Success on the Moose’s Tooth
By Mark Smiley
Janelle and I were very excited to get back into the classic climbing circuit for the fourth year in a row, after an amazing winter overseas. We had spent 90 days in Europe, where Janelle competed in several countries with the best ski mountaineering racers in the world, while I made videos of the experience. The videos can be scene here (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5). In May we flew back to the States, and had 13 non-traveling days to pack and prep for our expeditions to Alaska. This was definitely not enough time, but we made it work. Most of the time I feel like a professional packer, always lugging around at least two fifty pound duffel bags and a way-to-heavy carry on. Life is so rough =)
The first climb on our calendar for the year was the West Ridge of the Moose’s Tooth. This would be our second attempt. In 2010 we tried to climb it but got turned around largely due to Alaska sized intimidation, and horrible snow conditions.
This year we had a plan, and a bunch of experience to draw on, to make the climb go as smoothly as possible. We flew into Anchorage where our ever-faithful Anchorage hosts, Bob and Celia Lohr, picked us up from the airport. The forecast was looking bad so we delayed for four days in Anchorage. After the delay we stocked up at Costco, and made our way to the quaint tourist town of Talkeetna, AK.
Talkeetna Air Taxi is the best in the business, flying hundreds of climbers all over the range every year. The added bonus is that they keep track of you while you climb. Having eyes in the sky is a true comfort. We got to fly in with Paul Rodrick, the owner, which is always a treat. He landed us on the Ruth Glacier and we were at the base of the West Ridge two hours later. It was awesome.
Our base camp duffels were flown to a different location by a friend and fellow mountain guide, Kurt Hicks, who was flying into the Root Canal campsite. That would be the finish line after climbing the West Ridge. This very conveniently removed the need to cross through the dangerous icefall that connects the Ruth Gorge to the Root Canal. We had traveled through this serac zone twice in 2010 and had no desire to repeat it.
The snow was deep as we made our way up to the high camp, which was slow going. The camp site, located at 7,800′, is one of the most beautiful in the range. The only neighbors in this neighborhood are Denali, Huntington, Dan Beard, and several other striking peaks. It had taken us about 8 hours to travel from the landing strip to this camp.
The next morning we woke up around 6:00AM and started climbing around 7:30AM. The lower parts of the access couloirs were in great condition. Firm pick and crampon placements allowed for quick movement. As we approached the ridge, the snow got deeper and softer. The hairs on the back of my neck started perking up as we traversed this 55-degree face. Thankfully everything stayed in place and it reached a notch in the ridge.
Reaching the notch, we got our first look at the foreboding North Face. The entire upper half of the face was covered in huge snow mushrooms that ran the entire length of each snow spine. Below that, the glacier drops off a vertical wall for several thousand feet to the glacier below. Along the skyline the West Ridge, our route, weaved up and down like the crooked spine of a snow-breathing dragon. The cornices were both large and intimidating, and we would have to navigate them for more than a mile. Taking photos of this view was spectacular in an eerie sort of way. Probably similar to capturing a beautiful photograph of a tidal wave, right before it hits you.
We dropped down from the ridge, picking our way along, paying very close attention to where we were relative to both the rocks on our right and the cornices on our left. As it turns out, our high point from our 2010 attempt was about 20 mins of climbing away from the West Summit. Attaining this high point we had an even better view of the West Ridge route. The steep corniced slopes coming out of Englishman’s Col were in perfect view. Perfectly scarey-knarly-intimidating-steep-snow view.
“How in the world are we going to get up that?” I thought. Janelle and I discussed possible options of how to best climb this 500 foot section of terror. We down climbed and then rappelled into the notch where the route Shaken Not Stirred meets the ridge. We knew there were an established rappel anchors down the entire route, making it a possible bail out option. Directly up from that was this super scary face, creating a gigantic mental fork in the road. Do we turn right, rapping down Shaken Not Stirred, to a comfortable base camp where chips and salsa were waiting for us? Or do we stay the course and tackle this daunting snow wall? I’d be lying if I said the pull to bail was non-existent. Blue pill red pill, which will it be? Janelle kicked in a descent belay spot on the other side of the ridge and I started up the pitch.
It was slow going as I could not afford to fall. Every step had to be spot on. Every tool placement had to be spot on. Janelle called up, “half”, meaning I had gone 100’, and I placed a picket. Above me was and overhanging cornice. I had to excavate a trench and then climb through it. 180’ up, with only one lame picket 80’ below me I cut out a ledge for a belay. This was probably the worst belay anchor I’ve ever made. Totally not AMGA passable. The snow is loose, I’m standing on a corniced snow pillow, 60-70 degree slope, with buried ice tools in loose “snice” (snow ice combo). The only thing providing significant holding power is the fact that I’m straddling the snow in a way that provided some resistance to downward pull. I yelled down, “climb on….carefully!”
Janelle made it up to me with no falls, and took the lead over the next roll. She made short work of it, fighting through the loose steep snow. We swung leads again, and got into a rhythm of fighting through these cornices. Creeping ever-so-carefully along this sleeping dragon’s spiny back, trying very hard to not wake her.
As we descended down to the final col, which is the top of the uber classic “Ham and Eggs” route, we were able to let our guard down a bit as the terrain mellowed. Walking past the top of Ham and Eggs there was another slight mental tug to pull the eject cord, and rap the route. The tug to get to the main summit was much stronger thankfully, and the weather was holding, so we continued up the final ascent. This section of the route was more of the same. Playing the game called, “where to walk so I don’t die” as we traversed the backs of these cornices.
We reached the summit 12 hours after leaving our high camp on the Moose’s back. It was a spectacular evening in the Alaska Range. Windy yet beautiful. The top of the Moose’s Tooth is actually a big cornice, so the true elevation of the mountain likely changes on a weekly basis. Being an idiot, I wanted to touch the very top. Janelle just shook her head as she belayed me up. First walking, then using my ice tools in the cane position, then on my knees, and for the last six feet on my belly as to distribute my weight as best as possible. I picked my head up and could see unobstructed 360 degrees, the tippy top. In hind site that was probably stupid to climb a big cornice like that, but whatever.
Many many rappels later, around midnight thirty, we walked into the Root Canal campsite. Our buddy, Kurt Hicks, had heard us coming down and put out our base camp duffle, a thermos of hot water, and a bottle of whiskey. I read his accompanying handwritten note by the dim Alaska midnight light, “Way to crush Smileys! See you in the morning.”
Be sure to check out the Smiley’s progect online at smileysproject.com