Crossing the Moose’s Tooth massif, from Cavity Gap to the Gateway
We left basecamp in the Ruth Gorge beneath Mount Dickey and skied up the glacial cirque beneath the Eye Tooth at 6 a.m. on May 17th. Our goal was to traverse the Moose’s Tooth massif from Cavity Gap to The Gateway, passing six notable points along the way: the Sugar Tooth, the Eye Tooth, the Missing Tooth, the Bear’s Tooth, the Moose’s Tooth, and the West Summit of the Moose’s Tooth. About fifty percent of this terrain had been previously climbed by other teams, and the other fifty percent was either new ground, or terrain we had opened on our two previous attempts at this project.
At first glance, conditions this season were far from optimal. Alaska had just experienced one of the snowiest winters in recent memory. Then, a significant storm cycle arrived the second week in May, depositing another three feet of snow throughout the range. In Talkeetna, dispirited guides and rangers told stories of nipple-deep faceted slopes and epic slogging – conditions not exactly ideal for the some 5 kilometers (or more) of corniced ridge we planned to cross. The only option for us was to counterbalance this reality with a relentless optimism best summed up by the Dougal dictum: If you can lead the next pitch, if you still have some food and gas left, if nobody’s sick or injured…. you can keep going.
The first section of the climb, from Cavity Gap to the summit of the Sugar Tooth, consisted mainly of low-angle mixed climbing interspersed with a few challenging rock pitches and rappels: nothing too desperate, but certainly deceptive. The amount of transitions the terrain demanded – from boots and crampons to rock shoes to boots and crampons to a rappel, ad naseum – made for slow going.
For the first three days of the climb, we stopped around 6 p.m. (quite early for Alaska climbing), dug out a comfortable bivy, and relaxed. This was our vacation, after all.
On day two, we climbed the Talkeetna Standard to the summit of the Eye Tooth. Although the original ascensionists, Jeff Hollenbaugh and Steve House, gave the route a modest grade, it has since rebuffed a number of suitors. In the conditions we faced, we found eight pitches or so of mixed climbing, followed by a couple of short but significant rock leads. On day three, we traversed a heavily corniced ridge towards the summit of the Bear’s Tooth, passing an alluring and possibly unclimbed summit along the way we had dubbed the Missing Tooth.
On day four, the nature of our adventure changed completely. Vacation was over. We summited the Bear’s Tooth by nine in the morning, rappelled the White Russian Route, and traversed the large snowfield to the start of the technical pitches on the Swamp Donkey Express, a route we had established in 2010, with Zack Smith. (Note: this section of the climb is the only place where we deviated notably from the crest of the ridge.) The first rock lead took Renan two hours – we suddenly felt Zack’s absence, who had originally led this pitch. I took over the sharp end for the one true aid section of the entire traverse, the Bleeder Pitch. Above, snow and icy cracks slowed me down even more. We eventually summited the Moose’s Tooth around 11 p.m.
The West Ridge of the Moose’s Tooth, our descent route, beckoned, and we decided to push on into the night. Six hours, three mixed leads, and three horizontal ridge rappels later, we stopped for a brew stop on the West Summit as the sun rose over the Eastern Alaska Range. Six hours after that, we stopped again on the West Shoulder of the Tooth. Six hours after that, we stumbled out onto the Ruth Glacier, having rappelled and glissaded down a seldom used couloir to deposit us safe and sound back on the Gorge floor.
Our only regret was that Zack Smith, with whom we had shared this dream for four years, was unable to join the final effort. That aside, the Tooth Traverse remains one of the most challenging – and fulfilling – mountain adventures we’ve ever had.
- Renan Ozturk & Freddie Wilkinson
Summary: “The Tooth Traverse”, May 17 – May 21st. 5.10R A2+ M5, 8,000 meters.