Rekindling the Flame in Alaska
McNeill-Nott Award winner Zack Smith describes his expedition to the Ruth Gorge in the summer of 2009.
In alpine climbing you do your best to anticipate the potential crux of a trip. You physically and mentally prepare for bad weather, loose rock, huge days, anything you can imagine. For the first time ever, just getting on the airplane and deciding to go was the hardest part of our trip. The day before Renan Ozturk and I left for Alaska we attended Jonny Copp’s memorial service. The day before that we said farewell to our friend Micah Dash. We could have never prepared enough for this.
In late June we arrived in Talkeetna ready to fly into the Kichatna Spires. We had postponed our trip for two weeks after our three friends went missing in China. It had been an unusually warm June, so our pilot turned down our flight request, telling us that it was too risky to land in the Kichatnas and that we “should have been here last week.” Kichatna ambitions often end just like this, sitting on the tarmac and wondering what to do next. We decided to go into the Ruth Gorge, where we both had been before.
Within a couple of days of leaving home we found ourselves under Mt. Barrill, racking up for a single-push attempt of the famous Cobra Pillar (Donini-Tackle). It was all happening too quickly. We wanted a week of snow to fall, offering us a bit of mental rest to try and absorb the loss of our friends. The alarm went off the next morning and we decided to just go and have a look. Before we knew what was happening, we were halfway up the route and feeling great. The weather was stable and the climbing was engaging—we could still do this. Twelve hours after starting we topped out, possibly the fastest ascent to date. We descended the Japanese Couloir in the coldest hours of the 24-hour day and reached our tiny tent at the base in about a 20-hour round trip.
After several days of rest at our super-deluxe base camp at the Don Sheldon Amphitheater we began to motivate for another route. Back home we had talked about the possibility of enchaining the major summits of the Tooth group, starting on the Sugar Tooth, up and over the Eye Tooth, onto the Bear Tooth, and then tagging the two summits of the Moose’s Tooth. The link-up would be enormous, technically challenging, committing, and aesthetic.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, we started up Espresso Gap, which gains the unclimbed south ridge of the Sugar Tooth. After a few hours of simul-climbing and soloing we established a new route to the top of the Sugar Tooth for its third known ascent (2,000′, 5.10, two rappels). After a 70-meter rappel into the notch between the Eye Tooth and Sugar Tooth, we climbed up the Talkeetna Standard (Hollenbaugh-House). On the summit of the Eye Tooth, we rested and collected water that was running freely due to extremely high temperatures.
For the next eight hours we climbed along the insanely exposed snow ridge between the Eye Tooth and the Bear Tooth. The climbing proved to be much more time-consuming and taxing than we anticipated. Because of the warm temperatures we became soaking wet and we were getting more and more committed to an unknown descent down exposed snowfields. We stopped at a spiky summit between the Eye and the Bear that we suspect is unnamed and unclimbed. The climbing ahead of us looked more difficult and exposed than what we had already encountered. After a cold “night” wrapped in our tarp without sleeping bags, we started back the way we had come along the ridge, painfully retracing our steps. When we arrived back at the summit of the Eye Tooth, we rappelled the 3,000-foot Dream in the Spirit of Mugs (Bonapace-Hass-Orgler) back down to our skis. A rough estimate is that we climbed about 5,000 feet of rock, ice, and horizontal snow. I think we were less than halfway across the Tooth Traverse.
I feel so fortunate to have received the McNeill-Nott award for this trip. The grant is set up for amateur climbers like myself who would not otherwise be able to afford these kinds of adventures. Thank you so much to the AAC for their time and support.
Click here to learn more about the AAC’s McNeill-Nott Awards, sponsored by Mountain Hardwear.
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