The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters
Excerpted from a 1981 article included in Climbing magazine's new anthology, 'Vantage Point,' the late Jim Bridwell recounts the first ascent of the East Face of the Moose's Tooth in Alaska
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From March 17 to 21, 1981, two of America’s heaviest hitters, Jim “The Bird” Bridwell (1944–2018) and Mugs Stump (1949–1992), made the first ascent of the East Face of Moose’s Tooth in the Ruth Gorge, Alaska. Playing on the name of Gary Zukav’s award-winning physics book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, they named the 1,500-meter route, rated VI 5.9 WI4+ A4, The Dance of the Woo-Li Masters. Stump died in a crevasse fall on the South Buttress of Denali in 1992 at age 41. Bridwell died at age 73 in early 2018.
A jet…yes, I was sure it was a jet. The sound was uniquely different from the roar of avalanches thundering down everywhere around us. It was probably headed for Oslo or some such place, and would arrive in the morning (or evening?). I couldn’t figure it out, but that’s the way jets are; you’re never sure what time it is. My thoughts started to race on into the relationships of time and its necessity for place, but I was harshly interrupted by the sudden realization that I was looking down 3,000 feet to our tent. The spacious North Face dome looked like heaven, and we were in hell. What was I doing in this inhuman zone? Was it choice, happenstance, or fate, or possibly some combination of these that brought me to meet my climbing partner Mugs Stump?
Only four months ago we had been strangers, meeting in an outdoor café in Grindelwald. We drank strong coffee and shot the bull about the Eiger and similar experiences on the North Face. One cup of coffee equals about one hour of bullshit, and before three cups were gone we were both jawing each other about the East Face of the Moose’s Tooth. We had both failed on the “5,000-foot” face, along with a large contingency of other climbers. At least we were in good company; we figured that the face had been attempted over ten times by different parties, all very competent. We made plans, not for the Moose’s Tooth, but maybe that’s where fate came into play.
In early March, Doug Geeting flew us toward the Great Gorge, but when we looked for our objective it wasn’t there. Conditions were bad indeed. All the faces were in the worst possible condition; no good ice where we’d hoped, just a thin veneer of aerated ice with a light dusting of spindrift, overhangs bulging with snow clinging incredibly to their undersides. It wasn’t just bad, it was inhuman. What could we possibly do in these conditions? We had to think of something quick—Doug’s a good guy, but he wouldn’t fly us around forever. The Moose’s Tooth was close, so we decided to have a look. The East Face looked equally horrendous, but we couldn’t impose on Doug’s patience anymore. It would have to do; these were our cards, we’d have to play them.
The landing was fine, but getting Geeting aloft took some digging and pushing. As the plane sped away we gazed at the hoary specter before us. Just thinking about it made my bones brittle and my spirit fragile. My imagination balked at more inquest and I set about erecting the tent. At least home on the glacier would be luxurious and the ogre above could wait for inspection when my courage was well braced.
The next day was clear and oh so cold; in March Alaska still doesn’t really feel the sun, it passes but doesn’t touch. I remembered my hand freezing white like a burn when I touched the metal on the Cessna the day before, and it felt the same as I adjusted the ring on the spotting scope. The face looked impregnable, and the invaders were armed with slingshots.
I didn’t want to give myself a chance to know what I was doing until it was too late. Needless to say, Mugs did the leading and I did the motivating.
We thought that just maybe we could pull off the ol’ David and Goliath sketch, and decided on a route to the right of our previous attempts. These technical aid routes were hideously plastered with ice and out of the question. Our new choice was a more perilous passage, but the only reasonable possibility. A lightweight alpine-style approach would be the key.
We were bluffing with only a pair; it would be like grabbing a tiger by the tail, you couldn’t let go or you’d be eaten. The lower half of the climb consisted of avalanche chutes and faces fed by the whole upper wall, and if a storm came in while we were on the climb, retreat would be suicide. The only way down was to go to the top; conquest or death, so to speak. It sounded ridiculous, but was true. Retreat in good weather would be very difficult, but you probably wouldn’t be retreating in that case anyway. Unless, of course, there was something up there we couldn’t climb.
