Ruth Gorge

July, 2009

In Talkeetna, the Park Service told us that there was only one other party in the gorge, an all-women’s climbing group from Poland. We saw their tent in the distance as we shuffled down from the glacier. Caroline and I cached our skis and food at the base of the “Stump,” and made our way down the Ruth Glacier on foot. The Ruth Gorge is one of those places where it’s easy to lose all sense of scale. We walk past Mt. Barrille and its Cobra Pillar, the size of El Cap, looks small compared to the walls of its neighbors. I had been here in May of 2007 to climb the Moose’s Tooth with my buddy, Seth. The airstrip we used in the spring was now bare ice with runnels of water cutting through. The ash cloud from the Mt. Redoubt volcano had caused unprecedented melting this year.

We arrived at the base of Hut Tower and cooked dinner atop a giant boulder listing on the glacial ice. Day broke as we simul-climbed up snow and rock in our mountain boots. The steeper pitches began and we swapped leads as the sun worked its way around the walls. I leaned back on my belay, feeding Caroline rope. A plane buzzed up the center of the gorge. We were at the same altitude as the Otter, a mere speck against the jagged peaks behind, here to pick up the other group of climbers. Now we had the range to ourselves. The crux pitch of 5.10b was a bit wet but the protection good and went smoothly. We topped out on the summit in a perfect day, enjoying views of Denali and surrounding peaks. The descent went without a hitch, downclimbing the ridge and rapping to our boots. The next day, we had a lazy morning on our boulder in the sun before trekking back upglacier.

It took another day to climb up to our next objective, the Eyetooth, which is part of the Moose’s Tooth massif. My hands are sweating just thinking about how intimidating this pillar of rock is. 3000’ rising straight from the glacier. We climbed the first few pitches in the dark and were already feeling the size and exposure of the route when day broke. We wanted to get through the first 800’ before sun hit the ledges of the adjacent pea as rockfall threatens to batter these initial pitches. We led in blocks and found the climbing challenging. The difficult routefinding caused a lot of uncertainty. There was a fair amount of loose rock and, boy, were they rope stretchers! Full 60 m pitches using every piece of gear we had. Some of the pitches were spectacular, with massive amounts of air below. Finally, we hit the first and only bivy ledge on the route and took a break. We sat with our feet hanging over the cliff and took in our position. We were doing it. More than halfway up this thing. The problem was, we weren’t running up it. We didn’t haul water or bivy gear and this climb was kicking our asses. I remember thinking that the folks who make an Alaskan Grade V climb happen are the world’s best, who live in Yosemite and climb 5.10 like walking the dog. Not a carpenter who flies down to Washington, gets in 5 days of rock, then launches up the Eyetooth. I looked up at my next pitch, a 5.10c. That’s the grade that for me is tough on the side of the road, let alone in the mountains. We realized there was no way we would make the summit by nightfall. It was either go for the summit and shiver through the night on the wall or head down. We started rappelling. On two occasions we got our ropes stuck and had to climb after them. Fortunately, the first time, it was the knot that joined the two ropes and we still had the other end so I was able to prusik all the way back up. The second time, I scrambled up a giant flake to free its end. After hours of rapping, we reached our packs. A raven had gotten into our stuff and made off with one of Caroline’s socks.

There were two things that helped validate our descent. That night, the rain and snow started and we would have suffered greatly up there. Later that winter, I ran into an Alaskan climber in El Potrero, Mexico who was climbing 5.12 routes. Without any prompting, he told us that this pitch on the Eyetooth was the hardest thing he’d ever led.

We made it back to our gear on the Ruth Glacier. Our double sled trick kept the ravens out and I confirmed that I have a serious allergy to TVP. That’s “textured vegetable protein.” Caroline kicked me out of the tent and I leaned over a rock with terrible gas. We spent several weather days tent-bound. Between rainstorms, we climbed a few single-pitch routes. One morning we made a half-hearted attempt up The Goldfinger on the “Stump” before retreating in a downpour. After 10 days in the Gorge, we skied back up to the Sheldon Glacier and flew back to Talkeetna.

Check out more trip photos here

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