Team: Mark Synnott, Jared Ogden
When: May 2001
Where: Ruth Gorge, Alaska Range
Sponsor: The North Face
By Mark Synnott
Something doesn’t feel right. If this really is Ham and Eggs, the often-climbed route on the south face of Alaska’s Moose’s Tooth, where are the fixed rappel anchors? A few hundred feet below me, the smoothly sculpted walls of the snow gully pinch together, appearing to cliff out. Jared is a ropelength above me; 500 feet above him looms the vertical rockband we rapped through earlier — the latest in a string of obstacles that will be all but impossible to reverse.
We’re still a good 2000 feet above the glacier, and it’s becoming grimly apparent that our only escape is down this shaft. Despite our growing feeling of unease, we continue simul-climbing downwards.
When the walls of the gully close down to less than three feet, I stop. The ground drops away steeply below my feet. I need to find an anchor, but the granite on either side of me is crackless. I dig into the snow and two feet down I hit ice, sinking a solid screw. When Jared arrives, his face bears a grim expression, but he says nothing. He puts me on belay and lowers me over the edge to have a look. A moment later, I’m gazing down a 1500-foot face that drops in a clean, featureless sweep to the glacier below. A dead-end. It’s beyond consideration to rap this wall with our skimpy rack and one eight-mil rope.
After a painfully-long, awkward silence, Jared calls down, “How’s it look?”
“Not good, I reply, “Actually, I think we’re pretty much screwed.”
It’s 3 p.m. and we’ve been on the move for around 12 hours. We could hunker down for the night and sort this mess out in the morning, except that we have no bivy gear, food, water, or stove. We don’t even have down jackets. Suddenly the wind picks up and I realize that snowflakes are collecting on Jared’s shoulders. Our perfect day has just unraveled right before our eyes. The gully above us is steep and technical, and our rack has been reduced to a handful of pieces. We¹ve rapped ourselves into a corner and have no idea if we can climb back out. Somehow we’ll have to make it go, because there is simply no other option.
Jared Ogden and I first met in 1997, and since then we’ve teamed up for at least one major expedition every year. We work well together, primarily because we aspire to climb exactly the same routes. Initially this meant seeking out the biggest, blankest rock walls we could find in places like Baffin Island and Pakistan. By the end of 1999, however, we both felt the need for a break from the usual big-wall routine. Our next mission would be different.
After our failed attempt on the dangerous north face of Nepal’s Jannu in 2000, May of 2001 found Jared and I camped below the north face of Mount Huntington, a 12,405-foot peak in the Alaska Range. Each day would dawn clear and promising, but by early afternoon storm clouds socked in everything above 10,000 feet with high winds and heavy snow. From our basecamp we could see down into the Ruth Amphitheater eight miles away. Unless it was an optical illusion, the weather looked much better down valley. The next day we packed up our sleds, clicked into our skis, and headed down glacier to the prominent, rocky south face of Moose’s Tooth, knowing nothing about any of the climbing other than it wasn¹t suffering the same dismal weather that afflicted Huntington.
Arriving near the base we were surprised to see two tents and some climbers on the lower half of the wall. As rookies to the Alaska range, we had no idea that there was a landing strip near Moose’s Tooth, and had assumed we’d have the peak to ourselves.
It had stormed for the past several hours, but just as we finished constructing a makeshift quincy, the storm suddenly evaporated and we found ourselves staring westward at one of the most remarkable mountainscapes I had ever witnessed. In the foreground, monolithic 2500-foot rock pillars rose to form the spine of the West Ridge of Moose’s Tooth. Beyond this, rising from the misty, purple valleys, Denali stood proudly against a dark blue sky.
By 6 p.m., both teams had returned from their forays onto the south face. A couple of young guys from Anchorage were attempting a classic 2800-foot snow/ice gully (up to 5.7 and WI4) called Ham and Eggs. Paul, a Valdez ice climber and ski guide, had his sights set on a solo first ascent up the sheer headwall to the left of Ham and Eggs.
Our new friends pointed out another prominent gully further west called Shaken Not Stirred — a 2500-foot, narrow couloir with difficulties up to WI 4+ and M6. Shaken, first climbed by Jim Donini and Greg Crouch in 1997, joins the west ridge of the Tooth at Englishman¹s Col, a narrow, wind-swept notch in the ridge that separates the west and middle summits. No one was on the route, so we decided to give it a go.
