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Access Point

Took us twice the time we thought it would, but the view was nice...

Took us twice the time we thought it would, but the view was nice...

There’s been a lot of action in Montana this week.

Last time I checked in, I was about to embark on a three-day trip with Jason, a local climber who answered my online personal ad.  Jason has been climbing ice around the country for more than a decade and moved to Montana five years ago for the same reasons that I have come now.

On his suggestion, we loaded up my truck and drove three hours southeast to the Beartooths – a range Jason reveres as “very white, very tall, and very infinite.”  The range occupies the area just northeast of Yellowstone and, as part of the greater Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, boasts some 900,000 acres in northern Wyoming and southern Montana.

The plan was as follows: get up early on Monday morning and drive into the mountains; knock out one route that afternoon; drive to another part of the wilderness that night; catch a few hours of sleep in the truck; get up around 3:00 am on Tuesday for the 5-mile approach to that day’s route; finish the climb and get back to the car by nightfall; on Wednesday, assess conditions of routes and climbers; climb if we feel like it, drive home if we don’t; either way, get back home by Wednesday night.

It sounded easy enough, and all was going as planned when we left the trailhead just after noon in the bright sun.

Our objective that afternoon was an ice-choked gully high in the mountains that overlooks a glacier-fed alpine lake.  The route, Funeral for a Friend (two pitches – WI 4-5, 5.7), is only available in the early part of the season before heavy snows bury it until the spring thaw.  The guidebook told us that the climb was twenty minutes south of the lake.  Jason had been as far as the lake and estimated an hour-and-a-half to its north shore.  We generously assessed an extra fifteen minutes to circumnavigate the water, putting us at the base of the climb in a little more than two hours.

Four hours later, at just over 10,000 feet, we breathlessly waded through the final hundred yards of knee-deep, hillside snowpack guarding the gully.  As the sun was setting on our day and, potentially, our plans, we assessed our situation:

It’s 4:30 – maybe one hour until dark, but certainly not two;

We’re five miles and four hours into one of the most difficult approaches either of us can remember;

At least three hours back to the car – even at this point, most of that will be in the dark;

The route would be a challenge for either of us to lead in ideal conditions – with route not fully formed and climbers exhausted, conditions are not ideal;

On the other hand, we trudged all this way for a reason, and what’s four hours in the dark when you’re already guaranteed three?

"Funeral for a Friend." Not today.

"Funeral for a Friend." Not today.

In the end, cooler heads (and colder fingers) prevailed.  We decided the consequences of an accident were too severe and bailed on the route – always a hard decision to make, but sometimes you have to do it.  The stars were out by the time we reached the lake.

My headlamp died soon thereafter (an unforgivable rookie mistake), so my descent turned into a moonlight stroll that was interrupted every few steps by a surprise waist-deep plunge.  We got back to the truck around 8:30 and made a quick and unanimous decision to charge hard for warm beds at home.

We took a rest day on Tuesday and got back at it on Wednesday.  Jason wanted a crack at Bobo Like (WI 5), a route on one of the high ridges that he had followed during a cold snap a week prior.  This early in the season, it’s rare to find a route at low altitude that’s solid enough to climb (much less protect), so getting a chance to climb some ice invariably means suffering through a long, arduous approach to high, shady drainages.

This time, at least, the payoff was a little better.  While the freestanding pillar that was Jason’s real goal remained too thin for comfort, the lower-angle ice ramp that forms the bottom of the route was good to go.  We turned some screws, sank our tools, and ran a few cruiser laps up to the bottom of the pillar on a fifty degree afternoon – not exactly the recipe for a desperate alpine test piece, but a perfect way to get back into the groove.

The author pulling the ice-to-snow transition

The author pulling the ice-to-snow transition

Thursday brought more pleasant weather to Bozeman, and it was in the sixties by lunch time.  While that’s not what you want to see when you’re waiting for dripping ice climbs to fill in, it makes for a perfect afternoon of late-season rock climbing.  Michelle and I had planned for a session on the rocks when we first got to town, but a powder day kept us grounded.  With that in mind, we made the most of the gift of warm sun.  We spent Thursday afternoon at Practice Rock, a roadside crag just inside Hyalite’s gate.

Michelle lowered me off a 5.6 crack right about the time Jason and his wife, Nicole, showed up, and the four of us spent the afternoon top-roping the climbs on either side of the anchors.  On Saturday, Michelle and I drove just outside of town to the Bozeman Pass to clip some bolts.  We found a sunny wall, and scraped up sharp rock for a few hours.

Michelle hung the draws on the 5.7 Enema of the State for her first lead – a memorable event for any climber and especially so when the route has such a sexy name (I remain ashamed that my first trad lead was a Joshua Tree climb called Frosty Cone – my friends and I spent the whole afternoon christening it with cooler titles, none of which are fit to print here).

I short-roped her on this clip...

I short-roped her on this clip...

After a lazy Sunday, Jason and I went back into Hyalite for another try with the tools.  We drove into the main fork and hiked past the low-altitude classics that will see most of our mid-season efforts.

Unfortunately, our destination was at the top of the canyon, and the thinning snow made for another brutal and treacherous hike.  Ice boots are great for kicking up frozen waterfalls but are not well-suited for backpacking up drifted hillsides and across icy cliff bands.  A tree branch saved Jason from a frigid dip in a stream, and I tip-toed a hundred yards out of the way to avoid a ten-foot section of exposed 5.3.  All in a day’s work, I guess.

Jason searching in vain for good ice

Jason searching in vain for good ice

Two hours of that ridiculousness put us at the bottom of Upper Green Sleeves (WI 3), a series of gullies that, in mid-season, will form into full 70-meter rope stretchers.  We were able to climb roughly half of that on wet, slushy ice.  Jason sank three uncertain screws on his way up and tied off on a tree before he got to the unprotectable final flow.  I met him at the belay, and we rappelled as far down the gully as our wet double ropes would allow.  A tricky descent got us back to the truck and the sunshine and lunch.  I’m not sure the one slushy pitch was worth all of the trouble on either side, but we had earned some karma credit when we ditched in the Beartooths.

All in all, a solid week.  Stay tuned for more.  Winter’s just heating up.

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