Wil Sim and Greg Boswell have recently climbed two new routes from the Buckskin Glacier in the Central Alaska Range, which lies 15 miles southeast of Denali; the main peak in the range is the Moose's Tooth. The first route is an 'outrageously good' line on the Bear's Tooth, and the second may be the first ascent of a peak. Sarah Stirling gets the low down, and finds out why they named the routes Beastiality and Shark Fishing.
Will Sim: Why Alaska? Spiky mountains, lots of daylight, easy access via ski plane, technical granite mixed climbing, loads of inspiring unclimbed lines and great beer.
I've been to Alaska four times now, and never seen weather so benign. To say having weather on your side is a game changer would be an understatement. On my last trip to Alaska, as well as having our basecamp blown to pieces in a storm, and having to survive in a snow hole, I wore literally twice as many clothes on the mountain and was still seriously cold. This time we barely even bothered with guy lines on our base camp tents and I don't think I had a numb toe all trip!
I've been wanting to go to the Buckskin Glacier for a while. The east faces of the Bear Tooth and Moose's Tooth have got to be some of the most jaw-droppingly cool looking pieces of mountain in the world. Aside from that, it's relatively rarely visited compared to the nearby Ruth Gorge and the other side of the Tooth massive. We got there via the standard AK scene of a ski plane drop from Talkeetna.
I've climbed with Greg a lot in the past but always in Scotland in winter. This was the first time in almost three years that we'd climbed together though. Greg's a really solid person to be on the mountain with, and it was fun to watch him adapt his high technical level of mixed climbing to technical big mountain ground, which is actually more different than you would think.
The new route that we named Beastiality was the line of the trip. It's about 1400m long, and we climbed it in about 30 sustained pitches. The line is stupidly good; a huge fault line/chimney splitting the southeast face of the mountain which, apart from the chimney system section, is a big compact wall straight out of Yosemite. We climbed it over three days then descended on the fourth.
The first day we climbed a couloir and thin connecting ramp that bypassed a dangerous icefall. It made the route safer and better. We then had a luxury bivi in a small tent on the lip of a crevasse on the hanging glacier beneath the 900 metre high headwall.
Day two was slow, absorbing and stressful as we navigated up and around the fault line. Rotten and blank rock forced us out on the right hand wall for seven or eight pitches, which felt a bit like being on El Cap in crampons but was really cool at the same time. All the time unsure if it was possible to re enter the chminey.
A make or break last pitch of the day saw me climbing a nerve-racking pitch. From the top of it I reckoned we could access the chimney again. I abseiled and fixed a line so we could lower to the only bum-seat bivi we could see and then we had an uncomfortable few hours of continually slipping off the ledge in our sleeping bags.
On day three we miraculously managed to re-enter the chimney and had one of the most amazing days ever. Five-star sustained and, in places, thin ice — we were pinching ourselves all the time! Then we topped out into a windless sunset, strolled to the summit and bivvied again. The next day we abbed the line, which went suspiciously hitch-less!
The face that Beastiality climbs had first come on to my radar thanks to a friend who showed me a photo of the Bear Tooth from an angle that showed it well. I also got hold of an aerial photo from an American climber which was quite inspiring.
Shark Fishing was a line we had spotted from Beastiality. A chimney and corner system firing up the apex of a pointy mountain we knew nothing about. Originally we were unsure what kind of tactics to employ (bivi or no bivi), but in the end it did require a bivi, despite only being about 600m and 15 pitches long.
All the pitches had some spice; scary thin ice, snow mushrooms requiring careful clearing, or just hard climbing. Like on Beastiality, we were blown away by the quality of climbing. The kind of route where you lean back on the belay after leading and can't stop smiling about how outrageous the last 40 metres were.
It looks like the whole mountain is actually unclimbed, at least none of the people in the know have heard of an ascent. We didn't realise this at all until we started talking to folk after the trip, but if so, we may give it the unofficial name of The Shark's Tooth, to keep in line with the animal and dental names in the region!
Very generally speaking it's a dry year for ice in Alaska. It didn't affect our trip at all though; on these kinds of routes you just climb what's there and don't entertain the idea that it could be better or different with regards to conditions.
We named the first route Beastiality because routes all have feels and characters, and sometimes mountains get personified into an animal-like character in your own mind. And sometimes the experience might feel a bit like having sex with a dangerous animal, but i honestly have no experience of that... We named the other route Shark Fishing because the clean cut black-and-white rock reminded us of a shark's markings, and when hauling our bags through tight chimneys it felt like vertical shark fishing!
My leg is recovering well thanks! [11 months ago Will's tibia was spiral fractured into four pieces]. I have a lot of metal in it, which I can really feel when coming downhill, but climbing is fine. Playing Frisbee is much worse!
Next goals? Too many ideas as usual! At the back end of winter I always have serious rock climbing cravings that need to be satisfied. I'm looking forward to guiding this summer then maybe another big trip in the autumn.
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