Maid of the Mist Mountain - East Face - Dark Side of the Moon routeI've been a climber for nearly three years, and though I may still be young in the sport in the and general way of life, I choose to embrace it in every way possible. I've climbed with various relatives and professional guides to learn the ropes quick, and now I see that climbing is something that I am going to be a part of for the rest of my life.
Every climber reads the history books about the pioneers of climbing, from first ascent of Half Dome by Royal Robbins to the mountaineering feat of Mt. Everest by Edmund Hillary. We all dream of what it would feel like to have been in their shoes: to explore uncharted territory, test new skills, and live life on the brink of certain death. By climbing standards today, none of them were prepared for what they accomplished. 150-foot leads on hemp ropes with only 1 or 2 poor piton placements on shoes that resembled hiking boots more than climbing shoes is almost asking for death to come knocking on your door. Even in these recent days where gear and equipment is much better, new routes are typically pioneered via toprope, bolts, and aiding before an actual redpoint is attempted. Yet sometimes, the yearning for adventure into the unknown is overwhelming.
I felt this yearning in the summer of 2009. Nearby to my home in Bozeman, Montana, there are several small mountain ranges, which include more large, rolling hills than steep mountains and huge cliff faces like Colorado and California have. It is a place where climbers converge, though, with world-class ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon nearby, alpine options nearby on Beehive Peak and Mt. Cowen, and noteworthy mountaineering practice grounds to be found in the Beartooth Range. One objective remained to be climbed - the East Face of a relatively unimportant mountain in Hyalite Canyon itself. The canyon is noted for its choss rock, and little development has been made in the area concerning rock climbing, but Maid of the Mist Mountain harboured a 1,500+ foot face that had tempted climbers for years. Without thinking about the possible aftermath of an accident high on this face, I knew that I wanted to claim its first ascent before the summer had ended.
I called up a friend, whom I had climbed with only once the week before. I told him my idea and he was game to belay and second up the face behind me. We started to try and get beta concerning the mountain - I hit the local shops, and web, and the guidebook authors as my buddy Mark talked to his contacts in the Montana Mountaineering Association and the Montana Climbers Coalition. Turns out, no one knew anything. There were rumours that it had been attempted, but had never been climbed before. Everyone told us the rock quality would be Hyalite-typical, and my partner's contacts baded us not to go, but of course, being the proud young men that we are, we still wanted to attempt it. All we had to go on was photos from a distance, though, and my own experience passing the mountain several times in the past. Unable to find a line in the photos, we decided to just head up one morning and see what we would find. We had no idea what we were in for.
We met in Bozeman at 4am, and arrived at the trailhead around 5. The sun rose and we got the first glimpse of the face, a brilliant view indeed, and the butterflies started flying in our stomachs. We saw a possible weakness in the left side of the face, and set out to see up-close whether it would be climbable. We crossed Hyalite creek, saw some elk, and then found ourselves at the base of the immense cliff. We saw that it was indeed choss, and any ascent was going to take every bit of strength we had. I had agreed to take lead on the entire wall - my friend was relatively inexperienced on multi-pitch climbs. A couple weeks earlier I met him at a party, two days later I took him on his first multi-pitch climb. He had climbed sporadically for the last two and a half years, when he wasn't fighting a rotator cuff injury gained in Judo competitions. All this led us to this point, facing the climb of our young lives.
The face proper was guarded by a lower cliffband, which we passed relatively easily in 3 traversing / climbing pitches. We followed a meadow up to the base of the cliff, and with each step our hearts sank a little lower. Indeed, the face was covered in pure choss, and we saw many bits of overhanging sections as well. No way were we going to be climbing up 1,500 feet of overhanging choss, but there was a ledge on the left that we decided to climb to, just to check the wall out more and have a small accomplishment before we turned around. At the ledge, however, the wall suddenly opened up to us, and we saw a possible way up. We tightened out shoes, cleared our heads, and started climbing.
These first pitches were not too technically difficult - however there saw a significant amount of plant growth on the rocks. Moss filled pockets and held loose rocks in just enough to only fall when touched. The climbing was a moderate 5.6-5.7 for the first couple pitches, which went very slowly because of me needing to clear nearly every foot and hand hold before I could use them. The protection, I found, was nothing short of horrendous. Every 50 feet or so, I'd realize that I needed some pro - so I'd take a firm stance, and start digging around for any placement for a cam, nut, or tricam. Often I simply slung horns with slings, hoping they weren't as loose as the rest of the rock. Belay stances were remarkably comfortable, though, and came every 50 or so meters. Pitch 7 did not go so smoothly as the ones before it, though.
