© — There’s a little place called the Ruth Amphitheater. It’s seven miles long and four miles wide. It’s the confluence of two glaciers: The West and Northwest Forks of the Ruth Glacier. The ancient ice pools up into a white plain, and then slides 25 miles out onto the flatlands that surround Denali (Mount McKinley). It sits deep in mountains that rise abruptly to peaks well over 10,000 feet above one’s head. Pure, blue hanging glaciers decorate the surrounding cliffs. In May, when I visited The Ruth, the sun shines upon the top of Denali 24 hours a day; you can’t miss the flame orange glow when you step out of the tent at night.
I arrived at The Ruth, with my friends Tom O’Reilly and Dave Post, in a bright red, four passenger plane piloted by legendary bush pilot and stunt plane competitor Doug Geeting. We started in Talkeetna, Alaska, after loading our gear under the plane. After a one hour flight, flying over marshes and glacier, we emerged from The Great Gorge into the vast, white expanse. I felt very small. We landed on the ice, departed the plane, and set up camp. We were alone, and would remain that way for the next eight days.
We spent the first day skiing out into the middle of The Ruth, and practicing crevasse rescue. We all knew how to do it, but nobody had actually rescued anyone from a crevasse before; we planned on keeping it that way. You see, the crevasses are so large on The Ruth that you can easily slide a house into them. And they sneak up on you, as they are often covered with snow. We traveled in harnesses with a long length of rope between us. The plan was that if one fell in, the other two would get him out; in theory, this works, and it’s almost impossible.
We toured this vast expanse to get our bearings, practice glacier travel, and to see the sights. The mountains were unbelievable. There was Moose’s Tooth, a classic Alaskan climb. There was Mount Huntington, one of the sisters to Denali, along with Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter. And there was Mount Barille. Mount Barille screams right out of The Ruth, in one vertical, expanse of granite…one full mile above the glacier. I skied right up to it, ski tips touching the granite, and looked straight up a mountain that disappeared into the sky.
Several days into the trip we traveled up the West Fork toward the ridge overlooking Kahiltna Glacier. We set up camp about half way up, and Tom dug out one of his famous snow kitchens. The next day we worked our way up to the top of the glacier, the bergshrund, and right below Mount Huntington. The bergshrund proved too steep to climb, so we stopped, ate lunch, and soaked up the view.*
The way back to camp was downhill and fast. After about three miles, we heard a familiar crack, and turned around to see a hanging glacier calve off the top of Mount Huntington. The blue serac ice crashed down, hitting hanging glaciers below, gathering volume and speed. The scale is so large on The Ruth, that the giant avalanche seemed to travel in slow motion. The mass of ice hit the West Fork below, and exploded into a huge white cloud. We stood awestruck by the beauty. Then it started our way. Ten seconds later, we were all staring at each other, wide-eyed. A large avalanche can easily travel three miles if there is nothing in its way. And there was nothing in its way. At 20 seconds, it was flying down the glacier at us, perhaps as fast as 150 miles per hour; there would be no running from it. At 30 seconds it spread out, but was coming our way, and about halfway to us, covering our ski tracks. Now we’re just scared. On it came. A billowing white monster aimed right at us. At 45 seconds, it was within a mile…and it lay down. At one minute, a cold wind whipped up, and we were pelted with a cloud of tiny ice crystals. That was it…tiny ice crystals. One minute of gripping fear was followed by days of relief.
On day eight we went back to where we started, at the appointed place, and appointed time. Still alone. We lay back on our packs and talked energetically about the trip’s highlights. Suddenly, I sat forward. I could hear the faint buzzing of a plane. And then, from around Mount Dickey came a tiny red plane way off in the distance. Doug flew closer and closer to us, and set his plane to rest 50 feet away. We loaded our gear and took off from the glacier.
We had arranged to have Doug tour us around on the way out. He flew up the West Fork toward Kahiltna Glacier. To get over the pass between Mount Huntington and Denali, altitude needed to be gained. Doug flew tight circles in the canyon, rising 6,000 feet. He flew within 200 feet of Mount Huntington, and then within 200 feet of Denali. Round and round, back and forth. We got a really, really good look at those hanging glaciers. And then, over the pass, and out above Denali Basecamp. Denali Basecamp is where climbers from all over the world start their climb to Denali’s summit. There, on Kahiltna Glacier, were a couple of large tents that house the Mountain Rangers, surrounded by thirty or more smaller tents. This is where Alaskan adventure begins.
Back in Talkeetna, we ate hot food that someone actually brought to us. And we slept in real beds in warm rooms. The heavenly sleep came easy…in sweet, glacial dreams.
*Denali Ice Capades
On our outing up the West Fork of The Ruth, we enjoyed a glorious lunch with a magnificent view down a glacier that disappeared out of sight. On one side of us, Mt. Huntington, a hundred yards away, shot straight up above, graced with the aquamarine trim of hanging glaciers; on the other side, within a stone’s throw, Denali worked its way up in steep ridges. (Denali, which means “The Great One,” formerly known as Mt. McKinley, was recently given back its indigenous name by President Obama.) We dined backcountry style, which easily deserves the Michelin 3-Star rating. And then, a gentle slope to carve down on our way back to our basecamp.
We were still roped together due to the crevasse hazard, with Dave out front, Tom in the middle, and me in the back. Dave pushed out onto the downward slope, and Tom and I followed…as best we could. With only 40 feet of rope between us, we needed to ski in a synchronized, contemporary-jazz-ballet, stylistic, fashion. Well, no one is sure what happened: maybe Dave zigged when I zagged, or maybe Dave and I zigged at the same time. Whatever we did wasn’t going to get us selected for “Dancing With The Stars.”
We pulled Tom…an excellent backcountry skier…off balance, and he made a gentle landing in corn snow. However, when Tom went down, he pulled his tele binding right off one of his skis. We had the foresight to bring with us a tiny, light repair kit, which included a Swiss Army knife, and several short sheet metal screws. (For the sake of traveling ultralight, I had left the three longer screws back at basecamp.) We took turns drilling out the holes with the knife’s awl, and then took turns strenuously forcing the screws through the binding and into the ski. We got the binding on, loosely.
We took off again. But the binding didn’t hold; we really needed the longer screws…and more time for the repair. Without more screws, Tom was left with one ski…only…one…period. So, we re-rigged our safety rope, with Dave in front, me in the middle, and Tom in the rear. Again, we took off, on what was now flat, smooth, snow, with only a minor slope. In a straight line…with Dave and I literally acting as sled dogs as we pulled Tom down the glacier. For several miles.
I am still today amazed and highly impressed by the fact that Tom actually made it all the way back to basecamp…on one (1) ski. Dave and I up front, digging in with all we had with our poles. Straight down the middle of a massive glacier. Well, when you’re running that deep, you do what you have to to get back home.
Back at base camp, we managed to work the longer screws I had left behind into the binding and ski, over time, taking turns, and using the file on the knife to file the sharp tips of the screws off as they now poked out of the ski bottom. And Tom was just fine for the rest of the trip.
One more point: the longer screws worked, but took much longer to get in and filed down. Had I brought those three longer screws with us that day, we would have spent more time making the repair. Right below Mt. Huntington. With its hanging glaciers. That dropped. Causing an enormous avalanche. Covering our tracks. The truth is, had I not been compulsively ultralight, and had brought those three longer screws along…we’d still be there. Peacefully at rest on the West Fork of the Ruth Glacier. Well preserved under 50 feet of hanging-glacier debris.
Ok…I may be somewhat ultralight-OCD…but it has its advantages…
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012