The barometer rose but the storms came without caring. We didn’t mind; it gave us time to psych up and sort out the gear. The minimum would be the rule: four days of food and fuel could be stretched to six or seven. Food was an austere allotment of gorp, coffee, and sugar, and two packets of soup. The hardware rack was skeletal; we had trimmed away the fleshy bolt kit and second set of Friends, leaving the bones; ten ice screws, 15 rock pitons, six wired nuts, a set of Friends, and the essential hook. We planned to rappel mainly off slings around horns for the descent. We opted for a technical and swift descent, hopefully not too swiftly down a 1,500-foot rock face into the East Couloir. This of course would also be suicidal in a storm, as two huge faces on either side fed the couloir lethal doses of snow. But it did lead directly to the tent, while the Bataan Death March down the North Ridge lead only to the homeless Ruth Amphitheater. We chose what fate decreed.
Clear skies came, but the first day was spent watching the face and timing avalanches, trying to feel for some intuitive glimpse at the secret of its pulsating rhythms. The night was spent deliberating on whether to wait another day while consuming large quantities of whiskey. Something inside told me to go in the morning, perhaps the whiskey. It wields a strong opinion indeed.
We agreed, and in the morning found ourselves trudging to the base, laboring under our packs and hangovers. I didn’t want to give myself a chance to know what I was doing until it was too late. Needless to say, Mugs did the leading and I did the motivating.
A steep snow slope led to the Cauldron, a steep, narrow venturi 80 meters long, which collected minute spindrift sloughs and amplified them into a blinding, freezing torrent of misery. I was appalled and impressed as Mugs led difficult 75- to 85-degree ice without protection through waves of gushing spindrift, a 15-kilo pack tugging at his shoulders. It was my turn and I secretly hoped for some respite, but knew I would get my justice, the justice I had already chosen like we all have. I was frozen when I reached the belay, fingers wooden as I fiddled with the camera and attempted to feed the rope out.
After another pitch we climbed together to the first traverse. It was steep powder snow covering sugar snow over rock. Scratchy to say the least, with imaginary belay anchors. Both leader and follower were in fact leading, each responsible for the other’s life. Mistakes weren’t allowed. The first traverse was three pitches long and led to a three-pitch calf-burning ice slope, then onto another horrid traverse.
This was worse than the first one and longer. Near its beginning we heard a shout. Our minds must be askew, but it wasn’t an alcoholic illusion. Some fellow mountaineers were ski touring up the Buckskin to the Ruth Amphitheater; we shouted back and carried on. The climbing was tenuous, thin powder snow laid over hidden patches of ice and steep rock. Protection was nearly nonexistent and the belays were the same. In places we were climbing three to five inches of snow over 60- to 65-degree rock; much to my distress, these pitches would often start with a downward traverse of 40 or 50 feet before going horizontal or upward.
Near the end of the day we reached a snow slope where it was just possible to dig a platform for sleep. Mugs fixed a pitch above for better anchors and we precariously nestled in. North Face had supplied me with a space-age sleeping system to test, and I was thankful for the pleasant success, being warm and toasty despite subzero temperatures, spindrift and all.
The morning was supremely frigid and we dared not move from our cocoons until the sun’s rays gave some hope for life. Frostbite was our eminent host should we dare break the house rules, so we regulated our desires accordingly.
We had penetrated the inhuman zone and were paying the price.
A steep chimney choked with ice rose up and out of our field of vision, and tested our abilities for the rest of the day. From below I judged it to be about five pitches long, but it turned out to be seven instead. This chimney and the headwall above would constitute the main difficulties of the route.
I led the first and least steep of these pitches before the white ribbon bulged abruptly so as to obscure our inquisitive gaze. Mugs pressed the attack up the 80- to 85-degree slippery gouge. In places he would encounter overhanging bulges, which the cold, dry winter had turned to airy unconsolidated granola. A desperate struggle ensued at these overhangs: ice axes and hammers became useless, and we would be forced onto tiny edges for our crampons and shaky pitons for hand holds.
Many times I had to use my ice-tool picks as cliff hangers on edges, or wedged in cracks, nut-fashion. The Forrest Saber hammer was especially useful for this and quickly gained favor on these pitches. This assault continued on through the day and into the failing light of evening. I started to become weak and nauseous from dehydration, as our daily consumption of water had been less than six cups per man. In those temperatures, man’s devices cease to function as they are designed; the stove was by now an ineffectual nuisance which would only boil water after an hour of coaxing and shaking to warm it. We had penetrated the inhuman zone and were paying the price.
