Carving the Tooth

First snowboard descent of the Moose’s Tooth, Central Alaska Range

Words and images by Lance Leslie

The dawn of the 1990s was a pivotal period for the sport of snowboarding. Charging out of the ‘80s it had made a bold slash across the face of the dusty ski industry, igniting a youth-led lifestyle revolution that pumped both money and energy into this new generation of snow sports.

Of the early riders who once surfed their greasy sleeping bags across Tahoe couches, some went on to video and magazine fame, big sponsorships and legit paychecks, after years of dodging ski patrollers and poaching illegal lines inside SkiCo boundaries closed to all but skiers.

Enter: The Age of Extreme.

Shawn Farmer carving close to the edge below the summit.
Farmer drops into an ice cavern during a day of filming in a playground of seracs and crevasses above the big icefall.
Chris Pappas launches into a gaping crevasse.

It seems corny today to apply the term “extreme” to anything but burritos, pro wrestling extravaganzas or discounts on used cars, but it was plastered like a giant dayglo sticker onto snowboarding by the turn of the decade. Mohawks and dreadlocks adorned the heads of rad shredders who aired over blockbuster bad guys in Verbier and backflipped for beer commercials in Vail.

Apart from the resorts and pro contest crowds, a revolution had also taken place in the cliff-riddled gullies and sharply inclined chutes of the backcountry, where an elite contingent of riders were hucking off of powder-pillowed rock ledges and stacking air in ever greater magnitude. These standards seem almost commonplace today, but consider that the edge hadn’t yet been cut. This riding was all accessed from road-served ski areas. The commitment level was high in such terrain, which often required some steep bootpacking to attain precarious launch zones, but it lacked the total immersion of real wilderness adventure.

High winds scour the eastern summit ridge of Denali, highest peak in North America.
The sheer granite canine tooth of Mt. Johnson soars above the Ruth Gorge.

Alaska was waiting to take that role of ultimate challenge.

Peaks surrounding the Don Sheldon Amphitheater.

Providing all the criteria of difficulty, remoteness, total commitment and high potential for fatality, the Moose’s Tooth, even by name, presents an image that evokes prehistoric megafauna—soaring granite buttresses the hue of fossilized ivory rising from a sprawling complex of glaciers and icefalls. Along its sharp, serpentine crest, immense cornices teeter in defiance of gravity over 3000-foot vertical faces on either side. It’s not the type of shredding terrain that one would immediately consider as an objective, nor was there any precedent in 1990 for even thinking that such a notion could be reasonably approached.

The team traverses the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, with Mt. Huntington and the Rooster Comb in the distance.
Satellite peaks of the Moose’s Tooth cast their shadows across the undulating glacier of the Ruth Gorge.

In late June, our six-person team had flown by ski plane from the small but growing village of Talkeetna to the breathtaking cathedral walls of the Ruth Gorge, with the aim of finding out if the Tooth could indeed reveal that rare experience of exploration and discovery. Nobody had ever attempted a snowboard descent of a major peak in Alaska before; in fact, snowboarding had only seriously arrived here the previous year, when the very notable riders Jim Zellers and Tom Burt had ventured into this same region to recon what possibilities might exist among The Great Land’s wealth of glaciated peaks. Not being climbers, they had been rebuffed and humbled by the massive alpine scale and technical difficulty of ascending any of these arctic mountains.

View of the Moose’s Tooth from basecamp. The big icefall leads up to the crevassed section and the broad shoulder of the West Ridge. Above, rock slabs guard the narrow, slanting couloir that gains the ridge to the point of descent just below the west summit. The mountain’s true summit is out of view.

Shawn Farmer, Nick Perata, and Chris Pappas had earned their bones in some of the gnarliest backcountry of the “Lower 48,” as Alaskans call everywhere else to the south. Steep and deep was their oeuvre, and the three had hit every hot spot and secret powder stash from the Sierra Nevada to the Tetons to the Cascades, their feats gracing many a magazine spread and some of the groundbreaking boarding videos of the day. They had approached me, then an editor and photo editor of Climbing magazine in Colorado, to organize and lead an expedition to Alaska to shoot a feature segment for the production, Totally Board, for Fall Line/Standard Films, a company that had made an early splash with its high-voltage videos featuring Farmer, Perata and other destined-to-be-legendary figures of the sport. I also had a background as an alpine climber and professional mountain guide in Alaska, and so was intimately familiar with the terrain and technical requirements of getting these climbing neophytes, and the accompanying cinematographer Scott Duncan and photographer Brian Bailey, up and back intact.

Farmer applies wax to his snowboard, using a cooking pot heated on a camp stove.

Asked for my recommendation of a worthy cinematic location, I offered the Moose’s Tooth, a striking, rock-buttressed peak at a modest elevation of 10,335 feet, but still a supremely challenging goal at these arctic latitudes. I had climbed its West Ridge in 1977 and identified that route as a good line for a possible snowboard assault.          

Entering the crevassed section above the icefall, with the massive walls of Mt. Dickey rearing in the background.

