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Bird's Eye View


The Mooses Tooth Revisited: May 2001

"Why'd you come here with me?" I asked Spencer Pfinsten, the twenty-three-year-old climber who stood beside me below the east face of The Mooses Tooth. It was our second attempt to put up a more direct start to Dance of the Woo-Li Masters. The first time I'd been in this place, with Mugs, Spencer had been a small child. At fifty-seven, I wasn't sure I was still in condition for such a route, but a day of toproping ice had convinced Spencer that I'd be leading all the ice pitches.

"Because you're lucky," he said.

I thought about Mugs, who'd become one of the most visionary climbers of our era, only to die in 1992 in a crevasse on Denali. This time, I'd made a will. I'd told Peggy to sell my gear to collectors before I was forgotten. I remembered the thin and unprotectable snow and ice, the blank and rotten rock that Mugs and I had found on the Tooth. I hoped, for Spencer's sake, that my luck would hold.

Snow fell for days; inside the tent I lay in my warm sleeping bag. And then a roar began outside. "That's big," I said and sat up.


As I lay back down, I heard myself shout, "Uh-oh." I threw my knees up and braced myself as the avalanche hit the tent.

Our camp was flattened. In shock, that day and most of the next, while the storm continued, we dug out and resurrected our site.

"Luck doesn't just happen," I told Spencer, trying to persuade myself as well. I wanted to impart forty years of knowledge about staying alive to my neophyte friend. "You have to coordinate the elements to keep the advantage in your favor. After a storm you wait and watch for the ice- and rockfall. Watch the barometer to get an idea of how to predict the weather...."

By the end of the first day of climbing, Spencer and I had reached our previous high point; above it was the pitch that had turned us back the year before. The memory of the sixty-five degree blank rock and unconsolidated, granular snow had frightened me ever since. I tied my follow-through bowline, just as Layton had taught me when I first arrived in Yosemite, and climbed into my nightmare.

"End of rope," Spencer yelled up to me.

"Tie another one on," I called back. All thoughts of retreat were gone. As the light glistened up the rock, I felt like a child again, following the beautiful movement of a lizard, higher and higher. For 200 feet without protection, I tiptoed up the snow-covered slabs, imagining once more that I had that animal's miraculous ability to stick. I slung a snow blob for an anchor, while wet avalanches reverberated down the face to the solitude of the Buckskin Glacier.

Bridwell at the start of the 200-foot runout on The Beast Pillar in 2000. Bridwell is the alpinist most familiar with the Buckskin Glacier, which also provides access to the east face of The Mooses Tooth; he has established three routes in the cirque, all of which are longer than 4,000 feet. [Photo] Spencer Pfinsten

Spencer led a downward traverse that brought us to the ice chimneys I'd climbed with Mugs. The conditions had changed our options completely. My tools and crampons pulled through slush, scraping the rock beneath. Instead of the bold alpine ice climbing Mugs and I had done, we'd have to aid. Spencer and I only had a few Birdbeaks, so I kept backcleaning them. A fall would have likely ripped out our marginal anchor. What Mugs and I had climbed in minutes now took hours.

"Arghh!" Spencer screamed the next morning. A rock had struck his arm. "I can keep going," he said when he reached me. "I just can't lead anymore."

If the weather held, tomorrow had to be the day. At sunrise the sky glowed pink, suggesting an approaching storm. For now, at the top of the chimneys, we climbed into bright sunshine. Meltwater ran from the long snowfield above. At the end of sixty meters, Spencer tied on another rope. There was clearly nowhere I could place an anchor to rappel. If I continued, how would we get down? I kept going toward a narrow gully that appeared to lead into the corner Mugs and I had climbed, found some rock anchors and called down, "Rope's fixed." We could worry about the descent later.

I checked my altimeter. I was just below the crux pitch Mugs had led twenty years before. The solid ice he'd climbed was completely gone. I stopped to smoke a cigarette. Soon I'd have to aid a discontinuous series of loose, crumbly flakes, with no option of falling. But I knew by now this was my favorite kind of climbing: in which skill and experience are tempered by constant fear, and imagination creates new possibilities out of fate.

All the same, when I reached good anchors, I felt tired and old. Spencer's infectious spirits cheered me for a moment, and then I was nearly crawling toward the second corner system, my legs cramped, my breath short. Shattered blocks and flakes of vertical rock, with icy hollows, gave way to solid ice at last. At the limits of my endurance, I was forced to be old-man crafty. Using every piece of knowledge I'd learned from Layton and Frank and countless other mentors and partners and wishing I were twenty-five years younger, I squeezed through the narrows behind a large snow mushroom... and then out again.

Fantastic rock and ice shapes bedazzled my eyes. There was no cornice this time, just an easy breach to the summit slope beyond. The struggle was over. As I belayed, I looked down at Spencer climbing, his hurt arm moving a little awkwardly, and relief overwhelmed me.

The Beast Pillar may be the hardest route I've climbed. Ever.

There are things that can be controlled and things that can't. Somewhere in the spaces between the two, we fashion our art and our lives.

Bridwell posing for a 1986 article in Rolling Stone magazine, with Lake Tahoe in the background. [Photo] Michael Nichols

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