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Jay Kerr

best of cc.com [TR] West Fork Ruth Glacier, Alaska - The Rooster

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Trip: West Fork Ruth Glacier, Alaska - The Rooster Comb, DIrect North Buttress

 

Date: 4/15/1980

 

Trip Report:

OK, this all happened a long time ago, so here it is, to the best of my rapidly aging recollection:

 

In late April 1981, Keith Royster and I had been camped on the West Fork of the Ruth glacier with a couple of friends for two weeks. We were waiting for a weather window long enough for a 3-day alpine style ascent of the unclimbed North Buttress of the Rooster Comb. The pattern had been 2 to 3-day periods of stormy weather separated by a day of clearing. We knew from our experiences of the previous three seasons spent on the Ruth that if we were patient that pattern would reverse, and we could expect a 3 to 4-day period of fine cold conditions.

 

roostercombroutes.png

Rooster Comb routes

 

roostercombcamps.png

Bivy sites

 

We both had climbed other Rooster Comb routes on those earlier expeditions. Scott Woolums and I had bagged the first ascent of the Rooster Comb’s main summit in 1978 via the SE Face. In 1979 Jeff Thomas and I made an ascent to the NW summit from the top of the col between the Rooster Comb and Mt. Huntington. In 1980 Keith and Leigh Anderson climbed a new route up the NW Face to the NW summit. Each year we looked at the North Buttress and vowed to come back and give it a shot some day.

 

That day was rapidly approaching for Keith and I, but the current weather was less than perfect. It WAS good enough for a bush pilot from Talkeetna to land on the West Fork just above our camp and drop off two British climbers, Nick Colton and Tim Leech. They post-holed over to our camp, introduced themselves and announced that they were going to climb our route the next morning.

 

After the brits left to set up their camp we convened a hasty war council. We could beat them to the base; our gear was packed and we had skis. In a footrace we could move much faster that the post-holing brits and get on the route ahead of them. But we knew the weather, and it wasn’t going to be good. We had seen the lower buttress disappear under enormous avalanches more times than we could count. At best there would be continuous spindrift for most of the route. It was a huge decision… did we want the first ascent or the best ascent? In the end we decided to wait for the weather. We were climbing for fun, we told each other, not glory.

 

Five days later Nick and Tim were back from their epic. Or maybe it was just a typical day on the crag for them, being crazy brits and all. The constant spindrift had slowed them down dramatically in the lower third of the route, and they had bypassed the crux section of the gully by aid climbing around to the right. If we couldn’t be first, maybe we could score some points on style.

 

Now finally the weather was becoming settled, and we hoped most of the new snow had fallen off the route, because we were going to go that night. It seemed to us that, after weeks of watching the face over the past three years, the big avalanches cut lose in the mid-afternoon. By starting the climb at 10pm, we could be out of the lower gully before noon. Even in late April there is plenty of light for gully climbing at night.

 

We blasted off right on time, leaving our skis at the base of the route. The lower gully was classic, with excellent snow and ice up a twisting gully, perfect granite on both sides. We climbed together, moving fast, the leader placing pro until out of gear. Sometime before dawn we switched leads at Nick and Tim’s first bivy platform, set dead center in a wide section of the gully. I was nervous just stopping there to belay. It must have been a nasty bivy in the conditions they were climbing in.

 

lowergully.png

Keith in the lower gully

 

By 10am we were feeling like we were in safer ground, with most of the lower gully below us. About that time our friend Jim Olson was at the base to retrieve our skis. From the center of the West Fork he watched a massive avalanche fall into the gully below us. A cornice had let go from high above and it scoured the gully, then washed out halfway across the West Fork. A half-hour slower and we would have been right in the firing line. As it was, we were blissfully unaware of our close call.

 

At about the halfway point, the gully becomes discontinuous as it runs into a prominent 500-foot rock band. We set our first bivy where the snow and ice of the lower gully met the rock band. It was a very small platform, maybe two feet wide, but well protected by the overhanging bulge of rock above. We spent the night in sleeping bags and bivy sacs at –20F. I had a miserable night, not cold, but cramping up on the narrow snow ledge. Even my facial muscles were cramping, locking my eyes shut.

