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