[Alan Rousseau wrote the following story about a new route he completed on the east face of Mt. Dickey in Alaska with Jackson Marvell on April 3-5. Their new line follows a prominent corner system between Blood from the Stone and the Wine Bottle; they named it Ruth Gorge Grinder (AI6+ M7, 5,000′).–Ed.]
“What’s your plan for Alaska this year?” is a question I get more times than I’d like to recall. This year, Jackson Marvell, and I had hoped to repeat Blood from the Stone (A1 M7+ WI6+ X, 5,000′), a route put up by Sean Easton and Ueli Steck in March 2002 on Mt. Dickey. However, this route rarely forms and has the reputation as being one of the hardest routes in the range. I felt like I might as well have been saying I was going to slay the Loch Ness Monster. Even if it’s there, do I stand a chance?
I first visited the Ruth Gorge in 2012, it was my first experience with mixed climbing on truly large faces, and I did not have the skillset to manage the terrain and conditions that surrounded me. We landed under the east face of Dickey. I was enchanted by the unrelenting nature of the face that soared a mile overhead. It became clear to me that I was not ready to step into that kind of ride, but man, someday I wanted to be….
This past autumn, when Jackson asked me if I wanted to do a 2019 Alaska trip, “east face of Dickey” reflexively came out of my mouth. “Dickey, April 1,” Jackson replied, extending his hand. As I shook it, I could see in his eye a contract had just been signed. Having never roped up together before, we had some climbing to do, and we made a point to climb together once a week before we left. Our days ranged from bolting new lines to big linkups. Our confidence in one another grew quickly.
“Which one should we do man? The chimney system left of The Wine Bottle? or Blood from Stone?”
“I don’t know, can’t see much ice in Blood from Stone.”
“The top of it looks so good, though!”
“Yeah, we gotta try it, it looks insane, and that’s what we came here for.”
After skinning up and down the Ruth to get a few angles on the face with our scope we decided the next morning we would head up Blood from Stone. Even though there appeared to be a large gap in the ice. We figured a wall rack would still allow for safe passage. With that decision we packed up two backpacks with three days of food, cooked dinner, and tried to calm down enough to get some sleep.
April 3: our approach was dreamy, and an hour after we left camp we were debating which iced-up corner system to climb. Jackson made the mistake of following my advice and ended up a bit higher than planned after a runout M5 pitch. But a pendulum and two steep pitches of M6+ and M7 gave us passage to the hanging snowfield where we planned to bivy.
We chopped out our ledge on a snow arete just left of Blood from Stone. Leaving packs there, I took the rack with hopes of fixing a few hundred feet higher on Blood from Stone. The first pitch was excellent AI4+ M5 climbing and landed us below a huge water groove with a thin drip of ice in the back of it. I made it maybe 80 feet higher shuffling a chicken wing, heel-toe cam and an ice tool in the drip. I had placed a Spectre, a tied-off stubby screw, and both my ice tools–not a recommended tactic. Without confidence in anything I had clipped, and no protectable cracks or ice visible for at least a ropelength, I hit the eject button by drilling a shallow 10mm bolt and lowering off.
As we rappelled back into our bivy there was a raven going to town on Jackson’s food. When I got 10 feet from it, the raven hucked the sack of food off the ledge into the bergschrund below, where the ravens of the Ruth could feast on the ProBar and Gu bounty. This was not a high point of the adventure.
We sat on the ledge in the fading light and discussed our options. We came back to a pact of sorts that we had made before leaving base camp: “We will not return to base camp unless we are out of high pressure or food.” With some quick math we figured we had enough for two more days at 1,500 calories per person per day. That afternoon we had traversed past a corner system that appeared to lead us into an unclimbed ice hose left of the Wine Bottle (Bonapace-Orgler, 1988). We melted snow that evening and crafted a new plan, for a new route.
We had a slow morning of drying out in the sun. Around 9:30 we started simulclimbing back across the snowfield to the corner system. The corner began as an amenable shoulder-width chimney at AI4 M4. Then got into some fairly serious M6+ AI5 terrain for a couple rope lengths. We passed through a bit of the “cracker jack” granite for which the Ruth is infamous. After around 250 meters of mixed climbing, we reached a pendulum point to reach the deep chimney system we were gunning for.
We now stood below the real business, the section of wall that truly overhangs when viewed from the glacier. At the base of the chimney we clipped into a couple cams, sorted the rack, and Jackson got psyched for his block. A big snow release came down as he was about to leave and we were “pitted” in the white wave for a full 30 seconds, hardly able to stand in the forceful energy surging around us. A bit shaken, but forever the optimist, Jackson expressed how he was happy it didn’t hit him on lead, he then clapped his tools together and headed up into the white ribbon. Each time I heard the sharp crack of steel piercing neve it was hard to not let out an audible cheer. Jackson calmly led a most impressive 240-meter block of steep ice that afternoon in four pitches of AI6+, AI6, AI5+, AI5.
That evening clouds spilled into the gorge and twilight soon followed, we were glad to have gained the next snowfield. Our forecast called for 4 inches of snow that night. We knew there was still close to 2,000 feet of steep terrain above us. We anchored into the most protected spot we could find and chopped another ledge. Proud of what was below us and prepared for what lay ahead, we anchored down the tarp and got ready for a memorable night.
Around midnight it became obvious our tarp fortress was no match for the spindrift attacks. I spent most of the night trying to keep snow off my face. Jackson spent most of the night sitting up clapping his hands, and trying to keep his sleeping bag from completely filling with snow. Around 4 a.m. we sat side-by-side and brewed up water, followed by some coffee. Eventually the sun started a new day. Its heat kicked off a 30-minute avalanche cycle. For a half-hour we were enveloped in snow and air blast from the walls shedding around us. Watching the river of white funnel into the meter wide hose we had climbed up was good motivation to continue up and over Mt. Dickey.
Starting up from the second bivy, the ice above looked surreal. I kept telling myself “It can’t be as steep as it looks.” It was. The first pitch of the upper tube was maybe a couple degrees overhung in the mid section. But the second pitch was the steepest ice I have ever encountered. It was planar and overhung at least 10 degrees. I felt like I didn’t know how to swing into ice that steep. Every stick took numerous swings to shell out a divot and then I could get a stick into the depression. With a pack on, third day on route, it felt like work. I climbed another two pitches of AI5. Then Jackson took over and completed the upper 340-meter ice hose, which was surprisingly consistent and sustained at AI5.
After climbing 600 meters of ice hose, 350 meters of engaging mixed climbing, and a couple of snow patches that happened to be in just the right places. We were on top of the headwall, and it was time to switch gears from steep ice and granite to 60+ degree faceted snow and shale bands. We simuled up and right to the wine bottle ridge, did a short rappel on the other side then excavated our way up through another long simul-block to the moderate glacial summit slopes of Dickey. The upper portion of the route was time consuming, and mentally draining with long stretches between gear, deep unconsolidated snow and suspect rock up to M4. We hit the summit of Dickey at 6 p.m. and were beyond relieved to arrive back in our base camp below the east face three and a half hours later, just as the day’s last rays of light were fading.
[On April 15, the author was 3,000 feet up a new route on Mt. Bradley when a falling piece of ice hit him in the face and injured his left eye, ending his trip early. He is now recovering at home and is unsure if there will be permanent damage to his vision. Rousseau wrote a story for Alpinist.com last year about the first ascent of The T&A Show on the north face of Rungofarka in India’s Zanskar Range.–Ed.]