I knew visiting the Ruth Gorge for the first time would be awesome, but years of reading, watching, listening, and dreaming about the Alaska Range might as well have been fiction. It reminded me of the first time I walked through New York’s Times Square in person, overwhelmed with familiarity and yet unprepared for the scale and realness.
Chris, Garrett and I were in Alaska for five days before we were granted an afternoon weather window that allowed us to fly into the West Fork of the Ruth. Just as the buzz of the plane disappeared to the east, the imposing North Face of Huntington laid out the welcome mat by unloading a massive serac, quickly filling the entire canyon with a cloud of snow and ice. Thus freshly dusted, we hastily set up camp and skied the first thousand feet of our intended climbing route, the Southwest Ridge of Peak 11,300.
The weather closed soon after, and over the next few days we would receive several more feet of snow on top of the snow that had accumulated while we loafed around Talkeetna. We occupied our time with easy crossword puzzles, incessant shoveling, and the Dead’s Europe ‘72 on repeat.
Finally, we had what seemed to be a climbable window and we geared up for an early start. As I tried to fall asleep, I could hear snow again begin to patter on the nylon walls of my tent. By the time my alarm went off, the snow had accumulated enough to fill in the deep skin track we had made to the route the day before. The weather was splitter by midmorning, but the rumbling soundtrack of a post-storm glacial gorge was a keen reminder of the present avalanche danger, especially on the exposed descent of the route.
After an (in hindsight not-so-) incredibly difficult decision, we threw in the towel on 11,300, disassembled our deluxe basecamp, and drug our overloaded sleds the seven crevassed miles down to the Mountain House, a sad and frustrated parade that lasted the entire day.
Now with no clear objective and generally better weather, we stewed over not even giving 11,300 a proper go. We needed to get up something, or at least try. Across the way from the Mountain House is the south aspect of Mt. Dan Beard, which features a steep snow climb that seemed straightforward enough, and so with a day and a half left before our scheduled pickup, we set off.
The plan was to bivy on a col, start early and get back down before the wet slides would make us. Leaving the col in the dark, Garrett began by postholing up a steep, northerly slope. After negotiating a cornice, he pounded a picket into the sun-affected crust on top and belayed Chris and I up. As soon as the three of us were perched above the cornice, it settled under our weight and a crack split the snow at the picket. Without a noise, the powdery slope below that we had just been simultaneously fighting our way up separated from the face and slid thousands of feet to the glacier below. Fuck. This decision was a little easier to make: it was time to go down. Carefully.
We had been so concerned with the certain danger of wet slides that we hadn’t even imagined the aspect far less affected by sun would go, but sure enough, the slide revealed punchy neve below, perfect for climbing, or downclimbing in this case, and we recognized everything that slid was what had been accumulating since we had been in Alaska.
I think of climbing, or running, or skiing, (or whatever!) in the alpine as a conversation with the landscape, and although good conversations go both ways, the mountains are the ones that should be leading the discussion. It just happens that sometimes, the peaks that summon would rather see you sitting in your tent, far below. Which, to be honest, isn’t too bad of a deal in a place like the Ruth.
I’ve been on other big climbing trips before, to southeast Alaska and central Asia. Each time people ask if I think I’ll ever go back. Of course I’d love to, I say. But who knows? There’s so much out there to explore. As we flew out of the Ruth, faces glued to the windows of the plane as on the way in, there was no question in my mind. I will return.