A “new” season in the Ruth; 1974 classic repeated

By Joe Josephson ,

The 5000-foot southeast face of Mount Dickey.

Unhappy with the short summer window in Alaska’s famed Ruth Gorge, climbers have long contemplated alternate times to visit. Over the last six years, several new ice routes have been done in March and April, and many Alaskan locals also claim that a good high-pressure spell is common sometime in September. On September 17, Steve House and Jeff Hollenbaugh heard the wisdom, and visited the Gorge with a handful of melt-freeze mixed routes in mind. Finding unseasonably dry conditions, however, but with their rock shoes back in Talkeetna, House and Hollenbaugh turned to a moderate-looking line on west face and south ridge of the Eye Tooth (9050 feet). Though the original 1994 line — a 23-pitch 5.10 rock climb on the west face called Dream in the Spirit of Mugs — has become relatively well-traveled, the peak had only been summitted once, on the first ascent, with as many as six repeats all stopping at the top of the face. Starting on the far right side of the west face and climbing 1800 feet of snow, ice up to WI 5, and mixed terrain and rock up to 5.7, House and Hollenbaugh reached the untrodden south ridge. The next morning, climbing in double boots, the pair covered another 900 feet on excellent south-facing orange granite up to 5.9, interspersed with classic Alaskan ridge traverses. After joining the 1994 route they tagged the top and returned to their bivy. Inspired by the splitter weather, they elected to spend another night out and enjoyed a show of Aurora Borealis over the backdrop of the Ruth. The new route, the Talkeetna Standard (3300 vertical feet with 15 belayed pitches), adds to a growing number of the world-class, yet reasonable climbs available on the east side of the Ruth Gorge. Contrasting starkly with the east-side climbs are the behemoths on the west. Of the baker’s dozen routes on five peaks on the big side of the Ruth Gorge, all can be modestly characterized as “A-team material.” Buoyed by the continued high pressure and now confident of their ability to rock climb in big boots, the pair decided to tackle Mount Dickey (9545 feet), king of west-side behemoths, whose southeast face towers over 5000 feet above the glacier. They settled on the original route on the face, climbed in July 1974 by David Roberts, Galen Rowell, and Ed Ward — at the time the hardest alpine route in North America and previously unrepeated. On September 23, using 75-meter ropes, House and Hollenbaugh climbed 14 long pitches, stopping well after dark at a bivy site Hollenbaugh compared to “sitting on top of a washing machine.” When they wanted to use the stove, one climber had to move to a neighboring stance. The second day brought crux climbing through bands of bad rock. With both retreat and the route ahead looking unlikely at best, the pair finally encountered welcome relics mentioned in the first ascent reports — pitons driven directly into crumbly rock and the route’s only bolt. Inspired, House and Hollenbaugh continued upward in deteriorating weather. Again climbing well into the night, they finally found a bivy site and snatched a good night’s sleep in their custom two-person sleeping bag, despite a full-blown storm. Next day, in storm, they climbed another six pitches to the top of the face, then made a long traverse to the summit, which they reached at 4:30 p.m. They immediately headed down to the “747 Pass ” — where House fell into a large crevasse, as had Rowell on his descent in 1974 — and continued down in a white-out, reaching their tent in the dark. House and Hollenbaugh feel the route is better characterized as an alpine rock climb than a big-wall, and consider its reputation for excessively bad rock undeserved. They also were well impressed with the first ascent. “We did little to improve upon their style or their time,” said Hollenbaugh. The pair belayed every foot on the face, for a total of 31 pitches up to 5.9, A2.

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