Solo Attempt at St Joseph Summit - The Hard Way
I made a second attempt on St Joseph a few days ago, and even though it wasn't nearly as hot as when I last tried (lower 80s by early afternoon) it was the over-all hardest summit I've managed to-date.
First, the approach route I used was over the summit of Little St Joe, a formidable summit attempt by itself (2.8 miles with 3,062’ elevation gain). The route up Little St Joe is not an engineered trail but closely follows a ridge crest from trailhead to very near the summit.
Second, the crux of the route I used to reach the summit of St Joseph entailed climbing up a gully. I believe this is a new route as I’ve spoken to no one who is familiar with it. (During my ascent of the gully there were no obvious signs of the route having been previously climbed, though I admit that is not conclusive evidence.) From my study of pictures, I’d assumed the gully route would be a Class 3, or maybe Class 4 at its most difficult points. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
From the Trailhead to the Little St Joe Summit
I got an early start, 7:45 a.m. on a day that had predicted temperatures in the mid 80s. It was nice and cool to begin, with the cover of the trees keeping me in the shade for the first mile or so.
I was in no big hurry. In fact, I wanted to take it slow. I knew what toll the route to Little St Joe’s summit was going to take on me. I’d been there several times before.
I frequently stopped to take pictures along the way. Though there are few places along the route that afford good views, when you reach one it’s well worth your time to enjoy the vistas. At only one point along the route can you see the top portion of Little St Joe through the trees. After taking a couple of pictures, I looked up at where the route would traverse northwest across an area of mountain heather spotted with krumholtz of larch and shoulder-high whitebark pine.
Each time I stopped, I drank liquids and rested a few minutes. Not only did I want to conserve energy for the final climb up St Joseph, I needed to replace what I was using to climb Little St Joe.
An hour and 15 minutes from the trailhead I reached a familiar spot, the only place on the route where water is available. During my previous trip, I had desperately needed to refill my bottles. The little stream, downhill a short distance north of the trail, had looked so sweet that sweltering day, a real life saver. I studied the surroundings for easy-to-recognize landmarks so I could relay the stream’s location to anyone else using this route.
Forty minutes later I reached Little St Joe’s construction project, still in process, a large cairn to serve as a memorial to the two(2) men who died in a plane crash on this very spot (46.5998 N, 114.2093 W). A local boy scout took the responsibility to begin the cairn, built out of the readily available rock and small parts from the plane which still litter the area. If the memorial will ever be finished is anyone’s guess, but I, like most passersby, took a few minutes to add a few more rocks and parts to the cairn.
As reported in the Ravalli Republic, “On October 16, 1991, Captain John Sieglinger and co-pilot Robert Shaw died when their Lockheed Orion P-3 tanker plane crashed on Little St. Joseph Peak in the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness. The pair were bringing the tanker from California to help fight the remaining forest fires in the area but encountered bad weather during their approach to the Missoula airport.”
From the memorial cairn, it took only 25 minutes to finish the traverse across a mix of open tundra, small larch, and stunted whitebark pine to reach the summit of Little St Joe. I removed my pack, took pictures, but only rested five(5) minutes while appreciating the fact that I’d already reached one of the Bitterroot Mountains’ highpoints. At 9,033’, Little St Joe is one of the area’s few peaks with summits over 9,000’. Considering that the portion of the route I’d already covered had gained 3,062’ over 2.8 miles, I still felt pretty good. I realized there would be some difficulties ahead, but knew I’d only be climbing 1,178’ over less than 2.3 miles to reach my destination, St Joseph’s summit (9,587').
From the Little St Joe Summit to the Cliff Bands of St Joseph
Fifteen(15) minutes later I approached Point 8755, a seeming obstruction on the ridge crest. It looks intimidating, but there is an easy Class 3 path up and over its middle. I was over in a flash and approached the next obstruction within ten(10) minutes. This one I bypassed on the right (north) side. But again, it was easy.
Ahead was the easiest section of the route, a 30 minute walk along the wide crest of the ridge to Point 8952. As I hiked closer to St Joseph, I studied the gully route I planned to use to reach the summit. From this distance it still looked doable, but I realized that only a close-up inspection was going to yield more useful information.
When I reached Point 8952, I was ready to tackle the most problematic section of the approach route. This last section of the ridge crest is full of rubble and craggy rock formations interspersed with think growths of stunted whitebark pine. If you aren’t good at route finding through this section, you’ll expend at least twice as much energy as necessary to get through it.
Fortunately, I’d been through this section before and knew that if you stay as close to the ridge crest as possible, clambering over rock when required, passage is relatively easy with nothing more difficult than a couple of lower Class 3 moves. Less than 30 minutes later, I was at the base of the first cliff band on St Joseph’s east ridge.
This was as far as I’d been on my previous attempt just a month before. That day had been hot, the high 90s. My brother and I had done another summit the previous day, and that, in combination with the heat, was too much for a couple of guys in their 50s. Knowing the most difficult portion of the route was ahead of us (a time when we’d really need our wits about us and were likely to need energy reserves we didn’t have) we decided to bag it. The mountain would be there another day. We resolved to make sure we would be too.
