Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sandbaggers

When you're sitting around a fire on a climbing roadtrip yammering about all the awesome places there are to rock climb, Montana is rarely mentioned. It's true, there aren't any major venues there to visit, but the place is just brimming with climbable rock. Locals know this, and I think they've done a pretty good job of keeping things off the radar. To top this off the routes are incredibly sandbagged, and the climbs are graded similarly to some old school areas like Yosemite, Eldo and the Adirondacks.


Prior to my AMGA course in the Cascades I stopped in Bozeman, Montana for a bit of an alpine warmup in anticipation of my Cascade chossathlon. I have climbed ice in Montana on multiple occasions now, and I've climbed a day or two in Gallatin Canyon (an understated gem with bulletproof rock and beautiful climbing). It's not like I didn't know there was climbing in Montana. What I found on this most recent four-day trip though, was that Montana has giant alpine routes on bulletproof rock. This discovery was pleasantly surprising and a bit startling. You hear all the time about the Tetons, the Wind River Range and Rocky Mountain National Park. You never hear about the Absaroka Range or the Beartooths though when you're talking about the Rockies.





I landed in Bozeman at 1 p.m.; one of my favorite climbing partners, Lawrence Haas, was waiting when I arrived. By 4:30 p.m. most of a six-pack Deschutes Inversion IPA was gone and we were on our way to Livingston, bags packed and ready to go. At 5:30 (yes, only one hour from town!) we were on the trail. 9 uphill miles later we stumbled into camp, pitched our tent in a nice bivy site by Elbow Lake and sacked out. 22 hours of traveling plus a bit of elevation gain had pooped me out.



We woke the following morning to chilly temperatures and low lying clouds. The clouds prevented us from wanting to climb our objective, the Montana Centennial Route. After some serious caffeination, bloatmeal (I detest instant oatmeal) and the normal morning constitutionals we wandered up to some nearby formations on the left side of Elbow Lake. Here, a confusing looking set of towers stands sentinel over Elbow Lake and our camp. We decided on a short but beautiful corner system that stood out from camp.

As we approached the Papa Bear, the Mama Bear and the Baby Bear things became much clearer. What looked like one confusing cliff was actually three different buttresses with gullies between them. We found our corner system on the Baby Bear and soloed up the base to rope up. Woohoo! The laser cut corner system had not one but two splitter cracks at the back, at right angles to each other. I won the roshambo and started up the money pitch. 80 feet up, the splitters ended at an awkward 5.9 layback through a wide section. After a puzzling moment I was at the belay. Two moderate pitches later we were on top, with good views of our approach the following day and of the beautiful cirque above.

We awoke at 4:30 a.m. the following morning. The Montana Centennial Route, with a total of eleven 50m+ pitches including several pitches of 5.10 and 5.11 plus a whole bunch of 5.9 and 5.8, was going to take us all day. We were on the trail by 6 and racked up at the base by 7. Two slightly wandering 5.8 pitches deposited us at the first really engaging pitch, an awkward 5.10 crack system that ended with a strange holdless slab move through an overlap. Bizarre unprotected easy face climbing led to the belay.



From here the routefinding was straightforward but the climbing was continuously challenging and reminiscent of the Scenic Cruise in the Black Canyon. An amazing long corner (230' to be exact) with wild 5.9 climbing at the top led to a ramp system. From here a beautiful corner and crack took us to another nice ledge below the crux. The crux, which Lawrence led, consisted of a challenging roof traverse followed by fun corner climbing and a 5.11b layback/stand-up move to crappiest sloper on Earth. Apparently Gallatin Canyon has been good schooling for Larry, he sent the thing first go. I on the other hand, with 4-liters of water, jackets and shoes in the pack on my back, whined, inched and hung my way through things. Typical I guess; I always seem to get the beatdown on technical granite cruxes.


The exposed climbing above, which was intensified by rope-levitating winds, is solid, challenging and memorable. A red Camalot sized splitter runs for nearly a whole pitch at one point and the pitch above sports bizarre holdless friction moves and some thrutching up a beautiful wide crack and corner system. However, like so many other alpine routes that don't go to true summits, the route ends ignominiously on a loose 4th class ridge that's uncharacteristic of the lower 95% of the route.

A short walk and two rappels put us squarely on solid ground. From there it's a load of loose 3rd class plus a few rappels back to the base, or a long easy scramble to the back of the basin for the walk off. We chose the latter, and after a lot of getting cliffed out we finally found our traverse off. Forty minutes later we were sipping whiskey and chowing snacks at the tent.

Our descent down to the car was memorable for one reason only - it's all downhill for 9 miles, which really isn't that cool. Actually, after a while it sucks. However, the cold beverages stashed in the creek at the trailhead were our carrot on a stick.

The Montana Centennial Route, which is graded IV 5.11a, is similar in length to the Scenic Cruise (V, 5.10d) in the Black Canyon but with slightly harder climbing. This grade seems consistent with the sense of understatement and the traditional grading found on a lot of the climbs in Montana. The area was so impressive that Lawrence and I are already scheming about even bigger objectives in the Beartooths, just east of the Absaroka Range. So, if you're looking for good alpine climbing in an easy to access spot with zero crowds consider the Cowen Cirque in the Absaroka Range near Livingston MT, you won't be disappointed.