Ice Climbing in the Beartooths: November 2016

Alan Rousseau at the belay of Pitch 5 of Ice Dragons.
The Fall of 2016 will go in the books as one of the warmest and driest on record for the intermountain west.  Which for some user groups has been preferable:  Mountain bikers, rock climbers, and trail runners have been shocked about the ability to still get up high and find dry conditions into mid-November.  It has, however, left the ice climbing community pouring over photos, forums, and searching long range forecasts for somewhere within a days drive that has below freezing temps.  Around the Salt Lake area one climber, Nathan Smith, is more vigilant than the rest.  When I got a message from Nathan suggesting heading to the Beartooth’s (a remote range in Montana) to climb an ice line, of course I was interested. 
East Rosebud Lake. The trail starts on the left-hand side of the photo and winds it’s way up to the ice line on the far left.

The Beartooth range is one that is generally kept quiet, people seem to keep information close to the chest.  I had heard of it as this kind of mystical place, reserved for the hard, with flurries of development of long routes in rugged terrain.  Which of course added to the appeal, but makes finding information regarding our planned route, Ice Dragons, not all that easy.  Fortunately, Nathan spoke to someone that had recently climbed the route.  However, we still had a wide range of ambiguity regarding technical difficulty.  One guidebook suggested a grade of M6 WI4, while one trip report suggested WI3, lengths of the climb also varied from 1,000’ to 1,500’.  Either way we were interested in climbing something frozen so we packed up the car and started the nine-hour drive to the East Rosebud Trailhead.  Arriving with a couple hours of light we caught a view of Ice Dragons:  A stunning ribbon of ice splitting the large north face, which forms the shoulder of Mount Inabit.  Our binoculars confirmed that the line was very much in.  

Alan in the “five-mile basin” nearing the cirque holding Ice Dragons.

We began to read through approach information, and found two viable options.  The first was less distance overall, but more mileage through unstable scree and talus fields.  We opted for a second option that had a bit more mileage but less off-trail time.  After plotting some waypoints into our maps we set off into grizzly country at 4 am, hoping our big four legged friends were deep in a winter slumber already.  The first six miles of trail flew by in under two hours.  We found ourselves under a large rock face known as “the Bears Face” from here we located a deep slot, filled with loose rock where we would gain 1300’ of elevation.  It was classic one-step-forward-two-steps-back terrain, and was pretty time consuming.  Eventually we popped out on the pleasant treed shoulder of Inabit and then dropped down and contoured into the talus filled “five-mile basin” where Ice Dragons can be found.
Navigating the talus leading up to Ice Dragons, the largest ice flow in the center of the photo.

We arrived at the foot of the route in five hours.  We were told that the ice would get fatter and fatter with an Indian summer, but were still surprised at how much ice was there compared to conditions the first ascent party found.  Instead of looking at a pitch of primarily rock, we were looking at a pitch of WI3 with maybe a move or two on the rock.  
Alan Rousseau on the first pitch of Ice Dragons.

The climb for us was mostly rambling WI3 and all pitches were around 60 meters in length.  The ice was in great condition, not quite plastic but the majority was one hit sticks.  The position and nature of the climb, up the obvious weakness in the wall, gave it a distinctly alpine feel.  After 1,300’ of climbing we hit the plateau of Mount Inabit.  We rappelled back down the route building two rock anchors and the rest were v-threads. 
Alan Rousseau on the third pitch of Ice Dragons.

Looking back just a few miles to summer conditions lower on the trail.
Nathan Smith on the fourth pitch of Ice Dragons

Alan at the top of the ice climbing. 300’ of snow and mixed lead to the plateau from here.

Alan punching his way up.

For the descent we decided to take the more direct option that involved more off trail time.  It also involved some undesirable scree fields but was not nearly as steep as the notch we climbed through that morning.  The descent took around 3 hours from “five mile basin” to the car.  We arrived at the car at 5:30 pm and had to turn on headlamps as we sorted through gear.  Just as soon as we arrived we loaded up the car and started the long drive back to Salt Lake.  Nathan took the helm all the way back, arriving back at in the city at 3:30 AM the same time our alarms sounded 24 hours earlier.  The stats were 18 hours of driving, over 18 miles of walking, 5,300’ of elevation gain, 1,300’ of ice climbing, 45 and half hours Salt Lake to Salt Lake, and two climbers stoked for winter to show up in their backyard. 

Alan hiking out after a fun day in the Beartooths.

Thanks to Nathan for motivating, the Beartooth’s for being rad, and as always to Liberty Mountain for the continuing support.
-Alan Rousseau

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