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Steamboat Magazine

Northern Exposure, Part 1

07/30/2020 12:24PM ● By Matt Tredway

The Moose’s Tooth, Alaska Range, May 2019

The belay device, the critical tool that creates friction on the otherwise unmanageable rope, was hooked with a locking carabiner on my sit harness. I could not possibly have felt more tiny and exposed than l did at that moment. My crampons were biting the top of a 250-foot, steep snowfield balanced on top of a 150-foot granite cliff, with still more snow slope below. l balanced on the perch, like an ant on top of a giant ice cream cone.  

Still breathing hard and sweating from exertion, l had finally reached the base of a vertical wall of granite. Glancing back down the face, l watched my partner, Dan Smilkstein, swinging his ice tools into the slope, and kicking crampons to give him purchase. This band of rock represented the first sense of security on the otherwise exposed icy face. Reaching to my rack, l pulled off a #2 Camelot and inserted it into a fissure. Releasing the trigger, the cams opened up and grabbed the sides of the crack, effectively sticking it permanently, or at least until the trigger would eventually be released as we moved on. I backed the cam up with another, and slung them together; belt and suspenders. Quickly, I tied a clove hitch and clipped in. Leaning back cautiously, I felt the resistance of the pieces and reveled in our first real anchor in 500 feet. 

The ever-present Alaska sun was coming to its low point for the day, and tickling the mountains to our south, despite the time being 5 a.m. Below, on the Root Canal Glacier, our yellow North Face tent and cooking tarp were dots on the white expanse. A dark ribbon passing from the tent to the cliff base evidenced our crossing earlier that morning. Standing vertically in the snow, the two sets of skis marked the point we had changed into crampons to start upward. The ribbon of ski tracks morphed immediately into holes punched in a line, then disappeared as the snow became firm and carried our weight.

The sky was uncharacteristically blue, and there was no wind. The cold spring air of the Alaska Range searched for entry points into my clothes but was held at bay. It was a perfect day for climbing.  

Glancing down again, I saw that Dan was making his final moves up the slope to find similar security at this anchor and regroup for the next pitch. To this point we had simul-climbed; we had been roped, but had not placed any protection. Should one of us slip, we would depend on the other to dig his ax in deeply and brace us. On a slope this steep, that wasn’t something we would want to test. The very fact that we were traversing this snow slope via post-holing was creating the “postage stamp” effect. Slipping was a concern – both the snow and us. The chances of stopping a falling climber if he gains too much momentum is a crapshoot.

Dan arrived, looked upward in anticipation of the next pitch, and clipped into the anchor. Our immediate obstacle was a band of vertical rock rather than the heavily condensed snow or ice. This granite face guarded the rest of the route, a steep couloir of snow, rock and ice that bisects a Yosemite-sized cliff face.

Shifting into a belay mode, l fumbled briefly with my harness to ready my belay device. I inserted the ropes through the small tool to create enough friction to safely spot Dan's ascent, and hold him in case of a fall. Now in place, l grabbed for a loop of the colorful rope to thread through. A moment later, looking down to complete the process … it was gone. My carabiner, locked onto my harness, was dangling in its proper place, but the belay device was nowhere to be seen. Panic surged. Maybe it was clipped somewhere else? A frenzied search resulted in nothing. At my feet, a crevasse between the snow and cliff face stared knowingly up at me, like a cat that ate the canary. It was gone. My mind swirled ... how could we advance? In a shaken voice, l told Dan. Dead silence, both of us weighing the implications of my mistake. We had battled to get to this point, to have this, of all things, stop us? 

The planning and preparation for the May expedition started early in February. To fully enjoy Climbing in Alaska, and be at your best, requires training. And the train we did. With a clear objective of the Moose’s Tooth, an iconic peak in the Ruth Gorge, we studied everything we could. It’s a peak lovingly described by climbing greats like Mugs Stump and Jim Bridwell. It boasts multiple routes, and is characterized as an “ultra classic.” The line we had chosen, named Ham and Eggs, consists of 18 pitches and 2900 feet and leads almost directly to the summit of the peak.

