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The Fun Don’t Stop: Spring Ice in AK

Ski Mountaineering Guide Tip
March 28, 2013
Portland Creek Canyon
June 16, 2013

As you can imagine at San Juan Mountain Guides we can never get enough steep frozen water. So as we watch the ice here in the San Juans melt and the trees begin to bud, we book our plane tickets to the Alaska range where winter is far from over. Some call it an addiction others an infatuation. What ever the  case our love for frozen alpine environments draws us to the wild granite faces of peaks that, while relatively short in terms of altitude have no shortage of spectacular adventure.

My partner Sam and my trip to Alaska started off lucky. We serendipitously registered on a fee free weekend and were forgiven the $10 park entrance fee, a good omen. After an incredibly scenic flight into the Alaska Range, our ski plane landed on the Ruth glacier one hundred feet from our camp. Alpinists call it plane camping, like car camping complete with burgers bratwurst and a nip of whiskey or two.

Sam and I hit the ground running. After establishing our base camp we packed a light bivy kit and headed up to the Root Canal Glacier below the Mooses Tooth (note: the official spelling of the peak’s name lacks an apostrophe due to a cartographer’s error). Day one we climbed the classic Shaken, Not Stirred (V AI 5) a Jim Donini (Ouray local) line to the west summit of the peak.

After a windy bivy and a little sleeping in waiting for the day to warm up, we launched up Ham and Eggs (V 5.9 AI 4) one of Jon Krakauer’s non literary contributions to the climbing world. We rappelled the route and made the long descent back to the Ruth Glacier where we had cashed our skis. From their we trekked across the flat glacier back to our base camp at the foot of Mount Dickey. It was a big couple of days that ended with my using my headlamp for the first time ever climbing in Alaska to ski back to camp.



We used the ensuing mediocre weather to rest, eat, and make a quick run up mount barill via the Japanese couloir (III 70 degree snow) a very aesthetic snow climb up a gorgeous peak. In addition to Ham and Eggs and Shaken, Not Stirred, and many other routes in the area, the Japanese couloir makes for a phonmenal objective for climbers looking to be guided through some of the most spectacular alpine snow and ice climbing in the world.

SJMG is one of the few companies with the permits and a guide staff that allow us to share these kinds of trips with our guests.

While we climbed the Mooses Tooth, below us, on the Ruth Glacier, we spied a north face streaked with ice. We asked around at camp and no one had ever heard of the face having been climbed. After a couple of days of recon and allowing the weather to settle, Sam  and  I launched up the face into unclimbed terrain. After climbing for 24 hours straight we reached the summit ridge and completed our new route, Gangster’s Paradise  (V AI 4 M6 A2) named for one of the many random songs stuck in our heads as we navigated the verticle maze. It was, without a doubt, one of the wildest and most commiting  adventures I have been on. We returned to camp, made and ate some pizza and went to bed after  being awake for 36 hours.

For the last leg of our trip we were picked up by our air taxi Talkeetna Air Taxi and flown to the rarely visited Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. Despite its proximity to Denali Base Camp this cirque held only two (now three) routes. We climbed a new line, Welcome to Thunder Dome (V AI 4 M5) amidst the sweeping ice flutings on the north face of Mount Thunder. We climbed the roughly 2,000′ face, bivied at the ridge and on day 2 climbed the last 1,800′ of steep snow couloirs to the summit ridge. Due to poor snow and sketchy cornicing we neglected to go to the true summit. After 14 rapelles and  12 of which were v-threads (pay back for my habit of v thread free loading) we were back at the base about two hundred yards from camp.

As with any good climbing trip I Ieft with a tick list longer than the one I came with. I can’t wait to go back next year. Ouray-Cody-Ruth Gorge-North Cascades: yeah, that’s a schedule I can live with…