James Mehigan’s Article about the new route in North America.


‘I don’t want to die for someone else’s summit fever’.
‘Oliver, it’s 7 O’Clock’.
‘I’m not sure I want to die for my own summit fever, have I ever even had summit fever?’
‘Oliver, YOU said we should turn around at 6.30. It’s SEVEN OOOO’CLOOOOOCCCCK’.

‘What’s the point, he can’t hear me. Or he’s pretending not to. He knows it’s time to turn around.’ At this stage he was 40 metres up, swimming in squashy unconsolidated powder. I knew it was unconsolidated powder because most of the final snow slope to the col has sloshed over me in the last hour as I shuffled from foot to foot waiting for Oliver to finish this pitch.

Well, it wasn’t that bad. I guess I was just being a princess. But it was late. Even in Alaska, with its longer days, in March 8pm is late and late is cold and cold is bad. We’d taken a long time to climb the last 180m of difficulties. But the advantage of slow progress and long approach slopes is that there wasn’t going to be so much abseiling to do in the dark.

Oliver reached the col at the top of Tower Couloir in the end. It was a feat of personal dedication and drive. Whether axes were of any advantage is hard to tell. It really looked like swimming more than climbing. More the grovelling end of the climbing spectrum. Once he’d summited (or perhaps Col-ed?) he rapped back down to me. The col meant a lot more to him than to me and I was keen to start the descent. Oliver had done all the hard climbing on the route, his jacket was soaked through, he was literally freezing and he was knackered. I was now in charge of getting us down. Which was fine with me. I’d just spent an hour on the belay doing three things (in no particular order); keeping my feet warm, thinking about the best way to set the anchors for the descent and belaying. So I was good to go. One last thing to confirm though;

‘Listen Oliver, this is a blank cheque descent. I don’t care how much gear we use, solid belays are it’. So once we had that agreed, it was off down.

First we rapped back over the Scottish 7 crux of the route into this immense (well 4 foot wide, 8 foot deep and 8 foot high) cave that we had belayed in on the way up. We needed to rehydrate and Oliver needed to put on some new layers. He was borderline hypothermic from all the unconsolidated snow and wet almost entirely through. So we sat down in the cave and brewed up. Watching the alpenglow disappear from the mountains on the other side of the Ruth Gorge was the first time during the day we could actually relax. All we had to do was abseil home in the dark, not the original game plan, but we knew we could do it. We weren’t stuck for gear and we’d just been up the route.

It’s hard to describe the ascent itself without venerating Oliver’s climbing skills and determination. His performance on the day was immense. The whole climb looked from the valley like a straightforward drainage line, like climbing in the winter in the Alps but placing our own gear. But when it came to the crunch, the route was actually a mess. You couldn’t call it ice or snow sometimes. It could be identified as a form of frozen water, but after that, words failed us. I’m sure there is a word for it in a language somewhere, for us however, we just referred to it in what law textbooks call ‘sailor’s language’ or ‘unparliamentary discourse’.

Oliver climbed three epic pitches of this stuff. Sometimes bravely running it out. Sometimes spending hours prepping a move. Seriously, on the first pitch, three hours or so trying to get over the first overhang. It wasn’t an overhang when we arrived, but it had to be dug out into a cave, then headbutted out into a stance. At one stage he was standing up on this ‘stuff’ feeling his boots moving gently through it as it all collapsed slowly under his weight. Like he was trying to stand up on a three inch thick wall of rice-crispie buns. I know this because I had to second it and that was unpleasant enough. Nobody was upset to get to that belay.

The crux, two pitches later, was an A1 haul out of the belay cave below the last pitch. I think it might have been impossible if there hadn’t been some ‘Thank-God’ polystyrene ice directly above the cave. This pitch, like every pitch on the route, looked so straightforward. From the valley, up the approach coulouir (like a big alpine Difficile gully), the technical ground looked okay. From the top of each pitch, the next pitch looked good to go. Finally, we thought, we would make some progress. But ice is a fickle friend and once established, each pitch presented its own set of problems. Progress was slow. Even the last pitch to the col. It looked so straightforward, just a 55 degree snow slope running up to the col. Easy ground they call it, don’t they? Not today. This was like swimming, only uphill.

Despite all that we climbed it. A new route in Alaska. Can’t complain. That’s what we set out to do, so we called our shots and the balls went in the pocket, and given the shakey weather we’d been having, that was a very pleasing experience. Will it be a classic? Not unless conditions change substantially. Would I do it again? Not in a blind fit. Was it worth it? Yes, what a great day. 22 hours after leaving the tent, we finally unzipped it again. We had pushed ourselves a great deal, climbed well together and had some amazing views, belays and climbing, even if it was a little sketchy at times.

The greatest beauty of the Ruth Gorge being perhaps the ease of access from base camp to so many great climbs. Access is so straightforward, that a japanese underwear company flew in 15 locals to do a commercial on the glacier. Our taxi man was one of them, apparently things got a bit stressful when the weather started coming in. Only a few planes would fly, and the thought of spending a night in an Alaskan storm wearing only lycra and the best Japanese underwear scared even the hardiest Alaskan.

We had spent over a week checking out potential routes, and we had been almost to the base of Tower Couloir to mark the crevasses with bamboo poles before we climbed it. The approach then on the morning of the climb was less than 2 hours on skis, almost all flat. If it wasn’t for the climbing, you might even consider it civilized. With the airplane access, you don’t need any porters and you won’t break a sweat before you’ve set up base camp. Well, unless you’re a squeamish flier. The descent onto the landing strip in the gorge was cloudy the day we did it and each rotation down meant flying directly at large alpine faces, before turning at the last minute only to fly directly at another. If you ever want to know what a plane crash looks like in the seconds before it happens, fly into the Ruth Gorge.

Thanks to The Business, Crux, Montane, thehighlands.com, Big Agnes, Trekking Encounters
Montane, Chromefire, Bristo Yoga School, Lyon Equipment, Pocket Mountains and The Mountaineering Council of Scotland for supporting this expedition.

Tower Couloir (5,800ft), Hut Tower, Ruth Gorge, Alaska, Oliver Metherell, James Mehigan, ED2, Scottish VII, A1, 600m


The Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier runs almost perfectly north-south and lies south east of Denali in the Denali National Park in Alaska. It is an alpinist’s paradise being a parallel sided glacier from whose sides rise massive steep peaks of the quality of great alpine north faces. Approaches are not long (though they can be heavily crevassed) and altitude is not really a problem (the highest peaks are c.3000m) The best guidebook to the area is Joe Puryear’s ‘Alaska’ published by supertopo. There is also a fantastic set of pictures with route markings of all the major peaks in the Gorge in the 2006 American Alpine Club Journal.

Access is by ski plane from Talkeetna (3 hours drive north of Anchorage where we flew into). We used Talkeetna Air Taxi www.talkeetnaair.com who have the best reputation for looking after climbers in the range. We found them excellent.

It’s hard to be certain when the best time to go is. We were pretty early hoping the ice would be well frozen and consolidated (it wasn’t) but people climb there much later and it only seemed to be kicking off as we left (mid April). They climb rock in the gorge in the summer, as early as June which is hard to believe.

We have a full report, with a lot more detail on the logistical information. If anyone is interested, contact us through the website.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.