Alec Bergoef and Colten Moore set out on a trip to the Ruth Gorge in Alaska this past April/May 2018. Read about their challenges and overcoming adversity in the trip report below. Words and images by Alec Bergoef.
We’ve been sitting in Talkeetna for a couple days now, waiting for the weather to break so we can fly into the mountains. Just when we are about to give up hope of getting a flight into the gorge that day, Colten’s phone rings. We have been waiting for two days. I am pushing the longboard back up the hill to where his van is parked and he is yelling for me to hurry. I hop in the passenger’s seat and we rush down the road to grab our bags from the bunkhouse and pick up the pizza we had on hold at the pizzeria. Hastily, we grab our personal belongings from the hostel and rush over to the restaurant. When we arrive, our pizzas are ready and we head to the airstrip. We park and I stride happily over to the plane with two piping-hot pizzas to bring to the glacier with us. There are four others waiting, along with a pilot and Jim, the grounds manager for the air taxi service. We make small talk while we wait for our luggage to be loaded on to the plane.
Then it is time for us to board. I’m eager, so I go ahead and take the front seat next to the pilot. The pizzas sit on my lap. Everyone else gets in and buckled and we take off! It’s exhilarating to fly in such a small plane, not far from the ground. We can see the mountains in the distance but most of the land around us is generally flat with many lakes in the expansive forest. There are some low hanging clouds and we get pushed around by gusts now and then. As we enter the mountains, the landscape becomes more dramatic.
We are flying over the beginnings of the Ruth Glacier with large peaks on either side that get larger with each passing moment. We make a small turn to skirt around one peak and enter the beginnings of the Gorge. Suddenly, it seems, we are in the valley. The immensity is mind boggling. As one friend put it, “If you put the Grand Teton in the Ruth Gorge, it would look insignificant”. I can’t say he is wrong. Everything is blanketed in fresh snow and dripping in ice.
Conditions are looking quite good and everyone in the plane has their eye plastered to the window, scoping out lines and taking in the enormity. The plane flies to the head of the glacier, banks a hard turn, comes back the other way, and then turns back around, descending, and comes in for a landing. There are traces of an old runway as well as some markers set out to show the pilot where to land. We touch down quite smoothly and turn around at the end of the runway, coming to a stop. There are two skiers waiting there for a pickup. We all clamber out of the plane, quickly unloading enormous bags; filled with ropes, tents, crampons, ice tools, stoves, down jackets, boots, food and all other assorted items necessary for a month in the backcountry. As we sort our gear into piles, the two skiers put their bags into the plane and the pilot tells us he is going to take off. We all stand back while he revs the engines and the spinning prop sprays us with snow. Just as he starts to move again across the snow, two brown objects are thrown into the air from the pile of gear. “The pizzas!!” We rush to check the damage; luckily neither box has opened and we are quite relieved.
It is early evening and there is much work to do so we work quickly to set up camp. We find the ruins of an old camp that we decide to commandeer. It takes a couple of hours to haul all the bags to the camp, dig out the snow inside the wind walls, and flatten a spot big enough for our tent. We decide to wait on building the cook shelter until tomorrow, so we get comfortable in our tent and devour the pizza.
The next day, we spend some time in the morning building the cook shelter. It actually was quite a bit of hard work, we have to dig down about four feet underneath the tarp and fashion a bench and stovetop out of snow. It takes about half of the day. After which we go for a ski tour to get a better idea of some of the route conditions.
We head north, up the glacier toward Mt. Barrill. We came across a route in the NPS Ranger Station guidebook that looked very cool on the far side of Barrill. Our camp is basically centered below Mt. Dickey, the largest peak with a formidable 5000 ft east face, and Mt. Barrill is the next peak up the gorge to the north. While it doesn’t look far away, it is actually almost 3 miles from our camp to the base of the peak! After over an hour of skiing, we get there and realize that the route we were hoping to do does not have as much ice as we’d like. We were gonna have to abort mission. It was a bit disappointing and we started the ski back home with our heads down. On the way back though, we noticed an interesting looking line on the south face on Mt Barrill that is essentially a major deviation from the classic ‘Japanese Couloir’. We scoped it out with the binoculars and decided that it might be worth checking out. When we get back to camp, a look at the weather forecast tells us that the next day looks like it will be good. We decide to have a go at this line in the morning.
I wake up to the alarm blaring at 4am. Our bags are packed. After some bagel sandwiches, we set off. The ski is a good warm up and we move fast. We stash the skis and start climbing. The snow is fairly deep and we don’t move very fast. At one point, we hit a nice band of nevé and have the pleasure of front pointing for about 100’ before getting back to wallowing. As we move higher in the couloir, clouds start to envelope the top of the peak and it begins to snow lightly.
We have gained about 900 feet. We stop to pitch out one section of fairly steep snow between a few rocks. Colten leads and then brings me up. As I am following, the falling snow starts to increase.
By the time I am standing next to him, we are near the beginning of a steep part of the line and spin drift is waterfalling down the gulley. We look at each other knowingly. It is time to go down. Begrudgingly, I start the long down climb of steep snow back to where we stashed the skis. By the time we arrive to the base, the sun has come out again and it is quite warm in the gorge. A little disheartened by this, seeing how the weather improved after we bailed, we strap on the skis and head back from camp. While eating mac & cheese with sliced brats, the clouds come back strong and it starts snowing hard. This is a bit of a relief, knowing now that if we did continue through the first bit of snow, we would probably be somewhere high on the mountain now, trapped in an increasing storm.
