After covering nearly 3,500 vertical feet in a single 24-hour push, Chris Wright and Scott Adamson arrived at their first resting spot exhausted, cold, shaken and ready for sleep.
It would prove elusive. The pair was attempting to camp on a ledge the size of a coffee table, their feet dangling into the void; dehydration meant both climbers kept waking up with leg cramps; and, icy blasts of wind whipping across the compact granite wall jostled their precarious position. With two more days of hard alpine climbing ahead, this was a less-than-ideal start.
But it was better than the alternative. Three days prior and despite near-perfect conditions, it seemed Wright's first ascent wasn't going to happen at all. A lean, tan, curly-headed 30-year-old, Wright works for Bend's Timberline Mountain Guides. On April 12, barely two days into the new route, his longtime climbing partner admitted he wasn't up for the task.
"He had an emotional breakdown," explained Wright of his original partner. "So we bail, which was a giant pain in the ass." Wright said their retreat was sketchy, at best: At one point the pair resorted to a buried, snow-filled stuff sack as their sole anchor.
The two friends were attempting a first ascent on the Mooses Tooth*, a 1,500-meter granite alpine wall deep in the Alaskan Range—home to Denali, which at 20,320 feet is the highest point in North America. Jim Bridwell and Mugs Stump first climbed the east face of the 10,335-foot Tooth in 1981. Their wandering route is long, steep and highly technical. Wright was hoping to create a more direct route on the same imposing wall.
As seems to happen with pioneering pursuits—whether racing to the South Pole or attempting speed ascents on El Capitan—the Mooses' east face was also where two other pairs of climbers were headed. A duo of European pros were camped on the Buckskin Glacier in hopes of claiming a new route, as were two Americans. Since the two-man American team was after the same line Wright and his partner had hoped to climb, the Central Oregonian decided to switch objectives, a challenging decision. Turns out, the new line was much harder than anticipated.
The nerve-wracking climbing took an early toll on Wright's original partner, who was already nursing an injured elbow. Once back to basecamp, a dejected Wright found it difficult to shop for a new partner among the other four climbers—who were all celebrating, fresh-off their own first ascents just one day before.
But Wright has become accustomed to setbacks and took the disappointment in stride.
In August of 2011, the ambitious mountaineer suffered through a long rehab period following a spinal fusion. Just over a year later, in November 2012, Wright and a partner established a new alpine route in Nepal but were shut down from their primary objective after they both fell ill. His other recent projects have been nixed by bad weather and dangerous climbing conditions.
But this time, on the Buckskin Glacier, the Wheel of Fortuna favored Wright. Scott Adamson, the American climber who had just completed his own route on the Mooses Tooth's right side said he'd be game for another round up the Tooth's steeper left side. The 32-year-old Utah-based climbing guide just asked for a couple of day's rest, which Wright and Adamson used for planning and prepping.
Neither man was able to sleep the night before their first climbing day, but they broke camp at 5 am and, with the mercury hovering at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, skied to the base of the wall under clear skies. Hoping to move quickly, they unroped for the first three pitches, each an intimidating 80 to 85-degree climb. They were efficient; carrying all their own gear but with minimal food and fuel, the pair reached Wright and partner's previous high point in only three and a half hours (about 3,000 feet of climbing, or two thirds of the way up the face).
But the final third of the wall proved much more difficult and, with few options for placing protection, dangerous. While they had scaled more than half the climb in under four hours, the next six pitches took an excruciating 14 hours.
"It's the scariest thing I've ever done in my life," offered Wright. "I was shattered. And he was, too." Adamson noted that while it wasn't the most demanding route he'd ever done, it was the most sustained. "It's the most strung-out I've ever been," offered Adamson.
Finally, with the most difficult section behind them, the pair found rest on that coffee table-sized ledge.
Day Two proved easier. After a slow start, the team made its second camp 800 feet below the summit. That night, though, Adamson spilled his pee bottle on himself inside his sleeping bag. He awoke soaking wet.
"It smelled like a pee sauna in there," noted Wright. "But it was warm and sunny and we were psyched." After a Spartan breakfast consisting of a single peanut butter cup and Gatorade, they set off for the top.
At 2 pm and after nearly 67 hours of hard mixed climbing and minimal sleep, the pair topped out on the gray granite face before continuing on to the 10,335-foot peak's true summit—a snowy cornice slightly higher up the ridgeline. Appropriately, Wright and Adamson named their new route, Terror (VI WI6 M7 R/X A2).
"This was the route that all my climbing has built up to," Wright said. "Personally, it's edifying to get something like this done."
The new friends rappelled down, and a few hours later were celebrating back in basecamp with Bulleit Rye whiskey, hot buttered rum and "Uncle Pete's Pasta" with sausage.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," Wright allowed. "So yeah, it's been nice to come home and barbecue on the porch and go mountain biking."
*Editor's note: The climbers who first summited the feature, while gifted athletes, were not skilled at punctuation. They dubbed the wall "Mooses Tooth," without an apostrophe.