American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Denali National Park, Broken Tooth, East Couloir to Summit Ridge (New Bail)

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2007

Broken Tooth, east couloir to summit ridge (new bail). In early May, after our Ruth trip [see above], Eamonn Walsh and I arrived on the Coffee Glacier to investigate an unclimbed couloir on the east face of the Broken Tooth. Climbers had eyed this route for years; Paul Roderick’s gorgeous aerial photo sealed our enthusiasm.

We established an advanced camp in the small basin beneath the route and began climbing at 4 a.m. the next morning, May 10. Easy snow for 1,000' led into the narrow slot, which met a formidable headwall. A vertical slot chimney broke the left side but looked unappealing and hard to protect. To the right, a flow of s’nice coated a very steep corner. Eamonn chose this course and began leading; the corner started moderately enough but soon reared up to dead vertical and continued that way for a considerable distance. The frothy, semi-detached ice yielded marginal screw placements and made for a heady pitch. Above a good belay stance, an easy slot emptied us into a 70m snow bowl.

The next section had looked questionable from camp, but to our surprise a beautiful, narrow ice hose split the right side of the rock band above us. Inside we found some of the most aesthetic climbing imaginable: 600' of perfect ice in a shoulder-width slot, averaging 60-70°, interrupted occasionally by short, steeper steps. This feature opened into a broad snow couloir, where we climbed together for several rope lengths.

An intimidating headwall of steep rock plastered with huge, threatening snow mushrooms now loomed above us. It looked doubtful. I belayed as high as possible, then Eamonn lead up the left side of a steep slab into an awkward chimney. An A0 exit move led to M5 mixed terrain and a belay high on the right side of the narrowing corridor. Continuing straight up seemed hopeless, but to the right a narrow passage not visible from below looked promising. It would prove to be the key to the route. Eamonn entered the slot and soon encountered a short but difficult crux (M6), pulling a small roof onto a nearly blank slab above. Steep ice in a narrow runnel exited to snow slopes, leading to a breathtaking perch on the wildly exposed summit ridge, and an inspiring view of the awesome walls of the Bear Tooth and Moose’s Tooth.

The summit was shouting distance away and perhaps 150' above us. However, a monolithic gendarme on the ridge, which we had noted in photos, formed an imposing barrier. It severely overhung both sides of the ridge, and climbing it directly looked improbable. A committing rappel to the west might offer a way around it, but there were many unknowns associated with this course. We opted out, leaving this problem for the next party to solve. A dozen rappels, interspersed with down- climbing, brought us back to the glacier after a 16-hour round trip.

This sort of “significant failure,” which is common in alpine climbing, has popularized the term “First Failure” or “New Bail” with a number of Alaskan climbers. It distinguishes completed climbs from strong efforts that terminated, for whatever reason, at the “end of the technical difficulties,” or at a definable geographic feature. Call the effort what you may, but our goal here was the summit, not the summit ridge. As such, we leave the naming of this route to the party that finishes it; until then it remains, simply, the east couloir, or its local nickname, “Root Canal” (3,300', V AI5+R M6).

Mark Westman, Talkeetna, Alaska, AAC

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