At 3 a.m., after several mugs of hot mocha java, we cramponed up hard nevé to the base of the couloir and the initial rockband. I belayed Jared up the rotten, pulpy rock and we moved into the couloir proper, simul-climbing up perfect 50-degree nevé. Though it was dark and gloomy in the recesses of this granite elevator shaft we quickly picked our way up the Styrofoam-like snow. Halfway up, the couloir pinched down to shoulder width; we stopped to belay a 600-foot section of 70- to 90-degree ice. After losing some time at a troublesome chockstone capped with overhanging snow, we motored up the rest of the gully, arriving around 9 a.m. at Englishman¹s Col — a spot first reached by a German team during the first ascent of the West Ridge in 1964.
Sitting on the snowy knife-edge, I basked in the sun and soaked up the 360-degree views. Off the backside I could see down to the Buckskin Glacier and across the north face of the Moose’s Tooth, a nightmarish wall of vertical snow flutings and gravity-defying mushrooms, cornices, and rock turrets. To the east rose the rest of the West Ridge, a wild, heavily-corniced Peruvian affair leading for thousands of feet across to the middle summit and then on to the main summit of the Tooth.
If Jared and I had done our homework, we would have known that all previous ascentionists of Shaken Not Stirred had turned west at the col, and downclimbed the West Ridge to the Ruth Glacier. On the way up, I had carefully scanned Shaken Not Stirred for potential rap anchors, but the compact granite and sporadic nature of the ice gave me little optimism. When Jared joined me at the col we decided instead to continue east along the West Ridge to the middle summit and then over to the top of the fixed rappel stations on Ham and Eggs.
Although the hundreds of feet of narrow and technical ridge climbing looked involved and terrifically exposed, the weather was the best we had seen yet, with nary a cloud in sight. “If we’re ever going to make an Alaskan summit,” said Jared, “This is it.”
I figured that if I could work my way out to the very crest of the ridge, I might be able to follow a line that remained less than 90 degrees. When I was still 10 feet away from the ridgecrest, however, my leg punched through the surface into a honeycomb of faceted ice crystals, through which I could see straight down to the Buckskin Glacier. The entire ridge was ethereal, not really there.
Our only other option was a sideways traverse across 30 feet of vertical snow to a foot-wide sliver of ice that dripped down through a short rock band. We had no pickets, so I drove my tools shaft-first into the snow and balanced precariously across to the ice. My rope dropped in a clean unprotected sweep for sixty feet down to Jared. With each step to the right the consequences of a fall became more and more serious, and eventually, unthinkable.
When I finally reached the ice, I sunk a bomber screw then yarded through the overhang up onto a 70-foot stretch of 80-degree snow covering unconsolidated ice. I was soon climbing into that no-man’s land where the climbing is a bit too hard to reverse but the temptation of better ice a couple of moves ahead spurs you on. Instead, the ice grew steeper and worse as I neared the ridge proper until, on the last ten feet, I basically swam up the vertical, powdery snow in a panic. Finally, I pulled onto the ridge, mentally wasted from what turned out to be the crux of the route.
I deadmanned a tool in the soft snow, realizing I had just climbed yet another section that would be difficult to reverse. Two rappels off bollards would get us back to Englishman’s Col, but the soft, dry snow seemed wholly unsuited for this type of anchor. The good news was that from here the climbing was mainly traversing across the wild, 30-foot-wide cornice that overhung the north face.
At noon we stood on the middle summit. We had been looking forward to a rest in the sun, but just as we arrived it slipped behind a large cloud. I looked around and realized that the weather was failing. Where did these clouds come from anyway? Hadn’t it been bluebird the last time I looked?
Reversing the ridge was out of the question, so we continued east, figuring that Ham and Eggs must be just around the corner. Shortly below the middle summit we rapped off a 30-foot vertical gendarme — adding yet another layer of commitment. After simul-climbing for a few hundred feet more, I came to a rock horn with a sling around it.
“This must be it,” I told Jared when he joined me at the stance.
“I don¹t know,” he said. “I thought we¹d be able to see our bivi from the top of the gully and I can’t see shit from here.”
“I¹m sure this it,” I insisted, anxious to keep moving. Swayed by my apparent certainty, Jared acquiesced.
On the very first rap, I failed to the find the next “fixed” anchor. The warning bells should have been sounding, but I had somehow convinced myself that I was just slightly off line or that the anchors were just buried under the snow. At the end of the second rappel, I reached a precarious stance and began scratching at a flared groove with a tiny hairline crack in the back. I dug through the snow, swung everywhere I could reach, but failed to find a single worthy crack. I took my axe and hammered a #2 nut into the blind groove copperhead-style. The single bludgeoned nut was the worst looking rappel anchor I’d ever seen. I attached a biner chain to it and gave it a few good funks, and surprisingly, it didn’t rip. When Jared arrived he was less than stoked on my handiwork. As the weather continued to turn we fruitlessly scanned the glacier 2500 below for our bivy gear.