For the next ten days the storm does not let up. Our days consist of waking up (as late as possible) and shoveling out camp, making breakfast, shoveling again, playing chess or Battleship, reading, shoveling again, making dinner, and going to bed. Needless to say, we earned merit badges in shovel technique. Pretty quickly, the snow around our camp was up to the height of the walls and then above it. In those 10 days, it snowed nearly 5 feet. Finally, thankfully, the storm broke and the sun came out.
Unfortunately, it was only 36 hours before we got slammed with another one. This storm was a bit different in character, it didn’t snow quite so much but it was very windy. So windy, in fact, that one morning, we woke up to our cook tent destroyed by the wind. The center pole had snapped and skewered the side of the tent and the snow drifts collapsed the tent, ripping it pretty badly on one side. We managed to salvage it somewhat, but not before shoveling out the 7 foot drifts inside our camp. Using a snow picket as a splint, we bandaged the broken poles and filled in the shelter somewhat to make up for ripped side. This storm lasted for 6 days. Needless to say, our situation was getting a little bleak and moral was down.
Using our satellite communication device, we contacted some friends asking for all as much weather info as they could provide. We had been tent bound for the better part of two weeks and I was itching to get some climbing in. It looked like the weather was going to break and give us a window of 3 days before another storm blew in that would leave us stranded for the foreseeable future. We had brought 30 days worth of food and fuel and we had gone through about half that, given that we didn’t know when the next coming storm would break, we decided that we would try to climb on the second of the 3 nice days and then fly out the day after.
Once the weather cleared, we spent the first day just drying out gear, charging phones via solar panel, and enjoying some much needed sun. We also skied over to the base of Mt. Barrill to check out conditions and to put in the skin track for the next morning.
With bags packed, we set out from camp in the predawn light. We moved fast and were to the base in an hour. After all the snow, we were happy to find really good front pointing up the couloir all the way to the base of the real climbing. In another hour, we had gained ~1000ft and were racking up for the first pitch. Colten took the first one, which consisted of 60 ft of really good ice in a tight corner before becoming overhanging snice blobs. While excavating the vertical snow, Colten punched through, into a awesome belay cave beneath a humongous chockstone! He was relieved, to say the least.
I followed his impressive lead and then took the sharp end myself. After some steep climbing pulling out of the cave onto a small runnel of snice, I found myself in a wide couloir of well-consolidated steep snow. I ran up this quickly before belaying beneath a band of rock. Colten came up behind, and then I lead the next pitch as well, which happened to be my first mixed lead ever! Nothing like a little baptism by fire. I climbed about 80 ft of mostly rock with a little ice, here and there, with difficulties up to M4, before entering the upper couloir of steep snow. I belayed up Colten and he set right off up the couloir. About 100 ft above me he found a piece of tat from the retreat of another party. Maybe this route wasn’t as untouched as we thought. Clipping it and continuing up, we were about to start simul-climbing, just as I heard a deep rumble, quickly becoming very loud.
The whole mountain seemed to be shaking and I was terrified. I looked up at the slopes above us, expecting the worst. I saw nothing but blue sky and glistening granite. The rumble quieted down and we still saw nothing but the fear was palpable. Colten had stopped and looked down at me. “I don’t know about you, but that’s enough to make me want to go down” he yelled to me. I quickly agreed.
Dying in an avalanche was not why I came to Alaska. Our route was a huge gulley, some steep snow slopes loomed above and we were pretty nervous about getting flushed out if something big let go. Colten started to down climb, while I took in rope as fast as possible. When he hit the old tat, “Just lower me!”. I quickly took the rope tight and lower him off the old bail anchor. Maybe the same thing happened to the people who left the anchor I thought. Colten reached me and we started the first of a handful of raps from v-threads getting us down to the main couloir.
Then we had the pleasure of down climbing a 1000 ft of sticky, wet snow that really liked to stick to our crampons. On the ski back to camp, I was feeling disappointed for sure, knowing that we were gonna fly out the next day and had climbed a totally of two half days in the last 20. But it seemed that we made the right decision. It was just approaching noon when the avalanche ripped on the peak next to us, meaning that there would be at least 4 more hours of sun and warmth while we would’ve been in the firing line. Overall though, I was happy that we got to climb a few really good pitches even if it took two weeks of shoveling to earn it.
We got back to camp in the early evening and sent a message to the air taxi service that we would like to be picked up in the morning. For dinner, we gorged ourselves on some of the remaining food including bacon pizzas and, a personal favorite, raw cookie dough dipped in pancake batter and fried in oil. Laying in my sleeping bag that night, I thought through our trip up until this point. A quote from the TV show Trailer Park Boys came to mind “That’s just the way she goes, boys. Sometimes she goes, and sometimes she doesn’t, but that’s just the way she goes” I think it pretty well summed up our adventure. While not exactly the most successful trip as far as standing on top of summits or sending sick lines, it was a great adventure and it left me with plenty of ideas for the future. And that’s just the way she goes.