North America, United States, Alaska, Ruth Gorge, Mt. Grosvenor, South Face, and Once Were Warriors

Publication Year: 2006.

Mt. Grosvenor, South Face, and Once Were Warriors. Eamonn Walsh (Canmore, Alberta) and I spent two weeks in the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier in early spring. On March 31 we ascended the broad snow gully between Mt. Church and Mt. Grosvenor, the two southernmost peaks anchoring the end of the Gorge. Each of these peaks had only one known ascent. Mt. Grosvenor’s unclimbed south face turned out to be a 3rd class endeavor of deep snow overlying shattered black shale. We climbed this uninspiring new route unroped, taking three hours from the col, due to poor snow conditions. We traversed the mountain by descending Bocarde’s 1979 first ascent route on the north face, with circuitous route finding down crevassed slopes to reach the col south of Mt. Johnson. We continued down, with four rappels through a broken and dangerous icefall, reaching our camp 10 hours after leaving it. While descending, we scouted an awesome new line in a deep cleft slicing through the upper 2,500' of Grosvenor's northeast face, a line not easily viewed from any point in the Gorge, because Mt. Johnson s bulk hides it.

At dawn on April 6 we ascended the initial 2,000' of the spooky Grosvenor-Johnson gully to reach the start of the technical climbing. The amazingly deep and narrow slot in which we began—called by us “The Gash”— contained five technical leads up to AI4 and M5, characterized by very thin ice and sn'ice, but with occasional rock protection. These pitches were interspersed with several ropelengths of easy snow; all belays were solid.

Next we encountered a difficult section through a vertical and overhanging chimney system, which led to the bowl hanging above the Gash. Eamonn made one of the most impressive leads I have ever seen in getting us through this crux section, which began with a short curtain of rotten grade 6 ice. Forty feet up, he broke through into an enormous cavern behind the curtain. Because of rope drag, he brought me up before continuing.

Above the belay rose a huge, dark cave with overhanging rock on one side, rotten, aerated ice on the other, and a small hole the size of a house chimney 40 feet up providing the only light. Strenuous and technical stemming got Eamonn to the hole, where he was able to chop and squirm his way through to the outside. What followed was a steep, strenuous, and run out squeeze chimney glazed with verglas and packed with dense snow, requiring laborious excavation. Higher, the chimney opened and the difficulties increased, with thin and desperate dry-tooling leading to powerful and insecure pulling over a small roof, protected by awkward piton placements.

The terrain above eased off considerably, allowing for much simulclimbing. We bypassed a steep, rotten ice pillar with a high traverse, and overcame a short, difficult rock wall 400' below the summit. The weather, up to now good, began rapidly deteriorating, and we hurried up the final pitches of moderate ice. The route ended with an abrupt transition from steep ice to the flat summit. Our prior knowledge of the descent proved instrumental in our survival. The situation—total whiteout, wet clothes, no bivy gear, no shovel, and one hour of daylight remaining—had turned serious. The ensuing descent—racing darkness to find the col in zero visibility, then descending by headlamp through acres of rapidly loading avalanche terrain— was something we shall never forget. At midnight, we reached the safety of camp.

Once Were Warriors (17 pitches, V Grade 6 ice/mixed) is also the title of a book about the Maori people of New Zealand.

Mark Westman, Talkeetna, AK, AAC