers have shown exceptional respect for the great forces of the natural environment and for a spirit and history that has helped define the essence of alpinism. While the entire sweeping, 500-mile arc of the Alaska Range is an alpine mecca, the Ruth Gorge and its solid core of outstanding alpine achievements have created a valley of legends.
A Note About the Author:
Joseph Puryear has been climbing and suffering in the Alaska Range for more than a decade. He is the author of the new book Alaska Climbing, a comprehensive guide to 30 of the best routes in the central Alaska Range; visit Puryear's website, www.cascadeimages.com, or www.supertopo.com for more information. (Several Ruth Gorge routes can be found in this book.) When not enjoying their small cabin in Talkeetna, Joe and his wife, Michelle, make their home in Leavenworth, Washington.