North America, United States, Alaska, Alaska Range, Ruth Gorge, Moose's Tooth, Swamp Donkey Express

Publication Year: 2011.

Mooses Tooth, Swamp Donkey Express. Zack Smith, Renan Ozturk, and I flew in to the Ruth Gorge on May 17, psyched to find perfect conditions: hard freezes at night but warm enough daytime temps to comfortably wear rock shoes. After a day to pack and scope, we left basecamp at 6 a.m. to do the dangerous approach to the Root Canal camp, beneath the south face of the Mooses Tooth, in the morning shade. I had navigated this same icefall seven years before, and was surprised at the amount of traffic it had received this year. Several distinct boot tracks left by different parties crisscrossed up the glacial canyon—some more exposed to hanging seracs and avalanche slopes than others.

We arrived at the Root Canal by 1 p.m., waited out a day of squally weather, then crossed the bergschrund and began soloing the snow slopes to the col between the Bear Tooth and Mooses Tooth. The south-southeast face of the Moose’s Tooth is an obvious challenge that had been attempted sporadically for several decades. Badly rotten rock and a deceptive section of gendarmed ridge had defeated all teams within the first 100 vertical feet above the col. Our real challenge was not letting these discouraging reports affect our morale before we started.

After two hours of soloing and simul-climbing, we arrived at the base of the face. Zack transitioned to rock shoes and the show began. He found loose rock and runout climbing, but we made progress. Then came a significant aid pitch that demanded the efforts of two men, one hand-drilled bolt, and six hours to overcome. Several more wet and loose pitches with challenging routefinding followed. But then the angle lessened and soon I cramponed up a few easy mixed pitches to the southern end of the Mooses Tooth summit ridge. We stood just below the tip of the mountains highest dollop of cornice at approximately 8 p.m., May 21 (Swamp Donkey Express, 5.9+ A2+ with some mixed).

We quickly rappelled Ham and Eggs (which, in its modern iteration, is equipped with rappel anchors every 30m) to return to the Root Canal camp around midnight. Though tired, we pressed on and descended to the Gorge in the cooler, safer, nighttime temps. An hour after we exited the canyon and skied to the center of the Gorge, rockfall exploded off a wall, showering the glacier with debris. A week later, a team was hit by an avalanche and swept to their deaths on Freezy Nuts, a goulotte on nearby Hut Tower. If you’re headed to the Ruth Gorge, or any of the excellent low-elevation venues for alpine climbing in Alaska, please be hyper-vigilant about temperature, conditions, and objective hazards.

Our special thanks and appreciation to the Copp-Dash Award for supporting our adventure, as well as the wonderful folks at Talkeetna Air Taxi and Alaska Mountaineering School for making it happen.

Freddie Wilkinson, AAC

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