According to our sources, though low in altitude, this will be a difficult expedition. The climb itself has several technical and physical challenges. The 5.9-rated rock, 4-rated Alpine ice, and 70-degree snow is in our wheelhouse. The length, of almost 3000 vertical feet, is not too imposing. The variable weather conditions are another story. We would need a near-perfect day or more to complete this. Even an inch of snow accumulation on the route when we were climbing would slough. An inch does not sound like much, but when magnified by thousands of feet, and all funneled down the couloir, it would create a huge impact on a climber if hit. 

The first ascent of the route, in the mid-1970s, was by the renowned Jon Krakauer, author of mountaineering’s first mega-sale book, “Into Thin Air.” He and his partner required 36 hours to finish the climb. We anticipated a slightly faster ascent, as lots of the work done by he and other parties had fleshed out a variety of beta that would ultimately save us time. We would carry enough equipment to spend the night out if necessary: A bivy bag, extra coat, small stove and food. Krakauer described the route as a classic, and climbers around the world have echoed those sentiments. The grades, easily in our capability, were tempered with Krakauer’s sobering statement: “While climbers that have not experienced this route will describe it as an Alaskan moderate, climbers that have actually been on the route characterize it as steep, exposed, physically demanding, and always in your face.”

Unlike Denali, laying 15 miles to the Northwest, this route has comparatively few ascents. Denali, North America's highest peak, is almost 10,000 feet higher in altitude, but sees up to one thousand climbers per year, most of those climbers hoping to tick it off as one of the coveted seven summits. Denali has altitude, weather and difficult routes, but most climbers opt for trade routes that have few or no technical components. And with numbers comes relative security; if something goes wrong, there is potential for help. We studied the written accounts of our objective and pored over route photos and topographic maps. It's a technical route, too steep and remote to hope for immediate assistance.

In addition, we worked hard to prepare physically. Perhaps our greatest preparation was not training at all, but elevation. We live at the same height as the base camp, and our local ski mountain, Mount Werner, has a summit at the same elevation as the summit of the Moose's Tooth. More than 70 times during the winter, we put on skis, placed metal or water weight in our packs, and skinned up Storm Peak. The 3000-foot ascent on snow replicated the challenge we anticipated, at least as far as the elevation gain. What began as a slog quickly became easier, and confidence soared. In addition, we each soloed Colorado 14ers in full winter conditions to prepare.

Trips to the West's ice climbing meccas in Cody, Wyoming, and Colorado destinations like Lake City, Ouray and Silverton, helped hone our ice skills. Weight training and regular trips to the climbing gym prepared us for the physical demands of the rock and steep snow.

Equipment is always a critical component of the trips, and each trip is different. The isolation calls for special consideration, including a satellite phone. The possibility of being stranded by weather is very real, and therefore food considerations are real. Calculations are increased by several days to accommodate the possibility of being trapped.

The Root Canal glacier, resting at the base of the Moose’s Tooth, is actually a hanging glacier, situated 2000 feet above the Ruth Glacier, the primary glacier in the area. At one time, climbers entered the Root Canal by way of the Ruth, pulling loads up the icefall, negotiating the large jutting blocks of broken ice and crisscrossing the deep crevasses that spill down the slope. Changing conditions have made the climbing approach almost impossible, especially with large loads. Airborne is the primary method of access now, though there are only a couple pilots from Talkeetna Air Taxi who have the balls to land their planes there. Outfitted with supplemental skis just above the wheels, these planes and their pilots are unique. Conditions must be perfect to execute this landing, and stories abound of climbers waiting out storms for a week at a time before extraction.

The Ruth Glacier has been described as one of the most intimidating landscapes on earth. Ten miles long and a mile wide, its granite walls soar upwards of 5000 feet in places. The glacier ice itself has been measured at 3700 feet deep, and the combination of the two measurements would technically make the Ruth one of the deepest canyons on earth at nearly 9000 feet deep. 

