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Anchorage teacher looks to climb 5 treacherous 'teeth'

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Anchorage climber Jay Rowe has an obsession with teeth -- giant, precarious teeth.

The Huffman Elementary School physical education teacher has made it his mission to climb the five forbidding peaks in the Mooses Tooth massif not far from Mount McKinley in the Alaska Range.

The 9,050-foot Broken Tooth, which has only been climbed four times, has proved particularly pernicious. Seven times Rowe has made a bid for the summit. Seven times he's been repelled, most recently with Peter Haeussler in June.

Sometimes it's bad weather. Other times it's bad rock. Occasionally, just bad luck.

"Last time we got 2,000 feet up and hit rock so rotten, you couldn't put a piton in," he said. "It was just a dead end."

Rowe has climbed the other spectacular yet treacherous teeth -- 10,335-foot Mooses Tooth, 10,070-foot Bear's Tooth and 9,000-foot Eye Tooth in 2004 and 8,000-foot Sugar Tooth in 2006.

None is easy.

"The rugged bulk of the Mooses Tooth sits directly across from the sheer east face of Mount Dickey, creating the grand Gateway to the Ruth Gorge," writes Joseph Puryear in "Alaska Climbing," his 2006 book. "But unlike Mount Dickey, this complex massif has no forgiving route to the summit.

"Its north face is strewn with hanging glaciers; its colossal east face contains some of the most severe alpine routes in Alaska; its southern flank is a massive rock rampart split by thin ice couloirs; and the lower angled western slopes culminate in the narrow spine that creates the literal crown of the 'tooth.' "

Most of Rowe's Broken Tooth attempts came in the early 1990s.

"My first three attempts, I wanted to climb it just because it's such a beautiful feature," Rowe said. "When we didn't make it I figured, 'Well, we can do better next time.' "

Then he knocked off Mooses Tooth, Bear's Tooth and Eye Tooth in one season. Two years later, he was on the summit of Sugar Tooth.

Slowly, the seed of an idea was planted.

"We're hoping to be the first to stand on the summit of all five tooths," Rowe said. "As you can see, it's taking a while. I'm 48, and I would really like to get 'er done by my 50th birthday.

"Broken Tooth is the crux. It's just hard to get to, and there's no line without some kind of peril."

May and early June are the best times for a bid -- lots of daylight but before the rain and drizzle of mid-June takes over. A surface of windblown snow that's rock-hard is ideal.

"That holds an ax beautifully," Rowe said in reference to the ice ax climbers use in that terrain. "It's like climbing ice but softer. You can move very quickly through that."

Under ideal conditions, the climb can take two or three days. On such vertical faces, climbers use a device called a port-a-ledge that hangs from suspension points, allowing them to rest at night.

But as most alpinists know, ideal conditions are rare.

Last year, Rowe and companions Haeussler and Cody Arnold made a bid to climb the west ridge of Broken Tooth, starting at 5,600 feet.

But a storm dumped about two feet of fresh snow, locking them in their bivouac for two days, ruining their intended route and sending the avalanche risk soaring.

Once again, retreat was the only wise option.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

Talking 'Teeth' Jay Rowe will talk about his climbs and show images during the monthly meeting of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the BP Energy Center. The show is free.

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