Amongst a lot of great climbing in the mid- and late- 1990s, my Enduring Patagonia years, Jim Donini and I made the first ascents of what struck me as three truly world-class alpine climbs: in Patagonia we did The Old Smuggler’s Route on the north face of Aguja Poincenot and A Fine Piece on the west pillar of Cerro Pollone, and on the south face of the Mooses Tooth in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge, we did Shaken, Not Stirred. None was cutting edge in terms of difficulty, but all three were incredibly beautiful; Sophia Loren kind of beautiful.
I’ve always been astonished and grateful that we were able to get onto three such marvelous climbs. Recently, I shared pictures and stories from A Fine Piece. Here, I’m going to post about Shaken, Not Stirred.
First, I need to take issue with the story Jim told Joe Puryear, author of the Supertopo guidebook Alaska Climbing, in which Jim waxes poetic about how he and Jack Tackle had always had their eye on the climb that would become Shaken, Not Stirred but had never gotten around to climbing it. I’ve also heard him talk about how we spotted Shaken, Not Stirred from the summit of Mount Bradley, after we climbed The Bourbon Bottle Route.
Ahhhh….. that’s not how it happened.
(I’m reserving the right to needle Jim here because he’s one of my best friends, definitely the best climbing partner I’ve ever had, and unless your last name is Tackle, Lowe, Bragg, Kennedy, or Engelbach I’m not extending you the same right.)
So here’s how it actually went down. Without any concrete objectives, Jim and I flew into the Ruth in May of 1997 with Kent McClannan and Jurgen Grunevald. Jim was familiar with the area thanks to the expeditions he’d made into the Ruth with Jack Tackle, he and I had done The Bourbon Bottle Route on the south face of Mount Bradley the year before, and I had photocopies of all the American Alpine Journal entries pertinent to the Ruth Gorge. Our plan was to fly in there and “take a look around,” “see what we could find,” and “hopefully get up something.”
We started scouting possibilities soon after Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi slipped under the cloud layer and dropped us on the Ruth. (I loved flying with Paul, a real kindred spirit.) Kent was partnered with Jurgen, and I was with Jim, but it was Kent and I who went together to scope the enormous and imposing south face of Mount Dickey. We saw nothing attractive, but I thought to set up my camera tripod and take a zoom lens shot of the south face of the Mooses Tooth with the the bottom of Dickey’s southeast buttress in the foreground.
One peek through the lens changed everything.
Here’s the picture:
The Ham and Eggs couloir (first ascended in 1975 by Jon Krakauer, Thomas Davies, and Nate Zinsser) was clearly visible running up the sun/shade line left of the Tooth’s main summit, but what really caught my eye was the other couloir, the one just into the shade between the west and middle summits. It doesn’t show up too well in this scan, but through the camera lens I could see what looked to be a thin runnel of ice running up slightly to the right of the prominent snowfield high in the couloir and then merging into it not too far beneath Englishman’s Col — the high col between the Tooth’s west and middle summits.
The runnel looked viable, and it looked good.
It looked really good.
Looking through the lens, collecting my thoughts and trying to keep calm, I also realized that I had a problem: I was with Kent, and I didn’t want him and Jurgen to scoop the line. Both were good climbers, and given any opportunity, they’d nail it. Which wasn’t lost on me. So I kept quiet, even though I was quivering with excitement.
There are two things in this world I’m good at keeping quiet over: things I’m told in confidence and new-route possibilities. (Fifteen years later, I’m still sitting on some good ones.) And having spotted the Shaken, Not Stirred couloir, I’d sooner the Mooses Tooth fall over than have somebody other than me grab its first ascent.
Back to camp, I whispered to Jim about what I’d seen and threatened violence if he let on. He took a “ski around” and got himself a vantage. He liked what he saw and we organized a sortie.
We left the tent about midnight, climbed the icefall where the Root Canal Glacier tumbles into the Ruth Gorge to the base of the south face of the Mooses Tooth, and started up the route about six a.m. It didn’t take us long to realize that we were onto something really special. A pitch or two of hollow, rotten ice gained a straightforward couloir, and we climbed that for a long way, until it pinched down to the beautiful ice runnel I’d seen from the opposite side of the Ruth.
Here’s a good overview of the route that I found on the web. The coming photos will make more sense if you click on it and bounce back. Plus, you’ll see why it’s such a great climb.
And here’s Jim in an easy part of the couloir. I think he’s about to launch up into the narrow ice runnel.
The ice runnel served up the best climbing on the route. Jim got the best of it, and it was fabulous. Below is a shot of Jim copping a rest near the end of a long pitch:
Jim led the bulk of the runnel, which I think went on for four pitches. I got the last one. Here are two pictures of me that Jim took on that pitch (I think):
The couloir walls framed spectacular views into the Ruth Gorge. The picture below is an odd converse of the one I’d taken below Mount Dickey the day before, perhaps showing why the route hadn’t been discovered, since only a small slice of the Alaska Range is visible from inside the couloir’s depths.
As I recall, it wasn’t easy to find anchors in the mostly flawless granite beside the snow and ice, but when I did get a stance, I took this picture of Mount Dickey.
A bit farther up, I led the crux of the route, a short, sharp mixed step that wasn’t very well protected. I took off the pack to do it:
I was pretty psyched to get over that step. Above it, I could see that the route would “go” all the way to Englishmen’s Col, and except for a funky move over a snow mushroom that got us back into the main snowfield, it was mostly cruising — in a truly spectacular alpine setting.
Here’s Jim kicking back in Englishman’s Col while we brewed tea.
Jim taking in the sights:
In the other direction, we had an incredible view across the upper north face of the Mooses Tooth, which was holding the day’s last sunshine.
We climbed up and over the west summit of the Mooses Tooth and spent the rest of the night descending to basecamp. Here’s me just after arriving:
Despite two nights without sleep, it didn’t take us long to graduate from hot Tang.
The Shaken, Not Stirred couloir is directly over Jim’s head.
I was delighted. I knew we’d scored a really good first ascent, and it became popular in a hurry, especially once Paul Roderick reduced the approach to five minutes by landing people on the Root Canal Glacier directly below the climb. People with good weather could suddenly knock out both Ham & Eggs and Shaken, Not Stirred in a single weekend.
Here’s what Joe Puryear’s guidebook has to say about Shaken, Not Stirred: “This narrow ice ribbon splitting the immense granite walls of the south face of the Mooses Tooth is an alpinist’s dream. Although it doesn’t provide an easy way to the actual summit, the outstanding nature of the climbing makes it exceptional. And with its easy access and short approach, this is about as good as it gets for Alaskan alpine climbing.”
Makes a guy blush.
As further evidence of my version of the route discovery story, I offer up the phone call I made to Jack Tackle as soon as we were back in civilization: “Dude, how’n the fuck did you miss that?”
Jack wasn’t too happy with my gloating (and probably wanted to beat me to a bloody pulp), but at least he had the Elevator Shaft and the Cobra Pillar to ease his pain.
I’d been giving Jim a hard time along those lines ever since we were in Englishman’s Col.
If you’ve got Shaken, Not Stirred stories of your own, please post ’em or link to ’em below — along with photos.
Here are good Shaken, Not Stirred photos from Ouray Ice Climbing.
Here’s the American Alpine Journal mention of the second, third, and fourth ascents of Shaken, Not Stirred in 2000, three years after we’d done the first. Kelly Cordes is a friend of mine. I’d forgotten that he’d done the second ascent. Very cool.
Here’s a 22 minute climber’s-eye video of an ascent of Shaken, Not Stirred on Vimeo. I remembered every placement…