He kept trying to gain purchase with his tools, but there was nothing but unconsolidated sugar snow. Somehow Skiy stayed on and was slowly able to dig, push, and kick upwards. It’s hard to explain the complexities of climbing a crumbling wall of vertical snow; each attempt at a new hold yields a deeper trench in the wall, each kick is stopped by the resistance of the leg hitting the snow, but what is below the boot just falls away. I'm not sure if he was climbing or crawling, and I watched, terrified and trying to figure out what to do if he fell. Finally he lurched upwards, pulling on a tool stabbed straight into the slope above, his boots took purchase and he kicked over the lip. Several hours had passed since our already late start, so we fixed the lines and returned to camp. Forever tomorrow we joked. But tomorrow we were going back and going up.
Again the alarm beeped to life at 330am. The cold was biting and fierce as we pulled on layer after layer of clothing and climbed from the tent to start boiling water, a process that was a full time job out here on the glacier. We heated up our pre-cooked gourmet breakfast of eggs, sausage and hash browns and started skiing up the glacier. As we moved up the snow slopes above the bergshrund we couldn’t help but notice that the snow wasn’t perfect; deep and fluffy, it wasn't the perfect styrofoam you hope for.
We entered the first rock band to find more rime and less ice than we had hoped but Skiy took the lead climbing ice until it turned to nothing but fluffy snow smeared on the wall. He pounded shallow, small beaks and started aid climbing until he was able to step out of the aiders and back onto the snow and ice. Three long pitches brought us to the base of the second snow slope and I swung into the lead.
The rock bands I passed while moving up the snow slope were featureless and the cracks I did see were thin seams, and often rotten. We had no option but to simul-climb the whole slope, I shouted to Skiy telling him the situation. A hesitant and drawn out “OK” replied from below, muffled by the seventy meters of snow between us.
I finally arrived at the second rock band, finding a blank panel of stone thirty feet wide and edged with dual off widths. The right side, although heinous, looked the most probably. I found a good belay and brought Skiy up. I re-racked and left the pack at the anchor and started up, heel-toe jamming my left crampon in the OW, mixed climbing with tools, standing on small edges, chicken winging with my left. I used techniques that came natural as a rock climber but I never imagined I would be doing in the mountains with boots, crampons and ice tools. I chicken-winged and chimneyed my way up until I could final gain the thin ice and I fell into the swing-swing-kick-kick rhythm of delicate ice climbing.
I had broken through the second rock band and found a belay, although I wished for better. On the next pitch I traversed to the left side of the “Ribbon,” a twin ice band we could see from the ground, the final obstacle before the headwall. As we feared the ribbon wasn’t even ice but rime crusted in a streak to the wall. A line of moderate thin ice hidden under a layer of snow appeared to lead up and left of the ribbon. We hoped this would put us in a position to return to the right, gaining the top of the ribbon and then onto the headwall. I climbed straight up the ice runnel but it thinned down until it was just an inch of ice glued to the wall with exposed rock in places and nothing but snow in others.
After debating and searching I started up the thin ice. A few moves before it appeared to ease there was a pop and the whole sheet of ice in front of me lurched away from the wall by an inch. It had detached but somehow I stayed where I was, a terrifying feeling. I had felt my tools pull away from the wall and my body flinched in reaction but I stayed where I was. I carefully backed down the 25 feet to my last ice screw and traversed left into a snow filled rock corner that required 3D mixed climbing, wide stems, hand jamming and torquing of the ice tools. It was exciting and hard but I felt good doing it.
Skiy and I changed leads thinking the pitch above would be easy ice and snow. It quickly became apparent we were wrong. The ice quickly turned into a near vertical wall of terrible, unconsolidated sugar snow. For nearly 2 hours Skiy dug, chopped, hacked and cleaned away the snow which flowed down in a spindrift hell right on top of me. Climbing high above a few small beaks he continued to swing and dig. I pulled my goretex up and sat, tense, as snow and pieces of ice rained down on me because I couldn’t move out of the funnel. I tried to zone out and think warm as the spindrift poured over me. I couldn’t look up or it would fly down my jacket and hit my face and I couldn’t move to either side, restricted by the belay.