In addition to communication devices and some food, we packed sturdy tents, warm sleeping bags, and precise clothing to allow for the wild temperature swings the glacier presents. Temperatures on the glacier range from sub-zero at night to solar-cooker heat in the glaring light of the glacier at midday. We packed shovels and snow saws to be used for the construction of protective walls and excavated snow kitchens, climbing equipment designed for snow, ice and rock, a stove and backup stove. Food that is interesting, yet benign, yielding the most calories per unit volume. We also packed lighters, medicines, repair kits, skis and skins, and books. All of this equipment we needed to be able to handle on the glacier. To make this possible, we packed half our gear in sleds that we would pull, and the remainder in packs to be worn on our backs. At over 100 pounds each, these made for daunting loads.

This list of equipment was checked and rechecked. Once dropped off, we would have what we have. It had to be right the first time. In the comfort of a warm garage in Steamboat Springs, we set up camp on the floor, starting with the tent, and tested each piece. Once thoroughly examined, we would pack the item. Later, we reconsulted the list, repacked and repeated.   

Anticipating the inevitable fight with the airlines about weight, fuel and food, we carefully considered and listed each, but we waited to purchase these supplies until the last minute in Alaska. That turned out to be a good thing.

With countless hours of training, study, and organizing under our belts, we were finally driving to DIA in Denver on a sunny May morning. This signified the official start of the trip. Anticipation was peaked. The definition of an adventure is embarking on an endeavor without a clear outcome. There are so many variables that can short-circuit plans. Care is given to everything that we can anticipate, but the unknown still looms. Both Dan and I have been on many expeditions that have gone to script, but an equal number that have been altered by unforeseen obstacles – alpine climbing magnifies this. We would be isolated, and it would be difficult to foresee everything. Sometimes we would have to wait. Those factors contributed to a mental stew we stirred during the drive.

Ironic that an active sport that requires so much attention to detail typically offers up the possibility of tent-bound downtime. Mundane hours waiting for proper conditions – How can you possibly train for that?

The trials of the expedition, now named “Steamboat 130” (130 being our combined ages) began a thousand miles away from our first anticipated crux. These trials began with the airlines. Weighing in, one of our bags was 3 pounds overweight, another one was 5. Standing at the counter with a line of anxious passengers fidgeting behind us, we unzipped our overpacked bags, packs, and duffels, all meticulously organized, and began the puzzle of size and weight. By re-sorting, a couple of the bags immediately passed, were tagged and slowly began the migration to the plane via the conveyor belt behind the stand. We were left with two big sleds. “Take out the ice axes,” suggested the check-in clerk, eyeing the contents of the sled. Pulling them out and holding them in the air in front of her, I asked, “Do you really think they would let me board with these?” The axes appeared absolutely sinister in comparison with the long list of prohibited items, including nail clippers. “Hmm… no,” she replied. The shuffle continued, and the line of passengers waiting behind us grew. After five minutes, I could feel the other travelers’  angst, having been on the other side of this before. The agent was aware of the traffic jam as well, glancing frequently at the growing line. We were down to 1.5 pounds of illegal weight. Dan removed a climbing boot. The scale registered and the check-in lady shouted, “Stop! That's it.” She quickly tagged the sled and sent it down the conveyor. All of our bulky equipment was gone, and we were left with bulging daypacks. In addition to an overpacked pack, Dan had a coat, a book, and a rogue boot in his hand as we started to security. We had that disheveled look of the homeless. After a long wait at the security check and a walk through the X-ray machine, we were pulled aside. An agent discovered a small Tupperware tub containing maple syrup and forced us to begin the process over again. It contained 4.5 fluid ounces, they guessed, and we were instructed to dump out .5 fluid ounces before we would be allowed to proceed. We complied and found ourselves at the back of the line again, hoping for success in this unforeseen crux.

This process left me baffled and fuming. As we were going through the motions, a man beside us went through the same process. His bags, screaming at the seams and stretched impossibly to the point of bursting, had just barely made the weight limit. He, on the other hand, weighed what Dan and l weighed combined. If you are going to play this game, then play the whole thing – after all, isn’t it about taking off with not just the weight of the luggage, but the weight of the passengers as well? And where is the imminent danger to a pilot or plane from maple syrup… other than possibly making things sticky?

Check back next week for part 2 of Matt Tredway’s Moose’s Tooth climbing story.