Mugs had fixed the last pitch, and I swung around a corner onto a small 65-degree ice slope, the only possible site for a bivouac. A precarious perch is produced after hours of ice sculpturing in the dark. It was nearly 1 a.m. before we collapsed exhausted in our sleeping bags. The morning of the third day started with a tedious struggle for liquids and ascending the fixed rope to our high point. Vertical ice reached upward, and once again Mugs valiantly met the challenge. He led two pitches up the icy serpent, then exited onto an easy 100-meter snow slope, which extended to a formidable headwall. Even with the telescope we had been unable to probe the secrets of this section of the climb. Intuition lured us to the right, up an ice runnel and onto a snow rib. I poked my head around the corner to be confronted by a steep rock wall. Its thin cracks were well armored with ice, and presented a chilling specter of extreme difficulty.
I tensioned off a nut I’d chopped a slot for; thinly gloved hands search for usable rugosities while crampon claws scratched at scaly granite. I laybacked a steep flake to find its top closed with ice. In quiet desperation I clung with one hand, perforating the ice overhead with the hammer, probing for a secure stick. Standing on the shelf of ice, I caught my breath and looked for a possible route up the wall now confronting me.
I decided to move right into a groove, where mixed free and aid led to a point where it was possible to swing left onto my ice axe and climb up to a small ice ledge. I got some anchors in and brought Mugs up. Only a portion of the next lead disclosed itself, but things didn’t look promising. Mugs moved off hooks onto the fragile thinness of precipitous ice; after 40 feet of slow, begrudging difficulties, he shouted down that it was blank above. The sky had clouded and snow began to fall.
To retrace our steps would be disastrous, we needed a bivy site and there was none below us for many pitches. We had to push on now, and quickly, for a night spent exposed and standing would be devastating to our bodies in their present weak and dehydrated condition. “Are you sure there is no possible way?” I queried. “Let me take a good look, I gotta figure this out,” he replied. Mugs moved only occasionally, but some progress was being made.
What was he doing? I could only imagine the worst. He called down for the number three Friend, so I took out the belay anchor and sent it up. I hung in slings off a tie-off draped over a nubbin of rock, and continued my frigid vigil. The Friend went into a shallow hole, then a hook to a knife blade behind a half-inch flake, and it was working out. Several more technical aid moves, and after two hours nerve-grinding climbing Mugs reached an ice tongue that led to easier ground.
I got to the belay and started the next pitch as quickly as possible. It was already late in the day, and we had to find some place to bivouac soon. The snow was coming down heavily now, and spindrift cascaded over us with increasing punctuality. The climbing was marginal; a traverse crossed a slab covered with four inches of snow. I had hoped that there would be ice, but no such luck. I splayed my feet duck-style to attain the maximum surface area. I couldn’t believe they held; it was like climbing a slate roof covered in snow. Once past this I entered a trough filled with bulletproof ice. By this time I was extremely sick.
Mugs came up and found me slumped over, weak and nauseous from dehydration. He led the next two pitches of steep mixed rock and ice, but it was all I could do to follow. It was dark and I had to use my headlamp to follow the last rope length, but we had found a place to dig a snow cave. A gift from heaven! After two hours the cave was completed, and we began brewing tea and coffee, two of the worst drinks possible for dehydration. At 1:30 a.m. we collapsed in our sleeping bags, secure from the storm.
Life came slowly the next morning. From my vantage point near the cave entrance I could see that the storm was breaking up, but I kept the vision secret from Mugs, as I wanted to rest just a little longer. Soon the sun was shining into the cave, and it was no longer possible to hide the obvious fact that the weather was turning beautiful. We crawled out from the cave and commenced climbing at 11:30. The problems were mainly in route finding, picking the easiest but not always obvious way is a talent born of experience and often times luck. We were lucky and by 3:30 we stood on top of the Tooth.
The vantage point was spectacular; it seemed that I took one photograph after another until two rolls disappeared. Soon it was 4:30 p.m. and Mugs asked coyly if I’d like to start down. The weather was clear in all directions; it was also fairly late and I was tired, but secretly I had been having subtle intuitions of foreboding about the descent. For you see, I had been thinking of the descent for quite some time. In reply to Mugs, I said a quick no. I felt a possible ordeal ahead, and wanted a full day to cope with any eventuality. Bypassing my suspicions, I offered a further explanation: the descent would be technical and potentially difficult, and we should give ourselves a full day as there would be no place to stop once we had started. We agreed and returned to photography.
