The Beartooth Mountain Range in Montana is still one of my favorite places to climb. What they lack in elevation or scale when compared to the greater ranges of the world, they make up for in rugged terrain, remoteness, unclimbed routes, and isolation. If you want a world-class alpine climbing adventure on a budget, the Beartooths are a pretty good choice. It’s also a good place to get your ass kicked and your ego taken down a few notches, but I have somehow managed to forget that lesson every time I’ve gone there.
I trained hard through May and June, and I could feel my strength and technique start to come back; I hadn’t felt that strong since I left Bozeman six years ago. With confidence brimming (along with naiveté), Nate and I planned to spend eight days in the ‘Tooths climbing three established lines on Granite Peak and Glacier Peak, and attempting two new routes we had scoped out the year before. We made lists, bought food, burned CDs for the ride, and divvied up an absurd amount of gear…technical shells, sleeping bags and pads, boots, rock shoes, crampons, ice tools, spare picks, cams, nuts, pitons, ‘biners, multiple ropes, whiskey, two stoves, food and fuel for two for eight days…it all went into two massive packs that ended up weighing over eighty pounds each. Hefting them in my apartment, we convinced ourselves that hauling all that shit up thirteen hundred meters of switchbacks and across Froze-To-Death Plateau wouldn’t be that bad; hell, it would probably just be a good warm-up!
Nate and I took off in my rusty Corolla right after work on Thursday, and after stopping to sleep for a few hours in Miles City and for coffee and gear in Billings, we arrived at the trailhead for the West Rosebud Canyon at about 1300 on Friday. We only had a couple hours of hiking ahead of us since we were planning to make camp at Mystic Lake that night and tackle the switchbacks and the plateau in the morning, but the weather was less than cooperative. We got rained on the entire time as we hiked up the trail to the lake, the downpour only abating when we reached the shore and started to set up camp.
The next morning, we were packed up and on the trail by 0800. As we had pessimistically predicted the night before, it began to rain again as soon as we started up the switchbacks. Three hours of uphill and a lot of swearing at the weight of our packs put us on the edge of Froze-To-Death Plateau, and she was trying her very best to live up to her name. It was cold enough that a thin film of ice still covered most of the glacier-fed streams, and the wind was gusting and seemed to switch directions every few seconds. Typical weather for the plateau.
We began the hike across, but barely made it a mile before a massive storm system moved in and began dumping snow and rain on the boulder fields. The wind started to blow even harder, and visibility dropped to about one hundred meters. It was only 1330 and I hated the thought of getting benighted in the middle of the exposed landscape, but the storm looked like it was here to stay and I relished the thought of navigating the plateau in a whiteout even less. We quickly found a semi-flat grassy spot in the middle of the boulder field and put up the single-wall North Face tent. Crawling inside with the whiskey and a big bag of beef jerky, we settled in to wait out the storm…it’s a good thing we brought a lot of whiskey because we waited there until morning.
Dawn brought cold but clear skies and a constant thirty m.p.h. wind that occasionally gusted hard enough to blow us over. Two permanent Beartooth residents kept us company as we packed up, apparently unfazed by the wind.
We made our way across the snowfields that covered much of the plateau, grateful for the cold conditions that kept us from post-holing as we walked. The wind never abated, but the skies remained clear as we walked towards our first view of Granite Peak. I was a couple hundred meters ahead of Nate when the massive north face came into view, and I stopped in my tracks, shocked and dismayed by what I saw. The entire face was plastered with fresh snow and ice, and every route we had planned on attempting was overhung with massive cornices. We had come here during the same week a year ago, and the conditions were perfect for mixed rock/ice climbing on the face and in the couloirs. This year (as we found out later), the Beartooth Range had received roughly two hundred percent of their typical annual snowfall, creating climbing conditions that made playing Russian roulette look like a safe alternative.
I was pissed because I knew I had screwed up – I had egotistically made incorrect assumptions about weather and snow conditions that a quick phone call to one of my climbing partners out here would have corrected. We continued to the edge of the plateau so we could glass the face with a monocular, but I already knew we weren’t going to be doing any climbing on these mountains. With heavy hearts and packs, we retraced our steps across Froze-To-Death and down the switchbacks, arriving back at our campsite by Mystic Lake in time to eat dinner and collapse in our tent.