This time I was ready. My plan was to circumnavigate the first and lower cliff band on the right (north), then use a gully just right (north) of the ridge to get past the second cliff band. I had seen the differently colored rock of the gully from a distance (that’s what got my attention) and decided there was a possibility it was climbable. I could easily see the top of the gully reached all the way up through the cliff’s rock. But what I couldn’t determine from a distance was whether or not the gully was climbable. I would soon find out!
From Below the St Joseph Cliff Bands to the Summit
After a couple of minutes resting and taking pictures, I climbed to my right (north) along the bottom of the lower cliff band. Great! The route I hoped for, was there. I traversed up the band of rock, using comparatively easy Class 3 moves, toward a wide, rounded ledge at the base of the next cliff band where it connected with St Joseph’s east ridge.
Now, to find out if my supposition about the gully was correct. I traversed to my right (north) along the base of the cliff until I was just below the gully. I peered up into the opening, and, yes! It looked like something I could climb. What I saw convinced me I would be looking at nothing more difficult than Class 3.
I went for it. The climbing started out okay (lower Class 3) over a bit of scree and loose rock, then got harder (upper Class 3) as the angle of my climb got closer to vertical. From what I could see up ahead, it still looked like I could manage. Besides, I sure didn’t want to down-climb and use another route to the summit.
I climbed higher up the gully. By this point the loose rock and scree was behind me. The rock was good and solid with plenty of hand- and footholds. I kept climbing. Then, it got more difficult (Class 4). Was I committed? Even here I probably could have down-climbed, but I didn't want to find out. I was committed, mentally! The gully took a slight turn to the right (west) as I climbed. I entered a section of the gully I couldn’t see when I looked up from the bottom. So…
A few more Class 4 moves, then things got really tough. I could either down-climb or go up a chimney - back on one side, feet on the other - for a little over 15'. Well… I’d never tried to climb a chimney, but I understood the concepts of how it was supposed to be done. I was going up! I entered the chimney and began inching upward. I was about four(4) feet up the chimney when there was a crunching noise from my left pocket. I figured my sunglasses had been crunched and stopped to check. Nope, still okay. I shifted them to a different, more protected place, took a deep breath, and moved on.
A bit more upward progress and I realized I was doing it. I was actually climbing a chimney! It was pretty difficult and slow. I was breathing hard and concentrating like I never had before, but I was going to make it! After what seemed like ages, I exited the confines of the chimney onto a small ledge of rock and took a breather.
I looked down to see where I’d been and began to feel impressed with myself. Then I studied what lay ahead and discovered I was looking at a climb almost straight up with none of the type of handholds I'm used to. Foot placements were no more than an inch or two wide, at the most. So much for self congratulation!
Okay, now what? Is it possible to down-climb a chimney? Well, I don’t have any experience, but I figured, “Yeah, it’s possible. The physics are the same whether you’re going up or down.” But, you know, I really didn’t want to down-climb. I looked above me, more closely this time. There did appear to be a few vertical cracks I could jam my hands (fists) into, but those foot placement still looked pretty small. I knew I had about 20' to go before reaching the top of the gully. Unfortunately my route was straight up.
Well, I can’t remember much about that last 20’, other than I was holding on for dear life and putting my body in positions I’d never dreamed possible. I’m guessing the high adrenaline levels affected my memory. But obviously, I made it. When I finally stood above the gully, I do remember saying, out loud, "That was a rush."
Unbelievably it took only 15 minutes from bottom to top in the gully, though it sure seemed a hell-of-a lot longer. (I confirmed this later by comparing the time-stamps on the pictures I took just before entering and right after exiting the gully.)
Since I don't have any idea how climbers rate pitches, I have no way of knowing how difficult the last portion of that gully was, but suspect it was somewhere in the class 5 area. (Maybe an SPer who is a “real” climber will add a comment and let me know.) I do know I won't willingly try something that tough again, at least not for a while.
After giving the adrenaline a few minutes to dissipate, I climbed over the remainder of the cliff band rock (Class 2) to the top of the ridge crest, then walked across the expanse of St Joseph’s almost-flat top to the summit. I spent a half an hour there, taking pictures, eating, drinking, and, yes, signing the summit register placed there during 2004 by Montanaboy.
I descended a gully on the south face, one of the routes I could have used if I hadn’t made it up my gully of choice. Although full of scree and lose rock, it was okay – until I came to a 9-10 foot drop-off near the bottom. There was absolutely no way in hell I was going to up-climb that scree and descend the southeast ridge.
I didn’t see any way down but to do a turn-in-the-air drop move and try to hold on to the top edge of the drop-off. There was a mix of grass and rocks at the bottom of the drop with an incline of about 15 degrees.
I went for it, and fell, cartwheeling every which way. Still tumbling out of control, I flipped to my feet and began a running motion downhill, trying to get control. I managed to come to a stop within 20 or so feet. During the fall, I felt muscles and such being strained to the limit, but a quick inventory showed no damage other than a hell-of-a scrape on my right thigh and hip.
My ankles felt a little shaky, like they’d been twisted hither and yon, but I figured the hike back to the truck would probably work out the kinks. It did. Today, I feel fine – no bruising, no strained joints, nothing but a scrape and the normal sore muscles I always have after a difficult summit attempt.
It took me 8 hours 45 minutes to cover the 10.9 miles with a total elevation gain of 5,034’. All-in-all, a very good day.
To paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary, "THIS time I knocked the bastard off."