This is the story about a major pursuit of mine I started researching back around Christmas in 2011, nearly a year ago. Oddly enough it all started when I posted a thread on 14ers.com asking the masses there for advice on guidebooks for different parts of North America ranging from Alaska, Alberta, the Coast Ranges of BC, the Absarokas, Lost River Range and the Beartooth Mountains. I got all kinds of great responses and was exposed to many books I didn't know of before, some of which I bought. However what really struck me was when my friend Jed, (rockthrowjoe on SP) mentioned that there is no comprehensive book for the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. Now it didn't hit me at first but as the new year came and I continued my quest for winter 14ers in Colorado, the idea started to come to me more and more. I have always wanted to write a guidebook but thought it would be impossible since all the great ranges in the US already have really good ones published and competing would really be a challenge, but after doing more extensive research, I never found a comprehensive guide for the Beartooth Moutains and I started thinking of ways I could make one, and turn one of my dreams into a reality.
As the winter pressed on, I was in my last semester of college and in no mood to start a permanent job after graduating so I took advantage of an opportunity to really live life by planning to take the summer of 2012 off altogether. I began making the plans for which states I would visit, which mountains I would climb and who I will be climbing with from May through August. The lease at my apartment I had ended April 31st so that is where my trip really began. I had enough money saved up to spend on food and gas for the summer as well so all was looking well. I spent all of May and June in Colorado traveling, climbing centennials, sport climbing with friends in Golden, and living life care free. I often returned to Golden from the depths of Colorado to visit with friends and usually drove up to Genessee Park to stay the night under the stars at the summit. I slept next to my car on countless dirt roads and made many new friends while climbing peaks all over the state.
Then around June 21st, I picked up Josh Lewis in Denver and we climbed a bunch of cool Colorado peaks together for a week and a half. We even wandered over to Utah for a few days so he could finally get the chance to do a slot canyon. He bought a one way bus ticket to Denver for this trip, and my superb planning skills helped bring him back home to WA. Since I had a couple friends in Colorado (Stephan and Andrew) who wanted to climb Rainier around the 4th of July, Josh and I teamed up with them and we drove to Mount Rainier...not in my car (sweet my car gets a break!). We climbed the Emmons Route July 6-8 and afterwards, Josh took a bus back home and the three of us drove back to Colorado where I picked up my car and was once again on my own for a couple days. However the next big chapter of my summer was just about to begin, where Stephan and I would head to Montana. This chapter of my summer is what this trip report describes.
We were going to climb the Montana 12ers, hopefully by multiple routes and document them well enough to write a detailed guidebook for the Beartooth Mountains with focus on the 26 ranked 12,000 foot peaks. All of Montana'a 12ers are in the Beartooth Mountains. I spent hours before the summer started looking at each peak and potential routes on Google Earth, reading texts and trip reports already published and planning out a sequence of climbs for a period of five weeks. These routes ranged from steep snow climbs, to difficult scrambles all the way down to long talus slogs. When July 12th rolled around though, Stephan and I began the journey by taking the drive north through Wyoming to Red Lodge, Montana where we spent our first night just outside town. As a generic overview of what this report will cover, I will describe in detail our experiences on 18 of the 26 12,000 foot peaks. We didn't quite finish all 26 of them so I plan to return next summer to finish the eight remaining peaks as well as climbing the snow routes on the peaks we did this summer but were too late to climb due to low snow levels. I hope you enjoy the read and find this information below helpful in your future Beartooth endevours.