The next morning, we walked down to the car by 1030 and took off the big packs for the last time. As soon as we got cell phone service, I called my old friend Loren, a science teacher living in Red Lodge and the man who taught me most of what I know about climbing when I lived in Bozeman. I was hoping for a place to crash for a night and some help planning enough climbing for the next eight days to redeem our trip. Loren answered immediately, and graciously offered to put us up at his cabin in Red Lodge and take us climbing the next day.
We partied in Red Lodge that night (Sunday), and woke up hung over but ready to climb the next day. An hour’s drive put us in a gravel pullout near a massive canyon in Wyoming with three hundred meter soaring rock walls (sorry, no specific locations – Loren is still developing the area and I promised I wouldn’t give it away). We hiked for an hour past grizzly footprints and furry, bloody food caches to a goat trail that led down to the canyon rim and the first of four double-rope rappels. Loren had established an amazing five pitch 5.11 route here three years ago, and it was honestly one of the cleanest, best, most aesthetic lines I’ve ever been on. The river roaring through the canyon drowned out any attempt at communication between climber and belayer, and eagles screamed through the air to lofty nests built halfway up the massive walls. It was a beautiful, wild place.
We detoured to Cooke City, MT on the way home to procure a six-pack of beer and spicy Cheetos; Loren maintained that it was the perfect climber’s recovery food. The drive back to Red Lodge on the Beartooth Highway was amazing…the views from the high, winding road were the perfect way to cap what had already been a phenomenal day. We got back to Loren’s home at 1900, packed up and said goodbye, and were on our way to Bozeman to spend a couple days with my friend and climbing partner TJ. A “couple days” at his beautiful new house near the Bridger Mountain Range actually stretched into six days and nights, but TJ insisted he didn’t mind.
Nate and I spent five out of the next six days climbing in the Gallatin Canyon between Bozeman and Big Sky…day after day of perfect splitter cracks and juggy roofs turned out to be the perfect antidote to the disappointing conditions we found in the mountains. We jammed cracks and plugged gear for four days until our hands were raw and bleeding through the tape and our bodies screamed for a rest day. After spending Saturday drinking beer, watching zombie movies, and going for a short hike to Palisade Falls in Hyalite Canyon, we squeezed in one more five pitch route on Sunday morning before pointing the Corolla east and heading home.
I had not climbed in the Gallatin for six years, and it was sweet indeed to hop back on the classics where I learned to lead on trad gear. The Joker, the Waltz, Gallatin Tower, the Elevator Shaft, Spare Rib, Skyline Buttress, All Along the Watchtower…Nate could not have asked for better first exposure to multi-pitch trad climbing. It wasn’t extremely hard climbing, but it was some of the most fun I have had in a long time.
We had the last-minute idea and opportunity to climb Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, so after a quick stop to grab a #5 C4 to protect the off-width cracks we had heard so much about, we detoured south and arrived at one of the most bizarre rock formations I have ever seen. Devil’s Tower rises proudly and alone in the midst of grassy plains and sparsely vegetated pine forests. To a climber, the hundreds of perfectly symmetrical vertical cracks scream out to be climbed…and gentlemen that we are, we had to oblige.
After waiting out a morning thunderstorm, we grabbed our gear and basically sprinted to the base of Durrance, the classic five pitch 5.7 route on the tower. We both would have preferred to take a road less traveled, but we were short on time, we weren’t sure the weather would hold, we didn’t have a guidebook, and there were no other climbers on the Tower when we started (no competition for the route but no one to get beta from either).
The quality of the rock and the route was incredible; the climbing included crimpy face climbing, jams ranging from fingers to fists to off-widths, chimneys, overhangs with massive slopers, and thin flakes. The cracks ate gear like crazy and the jamming was stellar and extremely secure…I just wish we could have climbed it twice!
Four sixty meter rappels put us back on level ground, and the time and hassle of pulling and rigging double-rope rappels reinforced my determination to learn how to BASE jump.
Since only one other party was climbing that day and they were still on the wall when we got down, we got a LOT of questions from tourists. My personal favorites:
“Did you go all the way to the top?”
“What are those shiny dangly things?”
“How did you get all the way up there?”
A quick stop for Subway and beer a few miles away satiated our hunger (damn near put us in a food coma actually), and we headed home on the last ten hour leg of the journey. All in all, it was one of the best climbing trips I’ve ever been on. It ended up being completely different than I had originally planned, but sometimes different is not a bad thing. I got to climb a lot of incredible routes, see a couple guys that I love and really care about, and bracket each day’s climbing with lattes and Bridger Bars (in the morning) and beer (at night). I am a pretty lucky guy…