[Over a three-day push from March 31 to April 2, Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell and Alan Rousseau climbed a new route on the east face of Mt. Dickey in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge. They named their line Aim For the Bushes (AI6 M6 X, 5,250′).–Ed.]
“You thinkin what I’m thinkin?”
“Yeah, aim for the bushes.”
One of our favorite movie lines from The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg was playing through my head on our recon mission as I chopped out faceted snow in vertical terrain about 80 feet up the first pitch without any solid gear to be found. I contemplated my options. For a moment, jumping off the pitch and “aiming” for the non-existent bushes at the bottom of the Ruth Gorge seemed as good a plan as any. Fortunately, after much hesitation, I found just enough to get through the overhanging exit. This opening AI6 M6 X pitch was time consuming and slightly discouraging, but above we were greeted by more consistent neve that lured us into a cleft on Mt. Dickey that had been tried by various parties over the years.
When Matt and Jackson picked me up from the airport it was hard to believe another year had already gone by since my last Alaska trip. As is usually the case, we entered the Alaska Range surreally fast. Twenty-four hours after I left my house in Salt Lake City I was standing in the Ruth Gorge, just a 20-minute skin from the nearly mile-tall east face of Dickey. This time, instead of having a specific set goal for the trip, we arrived with a handful of ideas and decided we would try whatever route looked like it had the best conditions. It was a refreshing change from my past few years in the range.
Our first day on the glacier we climbed about 800 feet of our intended route and returned to base camp without leaving any fixed ropes. There were still a lot of question marks on the route. Mainly a few gigantic mushrooms and a very large chockstone feature high on the route made us wonder if we had what it took to add another new line to the ever intimidating east face.
Two days after arriving on the Ruth, we left camp early on March 31 with two days of food to see what challenges awaited in the unclimbed chimney system of Dickey. We made quick progress reclimbing the portion of the route we had explored a couple days prior. Then we hit a bit of a roadblock at a massive overhung mushroom. Jackson went to battle on a serious and complicated three-hour lead that had some hard climbing coupled with a lot of snow excavation. This pitch got us to the top of the mushroom and onto easier ground. When I got to him at the belay, he was understandably frozen from chopping his way through overhung snow for hours in zero-degree Fahrenheit temps.
Matt took over the lead and we started a large block of simul-climbing that was mostly 60-degree neve with many 30- to 40-foot steps of vertical snice. This rambly section ended with a couple of the best ice pitches on the route. Including an exciting AI6 overhang we called “Matty’s Mushroom.” Negotiating the topout required some committing moves a ways above his last piece of protection, which was a vertically placed snow picket.
Shortly after that we found a nice, protected spot to stomp out a small two-person tent platform for the night. Although we were only halfway up the wall we hoped the climbing would be faster the next day. We wanted to finish the route without another cold wet bivy. The first few hundred feet went fast on Day Two until I found myself back in mushroom land. I had two back-to-back 80-meter pitches that each took a couple of hours to lead. They required a lot of snow tunneling while climbing runout M5 AI5/6 terrain. I was completely soaked when I emerged from the chimneys and was lucky enough to have a small patch of sun to stand in while Matt and Jackson followed the rope on Micro Traxions. I was able to warm myself up to a functional state by the time Jackson arrived at the anchor.
It was already 1 p.m. and we had a lot of complex terrain above. We discussed our options, then Jackson took over the lead as I kept swinging my arms and stomping around trying to warm up.
To our surprise the next few ropelengths climbed quickly despite their intimidating appearance. Now we found ourselves below the huge chockstone we had scoped from the ground. We had been getting ourselves excited to give it our all on what looked like a full on 20-foot offwidth roof crack.
This obstacle was a little more than 4,000 feet up the vertical face, and we were all feeling a bit nervous about the prospect of having to rappel our route if we didn’t find a passage through the chockstone.
“Oh my god, we are psyched!” Jackson exclaimed when he climbed up to it. Turns out there was a perfect WI4 pitch behind the chockstone. From there we could see our exit.
Matt fired one more pitch of AI5+ M5 and we were back to simul-climbing. We traversed left about 100 feet to join in with the upper snow bowl of the route Snowpatrol. We likely shared about 200 feet of terrain with that route before cutting back right to a ridge that looked easier to us.
We ran out of daylight about 600 feet vertical below the summit. We stomped in one more tent platform, settled in for another wet, cold night, and finished our last food bars. The energy was a strange mix of trepidation for the unpleasant night ahead, coupled with the levity of knowing we had a major new route in the bag.
The next morning, without firing up the stoves, we broke down the tent and Matt led us through the final shale bands to the summit. From the top, two hours and 45 minutes of snow walking down the west face brought us back into base camp, three days after we left.
After establishing Ruth Gorge Grinder (AI6+ M7, 5,000′) with Jackson in 2019 I did not know if I would return to Dickey again. I consider Dickey’s east face to be one of the most fascinating walls in the world and its allure was a bit too much to stay away from. Once again, climbing this feature proved to be an incredible experience, and I was happy to live it with Matt and Jackson. I’m sure there is plenty more adventure to be had on this peak for anyone ready and willing to experience it.
[Tino Villanueva wrote a feature story for Alpinist 81 about the long journey that he and Alan Rousseau endured to achieve the first alpine-style ascent of Tengi Ragi Tau (6938m) in 2019. Alpinist 81 is currently on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]