West Fork Rock Creek: July 13 - July 18
After waking up for our first day in Montana, we stopped at the ranger station in Red Lodge for some snow condition updates. It was a cloudy morning and the trip started out a little dreary but that didn't stop us from checking out the town of Red Lodge. This is one place I can live in for sure! What an amazing town it had everything you could ask for. Well we were on our way and our first place to go was the West Fork of Rock Creek Trailhead. We parked and began hiking up the West Fork Rock Creek trail around noon. Six miles from the trailhead we reached Quinnebaugh Meadows where we had our first views of the Whitetail Couloir and we were astounded. To our relief it was still snow filled. We had been worried we were too late. Since thunderstorms were beginning to darken the sky we decided to pitch camp off the trail in some trees and managed to get the tent up just before it started to downpour. Our first day in the Beartooth Mountains was looking like an omen as it rained all afternoon and we slept it out. As evening came the rains settled and we emerged to cook dinner. With the outlet stream for Dude Lake close by, we had plenty of water. We decided to climb Bowback Mountain the following day which would be the first 12er we would do. On the hike in, we noticed a large snowfield leading up towards Bowback Mountain and knew we needed to take advantage of it. After dinner we went back to sleep and set an early alarm.
The first summit day I was so excited so getting out of the tent was easy. We started up "Dude Creek" which is what I decided to name this creek which drains Dude Lake just east of Bowback Mountain. The West Fork Trail crosses this creek on the first well constructed culvert bridge you come to from the trailhead. We took a short boot path following near the creek but it quickly ended and we continued up open forests and talus slopes reaching a nice waterfall just below the lake. We didn't continue to the lake but instead continued up a side valley just to the south and up the snowfield we saw earlier. This 40 degree snowfield ascended 1000 feet and ended below a small ridge north of Point 11,687. By this point it was late morning and a continuous layer of clouds lie above us. They didn't look bad so we continued west across a very broad plateau and ascending gently towards the north ridge. Once on the false northern summit of Bowback we descended off to the west and made the east class 2+ traverse to the higher southern summit. We found no register but I was ecstatic to have my first summit in the state of Montana. The weather was starting to clear a bit and from the top we saw Sundance Mountain dominate the south and the Granite Peak massif off to the west. The valley off to the east lie over 6,000 feet below and way off in the distance we spotted Red Lodge.
We admired the summit but knew we had to continue since I noticed darker clouds moving in from the southwest. I had documented the first route of the whole trip, the north ridge of Bowback Mountain and now the plan was to descend the south ridge. So we continued south and dropped off the ridge to the west when we came to a steep tower and headed down a loose gully and traversed below the crest for quite awhile on loose class 3 rock crossing one rib and gully after another until the terrain eased and we were able to walk on the ridge crest again. After dropping down one 15 foot step we reached the Bowback/Sundance saddle. I quickly made note of the remaining traverse to Sundance Mountain by ascending a couple hundred feet to view the remaining difficulties then we made our way down the east facing snowfield from the saddle back towards West Fork Rock Creek. We glissaded 800 feet of great snow which would be our first of many glissades on the trip. Once at the bottom of the snow we continued down the valley which had many large lakes including Triangle Lake and Kookoo Lake which both had lots of fish.
By this point it had started raining and we put rain gear on. However it quickly cleared and we had some amazing views of Silver Run Peak from the outlet of Kookoo Lake. We descended the steep creek draining Kookoo Lake as the weather continued to improve. We reached treeling and began to get wer from all the water on the grass and trees. Fantastic views of Whitetail were visible and we finally reached the trail once again a little over a mile up from where we left it that morning. A short walk brought us back to the tent where we cooked a nice big meal and went right to sleep. Our first day in Montana was in the books and we racked up 20 solid miles and off to a great start.
The next day we woke to a beautiful crisp morning and continued hiking the rest of the way up the trail to the bridge crossing over the West Fork. Continuing on the trail from here leads up many switchbacks to Sundance Pass but we continued further up the valley to a beautiful meadow camp spot next to Shadow Lake which was in a spectacular alpine setting right at the base of the Whitetail Couloir. Since we got a late start it was already about 10am by the time we set up camp and dried everything out. I decided I would climb the south slopes of Sundance Mountain later and rest for a few hours in the nice warm sunshine. We met a couple hiking up who was also planning to climb the Whitetail Couloir the next day but after we said we planned to they switched their plans to the NE couloir of Castle. We agreed to exchance conditions information about each couloir the next night and they were off to the next small lake to camp.
