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The Ruth Gorge Did Not Disappoint

Many times when climbers think of Alas­ka, atten­tion goes to the prized Mt. McKin­ley (aka Denali), which stands as the high­est point in North Amer­i­ca. When I talk about the Ruth Gorge, the exchange goes as follows: 

Non-Climber: How was Alaska?”

Me: Great, we climbed in the Ruth Gorge.”

Non-Climber: Is that near Denali?”

Me: Yes, it is a glac­i­er that comes off Denali.” 

Non-Climber: Have you climbed Denali?”

Me: No.”

Non-Climber: Oh….Do you want to climb Denali?”

Me: I would rather climb in the Ruth Gorge.”

Non-Climber: Do you think you will climb Denali some day?”

Me: Maybe.”

Non-Climber: That would be real­ly cool if you climbed Denali.”

Me: “.…..”

End of Conversation

Pulling Sleds On The Ruth Glac­i­er. Pho­to by Marc Ripperger

Most peo­ple don’t real­ize the Ruth Gorge inhab­its some of the most tech­ni­cal alpine ter­rain in the world, and hosts some of the most adven­tur­ous and intim­i­dat­ing climb­ing routes you will find. The Ruth Gorge attracts the most elite alpine climbers around the world, as well as those indi­vid­u­als look­ing to cut their teeth in big terrain. 

Our team was up for the chal­lenge. Jay, Ken, Spencer, and me: Marc Rip­perg­er. We all came from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions but were able to col­lab­o­rate and put togeth­er a nine-day Ruth Gorge/​Denali Prep Trip. Our focus was two-fold: First to acquire the skills nec­es­sary to be ready to climb Denali, and sec­ond to climb some long objec­tives in the Ruth Gorge.

Base Camp. Pho­to by Marc Ripperger

Our trip began in Anchor­age where we all met, then we quick­ly hopped in a shut­tle and made our way up to Tal­keet­na. Our shut­tle dri­ver was the epit­o­me of Alas­ka: Opin­ion­at­ed, strong-willed, and close to the size of Alas­ka — it was a high­ly enter­tain­ing three hours as we egged him on with ever more inter­est­ing ques­tions. We set­tled in Anchor­age for the night and enjoyed the lux­u­ry of hotel accommodations.

The next day was a beau­ti­ful day to fly into the glac­i­er, so we weighed our gear and loaded it into the small plane from Tal­keet­na Air Taxi. The flight into the Ruth is breath­tak­ing, with views of the entire Alas­ka Range. We land­ed at the Moun­tain House, a no-frills build­ing nes­tled on a small ledge at 6,000 feet, built in 1966 after pio­neer bush pilot Don Shel­don flew in all the mate­ri­als. We began dig­ging out camp and mak­ing our home for the next cou­ple days. We spent the next day learn­ing about glac­i­er trav­el and anchor-build­ing skills nec­es­sary to be climb­ing in Alaska. 

Social Hour In The Cook Tent. Pho­to by Marc Ripperger

The fol­low­ing day we talked about sled rig­ging and sled haul­ing. We loaded up all of our gear and moved our camp down glac­i­er into the Ruth Gorge. Turn­ing the cor­ner, you soon real­ize the mas­sive scale of the Great Gorge. Peaks such as Mt. Bar­rille are the size of El Cap­i­tan; how­ev­er, they pale in com­par­i­son to Mt. Dick­ey which is almost 5,000 ver­ti­cal feet of sheer rock. 

The Ruth Gorge Crew. Pho­to by Marc Ripperger

In sub­se­quent days we enjoyed climb­ing some of these mas­sive peaks. We attempt­ed the West Ridge of Mt. Dick­ey, reach­ing 7,800 feet before get­ting into loose snow where we wal­lowed up to our armpits. Tem­per­a­tures were unsea­son­ably warm in the Ruth, feel­ing more like sum­mer in Ari­zona. We attempt­ed to run away from the sun at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. Because of the warm tem­per­a­tures, we start­ed most of our routes around 10 or 11pm and climbed through the night. With each pass­ing day I felt more and more like a vam­pire chomp­ing at the bit to emerge from my tent from dusk till dawn, embark­ing on a quest to slay some big alpine routes before the sun scorched us again.

Our prized goal was The Japan­ese Couloir of Mt. Bar­rille. This 3,200 foot route climbs a bril­liant 2,400 ft. snow couloir rang­ing from 50 – 70 degree in steep­ness. The route even­tu­al­ly gains the west ridge of Mt. Bar­rille with some tra­vers­ing and down­climb­ing thrown in for added expo­sure and chal­lenge. Our par­ty moved quick­ly up the col, we nav­i­gat­ed the tra­vers­es to arrive on top of Bar­rille right at dawn. We enjoyed some sum­mit pho­tos then had to quick­ly descend the route as tem­per­a­tures warmed. Every­body was excit­ed at our accom­plished objec­tive — and also to go to bed after 14 hours on the mountain. 

Tra­vers­ing A Steep Slope On Mt. Bar­rille. Pho­to by Marc Ripperger

The remain­ing days were spent on fix line prac­tice and crevasse res­cue skills before climb­ing a small objec­tive off Mt. Bar­rille called Peak 6,000. We came close to the top before we encoun­tered some delam­i­nat­ed ice and over­hang­ing rock which stopped us from get­ting to the sum­mit. Our time in the Ruth was draw­ing to a close — Alas­ka final­ly gave us a small dose of the weath­er we were expect­ing, and our last day was a mix of rain and snow through­out the entire day. We flew off the glac­i­er in baby blue skies the fol­low­ing after­noon. Chalk up a high­ly suc­cess­ful trip in a lit­tle place we call the Ruth Gorge… it is real­ly close to Denali if you have nev­er heard of it.

~ MM Guide Marc Ripperger