Last weekend me and my friend Dan made the trip from Helena to Red lodge. Our goal was the climb the Bears tooth, the namesake spire for the Beartooth mountains. We planned to hike in Friday, camp somewhere in the vicinity of Black Canyon Lake then do the climb and hike out on Saturday
Our starting point was the lake fork trailhead about 10 miles out of Red Lodge. We loaded up all our climbing gear and overnight gear which made for very heavy packs and hit the trail. From the Lake Fork Trailhead we followed the Lake fork Trail for around five miles until we reached the cutoff for Black Canyon Lake. This happens right before a bridge crossing the river. The trail leading up to the lake is unmaintained and somewhat difficult to follow. We lost the trail a few times on the way up, but the general direction was pretty obvious. You just follow the creek until you get to the lake. The view from the lake is pretty spectacular.
There were some good campsites on the near side of the lake, however we opted to continue on to the other side to lessen the approach in the morning. At this point we had a two choices for getting around the lake. One involved traversing steep scree and rocks below some large cliff faces the other involved going through more vegetated terrain on the other side of the lake. We decided to try the vegetated side because we were getting tired of boulder hopping. This turned out to be a huge mistake and resulted in three hours of bushwhacking through ridiculously thick bushes and small trees. After finally getting to the other side of the lake we pretty exhausted. We found a pretty good campsite with a good water source about half a mile past the lake.
Our camp was pretty sweet. We had a great spot for the tent and awesome views of Beartooth and Spirit Mountains. We were also able to get a glimpse of the tooth when we walked a few hundred feet past camp.
We went to bed at around 9pm just as it was starting to get dark. We knew that there was a potential for thunder storms in the afternoon on Saturday so we decided on waking up at 2:45 and leaving camp at 3am. The wind blew pretty hard all night so we didn't get a lot of sleep and the night went very slowly. When our alarms finally rang at 2:45 we got up, had a couple freeze dried meals and left camp a little before 3. There was a tiny sliver of the moon visible and the sky was alight with stars. The stars allowed us to see the outlines of the surrounding mountains. We walked about 3/4 of a mile up the snowfield at the bottom of the valley before heading up the steep boulder field on the right towards the dark outline of the tooth.
The slope up to tooth varied between snow fields and boulder hopping. The snow was pretty hard in the early morning which made for easy walking. It was about 1500 vertical from the valley to the slabs below the tooth. We made good time and made it up to the base of the base of the slabs at around quarter to five. At this point it was still pretty dark so we decided that it would be a good idea to wait before starting the fourth class part of the approach. We found a nice flat rock and took a quick 45 minute nap before climbing the last steep section of the snow field leading up to the left side of the slabs. We had opted not to bring crampons or ice axes so for this last section we had to kick in steps with approach shoes. This was a little sketchy with the hard snow, but we made it up.
We started climbing up the slabs on the left side of the slabs in this picture. The start wasn't too bad, we climbed up a couple hundred feet up fourth and low fifth class terrain looking for a ledge traversing right to the start of the east ridge. The rock on this section was pretty clean and solid, however the traverse to the start of the east ridge was pretty sketchy. This section involved traversing a series of steep exposed slabs that were covered in rubble and wet from the snowmelt. There were several patches of snow lingering on this section as well. These actually worked to our advantage because we were able to squeeze along the gap above the largest patch which allowed us safe passage to the ledge on the other side. Soon after this we arrived at what the author of the sp page calls the "scary traverse". We found this description to be pretty accurate. This section involved some slabby fifth class moves with a lot of exposure. I found a decent crack right before the traverse and was able to build an anchor which provided a little peace of mind. After the "scary traverse" it was just another couple hundred feet of 3rd-4th class up to the start of the ridge.
The first couple pitches are mostly fourth class with an occasional fifth class move, but the huge exposure keeps you on your toes. The third pitch was similar, but had a runout somewhat tricky mantel move at the top. Pitch four was pretty fun with some steep 5.8 climbing on big holds. Pitch five was the crux and definitely the best one in my opinion. The pitch puts you in right leaning dihedral with a couple thousand feet of clean exposure below. There are some tricky moves getting through this section, but the crack takes great gear. I opted to stop a little above the crux to minimize rope drag and we did one more easy pitch that brought us to the summit.
The summit was amazing. It was really small and exposed and we had awesome views of the Beartooths. According to the summit register we were the third ascent of the season. Looks like it doesn't get a lot of traffic. This kind of surprised me given how wild and spectacular the climb is. We left the summit around 10am and did six raps to get to the base of the East Ridge. There are established rap stations all the way down the ridge. We added some webbing and carabiners to a couple of them and got down without too much trouble. At this point we thought that we were through the worse of it. This, however, was not the case. Getting down the slabs turned out to be quite a ordeal that took over two hours. We found a couple rap stations, but we got stuck for a long time right above the cliff band looking for a place to rig a rappel down to the snowfield. The cliff is the highest on the east side and keeps getting shorter as you go west so we kept traversing skiers right exploring false gullies and looking for a rappel anchor. The rock was really loose and wet and we had to be careful with every step. At one point a football sized rock came flying from on high and passed right between us. Finally we found a solid seeming horn with a sling about 70 feet above the snowfield. We added some webbing and backed it up with a nut, then rapped into the snowfield. The rappel dropped us onto a steep section of the snowfield that was covered in fresh rubble. We pulled the rope and packed it as quickly as possible then did some very steep glissading down the upper snowfield. An ice axe would have been nice here. Finally we got down to were the slope mellowed out and slowed down. From here it was just a mix of fun glissading and boulder hopping back to camp. We got to camp at 2:15 so a little over 11 hours round trip. From there we packed up camp and began the grueling 9ish mile descent back to the trailhead. We got to the trailhead at around 7pm and drove back to Helena.
All in all I would say this is definitely the coolest climb I've ever done. The remote location and massive exposure made for awesome climbing! The only thing that detracted from the climb was the scary approach and descent over the gravel covered slabs. Getting down the slabs required 4 rappels and was definitely the hardest part of the trip. I would still highly recommend it to anyone looking for an adventure.