Around one in the afternoon I began hiking myself up the valley to the Silt Lakes. Stephan decided to sit this one out. Just above the upper Silt Lake I spotted a nice gully leading up Sundance Mountain and began ascending it trying to avoid loose rocks. I skirted up and through some cliff bands and headed directly for the summit cliffs of Sundance Mountain. Steering to the left of the cliffs above me I traversed around and fount a third class route up to the summit plateau. Right as I crested the plateau the winds picked up speed at an exponential rate but since it wasn't too cold I simply enjoyed the views and walked on almost flat terrain to the highest point at the far eastern edge. Views west towards Castle Mountain and its stunning NE couloir were amazing. I noticed a large crack about a quarter way up making the climb a little trickier. I was excited to think we might climb this snow route the day after Whitetail. Once I had my fill of great views I noticed a batch of dark clouds rolling in so I began descending. At first I couldn't find where I reached the plateau because my cairn I made blew over but I finally found my route and descended all the way down to the Silt Lakes with a brief shower which stalled me momentarily. I met up with a nice group of people coming down Castle from Omega Pass as I continued down the valley back to camp at Shadow Lake.
Lake Fork Rock Creek: July 19 - July 21
After not enough time on the summit we started reversing our long long ascent route. We decided to descend all the way back to the saddle between Beartooth Mountain and Forget Me Not Mountain instead of descending our steep snow couloir shortcut from the false summit. Since the climb up to Forget Me Not would have been 4th and 5th class on what looked to be horrible rock we would climb those from the other side later. We we glissaded part of the nearly dead grasshopper glacier and ran back down our snow finger back to Black Canyon Lake. Going down was a hell of a lot quicker! We made better time hiking around Black Canyon Lake on the return since we didn't have to conserve energy. Once we reached the trail and made the short half mile back to the tent we were exhausted but sure felt accomplished. Our 5th Montana 14er was in the books and we went straight to sleep.
Waking the next morning I decided I would take a short hike over to First and Second Rock Lake to see what was up there. I hiked over the bridge and up to the trail junction with the side trail heading towards First Rock Lake. At first this trail was nice but after rounding the first lake it quickly disappeared and the hike to First Rock Lake was a bushwhack. The water in this lake was so green and I saw lots of small fish. Hiking around this lake on large talus took me even deeper into bushes but I was able to pick up a game trail all the way to Second Rock Lake where I decided to stop since I noticed black clouds forming quickly and it didn't feel right to continue. I was initially trying to get all the way to Sky Top Lake but I soon realized this wasn't necessary to get the notes I needed. After a nice lunch at the lake I returned to camp, getting wet a couple times from a couple showers and Stephan and I packed up and made the uneventful 5 mile hike back to the car. We headed back into Red Lodge for a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant and to our surprise it was bike week so we saw likely well over 1000 motorcycles parked everywhere one could be placed and the whole bike crowd walking the main drag. We picked up some supplies for fishing and drove up the long rough road to the Main Fork Rock Creek Trailhead. Funny thing about this road is that is actually dips south into Wyoming and ends right at the boundary. The small bathroom facility is cut in half by the Wyoming and Montana state line! We just camped at the trailhead.
Main Fork Rock Creek: July 22 - July 24
We put the crampons on and began climbing the snow which was moderate at first and stayed around 35-40 degrees nearly the whole way up but closer to the top it got steep and we actually had to cut right off the snow to climb rock so we could get above the massive cornice guarding the top. This short third class rock scramble was some of the loosest crap I've ever been on. Once we made the summit plateau we walked a short ways east to the highest point. Views of Mount Rearguard were beautiful and a thin but low cloud deck made for a cool but stable day.