May 20, 2010
After great ice climbing in the Adirondaks and Scotland this past winter with my climbing partner Ian Osteyee, we were ready for another big adventure. This time, we set our sights on Ham and Eggs Couloir on Moose’s Tooth in the Ruth Gorge of the Alaska Range. We rounded out our team with Jay Abbey, a 56-year-old granddad and total stud, who is a friend of Ian’s. Although Moose’s Tooth is not particularly high (10,335 feet), it is just 15 miles from Denali, the highest peak in North America. We flew to Alaska on Monday April 26th full of concern. Ian and I spoke before we left and the weather forecast was grim: raining down low and snowing up high all week. We even discussed cancelling our trip. Alaska is notorious for bad weather and none of us wanted to sit in a tent for a week waiting out a blizzard. Five years ago, I went to climb the west face of Mt. Huntington—30 pitches of ice—and it snowed heavily for an entire week. All we could do was sit in the tent, eat beef jerky, play games, and stomp out the runway with our skis. Planes can't land on five feet of fresh snow so you have to keep the runway clear, which takes an incredible amount of hard work. Ultimately, we decided to go for it. Since we brought skis this time, even if it dumped, we could still have some fun. The weather on Tuesday was cloudy but good enough for the DHC-3 Single Otter to fly. We traveled with Talkeetna Air Taxi and the most experienced pilot in the area, Paul Roderick. Paul is amazing and smooth—he opened up the “Root Canal,” the landing zone at the top of the Ruth Glacier. Working for Paul is an old friend of mine, Annie Duquette, who was the base camp manager for many years on Denali's Kahiltna Glacier. Annie would coordinate flights in and out, help with rescue logistics, and relay weather to climbers up higher on the mountains. She, or at least her voice, was famous, and people affectionately called her, “Base Camp Annie.” I am forever indebted to Annie because she graciously gave me a drink after I finished the final brutal hill on my last day on Denali; I was dying of thirst and guzzled the whole bottle. On the afternoon we flew in, the sun came out and it was beautiful. Just above our campsite, our 3,000 foot climb loomed. When I climbed Everest, it took over a week of hiking to get to the start of the climb. On Moose’s Tooth, you pretty much walk out of your tent and start going up! Another bonus is about 18 hours of light in May, a good thing considering the route normally takes about 20 to 30 hours. Our route was first climbed in 1975 by Jon Krakauer (of Into Thin Air fame) and two partners in 1975. The silly name came about during their epic 33-hour ascent when one of his partners said, “If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs...if we had eggs.” Since then, the Ham and Eggs Couloir has become a classic for which climbers from around the world have an appetite. It offers sections of steep, even overhanging, ice and some mixed sections of bare rock and gets progressively narrower near the top. Great stuff!
The next morning presented some clouds but was clear enough to climb as far as we could and see if the weather would hold. You don't want to be in the ice gulley when it's snowing because of snow avalanches. This route is also a notorious funnel for rocks that come off the surrounding rock walls. So we set out hopeful but not really expecting to get up on our first attempt. The conditions were ideal; the cold night froze the route so we didn’t have to wallow through deep unconsolidated snow. We simultaneously climbed several long snow sections, which was the hardest on Ian, who was carrying a sizeable rack of climbing protection and dragging heavy, frozen 70-meter ropes behind him. We all had heavy packs because we decided to be conservative and carry sleeping bags, a stove, and fuel. There's a flat spot in a col between the ridge to bivouac in an emergency, although the wind up there can be ferocious. It's ironic; if you carry bivy gear, then you won't need to. If you don't, then you will.
After 8 glorious hours of climbing ice and rock, we arrived at the col—the top of the route—but the clouds had moved in and it was spitting snow. Most climbers stop here because getting to the true summit can be very tricky and dangerous in bad conditions. You have to climb up a ridge which is hugely corniced, so you don't know if you're on solid ground. A friend of mine stuck his ice axe in the snow near the summit, and he could see the light of day through the hole. Ian calls me a peak bagger, though he and Jay also wanted the true summit. The visibility was very low, so I’m told, but I could feel some radiant heat on my back, which told me the clouds weren't that thick. Ian pushed on without too much discussion. A couple pitches later, the sun came out and the snow was getting soft and unconsolidated. My ice tools were slicing through the snow and not getting much purchase. It was the scariest part for me. At last, we crossed over a false summit and stood close to the top of Moose’s Tooth at about 3:30 PM. We didn't stand on the tippy top, because it was a frozen cornice of wind blown snow hanging in space. We ate our sandwiches in perfect sunny weather, with only a small breeze, looking out at a spectacular view of the Alaska Range.
We rappelled down the entire route through weather that was getting colder and losing visibility. In total, it took us 17 hours to reach the summit and return to camp.…a good days outing. With storms in the forecast and our goal achieved, only three days after arriving we arranged to fly home.
The next day, a climber from Holland must have seen me stumble. He asked Ian what's wrong with me. Ian told him I was blind. "Snow blind," he kept asking. "Just blind," Ian said. Finally it must have dawned on him. I don't want to sound egotistical, but I do get a slight kick out of the fact that teams come from all around the world to climb this classic climb. They struggle up the climb and think, “that was one of the hardest things I've ever done.” And then they discover that I did it with my eyes closed. Just a week after our visit, my two friends Chad Jukes and Chad Butrick, both below the knee amputees, attempted Ham and Eggs also. Unfortunately, they got hit with the bad weather that we dodged. But the “Hanging Chads” will be climbing with me in Nepal this fall on our Soldiers to the Summit Expedition, when our "old" Everest team, reassembled, will lead 12 Wounded Warriors to a formidable peak in the shadows of Everest. Stay tuned!