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Frieh, Shepherd Fire 5,000′ Route in Ruth Gorge

No Such Things As A Bargain Promise (VI A0 WI5R M6), Mt. Dickey (9,545′), the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier, Alaska. On April 1-2, John Frieh and Doug Shepherd climbed this circa 5,000-foot route up the northeast face to the northeast ridge in 37 hours. [Photo] Mark Allen

After spending the last day of March scouting lines in the Ruth Gorge on skis, John Frieh and Doug Shepherd decided to attempt the unclimbed northeast face of Mt. Dickey (9,545′), a 5,000-foot route with difficulties of VI A0 WI5R M6.

The thirty-five-mile-long Ruth Glacier squeezes into the Great Gorge, with more than twenty peaks up to 5,000 vertical feet forming a steep, north-south-trending constriction. Late Alaska hardman Joe Puryear wrote in the 2006 American Alpine Journal:

Although not often compared to Yosemite, up north this is the Valley, Alaska-style. With easy approaches and huge walls just a short distance from a fly-in base camp, the Ruth Gorge may be North America’s ultimate alpine climbing destination. However, climbers won’t always find endless splitters, perfect granite, plastic ice, and ideal weather. Instead, they will find some of the most intimidating mountains in the world. Written into the history of these walls are stories of struggle, survival, and death, but also of triumph, camaraderie, and, above all, respect for an immensity found in few places in the world.

Located on the west side of the Gorge, Mt. Dickey was first climbed by David Fisher and Bradford Washburn in 1955. With Frieh and Shepherd’s line as no exception, routes established on Dickey over the last decade have been arduous and committing.

In March 2002, Sean Easton and Ueli Steck established an unlikely line up Dickey’s east face, climbing patches of thin ice up the central section of the wall. “The route kept us guessing; we were never able to see ahead farther than the next pitch, and always questioned when the tap would turn off, shutting us down,” Easton wrote in the December 1, 2002 NewsWire. They gave Blood from the Stone a grade of 5.9 A1 AI6+X M7+.

Two years later, Sam Chinnery and Andy Sharpe climbed around forty pitches of near-vertical neve, snow, ice and mixed to complete Snowpatrol (VI WI5+) on the southeast buttress of the mountain. Two weeks later Ben Gilmore, Owen Samuel and Freddie Wilkinson repeated the route.

French climbers Mathieu Detri, Sebastien Ibanez, Mathieu Maynadier and Patrick Pessi climbed a series of ramps leading up the northeast ridge over six days in May 2008, naming the route Move Your Ass and Your Mind Will Follow (ED).

On April 1 of this year, it only took crossing the bergschrund for Frieh and Shepherd to find their first challenges of the route, whose base is a fifteen-minute ski to the climber’s right of the Wine Bottle Route, but left of the French route. Vertical and overhanging snice, thin ice and large snow mushrooms slowed their progress and limited protection. They climbed to the base of the obvious, right-trending chimney they’d intended to climb (visible in the routeline photo) and backtracked down the face, finding the closest safe bivy near a rock outcrop where they chopped a ledge. By the end of the day, they had “only” covered 3,000 vertical feet.

The next day, they determined the chimney was too choked with rotten snow mushrooms. While it’s the more aesthetic finish to the route, Frieh and Shepherd said, they would have likely bailed trying to aid under and through the mushrooms. They exited the face by rappelling thirty meters into a runnel system that splits the north face of the northeast ridge. Frieh and Shepherd followed these up to the enormous “Walmart” serac that overhangs the face, crossing but not sharing terrain with the French route. They refueled and rested before moving quickly under the ice and onto the summit slopes. At 8 p.m. they could climb no higher, finishing their route 37 hours after crossing the bergschrund.

The northeast face of Dickey, taken by Shepherd during their flight into the Ruth. Dicey snow mushrooms in the right-trending chimney caused Frieh and Shepherd to choose a line that moved around to the northeast ridge lower on mountain than originally planned. [Photo] Doug Shepherd

Reflecting on the climb, Shepherd wrote:

We hung it out there with our gear selection, given the small amount of food and gear that we carried. Given that decision, our exit (from the northeast face) was the only reasonable option available to us to finish the route. Did we compromise on the aesthetic value and avoid the logical line (up the right-trending chimney), absolutely. However, we climbed in the style we are both the most comfortable with and gave ourselves the greatest chance of success. For me, that in part means minimal aid climbing.

Though this is the climbers’ first wholly new route in the Gorge, Frieh and Shepherd have frequented the range since their first visit in 2009. In 2010, Shepherd attempted Trailer Park (VI WI6 M6+) on London Tower and a new route on the Eye Tooth. Frieh also climbed a new variation on Mt. Bradley with Dylan Johnson on that trip, connecting the lower section of Season of the Sun to the upper section of East Buttress (V C2 WI4R M6, 1400m). In March 2011, Frieh made the second winter ascent of Mt. Huntington, just outside the Ruth, with Jason Stuckey.

Sources: John Frieh, Doug Shepherd, Mark Westman, Graham Carlton Francis Williams, 2006 AAJ, Alpinist 1, Alpinist 8.

John Frieh and Doug Shepherd on the summit of Mt. Dickey, after finishing their new route up the northeast face and ridge. [Photo] John Frieh