 

About 30 feet right of our platform, the next pitch began with a 30 foot section of vertical rock, beyond which the gully picked up again, though quite a bit more steep than it had been. Keith made quick work of the rock, and led up the gully a ways before bringing me up. I got a really sweet lead up the gully to the base of the crux pitch. This is the point where Nick and Tim had climbed out to the right, bypassing the heinous, rotten vertical ice hose that the gully had just become. I was not unhappy that it was Keith’s lead!

 

Keith led up some beautiful gully ice to the foot of the overhanging 40-foot chimney partially filled with some really crappy looking ice. He put in an ice screw that MIGHT have held a light fall, and headed straight up. It was mostly a very scary looking stem, with his backpack and right shoulder against the rock wall on the right and his feet kicking holes into the rotten ice curtain on the left. It was a monster effort, and I was sweating bullets for him until he finally pulled over the top. Definitely a no fall situation!

 

roostercombcrux.png

Keith on the heinous crux pitch

 

Keith continued on easier vertical mixed ground and banged in a belay. I jugged past the heinous chimney, thinking all the while what a scary lead it must have been. I lead off from Keith’s belay, first traversing left to follow the remnants of the gulley, now degenerated into vertical ice-filled cracks. Protection was scarce, and my first piece after traversing left was a number 1 stopper. I climbed up another twenty feet of ice-covered rock, heading for a three-inch wide runnel of ice. At the base of the runnel I was REALLY looking for a placement, and there in the base of the crack was a fixed pin left by Nick and Tim. I hit it a couple of times with my north wall hammer. It rang true and I and clipped in. WHEW!

 

I set my axe and north wall hammer into the ice of the runnel and grabbed hold of the sling I had clipped to the fixed pin to lean back for a good look up the ice runnel. Suddenly the rock broke, the pin pulled, and I was forty feet lower, upside down over 2000 feet of air. Hanging from the number 1 stopper, I watched my snow shovel fall back to the glacier. I looked over at Keith as I slowly rotated in the air. He told me, “Stop screwing around Kerr, I’m freezing over here!” I got back on the rock, and looked up to see my ice tools waiting for me, still stuck in the runnel. The pitch had been hard with tools. Climbing back up to them barehanded was “interesting”.

 

Once reunited with my tools, I banged the pin back in and scampered up the ice. For the first time in two days I climbed into the sun. I anchored in and brought my frozen partner up. In a couple more easy pitches we were above all difficulties and built a commodious bivy ledge.

 

The next morning we kicked up the summit snowfield and pulled out the flask for a quick summit celebration. The weather was still holding perfect, and we enjoyed the 360-degree view for a few minutes before starting down the ridge that led to the col between the main summit and the NW summit and plateau. The descent to the col was exciting ridge climbing, ending in a long free rappel into the col. The climb up to the NW summit ridge was not difficult and we walked west across the plateau to the top of the wide gully that leads down to the Huntington/Rooster Comb col. It was late and we decided to bivy in the bergschrund before descending to the col.

 

Unfortunately, we were out of food. After we dug our way down into the crevasse and set up our bivy, I told Keith I was going out to find us some dinner. He looked at me like I had been smoking too much pot. I crawled out of our cave and crossed the top of the descent gully to the base of a large rock. I dug at the snow and rock for a few minutes, then reached into a hole in the rock and retrieved the bag of food and fuel that Jeff Thomas and I had left there the year before. Keith was suitably impressed with our foresight when I returned with a huge meal for two and a pint of stove fuel.

 

We started down early the next morning, and made two rappels down the gulley. We were crossing the giant cornices of the col barely an hour after we started down, working our way across to the west side, and the safest descent route to the West Fork. I knew the way down from the Huntington/Rooster Comb col really well. I’d made two round trips over the col in 1979 on our way to Mt. Huntington’s SE side, and one round trip in 1980 to gain the East Ridge of Mt. Huntington. It’s straightforward snow and ice climbing, made a game of terrifying Russian roulette by the huge cornices and seracs that threaten every part of the face. This is definitely not a place to stop for a picnic, and Keith and I fairly flew down the face, reaching the glacier in about two and a half hours.

