With hot July temperatures leaving us with a desire for some alpine climbing, my friend Sam and I decided on a trip to the Crazy Mountains. Sunlight Peak would be our objective, as it had a reasonable app roach distance for an overnight trip. We left Helena at about 9 pm, and with one setback involving returning for some forgotten mountain boots, we headed for the mountains.
We reached the Sunlight Trailhead northwest of Wilsall at about 12:30 AM. After sorting our gear, we threw on headlamps and started hoofing it. Neither of us had paid much attention to the topo of the trail, and we found a lot more climbing than we had expected. The four-mile approach gains about 2500 feet, with almost no switchbacks. With all the elevation gain, we got the sense we were in neat country but would have to wait until daylight to see any of it. We reached the pass and dropped down into the Sunlight Basin at about 3 am. We walked down to where the slope flattened out and across a level snowfield. It wouldn’t be until the sun was up when I peaked out of the tent that I realized the “snowfield” was a little bit of snow on top of really thin lake ice. Our tracks wandered dangerously close to the water’s edge! With our headlamps on low beam we hadn’t noticed. Fortunately, we didn’t camp right on the lake but found a dry spot. We were in bed by about 4.
Sam woke up and hiked up the snowfield at about 6:30 to scout out the route. He let me sleep in until 8, as we were expecting nice weather and only four or five pitches of technical climbing. We each ate a Big Sur bar and then put on harnesses and packs. We started up the snowfield towards our intended route. We opted not to wear crampons, as we had no problem kicking steps with just our boots. The snow did get steep enough to justify pulling out our axes, however. We had originally chosen to climb here after reading a route description by Ron Brunckhorst. We tried to find a series of gullies that he had successfully ascended, but with the information given we had difficulty discerning his route. We opted to ascend an arête that looked like fairly easy fourth and fifth class climbing to the summit ridge. I opted to slip on rock shoes at this point because I was wearing plastic double boots. Sam figured he would be fine in his lighter synthetic boots. We were able to pound in a pretty solid Bugaboo as an anchor and then I began leading with Sam’s brand new half ropes. It soon became evident the rock was really poor. Everything I grabbed was loose. The whole pitch I was able to place one bomber tri-cam, and a few sketchy cams. I slung a small tree that may or may not have held, as well. I found a good belay ledge and brought Sam up. We decided to swing leads, so he took the rack and took off. After about 65’ or so, he was about to pull himself up a 6’ step when he dislodged an eighty to one hundred pound rock. He had a good stance and was able to hold it up for a minute. I ducked in tight behind a boulder at the belay and Sam let the rock go. It broke into smaller chunks and showered over me. At this point, we talked over our options. With three pitches left to the summit ridge, we decided to bail. We were finding almost no quality protection. Sam downclimbed back to the belay. We began coiling the ropes and found that the rockfall had core-shotted one of them. This reinforced the decision to bail in our minds. With only one good half rope, we thought we might have to do two rappels, but fortunately we were able to get back on the snow by rapping about 80’ off the arête to the right. Then we just had about fifteen minutes of snow travel with a bit of glissading back to the lake. We were glad to be back, considering the damaged rope and sketchy rappel.
After making it back to camp at about 12:30 pm we visited for a while with the other campers along the lake. We decided to head out that night, so we could have a lazy Sunday back home in Helena. After eating and resting, we climbed out of the Sunlight Basin at about 5:30 and were back to the truck at around 7.