The cards were played and we had drawn aces. Finally, I collapsed into prone paralysis. Just before unconsciousness, the memorable words of French climber Jean Afanasieff came to mind: “This is the fucking life, no?”
–Jim Bridwell about the first night in basecamp after his first ascent on the Moose’s Tooth.
More than 30 years ago, Jim Bridwell and Mugs Stump achieved something extraordinary. With their first ascent, “The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters”, these two legends drew a line up the East Face of the Moose’s Tooth in impeccable style. Virtually no gear was left on the face. Instead they left a clear message on this cold and remote wall, which would have an impact on the approach to walls of this size and difficulty for the decades to come.
Now, I am up on this wall. The morning sun is burning on my back, and still, it’s brutally cold. For more than an hour, Dani has been fighting his way up an icy crack up and left from me. I’m on the anchor and hold the rope behind my belay device with my right hand while I knead my fingers on my left hand to get the blood flowing again.
“You think we’ll get up this thing?” I suddenly hear my Swiss friend from above. I hesitate a bit and think it through. For a few seconds I have doubts as well. Is the headwall a bigger bite than we can chew? We have chosen a bold line for sure. Still, I have the feeling that, like Bridwell and Stump, we could successfully put our ideas to test on this wall. We’ll just have to stand on our toes, stretch ourselves and grow with the difficulties.
Just like a couple of months ago in Patagonia, the weather was perfect here in the far north of America upon our arrival. Only a few clouds veiled the mountains while we flew towards the Buckskin Glacier with a small airplane. That same evening, the fog disappeared – the weather got better, not worse, like in southern South America – and we saw the compact and steep heart of rock on the East Face of the Moose’s Tooth for the first time. So far, no one had managed to pull off a line through this part of the wall – we wanted to try in any case...
Before we were going to make an attempt, it was important to have a close look at the wall. Using a sledge, we dragged our equipment from basecamp to the bottom of the wall and analyzed our intended route with binoculars. It was clear to us that this was going to be our first climb in Alaska, and this wall was notorious for all kinds of Alaskan specialties, like huge snow mushrooms and enormous amounts of spindrift. On the other hand, it was also clear that our impartiality provided the boldness that is always necessary for walls this size.
The next day, Dani and I started up the wall.
“We certainly won’t turn around on the first day!” I answer, lower my head and watch our half ropes as they slowly but steadily run through my belay device. Dani seems to be making progress again, and after another half hour he finds two stopper placements, which provide a suitable anchor.
I follow the pitch and belay Dani on the next one. It’s definitely not getting easier. With pendulums, 90? steep and extremely thin ice and tricky mixed terrain, the climbing is very demanding and climbing away from each piece demands our full concentration. After these two pitches, Dani is done and I take over the lead again. Although I am bit tired from the first part of the route, which I led, we have to climb a couple more pitches before it gets dark in order to stand a reasonable chance to reach the summit the next day.
At dusk, we put up our tent. More than half of it sticks out over the void, but it is going to protect us from the icy wind and the annoying spindrift. The next morning, we are greeted by perfect weather again. According to our forecast, this is not going to last too long anymore, and thus we decide to leave our bivy gear here. All we put in our backpack are a couple bars, a liter of water, and a bit of cord for the rappels. Like Bridwell, we hope we’re going to draw aces.
After three pitches, we are below a large roof. Dani has led until here, but he can’t get past the huge snow mushrooms, which are suspended menacingly above us. I lower him down to myself, we switch the ends of the rope, and I attempt the tricky section. With two pendulums, I manage to bypass the roof. We traverse rightwards and can almost feel the icefields leading to the top. In between them and us is another roof though, which we hope to bypass on the right.
I navigate reasonably difficult mixed terrain, climbing up until I’m under a big snow mushroom and then make a rightwards traverse for two or three meters to cautiously climb up next to it. The snow formation looks extremely fragile, and I’m aware that I shouldn’t touch it. I’m almost above it when I finally get good gear in, which I hold on to. I place my ice tool on a small crimp. As I want to put weight on the tool, part of the crimp breaks. I immediately catch myself with my left hand, which holds on to my pro, but I still lightly touch the snow mushroom, which then collapses. Hundreds of kilograms of snow fall onto the ropes and pull me down. The pro holds, and Dani is fine too, even though the weight of the snow pulled one the pins at the anchor.
Once Dani has put the pin back in, I climb on and two more pitches put us to the start of the icefields leading to the summit. At six pm, we both stand on the summit of the Moose’s Tooth.
We can hardly believe that we managed such a dreamy line on our first climb in Alaska. A couple days ago, we were at home, and now we stand on the summit of this impressive mountain. But before we can consider it done, we have to get back down to basecamp. A long descent with many rappels over our route begins. Because we mostly use ice threads for rappelling, we leave almost no gear. We are extremely content about our line, which we name Bird of Prey (1500m, 6a, M7+, 90°, A2) and which I think is worthy of the idea of Bridwell and Stump about climbing in this wall.
48 hours after starting, we are back in basecamp, very much done. This is indeed the fucking life, Jim!