*Photos by PeteTapleyImageWorks and Scott Adamson
SCARPA athlete, Pete Tapley is a professional mountain guide and climbing instructor out of Bozeman, Montana. Over twenty years of experience lend a hand to Pete’s impressive instructing and climbing resume. For the past eight years, Pete has worked with Montana Alpine Guides and Andes Mountain Guides. He also contributes photography and written work to Alpinist, Backcountry, Climberism Magazine, and others.
Despite frigid temperatures, Scott Adamson and I established the first free route on the East Face of The Moose’s Tooth on April 14th. We climbed the 5,000-ft. face in a single, 27-hour push.
While there’s no denying that -18°F chills me to the bone, after a week of seeing my key-fob thermometer bottomed out at -20°F, I was nothing short of inspired by the perceived warmth. Having spent several days beneath unsettled skies and staring directly at the east face of The Moose’s Tooth, we were keen to get moving, as quickly as possible. In the twilight, we skied away from our camp and into biting glacial wind. Scott’s goggles cracked moments after putting them on; we wore all of our clothing – layer upon layer, topped with puffy pants and massive belay jackets – simultaneously freezing and sweating.
After crossing the bergschrund, we soloed easy ground for the next 2,000 feet; passing thinly sniced slabs along the way kept us attentive. The climbing on our first pitch was dreamy, a narrow vein of squeaky 70° Styrofoam quickly gave way to thinner and steeper terrain; I pounded a beak into a crumbling seam and started digging behind a flake for my next tool placement. Dragging and hooking, I gave a strong pull to test the placement – pop! My eyes widened and my pulse quickened – the head of my tool was gone. Over the last four years, I had quite literally loved the tool to death and grinned with satisfaction, knowing it went out in style. However, without a spare, we were on our way down.
After a glorious rest day, the next morning was a replay of our first attempt, waking to -15°F, strong winds and soloing high onto the face, we made fast time to our previous high point and the climbing kicked in. Continuous runnels, occasionally just past vertical, fully satisfied our fantasies of the perfect ice route. After a long section of simul-climbing, we stopped to belay through the crux of the route – a wild grade six pitch – a free-standing, and fractured, pillar of brittle ice. Considering the extreme cold and volatile nature of the pillar, we opted to rock climb until we were within reach of the well-bonded ice above. The position was wild: fading light, overhanging rock, and with a mind-blowing stem that bridged the rock to ice, we faced outward, away from the mountain, staring directly into the 3,000-ft. void below. Featureless 95-degree ice continued overhead.
A few pitches above, we met late-night darkness at the juncture of the runnel system and the upper face. Having pushed well past our planned brew stop, we needed to put warm calories into our cold and tired bodies. Despite fatigue, our energies remained high. We were exactly where we wanted to be, doing exactly what we wanted to be doing – suffering gracefully. Lingering doubts of success, or fear of the potentially fatal cornice and seracs hanging overhead, had long since fallen away to practical analysis, conscious choice and the determination to push ourselves ever upward.
A few espresso beans boosted our awareness to take note of faint northern lights on the horizon and brilliant stars overhead. In the darkness, we once again pondered the threat of seracs and cornice, the unseen, unspoken danger we’d lived beneath since stepping onto the mountain. As the sun began to rise, we knew that safety was found in movement. Ever the champion, Scott left the belay on autopilot, headlamp occasionally splashing light from side to side, route finding by instinct.
The upper face was surreal. Between mental fatigue and our setting – dawn light stretching over alien flutings of ice, enormous snow mushrooms dolloping spines all around us, shattered seracs lingering high to our right – it was difficult to stay in touch with reality. Hours 25 through 27 were at once a dim blur of endless 60° ice, creeping trench foot, and a vibrant blend of arctic dawn colors that culminated with final steps clearing the exit cornice and gaining the summit plateau.
Twenty-seven hours after crossing the berschrund, we topped out, air-dried our feet, brewed, and rappelled the route. It was a 34.5-hour round trip from the bergschrund, and after a short ski, our odyssey ended back at camp, 41 hours after it began.