The belay below pitch 7 was next to a tree, with a vertical wall in front. The wall was 20m tall, then a thin ledge about 1m wide, then another 25m tall near-vertical wall. I led up the first wall, relaxed on the ledge for a bit, then proceded onto the second wall of the pitch. About 10m of the ledge, I tested a rock for stability. A couple bounces and hits with my hand, and I decided it was good. Pulling my full body weight for just a few seconds, though, proved otherwise. The rock, roughly the size of 3 bowling balls and weighing more, broke clean off the face and flew downward, knocking more rock loose as it fell. It hit the ledge - cut the rope - and turned directly towards Mark. I fell back onto a good foothold, and began yelling "ROCK !!" many times to warn Mark. He jumped into the mountain, as any belayer should, and the rocks sailed past, both where he was standing just moments earlier and directly behind him, missing the ledge. The cut red rope sailed down to the ledge closely chasing the rocks. The boulders crashed further down and caused a rockslide as they descended, until all went silent. I yelled to Mark to see if he was OK - I couldn't see him. He yelled that he was fine and asked me the same. After a moment of relief, we both relaxed a bit. It was a good thing we were climbing with double ropes that day - otherwise I would have been stranded for a bit. I finished the lead on the green rope and brought Mark up behind. With him he brought the 50m left of the red rope, and told me of his close encounter. Mentally shattered, we shared a quick laugh some 1,000+ feet up on the cliff. Mother Nature was reminding us just how fragile we really are. Upon gazing upwards, though, we realized that out troubles were not over.
The next pitch wasn't a near vertical choss, like the ones before it, but a 10 degree overhanging wall of choss. Turning out to be the crux of the climb, we rated it at 5.9, excluding the extra time and effort it took to clear the holds. The rock had been becoming slowly sturdier as we got higher, but trusting any hold was still terrifying. The protection had been getting slimmer as well. The wall was 30m tall, and we couldn't see above it. We didn't think about above that wall, we just tried to find a way up it. I can distinctly remember the only 3 protection placements I was able to make - the first a poor tricam placement, the second strange nut placement between two protruding 'fingers' of rock, and the third a sling around a small horn. I shouldn't have been able to trust any of them. 10 feet above the sling, then 10-15 feet below the top of the wall, my arms just gave out. They had had enough of the leaning, cleaning, and straining, and just quit. I yelled to Mark warning of imminent leader-fall, and let go and fell off into space. The first thoughts were how far I was going to fall. If the sling whipped off and the nut broke a 'finger', I would have easily fallen over 60 feet. A sudden jerk brought be to real life - the slung horn held after all. I leaned back, looked down at Mark, and took a few deep breaths. I was strangely calm at this point - the fact that the sling could still slip off didn't phase me; the potential for danger was not in my mind anymore. A quick minute of meditation and I was off. I wasn't going to make the top by stopping to clean every hold perfectly, it took too long. Climb up, find a hold with some moss on it, hold on, and hope for the best - this was my new tactic. And it worked. I mounted the wall shortly after, standing on a big grassy ledge in victory. This ledge was 15m by 2m, and had a surprisingly good crack from which to build the belay. As I pulled the ropes up, the finger nut fell off and sailed down the rope, and the sling worked its way to the bare edge of the horn. Mark climbed up, skipped cleaning the sling, just to use his final strength to finish the wall. We sat together on the ledge, very glad to be alive. After a quick bite, we looked for where to go next.
The wall straight above was even more overhanging with even less holds, so we opted to follow the ledge to climber's left. It turned out to be the funnest pitch of the climb - super exposed steps around loose boulders, a short chimney, and 2 exposed steps on needle-point tops of 10-foot pillars brought us to the end of the ledge. A 50m 5.6 pitch brought us to the south-east arete, followed by a long traverse and a final chimney pitch to the grassy summit mound. We were 100 easy meters from the summit now. Tired, mentally shaken, and more eager than ever, we hiked up the easy brush to the summit and rejoiced. Only 15 minutes of light remained, as the sun set a while ago, and we could barely take in the incredible view from the summit. The summit log showed less than 10 recorded ascents in the last 20 or so years, and we were damn proud to be the latest. A quick call to the relatives with spotty service, a bite to eat and a sip of water, and we were on our way down.
The descent was long and complicated - navigating our way around cliffs and descending down steep gullies. We finally reached the trail and eventually the car, relieved to be done after the grueling 18-hour car-to-car climb. It hadn't really donned on us the scale of what we had just done. We were tired, completely exhausted, and just wanted to get home.
Days later we recapped the climb, reminisced on the few photos we took, and laughed about my red rope that was now in two pieces. I contacted the shop and the guidebook author, Mark talked to his friends in the climbing community, and they were more shocked than we were about the whole thing. We still hadn't realized the full scale of what we had done - the first ascent of a wild Montana cliff face, with no beta, on-sight, and ground-up. We both agree and feel the same on it - it was an intense experience that has impacted both of our lives. We see ourselves no better than anyone else, in fact we are probably more stupid and hair-brained than most everyone else. Many already assumed this, and no one saw two college students, age 19 and 20, being the first ascentionists on this face.
It may never be understood why a man lives life to the fullest when faced with a danger that could well cost him his life. I believe it is experiences like these, though, that truly reveal the character of a man, both to himself and to those who share such experiences, and that opens the doors to new possibilities previously unforseen.