Renan Ozturk and Zack Smith in Alaska's Ruth GorgeWednesday, September 7, 2016
In alpine climbing you do your best to anticipate the potential crux of a trip. You physically and mentally prepare for bad weather, loose rock, huge days, anything you can imagine. For the first time ever, just getting on the airplane and deciding to go was the hardest part of our trip. The day before Renan Ozturk and I left for Alaska we attended Jonny Copp's memorial service, and the day before that we had said farewell to our friend Micah Dash. We could have never been prepared enough for this.
Having postponed our trip for two weeks after our three friends Jonny, Micah and Wade Johnson had gone missing in China, we arrived in Talkeetna in late June ready to fly into the Kichatna Spires. Unfortunately it had been an unusually warm June and our pilot turned down our flight request telling us that it was too risky to land in the Kichatnas and that we "should have been here last week." Kichatna ambitions often end just like this, sitting on the tarmac wondering what to do next. We decided to go into the Ruth Gorge, where we both had been before.
"... and your team name is? " asked the innocent young desk girl at Talkeetna Air Taxi, the glacier landing flight service.
"Butt Monkeys," Zack said without hesitation, taking me a bit by surprise. I gave him a funny look.
"Yeah, dude," Zach said, replying to my look. "When its time to bail and we call in for our pick-up its a memorable name for the pilots. We'll just tell them ˜the Butt Monkey's want out...'"
"Cool, I can take the piss," I said. "It's good not to take ourselves seriously, right?"
An hour later we scrambled to get our gear onto the Twin Otter. After takeoff your reality quickly changes from the lush green bush town with multi-colored moose sculptures and classic bright old cars to the stark white glacial-environment colors where the main stimuli comes from the size and scale of giant rock and snow features around you. It was such a relief to get into the mountains and decompress and reflect on intense events back in Boulder.
Only a couple of days after leaving Denver we found ourselves under Mount Barrille, racking up for a single-push attempt of the famous Cobra Pillar. It was all happening too quickly. We wanted a week of snow, a bit of mental rest to try and absorb the all-too-recent loss. The alarm went off the next morning and we decided to just go and have a look. Before we knew what was happening we were halfway up the route feeling great. The weather was good enough and the climbing was fun. We could still do this. Twelve hours after starting we topped out, possibly the fastest ascent to date. We descended the Japanese Couloir in the coldest hours of the 24-hour day and reached our tiny tent at the base in about a 20-hour roundtrip.
The weather kept holding so after recovering from sore "cankles" (calf-ankles) we skied to the base of Mount Dickey's 5,000-foot east face. We had both been dreaming (part happy fantasy, part nightmare) about this mountain because of the free climbing potential on one of the largest walls on the planet. We had the beta, the conditions were perfect, we trusted each other, but when we woke in the morning we found ourselves still lingering in the tent with racing minds thinking about our lost friends. Listening to our instincts we decided the time was not right to roll the dice and navigate the big chossy monster. Our objective shifted quickly across glacier to a project we felt was not only safer but more of an unexplored concept.
Back home we had talked about the possibility of enchaining the major summits of the Tooth group. Starting on the Sugar Tooth, up and over the Eye Tooth, onto the Bear's Tooth, dropping down and then tagging the two summits of the Moose's Tooth. The link-up would be enormous, technically challenging, committing and aesthetic.
On the morning of the Fourth of July we started up Espresso Gap, which gains the unclimbed South Ridge of the Sugar Tooth. After a few hours of simul-climbing and soloing we established a new route to the top of the Sugar Tooth for its third known ascent (2,000 feet, 5.10, two rappels). After a 70-meter rappel into the notch between the Eye Tooth and Sugar Tooth we climbed onto The Talkeetna Standard. On the summit of the Eye Tooth we rested and collected water that was running freely due to extremely high temperatures. For the next eight hours we climbed along the insanely exposed snow ridge between the Eye Tooth and the Bear's Tooth. The climbing proved to be much more time consuming and taxing than we had anticipated. Because of the warm temperatures we became soaking wet, and we were getting more and more committed to an unknown descent down exposed snowfields. We stopped at a spiky summit between the Eye and the Bear that we suspect is unnamed and unclimbed. The climbing ahead of us looked more difficult and exposed than what we had already encountered. After a cold "night" wrapped in our tarp without sleeping bags we decided to turn around and started back the way we had come along the ridge, painfully retracing our steps. When we arrived back at the summit of the Eye Tooth we rappelled the 3,000 foot The Dream in the Spirit of Mugs down to our skis. A rough estimate is that we climbed about 5,000 feet of rock, ice, and horizontal snow. I think we were less than halfway across the Tooth Traverse.