The birth of a trip
My recent trip to the Ruth Gorge, Alaska was an incredible experience filled with adventure, challenge and acquaintance with legend. It began with an invitation from my friend Ben in January this year. I remember the phone conversation going something like this, Ben said, “I bought a plane ticket to the Ruth Gorge in May, you should come?” I knew my decision would be to go. And thus began the start of a visionary trip. It would be Ben, his friend Jeremy, and myself to go.
Preperations and flying in
The planning and preparation for Alaska was an adventure by itself. Maps, guide books, equipment, and avoiding additional luggage costs were just some of the things that demanded my attention. It was during my search for a good map that I became acquainted with the name of Bradford Washburn. Anyone that knows anything about the Alaska range knows that Washburn mapped the range and also took hundreds of photo's showing each angle of the peaks. Washburn's photos would inspire climbers like myself for generations to come. We decided the southwest ridge of peak 11,300 would be a good start to satisfy our mountaineering desires. As our trip dates of May 13th to the 23rd came closer I realized just how much money this trip was going to cost, and I am deeply indebted to my wife for being so supportive.
May 13 we flew into Anchorage and Ben's friend gave us a ride up to Talkeetna where we slept in front of Hudson Air. It was my first time to experience the long daylight in Alaska, and I love it. We awoke to a view of clouds covering the Alaska range delaying our flight in until the following day.
Sunday May 15th the clouds had started to break and our awesome pilot Jok flew us towards our destination, the west fork of the ruth. As we came closer we could see the west fork still had clouds, forcing us to land at Mountain House. It was a beautiful day with sunshine providing a great view of Denali, Mt Dan Beard, Rooster Colm, Dickey, and the West face of Mt Barille.
Our appetite for climbing was growing stronger. We made the decision to stay in mountain house rather than haul camp up to the west fork. We discussed our options as Mt Dan Beard, in clear view across the gorge, seemed to be inviting us for a chance to taste its summit. The next day we moved camp over to its base for an attempt the following day.
Mt Dan Beard
Ben offered to provide base camp support and Jeremy and I head out at about 3 A.M. The approach took longer than we thought despite our being camped close to its base, Mt Dan Beard was showing us who was boss. We finally reached the couloir for the original route and it was already 6 A.M. As I started climbing up the col I began to sink waist deep into new snow that had fallen the week before our arrival. My progress was terrifyingly slow and I realized the daunting task ahead. By our turnaround time at 9:00 I had only climbed about 300'.
We were forced to surrender and start down defeated, but happy at our first attempt of the trip. Later that day as we returned to Mountain House we watched as avalanches poured down the route on Mt Danbeard. This helped us feel better about our decision to turn around.
West Fork of the Ruth
The next day our pilot Jok landed and asked if we wanted to move camp up to the west fork where we were originally headed. Previously, other climbers who had completed the south west ridge of 11,300 told us the conditions were deteriorating quickly. As a result, we decided to fly up to the west fork with only our ski equipment to come back down to camp the same day. It turned out to be a very scenic ski tour back down the west fork passing the north face of Huntington and the Rooster Comb.
The views were terrific! We made good time and had only a few crevasses to navigate around back to Mountain House.
The next day Jeremy and I decided to try and climb the west face of Mt Barille up a couloir lying directly east of the landing strip in Mountain House. As we began climbing up the couloir I realized there was little protection and we simo-climbed to the ridge line.
The views from the ridge were amazing with the North Face of Mt Dickey in full view. Unfortunately, the summit would have to wait as our late start forced us to go back down before the sun hit the ascent route where we would be descending. With no rappel anchors we made the decision to down climb the col and try for the summit the next day.
The next morning I decided to solo the route after my partners made the decision not to climb. Soloing was a new experience for me and one I won't forget. Although the route only contained a small section of AI3 there was plenty of exposure as I climbed higher. Since I had already climbed that section the day before with Jeremy, I was more confident in my ability to solo the route. I started climbing at about 4 A.M. it was clear skies and the sun was just beginning to touch the top of Denali and the surrounding peaks. I began to follow the ridge line up to where it intersected the top of the Japanese couloir and I followed tracks to the summit. Without a cloud in sight, I could see summits in every direction including the summit of Hunter and Foraker.
My summit experience was my first in Alaska, and it was even more memorable being alone in one of the most beautiful places in the world. As I savored the moment it was reconfirmed to me again why alpine climbing was my passion. I snapped a few shots from my camera and then safely climbed back down to Mountain House.
Ruth Glacier and Meeting Fred Beckey
The next day we made the decision to fly out due to an incoming storm that might keep us overstayed, missing our flights in Anchorage. Our pilot Jok once again provided the best service by letting us ski down to the lower landing strip in the ruth and he would bring us back up to mountain house to pick up our gear and fly out. I was very happy to be able to see the lower ruth to complete the trip. We hurried and packed our gear and moved it to the runway were Jok would later bring us back to pick it up.
We began our ski tour down around the North Face of Mt Barille and below the towering spires of the Mooses Tooth. We continued past the north face of Mt Dickey to the landing strip.
As we waited for our pilot to arrive we began chatting with some of the climbers camped nearby. One of the climbers mentioned to me that Fred Beckey was there at a camp we had passed by. I had heard many things about Fred Beckey and knew the number of his first ascents was unequaled by any climber. I jumped at the chance to meet him. As I skied toward the tent Fred peaked his head out to say hi. As I thought about his first ascents back in 1953 when Fred first climbed the North West Buttress to the north peak of Denali, I was amazed to be here with him at age 87 on the Ruth Glacier.
I could only hoped to still be alive by that age, let alone still climbing. This was truly one of the highlights of my trip. His lifetime enthusiasm and love for the mountains will always be a part of mountaineering legend. I offered my respect to Fred and we parted ways, me with a little more passion for the mountains, and Fred after another first ascent.
The humming sound of Jok's approaching plane began to grow louder as we enjoyed our last few minutes on the Ruth Glacier. Soon we were in the air and heading back to Talkeetna. As I sat smiling in the plane enjoying the view, my thoughts were already turned to next year; where would I climb next year? What route? I wonder if my wife will come with me? My dreams and fantasies of the alpine world of Alaska were only just beginning.