In a 10-day period this month, three new lines went up on the rarely climbed east side of the Mooses Tooth, just outside Alaska’s Ruth Gorge. All three lines took direct routes through the steep buttresses that make up the upper half of the face.
In the American Alpine Journal, Bradford Washburn highlighted the east face of the Mooses Tooth as a last great problem in Alaska in the 1970s. A number of North American climbers, including Jeff Lowe, Mike Weiss and Michael Kennedy, answered the call with several unsuccessful attempts on the 5,000-foot wall. Meeting in Europe in 1980, Jim Bridwell and Mugs Stump agreed to make an unconventional winter attempt on the right side of the face the following year. They approached the climb, having recently shed its most threatening cornice, with a “conquest or death” attitude. The pair simulclimbed the first several hundred feet, repeatedly moving left as they ran into rock.
“This traverse was memorably scary. Less than a foot of crusted snow clung to the sixty-degree rock slabs. It sounded like we were climbing on cardboard,” Bridwell wrote in the Alpinist 8 Mountain Profile. “Down climbing gave the second the sensation of leading. Purely psychological belay anchors kept us focused.”
Gaining the central prow of the face, Bridwell and Stump pitched out ice-filled chimneys up to WI4+ and steep snow. Stump found the crux on Day 3 in a string of A4 placements. After spending another cold night in a snow cave at the top of the wall, they climbed the three remaining pitches to the summit of the Mooses Tooth. The climbers spent the rest of the day and night there, despite temperatures of -30 degrees Fahrenheit. The wall steepened as they descended, and forced them to rappel on a series of ghastly anchors: pins in loose, sandy rock, slung flakes and a single number-three nut. They graded their route, The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters, a stout VI 5.9 WI4+ A4.
“In terms of boldness, commitment and sheer adventure, that’s one of the best routes that’s been done in North American,” Michael Kennedy told Alpinist in 2003.
Something about the east face of the massif must have beckoned to Bridwell. He returned as part of a five-man team in 1999 to do a similarly difficult line on the east aspect of the massif, this time to the neighboring Bears Tooth summit. The Useless Emotion (VII 5.9 WI4 A4, ca. 1430m, Bridwell-Christensen-Dunmire-Jonas-McCray) follows an incipient line of ice through the lower buttress and continues up the broken face to the summit of the Bears Tooth.
Two years later at age 58, Bridwell returned for his second attempt at a direct start to his 1981 route with Spencer Pfinsten. The pair climbed in capsule style for 30 days, encountering aid as high as A5. High on the route, Pfinsten was injured by a falling rock, but could still jumar. They descended short of the summit snowfield. “Spencer’s Southern California origins” made him uneasy on the loose terrain between them and the summit.
After several more hard routes were climbed on the east aspect–The Southeast Face (WI5+ 5.8 A3, 1300m) by Ben Gilmore, Steve House and Kevin Mahoney in 2000 and You Can’t Fly (5.10+ A3, 1400m) to the Bears Tooth summit in 2002–Gregory Crouch wrote in Alpinist 4 (2003), “A precipitous North American gem, the magnificent brutality of the east face has earned the respect of the country’s finest alpinists for more than thirty years. But The Mooses Tooth is hardly a one-carat mountain…. Much history remains to be made on the flanks of The Mooses Tooth…”
Mahoney returned to the face with Ben Gilmore in 2004 to drive a direct line up the face, spurred by a “Zen rage” he described as “absolute detachment from the world, from the storm, from reason,” in Alpinist 8. They failed on their first attempt, sent back to the ground from 2,500 feet up by a steep offwidth with no protection but a slung chockstone dug out of the snice at the base of the crack. Gilmore and Mahoney returned with a number-four Camalot and makeshift aiders. They skirted the offwidth with aid moves, climbed through the “most amazing stretch of rock and ice either of [them] had ever climbed,” and finished Arctic Rage (VI WI6+ R A2) in a 24-hour snow storm. Without visibility, the two decided to end their ascent on the summit snowfield, rather then continue to the true tallest point. Jon Bracey and Matt Helliker would make a similar decision in 2008, descending 100 meters below the summit because of exposure to a serac.
This month, Scott Adamson and Pete Tapley climbed the first free line on the face. NWS (V WI6 M5, 1400m) follows the gully system to the right of Arctic Rage.
Adamson’s interest in the east face sprang from a rappelling mistake on the Mooses Tooth in 2004. He and James Stover had just climbed a new route on the south face of the massif, Levitation and Hail Marys (V M7 WI6, 3,400′). Disoriented in low visibility on the summit, they accidentally rappelled a full rope-length down the east-facing, opposite side of the mountain from their base camp.