Suddenly, I was struck in the helmet, my vision flashed black and my ears rang as I collapsed onto the belay and let out a guttural “ooouughh.” A huge piece of ice or rock had dislodged and smashed into my head, I was fine but it didn’t feel good. Skiy confirmed I was ok as I felt my helmet. I could feel a massive dent in the brand new foam helmet, I almost laughed, “Dude! That put a huge dent in my helmet!” I was glad it struck straight into the helmet and not a hand or shoulder where small bones could have easily been broken. The next day I would find that the crown of my head was bruised where the helmet had pressed down with the force.
Needless to say the ice block started my demotivation. The clock was ticking, it was getting late and the temps were dropping. I would guess it was around -10*F or colder. I was not yet freezing cold, but I was starting to feel much colder, my gloves were frozen, my pants were wet, and in just under 2 hours Skiy had only moved fifteen or twenty feet. And worst, we no longer felt confident about our proposed bivy location, something that had been a major concern of mine because of the extreme temps.
“How much farther to the crest of the snow?” I asked. “60-80 feet,” he told me. I laughed aloud. We were nearly 2500 feet off the ground, on the first snow cone, with several more like this higher on the route. Despite being nearly 10pm it was still light out yet already below zero, and the temps were sure to drop more between midnight and three AM. We both sat in silence, me thinking about how we would bail and Skiy probably thinking about how to persuade me to keep climbing. We talked and discussed, and finally we decided that there should have been ice here, the snow should have been better, and the conditions just weren’t good. Perhaps someone out there could have, or would have, kept climbing, maybe someone would have mix climbed on the rock to our right or dug longer or harder. But for us, we decided that the safest choice, the way to ensure we can come home alive and safe was to descend. So at nearly midnight, as the sun set, we rappelled.
In all, our mission on the Moose’s Tooth was an incredible experience despite the fact that we didn’t summit or climb a new route. This trip remains an amazing success for us. It was both Skiy and My first time in the Alaska Range and while we felt that we did know what to expect and we came prepared physically and mentally, we still had to work out many of the details of climbing in the harsh Alaskan conditions. For me, I think the crux of the entire trip was a mental one. Understanding how to control the uncontrollable; how to understand fear and when that fear is benign or when it is real, and understanding the conditions, the mountain and the weather.
So often in alpine climbing we only focus on one type of success: Summiting. It can be easy to look at anything less as a failure. Summiting the Moose’s Tooth was something that I wanted so badly, you invest so much time into training and preparing, so much money into the gear and the trip, it can be hard to accept anything less than the summit. But for Skiy and I we had a “Successful Failure” as I have been calling it. We didn’t summit and we didn’t climb a new route. But we learned more than I have learned on a climbing trip in so long. I learned how to function in some of the most bitter cold temperatures, how to come home with fingers and toes, and how to stay alive.
When I stood on the Buckskin the first few days, staring across the glacier at the Moose’s Tooth, I was terrified. I realized, in many ways for the first time, that there was truly an option that existed that was to not come home alive. There is always so much to learn, and here I saw that so clearly. The severity of the temperatures really frightened me, climbing in alpine style in these temperatures is extremely challenging. The mind fights against the discomfort with an impressive amount of force and it takes skill and experience to learn how to choose between the real dangers, and the perceived ones, and the wrong choice can have very severe consequences.
Because of this trip I have a much greater understanding of the mountains, of the cold, of snow, ice, bergshrunds, and climbing. I better understand what the body can tolerate and what temperatures we can deal with. I understand how to keep hydrated in these arctic conditions and the importance of that. I understand how to combat the mental battle that occurs in extreme discomfort. And while I stood at so many of those belays hating it, as soon as I stood back on the ground I loved it because I knew how to make it work next time. So while we may have failed in climbing the Moose’s Tooth, we succeeded in learning and pushing ourselves to our limit. And because of this trip I am prepared for the next and the dream lives on.