The Moose’s Tooth
(Dangerous Conditions Don’t Permit Peak Performance)
By Troy Henkels
At 4am I stuck my head out of the tent to check the weather. Clear, windy, and very cold. I bunkered back down into my sleeping bag, as the wind rattled the tent, and mumbled to young Seth….”bluebird day”. This meant that we had good weather to attempt the mountain we had come to climb…..the Moose’s Tooth.
I had been infatuated with this Alaskan mountain since the day I’d first seen it, eight years ago. A towering peak that rises with immense 4,000 foot vertical rock walls from the Ruth Amphitheatre glacier basin, to the 10,335 foot summit. Although modest in comparison to its 20,320 foot neighbor, Denali, its topography is so convoluted it offers climbing challenges that are far more technical than any I had been on in all my years of mountaineering in Alaska.
Seth and I planned this trip for months and had ice climbed together all winter to sharpen our skills on vertical terrain. My dilemma for years on thinking about this peak was who to take as a partner. I settled on a close friend, young Seth. Being only 23 he had paid his dues and earned his experience in the mountains and wilderness of Alaska’s backcountry from the day he first came to Alaska, four years ago. I trusted him implicitly.
Our plan was a simple one. Fly as close to the mountain as we could, ski to a base camp, and wait for a bluebird day to climb. The route choice was simple. As most of this mountain is vertical rock, and rock climbers we are not, we had to find a weakness that would allow us access to the summit ridge. After extensive research we settled on the west ridge. A spectacular route that ascended steep couloirs and several ice falls before giving way to the west summit and the summit ridge. From there, we would traverse steep, exposed, heavily corniced ice pitches to the true summit, almost a mile away. Simple enough, we thought.
For the weeks leading up to the climb I had countless people ask me why? Why I climb, why I take risks, why I go the mountains for refuge, why must I get to the top? The simple answer was, “what a better way to spend Easter”. Yet, for years I’ve searched for a single answer to this often asked question, and found none. The best explanation I can offer is one of complexity. There is resolve in being amongst towering peaks, endless glaciers, and exposure to the elements of nature. The beauty is eminent. Mountaineering is survival, self -sufficiency, and challenge, not only physical, but mental as well. There is a kind of trust and teamwork that I have found nowhere else in my life. The feeling of putting your life in the hands of your partner, on the other end of the rope, and knowing that you can depend on that person, is not often found in today’s world. The problems to be solved are endless. Mostly though, there is that feeling that you are truly alive. It is a medicine for the mediocrity of everyday life. In the 10 years since I left the place of my youth and moved to Alaska, I have anticipated change in my life, almost welcomed it. Change has a refreshing way of forcing a person into feeling truly alive. The most rewarding, yet most difficult way I’ve found to accomplish this, is to travel, experience, work, and live in a variety of locations all over the world. I’ve done just that, for the most part, every 6 months, for nearly 10 years running. Mostly I approach life this way because I was fortunate enough to realize at a young age, that time is short, often much shorter than one really thinks. Time in the mountains and climbing has a way of putting ones life and existence in perspective, in very short order.
In the first 24 hours of this trip we had spent 20 hours in the tent listening to the nerve shattering sound of avalanches rocket down the mountains surrounding our base camp. With aching backs from being stranded in the tent due to bad weather, we reasoned that people go to the mountains to endure, for our biggest challenge so far was one of patience. With more than a foot of new snow since our arrival, our hopes of reaching the summit were looking dismal with no sign of perfect climbing weather in sight. We figured our summit bid could take as long as 24 hours round trip and we would need a large, “good weather” window to be successful. The prospect of spending a night high on this peak was not a desirable option, possibly deadly, and not in the plan. Our wait continued.
After the third day our wait ended, we were in luck. The weather broke and it truly was a bluebird day, not a cloud in the sky. But, the wind was relentless, and having shivered all night, we knew it was well below freezing outside. The temperature inside the tent was a balmy 5F, so we knew the prospect of venturing in the wind was a cold and risky proposition. We waited for the sun and hoped the wind would die. With the sun came ambition. We geared up and headed out into the wind to climb the Moose’s Tooth.
Our first difficulty was getting across the glacier to the base of the icefall and couloir where we would begin our ascent. We successfully navigated across a minefield of crevasses without mishap, and once to the base, the wind died down and we had warmth enough to take in the views of the Alaska Range on a clear day. I have not seen anything as awe-inspiring than the mountains of Alaska on a clear day, except possibly the huge thunderstorms that rolled across the Iowa landscape of my youth. It is easy to see the beauty in Alaska, but it takes a fine perspective to appreciate that sort of beauty residing in the landscape of Northeast Iowa. We climbed on.
We began our ascent into knee deep and often waist deep snow in the couloir. Conditions were miserable and physically exhausting. Not only were we on a steep angled slope, but, next to us were the remnants of a recent avalanche off the icefall directly parallel to our route. The biggest chunk of ice that had fallen off this area was only about the size of a large truck. We had our concerns. If that wasn’t enough, a hanging glacier offered us precariously perched ice chunks, 800 feet directly above us. Young Seth and I realized the importance of spending as little time as possible in this area, because of the eminent danger. As result of the exhausting conditions, we frequently switched off lead and the daunting task of breaking trail. The slope steepened and we climbed on for hours, which seemed like eternity. With Seth in lead, I suddenly heard and felt a large, “whooomph!” from the snow below us. I asked Seth what was going up there, and he caught his breath and said the whole world just fractured right under his feet. We both stood still and silent, knowing what that meant. Avalanche!! The huge slab we were climbing up, fractured and settled and was ready to cut loose and wash us back down to the bottom of the mountain, and bury us in the process. After a few moments, nothing slid, so we got moving. We climbed higher and out of the danger zone and felt extremely fortunate that we weren’t buried somewhere near the bottom of the icefall. At that moment I knew there was very little mediocrity in my life and I WAS alive…..and glad for it!! Oddly, I’ve noticed the older I get the less interested I am in taking on risky adventures, yet, I still pursue them for I feel when it comes to dreams, one must dare to have them, and risk to pursue them. We anchored ourselves to the mountainside and discussed our options of what to do next. We looked skyward at the dizzying route above us and knew we could make it at least halfway up this mountain. After that, the ridge was extremely vertical, extremely loaded with snow, and extremely dangerous. It would be suicide to attempt to go higher and we knew it. We knew a retreat was prudent and we started downward. We both knew the climb was over, and traveled in silence. This summit bid would have to wait for another year that offered better conditions.
For three more days Seth and I stayed in the mountains. Not to climb, but to experience the beauty and majesty of the Alaska Range in springtime. We skied to, and looked up vertical rocks walls that soared for thousands of feet above us. We ski toured around the Ruth glacier, riddled with crevasses and endless beauty. And we endured three more days of our dream, of life, in the sun, the cold, and air, in the mountains of Alaska. Some days you just KNOW that you are alive, and glad for it.
Originally published April 29th, 2002 in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque Iowa. Copyright 2001 Troy Henkels