“Back at home I found myself thinking about that wrong turn and how grand and sheer that east face was,” Adamson told Alpinist in 2010. “I had to put a route up that thing… free.”
Adamson traveled to the face with his brother, Tom, in 2008. They waited out a storm halfway up the wall for two days before turning around at a big, ice-less roof just above. In 2010, he and Matt Tuttle attempted it twice, almost making it to the end of the technical difficulties. “I remember Matt climbing into the belay with an ice lens plastered to [the] right side of his face. I could only make out a small bit of his face through the mask of ice he was wearing.” They descended in poor weather, despite the moral-boosting coffee and Peeps marshmallow candies they ate in their snow cave.
This month, Adamson and Tapley arrived on the Buckskin Glacier in -30 degrees Fahrenheit to find excellent conditions from heavy snow- and rainfall the year previous and consistently cold conditions this spring. What was the bare roof that turned the Adamsons around in 2008 and a smear of ice in 2010 was a detached, but thick column of ice that allowed Adamson and Tapley to pass that section. The conditions also meant the route was threatened by a hanging serac that kept them moving quickly. Just below the 2010 snow cave bivy, Tapley broke an ice tool that forced an early retreat.
One day of rest prepared them for a second try on April 13. Over the course of 27 hours, the duo blitzed up the mountain in a single push, taking three brew stops along the way. On the last stop, they enjoyed hot mac and cheese even though their stove was dysfunctional and Tapley spilled the noodles into his gloves, filling them full of “gloop.” He had stored his gloves by his chest to keep them warm while climbing. “[Having warm gloves] is like being on the moon and having someone hand you a nice warm cotton T-shirt fresh out the drier!” Adamson said. Refueled, they followed the final three pitches of Arctic Rage and descended from the summit plateau.
[Tapley denies blame for the noodle incident, and was instead “sandbagged with faulty packaging… caveat emptor.”–Ed.]
Meanwhile, Chris Wright had just bailed off his own project on the east face and was looking for a partner.
“What do you think about going back up there?” he asked Adamson.
“How ’bout tomorrow?”
Only four days after finishing NWS, they teamed up for another go at Wright’s line right of The Dance of the Woo Li Masters that’s dominated by continuous mixed climbing.
Simulclimbing the first 2,500 feet, they made quick work of the terrain up to Wright’s previous highpoint, including 600 feet of WI4+. From there, the difficulties didn’t relent until the top of the wall. “If I would have known that every pitch but one and two would be at the same difficulty for the next three days I would have brought more shit paper,” Adamson said afterward.
They spent that first, over-20-hour-day getting pumped just swinging their arms to stay warm and were happy to curl into fetal positions at their hanging bivy that night. Another full day of climbing brought them to a wild, Dr. Seuss-esque ridge to sleep.
The next morning, Adamson lead one of the final pitches, placing a nut 10 feet above Wright’s belay. A body-length above the protection, he popped off the ice and watched his tools wave in the air as he fell. He landed on a snow mushroom and cart-wheeled onto the belay, but was unhurt. From the summit, a “blur of v-threads” and down climbing brought them back to camp after 67 hours. In total, they pitched out 22 rope lengths on their route they called Terror. Only three were easier than WI4, and 19 of them topped WI4 M6 for an overall grade of VI WI6 M7 R/X A2.
While Adamson, Tapley and Wright were filling in the gaps on the Mooses Tooth east face, Dani Arnold and David Lama did the same. Though neither climber had been to Alaska and had flown onto the Buckskin Glacier “without a specific idea (of) what we would go for,” Lama said, they quickly picked out a technical link-up of features just left of Arctic Rage, aiming for an obvious rock buttress high on the mountain. They made it halfway up the buttress on their first day, having made quick work of 80- and 90-degree snow that led into nine pitches of more difficult terrain. “The climbing was really complex, and we constantly had to switch between free, ice, mixed and aid climbing,” Lama said.
The next morning, Arnold and Lama left their bivy gear behind to make a fast-and-light summit bid. The corner system they followed was periodically interrupted by snow mushrooms that they pendulumed around. Twenty-six pitches bought them to the summit snowfield at 6 p.m. They chose to descend back to their bivy without continuing to the summit proper. In all, it took the two climbers 48 hours, camp-to-camp, to establish Bird of Prey (5.10 M7+ A2 90 degrees, 1500m).