 

crossingthecol.png

Crossing the Huntington/Rooster Comb col on the descent

 

We felt great after the climb. We had managed to cut a full day off the first ascent time, climbed the crux gulley pitch, and done it in a spell of perfect weather. The North Buttress is the most classic line in the West Fork, in my book, and I put it at the top of my personal list of achievements.

 

Some days after we got back to base camp, Nick and Tim returned from climbing a new route on the West face of Mt. Huntington. You had to hand it to those two; they really maxed out the possibilities on their visit to the West Fork. Two years later Keith and I skied back into the range from the North, destination: the Colton/Leech route on Mt. Huntington. But that is another story…

 

Since our ascent in 1981 this route has only had one other successful ascent.

 

 

Gear Notes:

Lightweight alpine rack (screws, one picket, assorted pins), 160m double 9mm ropes, sleeping bags/bivy sacs, MSR stove, 3 days food/fuel

Edited by jJay Kerr

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Thanks so much for putting this up, Jay.

 

It's worth paraphrasing here the comments I made in the Supertopo forum- Jay and his friends were all over the AAJ's in the late 70's and early 80's with these amazing Alaska trips. Overland approaches and then many weeks spent climbing in the range, then a ski out too. Epitomizing the virtues of patience and respect for the weather, they gave themselves plenty of time, and they ended up climbing so many routes- not only first ascents, but radical repeats (like the climb above). Their journal reports were a huge inspiration and influence for me as I researched and planned during my early years climbing in Alaska back in the 1990's.

 

Would love to see more photos and stories, including of the overland approach routes (Traleika, Kanikula, etc.). Sweet big country!

 

Major appreciation for sharing these historical accounts!

 

Cheers,

MW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jay, you have no idea how your trip inspired me back then. When Woolums told me about it at its base ,way back in '88, it set my future into motion. I am again inspired by it. Thanks yet again, and way to represent Pdx!

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Anyone know the current number of ascents this route has received? Less than 10? 5? Looks absolutely fantastic!

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Anyone know the current number of ascents this route has received? Less than 10? 5? Looks absolutely fantastic!

 

3 to the summit- possibly 4 but the last team in 03 may have bailed before the top. My lengthy experience with this rig is that not only are good conditions rare, bad conditions seem to be the norm. By 'bad' I mean not much ice but rather s'nice and really bad snow with little to no protection on many pitches, and difficult belays. The rock is extremely compact. I do think Jay and Keith, along with Colton and Leach the week before, may have found unusually good conditions. In the years after their ascent Stump, Alex Lowe, and Twight all were defeated- the latter two involved long falls with injuries.

It is a great line, I made it halfway up ten years ago, and I'm still waiting patiently for the right things to align. I personally had three separate close calls in my one attempt. It's a dark and intimidating route, and frankly, somewhat dangerous. Among other things, just getting to the schrund involves a serac gauntlet.

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My fingers are crossed that the low snow this year will yield perfect conditions on this route. A selection of KB's and brass balls is the preferred rack?

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Not a low snow year actually. Things are filled in. And It snowed six feet in the Ruth ten days ago. Also regardless of where you go beware of a hard layer from a rain event/big warmup in January- especially below 6000'. Lots of snow sitting on top of that now.

 

Yes, bring pitons- and also a couple pickets for pounding into s'nice. Shorty screws also but not a lot of screws overall. In 13 pitches we didnt find a single screw placement. Expect to lose some gear getting off the route also. I only found 2 fixed anchors (mank, single piece). Or if I get there before you I'll let you know what I find/leave behind.

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Hi Guys,

 

On our 2nd ascent of the route, we had great conditions all the way to the rock band at mid-height. There was no 'schrund at all, and we simul-climbed all the way to our 1st bivy at the rock band. Protection to that point was all screws and our single picket.

 

Keith got several pieces of rock pro in on the short face above the bivy, then we had two good pitches up the continuing gully to the crux pitch, well protected with screws and picket. The crux was basically unprotected for the last 60 - 60 feet up the chimney section (slightly overhanging with crappy rotten ice in the back of the slot). The brits bypassed the crux by aid climbing to the right of the gully.

