American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Alaska, Ruth Gorge, Sugar Tooth, Southeast Buttress

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2008

Sugar Tooth, Southeast Buttress. Over three-days in mid-June, Peter Haeussler and I (both of Anchorage) established a 20-pitch free climb on the Sugar Tooth. This was my third attempt at the route, the second with Peter, and the second ascent of the peak (Bonapace-Haas-Orgler made the first by the West Face in 1994).

On June 14 Peter and I landed at the Sheldon Amphitheater. Our approach took three days, due to rain, Peter’s fall into a water-filled crevasse, and a spooky climb over Espresso Gap onto the north fork of the Coffee Glacier. On day three, the weather cleared, and we were treated to full-on views of the 3,000' southeast buttress.

We started climbing moderate ground left of where the low point of the buttress intersects the Coffee Glacier. The first day we climbed 15 pitches on solid, moderate rock. Our packs slowed us considerably, and we hauled them through a few short harder sections. Most of the pitches were lower-angled 5.6 and 5.7. The crux was a steep left-facing dihedral on pitches five through eight, with free climbing up to 5.10. Shortly after the sun left us, we encountered a long ledge system where we excavated a flat tent site, complete with snow for water.

The second pitch of day two was the most serious of the route, with a series of roofs that required much traversing and routefinding. Protection was sparse, and a 25-pound pack made every move harder. Pitch 17 brought us to a small pinnacle, which we named Sweet Tooth Spire. From here a horizontal ridge traverse led to the summit snow slopes. Peter then led a long pitch through bottomless wet snow. Soaked to the bone, we were grateful for the sun. Another pitch of steeper snow led to a spectacular summit ridge and our first glance at the Eye Tooth. Before the climb, we had kicked around the idea of trying to link together the Sugar Tooth and the Eye Tooth. It appeared to involve at least two long rappels to the Sugar Tooth-Eye Tooth notch, then another 8-10 pitches of challenging rock and snow to summit the Eye Tooth. It seemed a bit more than we were willing to bite off, so we dropped the packs and enjoyed the remaining knife-edge summit ridge.

Without packs, we felt like cats tiptoeing along the top of a fence. The exposure was incredible, and after three pitches the ridge culminated in a symmetrical pyramid-shaped summit. The final moves involved a dicey 5.8 friction layback in wet mountain boots to a summit so sharp I could hardly balance on it. The top was devoid of protection, so I down-climbed back to Peter, and he took his turn. We spent the rest of the day establishing a direct rappel line to pitch 15, where we spent a second night, and finished the rappels the next day.

The moderate grade (20 pitches, V 5.10, 50° snow), location, and spectacular summit made the route certainly worth three trips. The route is shorter and technically easier than the West Pillar (Dream in the Spirit of Mugs) of the Eye Tooth, and a competent party could climb it in a long day from the Ruth Gorge. An early start from just west of Espresso Gap would minimize the objective hazards traversing the Gap and have the team at the base of the route in around three hours. Carrying only shell gear, light boots, and one axe each, a party could climb and descend the route and get back over Espresso Gap before the sun hits the next day. The route topo is on file at the Denali Ranger Station.

Jay Rowe

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