An hour later we stand together at the lip of the 1500-foot headwall, contemplating our options. Patches of blue sky appear intermittently overhead, but it’s obvious that a storm is brewing. We have no other option than to start climbing back up the gully to the summit ridge. I look up at the 300-foot rockband — a stretch of steep, loose, and intimidating stone — and shudder. By now our rack is down to about six pieces.
After several steep snow pitches we arrive at a vertical chimney filled with loose flakes of rock and patches of thin ice. Not only does the pitch look hard, there¹s absolutely no place for a safe belay. I hang from two nuts wedged between flakes, almost directly in the line of fire. Several guillotine-like rocks waiting to be dislodged loom overhead. I huddle under my hood, listening to Jared scratching away. My hands and feet are frozen solid. I can feel the cold seeping in deep, and it scares me. If something happens, if Jared falls and gets hurt, if one more thing goes wrong, we’re toast.
Thankfully, Jared is solid. There is no one I would trust more in this kind of situation. After what seems like hours, I feel the rope tugging on my harness. I pop the belay loose with frightening ease and begin clawing my way up. My hands have become totally unresponsive. I have to rely on sight, rather than feel, to tell me when my picks are sunk in the ice or if they are cammed properly into a crack.
I crawl onto the summit ridge, reaching Jared’s belay in a mind-numbing whiteout. I peer into the gloom as the wind whips the snow in a million directions at once. I have absolutely no idea where I am or what the ridge is doing in front of me. Does it go up, down, or stay flat? Jared belays as I crawl on my hands and knees, feeling with my axe, knowing that the ridge is little more than a giant cornice overhanging the north face. I try to stay as close to the south side as I can, navigating by guesswork and blind faith. My chances of finding the right gully in these conditions are nil.
Suddenly, I punch through the cornice up to my waist. I belly roll out of the hole, realizing I have come within inches of taking the big plunge. Who knows how far I would have fallen or where? There is no gear between us; and somwhere down below my partner is tugging on the rope and yelling something I can barely hear. It seems he wants to drop into a different gully. “My” gully is clearly bigger, and I reason that if he could see it, he’d choose this one as well. For a brief moment a ridiculous tug of war ensues. However, I’m slightly downhill from Jared so when I weight the rope, he has no choice but to follow.
After a few hundred feet, the gully steepens and the snow turns to blue ice. Roped together, but with no gear between us, we frontpoint downwards as waves of spindrift threaten to send us sliding. I can feel the panic welling up, but aware that it could easily be my undoing, I try to block it out by concentrating on making precise movements with my tools and crampons. Jared is above me somewhere in the whiteout, and although I can hardly see him, his presence gives me strength. This may or may not be the right gully — either way, we’ll make it work.
Five hundred feet down, I’ve just about lost hope when I see it — a bright blue, ice-covered sling hanging from a couple of nuts. I let out a cry of relief — we are saved.
We spend the next several hours rappelling, downclimbing, drilling v-threads, and, because we only have one rope, methodically patching together anchors between the 60-meter fixed stations. As the hour closes in on 10 p.m., we near the bottom. Neither of us says much. By now the cold has reduced me to a shivering lump. Like the blood that moves sluggishly through my veins, time expands ruthlessly, stretching the last few rappels into a seeming eternity. When I look into Jared¹s rime-coated visage between raps, I can see that he¹s thinking the same thing as me: this trip is over. As soon as we get off this mountain, we’re heading home. Looking back now, I realize I wasn’t quite to the point where I wanted to quit climbing, but I was close.
We arrive at our quincy after 24 hours on the go — nine hours to the middle summit, then 16 for the nightmare descent. Badly dehydrated, we brew some hot water, but fall asleep with our mugs in our hands. The next morning we crawl out of the tent to see that the storm has somewhat abated, though plenty of clouds still swirl about overhead. Jared fires up the stove and we sit side by side, gazing up the wall. Two thousand feet above, we can see exactly where we were cliffed out. A slow smile breaks across my face as I realize that, for some strange reason, looking up there is thawing my badly frozen psyche. Jared, a true kindred spirit, is right there with me.
“Let’s head down to the Ruth”