PHOTO: Noah Howell
Skiers Noah Howell and Ben Peters took an airplane taxi into the Ruth Gorge of the Central Alaska Range, where they set up camp for 14 days in early May. Their tent was flanked by Mount Barrill, Mount Dickey, and perhaps the biggest prize, a 10,335-foot peak called Moose's Tooth. With its narrow, elevator-shaft couloirs and jagged-edged sidewalls, the Moose's Tooth is not known for its skiing, and as far as Howell, 39, and Peters, 28, knew, it had never been skied.
It was Peters' first trip to Alaska, while Howell had numerous trips under his belt. But for both, it was an opportunity to explore the boundaries of ski mountaineering, to push each other's individual comfort zones, and to cross one more objective off the ever-growing list of skiable dream lines. On the third day of their trip, they climbed 5,000 vertical feet to the summit. After assessing conditions, however, they aborted their main objective down a brutally steep face with mandatory rappels. Instead, they skied down their ascent line. It was a tough decision, but one they are comfortable with it as the probable first skiers to lay tracks on this strikingly beautiful mountain.
POWDER: Start from the beginning. How did you come across the Moose's Tooth?
Howell: I first saw the line in 2012 or 2013 when I went to the Ruth Gorge with Andrew McLean, Garrett Grove, and Mark Holbrook. We had 20-below temperatures and it was horrible… We ended up touring around the valleys in the flats, looking for lines to ski in there. The Moose's Tooth stood out, like, Holy shit, that looks frightening! But maybe in the right conditions it could happen.
Peters: One of the things that's difficult about the Alaska ranges is that you've got so much big stuff that it's really hard to look for objectives you can do without huge weather windows. And so, one of the things that got us really excited about this is that it seemed…at just a little lower altitude…it was one of the lines that could be on that list…even if the weather didn't cooperate.
Peters: Personally, it's one of the coolest places I've ever been. It has some of the longest snow-covered faces anywhere, and everything is so heavily glaciated, there's no living plants anywhere for miles and miles around. It's another world up there. In the afternoons we were getting intense warm ups, there was so much wet activity falling down these 4,000- to 5,000-foot cliffs, it sounded like waves at the ocean.
What made this ski descent unique as an objective?
Peters: The history of the Moose's Tooth. I remember when I was first learning to climb, reading Jon Krakauer talk of putting up Ham and Eggs on the Moose's Tooth [in his novel, Eiger Dreams]. It's definitely more of a climber's peak than a skier's peak. It was great to get to see these mountains from a skier's perspective, and to be able to ski right off the summit ridgeline. That's not something you get to do off the top of every mountain in Alaska.
How did the weather hold up for you? Was it easy to access the line on the day of your descent?
Howell: It came together perfectly. The glacier was socked in when we toured in, so we couldn't really see anything, but we knew it had been snowing… And as soon as the weather cleared, we did a warm-up run. We could actually see the whole Moose's Tooth from Mount Barrill across the valley, and it looked great. Some climbers who had attempted it said it was deep snow, good quality. Things felt good… and we thought: Let's go for the Moose's Tooth.
What other signs do you look for to make decisions out on a technical climb?
Peters: You're always checking the assumptions you've made, and how those are being backed up by the conditions. We had skied Barrill [elevation 7,650 feet] a day earlier, so we had some sense of what the snow in the area was looking like. We also talked a little bit as we were transitioning over into our crampons and ice tools and made sure we were both comfortable. Any time you're moving in terrain like that, its important to make sure that both you and your team members are on the same page, and that you open it up for discussion at crucial decision points.
Any time you're moving in terrain like that, its important to make sure that both you and your team members are on the same page, and that you open it up for discussion at crucial decision points.
Howell: That call to reroute was a hard decision because we really wanted to do the direct line…we were camped right below it. We wanted to do the red line (marked in the photo below), because it was so direct and clean and right back to camp, so that was hard for me. This is what our personal will and desire is, but it just didn't work out. We probably would've been fine because we got back to camp, and it was three hours later when it started gushing snow.
How was the ski down?
Howell: Varying degrees of powder. Not deep, but soft and perfect for steep skiing!
You two were the first to make a ski descent of the Moose's Tooth, but on the day of your climb, you weren't alone on the mountain?
Howell: We hadn’t heard of anyone skiing it before. And as we were camped there another group of skiers from France came into the valley. The morning we skied Barille, they broke trail, and we met up with them, and skied that together. The day we were up on the Moose's Tooth, when we were up on the summit ridge and we looked down, we saw the Frenchies had decided to come up and ski [the Moose's Tooth]. As we were skiing down, we thought: Maybe this has been skied before. What are the odds that it gets skied twice in one day by two independent parties? It's hard to know those things—if it had been skied [before] or not—but it was cool to see the mindset is there, and people are out there looking for the steep stuff. Where do you have to go in this day and age to get fresh tracks?
Any plans to head back to the Moose's Tooth to claim the line you originally planned to ski?
Howell: My hope was to ski the Moose’s Tooth and we did that. The direct line would have been fun, but I’m content with the West Ridge route and don’t foresee going back to the Ruth Gorge for another go at the Tooth. There are so many other big mountains and new lines that have my attention, but you never know.