 

On the rock pitch after the crux, I got a single stopper in at the bottom of the pitch, then a pin left by the 1st ascent party about 40 feet above the stopper. That pitch was the end of all difficulties.

 

We did the climb in early April, and from what I understand from reading other TRs, there was considerably more snow in the range 30 years ago (climate change?). As Mark alluded to, this route is very intimidating because of objective hazards that threaten the lower half of the route, not to mention the scary descent down the face of Huntington/Rooster Comb col. We've spent literally months camped in the West Fork, and it is truly frightening to witness the massive and frequent avalanches that occur all along the North faces of Rooster Comb and Mt. Huntington, often obscuring your planned line of ascent/descent for minutes at a time.

 

That said, Keith and I waited for a good weather window and climbed as fast and light as possible when in the line of fire. And even then we missed getting flushed out of the lower route by minutes when a huge cornice fell off.

 

If you want to see some photos of these avalanches and a photo showing our line on the col (and some shots of Keith and Leigh's route on the NW Face of the Rooster) see this TR:

 

http://cascadeclimbers.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/921453/TR_West_Fork_Ruth_Huntington_E#Post921453

 

Good Luck guys. If you get the right conditions this is a fantastic route, well worth the effort.

 

Jay

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Thanks Jay, hope to get another shot.

The lower part of the route has been reduced to bare rock several times by mid summer in recent years, so if it used to be the ancient blue Alaska ice it's definitely not anymore, it's entirely seasonal now. It just doesn't get enough direct sunlight to form ice reliably.

I won't diminish the objective hazards of the lower half. I was nearly knocked off while leading a steep pitch in the lower gully by a large spindrift, then higher up I was hit very hard by falling ice, hard enough that I almost blacked out. At the bottom as we skied away from the schrund (which lately is pretty large) a very big slide came out of the route and knocked us both over, I hate to think what it would have been like had we been up in the gully for it. If the lower part was real ice it would have been a cruise. We had waited three full days after a large snow dump to attempt the route- it was not long enough, this thing needs a prolonged period to settle out after a storm.

I would also add that rappelling the route has been done and is in my opinion much safer and faster than descending by the Rooster Comb-Huntington col, the latter of which if anything is getting more dangerous each year. In fact I would say the RC-Huntington col descent is an outright roll of the dice.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi, Keith Stevens/Royster here. Regarding the north pillar of Rooster Comb, I seem to recall thin ice and lets say sparce protection as the rule on both of the Rooster Comb routes I was involved in. In ten years of time in the Alaska range I have found consistently better conditions in general early in the year. This is not the lower 48. Doug Scott and Dougal Haston, following an oxygenless ascent of Sagarmatha (everest)did a new route on the south face of Denali. By their own admonition grossly underestimated their undertaking.The Alaska Range is at 63* North Latitude, Sagarmatha 27*, this pressure difference changes the metamorphosis of water considerably due to the sunlight hours available. It gets worse, or shall we say more variable the later you go into the range for mixed routes.You can have equal temperatures from sea level to 4500 meters at times on Denali from the spring to late summer due to its latitude. The Alaska Range has a whole different set of things to consider to be successful climbing there. There are no mountains like the Alaska Range anywhere else in the world. Their geographical position requires a different set of tactics. To simplify, Jay and I chose earlier,colder, be fit,go faster based on previous experience in the range by our selves and others like Muggs and Rob and the McNurtneys, Haston and Scott. At this point, it seems a pair of you modern day bad asses (lol) could pull this plumb off by flying in in March or early April and blasting up this thing in a day! After all Jay and I were using a little bit less sophisticated tools. ( I still have both of those 55cm bamboo Zeros made by the master Yvonne Chouinard and GPIW in the chimney photo) I had a silver headed hummingbird for a third tool,Chouinard rigid crampons,and Galibier double boots. They worked fine. I think it will go, fly in, FIRE IT and fly out.......earlier,fit,fast,and you can leave the colder for BEER and SCOTCH at the Roadhouse in Talkeetna!!!!!! I can't wait to read about it!! Good luck to you all. Old and Slow, Keith Stevens. p.s. I have some other photos of the Rooster and Huntington, I'll see what I can find.

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