Under the imaginably curious gaze of Denali, whose colossal mass filled the western skyline, it’s wind-ripped summit etched against the sky at 20,310 feet, we moved heavy loads containing a month’s worth of supplies, snowboard and climbing gear, and filming equipment across the level glacier expanse of the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. The group traveled roped together in two teams on skis—a first for these hardcore snowboarders, used to only one thing sliding underfoot—which deposited us at our basecamp located a half-mile from the guardian icefall at the foot of the Moose’s Tooth.

Brian Bailey climbs along the West Ridge above the team’s high camp.

The three riders gazed in awed silence at the intricate assemblage of crumbling ice towers crisscrossed with crevasses, leading up to the broad snow shoulder of the West Ridge. Above that, the Tooth reared skyward in palisades of granite split by a system of steep snow couloirs terminating on the impossibly long, heavily corniced crest to the peak’s higher south summit. We were aiming for the slightly lower west summit, which provided the only viable line of descent.

Spectacular peaks of the Ruth Gorge present vertical rises nearly twice that of Yosemite’s big walls.

The ensuing days found us working our loads up through the lower maze of passages, weaving among yawning crevasses, and installing ourselves in a high camp three-quarters of the way up the ridge. The weather turned foul and temperatures were unseasonably warm. A foot of wet snow fell on the tents, where we lay in our sleeping bags, blasting cassettes of The Cult, Iron Maiden and the Beastie Boys through our Walkman speakers, while laughing hysterically at tales of madman Farmer’s mountain and bar exploits. During brief clearings, Scott Duncan captured footage on his pre-digital-era Arriflex 16mm film camera of the guys airing over the camp from snow ramps they had shovelled on the slope. All were growing anxious for an extended break in the weather that would allow us to ascend the more technical upper route to the west summit. Brian Bailey, who was an accomplished rock climbing photographer, assisted me in rigging fixed safety lines across the steep rock slabs giving passage into the couloir that would take our team to the summit ridge. Then our long awaited break came.

High camp on the West Ridge.
Scott Duncan and a tent mate sit out a storm at high camp. Photo: Scott Duncan

A pre-dawn start propelled our two roped teams up the ridge and across the fixed lines. Careful boot placement required sharp focus. Metal crampon spikes scraped on steep rock. The newbie climbers took it all in stride, but their heavy breathing and muttered expletives punctuated the cold, still air. Reaching the couloir, we broke out ice axes and ascended in a straight shot 700 feet to a saddle on the corniced ridgecrest. The guys scouted this section on the way up and determined it to be rideable but very narrow and icy in spots, with a drop that would deliver a falling boarder, unable to self-arrest with an ice axe, over a rock cliff and a 1000-foot free fall to the glacier below.

The team traverses the fixed lines across the rock slabs and ascends the steep snow couloir.

The cameramen and myself hunkered down on the saddle, while Pappas, Perata and Farmer kicked up the saw-toothed snow ridge leading to the summit. Wraiths of mist began to drift up from below as the day warmed. We waited, monitoring our hand-held radios. The three riders were finally in position on top, their whoops echoing down to us, followed by Perata’s voice crackling over the radio, “Standing by… Holy s**t! It’s f***ing insane up here!”

The author and expedition leader monitors the two-way radio as the riders move into launch position on the upper route. Pink was big that year! Photo: Scott Duncan
Farmer and Perata air off a crevasse wall for the camera.

I gave the countdown: “Three, two, one, DROP!”

Farmer in full flight.
Virgin territory awaits Perata.
Dialing a line through crervasses and avalance debris.

My memory of those elongated seconds are indelibly framed within the viewfinder of my Nikon, which, a bit regretfully, shrinks such an expansive view, and its moment in time. But history, under later examination, is always bigger.

Farmer rides the precipitous upper ridge.

One by one, the riders carved down the steep double fall line of the summit ridge. Farmer, the first one to run this section, blazed all-out, his axe raised overhead like a marauding Viking. He edged dangerously close to the overhanging cornices, where the sheer 3000-foot drop of the East Face sucked at his boots. Perata and Pappas followed, writing their own signatures in the opalescent Alaskan snow.

A puckering 80-foot drop from an ice serac greets Farmer.
A puckering 80-foot drop from an ice serac greets Farmer.
Bailey tests the terrain above high camp.
Nick Perata skirts an ice wall in the complex of glacial features that offered the most cinematic territory on the Moose’s Tooth.

The first ascensionists of the Moose’s Tooth, by this route in 1964, could have hardly envisioned such an event. Today, it’s still a little unbelievable, but these images preserve the true record of pioneers redefining the elusive edge of “extreme.”

Farmer makes the first run from the top of the route, as Pappas and Perata wait for their turns above.
Farmer descends from just above the saddle, about to make the transition into the couloir. The 3000-foot drop of the East Face yawns on the left.
Bailey climbs to the top of a run, with Denali behind.
The area below high camp offered numerous serac drops and jumps.
1990 was a very colorful period for snowboarding!

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Carving the Tooth // Alaska Stories

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