Darkness came sneaking over the mountains while our stove begrudgingly produced two cups of hot tea without sugar. Our supplies were nearly finished so getting down was imminently important. We burrowed deep into our survival cells as the cold became increasingly bitter. Temperatures plummeted to minus 30 degrees that night, and the wind decided to continue and wait for some exposed skin in the morning. It was truly torturous packing and getting ready to go. All man-made gadgets ceased to work, just another wonderful quality of the inhuman zone. But the stove did manage one full cup of cold water each before it died.
We climbed down a snow slope and began rappelling over discontinuous snow and rock bands. As we descended rappel after rappel, the snow disappeared, leaving bare, flaking rock, the kind for which the Moose’s Tooth is famous. Crumbling and rotten, the face steepened so that it disappeared below us, making it impossible to see where we were going or what we were going to do. I kept angling leftwards as the couloir came upwards towards our left. The rock had become blank of cracks, but there were a few scabs of very flexible rotten flakes.
The alarms went off in my head, activating my whole being into survival mode. I rappelled, passed an overhang and tension traversed left to a flake-like ledge, pounded two pitons into the compressed gravel behind it, and began wondering what to do next. Looking down I could see nothing to go for. I wished I had brought the bolt kit; Mugs had wanted to, but I had insisted that it wouldn’t be necessary, and besides it was too heavy. Alpine style, you know: too much weight, count every match, and all that jive. My mind raced in all directions at once, as a cat might behave trapped in a corner by salivating alsatians. The word frantic would best describe my reactions.
Near the end of the rope, a small but solitary flake came into view. I stopped and stared at it, hanging on the rope as a sad, sweet rhapsody of emotion washed over me.
Computer-like, I made a decision and yelled up instructions to Mugs. I asked him to tie off one rope to his anchors and to send the other down so I could check things out. If I saw nothing, I would have to jumar 300 feet to Mugs, then we would have to climb back up to the summit, ten pitches or more, and look for another way down. It was a devastating course of action, which would require the rest of the day and part of the next.
I tensioned left again, and then climbed up and left, my crampons screeching on the rotten granite as I searched for tiny holds. Putting a number three Stopper in the only place available, I clipped in and continued rappelling. Near the end of the rope, a small but solitary flake came into view. I stopped and stared at it, hanging on the rope as a sad, sweet rhapsody of emotion washed over me. I remained there motionless with visions of people I loved and owed love to. It’s sad that we don’t appreciate the commonplace yet wonderful and beautiful trivial duties of life, like saying hello or washing the dishes, without paying attention. I guess that you don’t miss the water until your well runs dry.
These thoughts rustled over my mind, and I emerged slowly from the reverie, realizing that this was what we in California call a “heavy scene.”
My intuition had been correct; we had come to meet our ordeal. I looked up and saw clouds beginning to prey the sky, then started back up the rope, turning for one last look at the flake.
Reaching the nut, I unclipped, swung back right and continued up to the anchors. Yelled to Mugs to come down; I woke him as he had fallen asleep from the excitement.
He could tell there was uncertainty in my voice. When he reached me, I explained the situation before we pulled the ropes so that he could partake in the decision. Once the ropes were down, we’d have no choice. He had an easy way of boosting my confidence while accepting my course of action, whatever I might choose.
Casino time: one roll of the dice for all the marbles. I said a prayer and started down. Retracing my traverse, I reached the Stopper I’d previously fixed and brought Mugs down to a minimal stance. He surveyed the anchor briefly, and then looked at me with wonder that was broken off by doubt. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “That’s it.” My heart was trying to escape from my mouth for the next 150 feet, until I secured a number one Friend behind the small flake I’d see. I placed another nut while Mugs duplicated the rappel; he later told me that he almost unclipped from the anchor, but quickly decided and realized that a fast death was more appealing than a slow and agonizing yet inevitable one.
After descending half the rope, I gave thanks to the merciful one. For, wonder of wonders, the ropes reached a snow-covered ramp. The chilling grip of death relaxed and a calming peace soothed my quaking soul. The descent became routine and within two hours we were galloping down steep snow toward the security of the tent.
Everything there was frozen. We immediately fired up the stove and began guzzling brew after brew of hot liquid. We laughed and joked until late in the night. We’d had five days of intense experience and required some time to unwind. The cards were played and we had drawn aces. Finally I collapsed into prone paralysis; just before unconsciousness, the memorable words of French climber Jean Afanassieff came to mind, “This is the fucking life, no?”
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