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.
A look at the snowfield we climbed
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.
Sundance Mountain from the top of the snowfield
Bowback Mountain from the southeast
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.
Looking up the south ridge on Bowback
The snow we glissaded
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.
Silver Run Peak from just above Kookoo Lake
Whitetail Peak from the Kookoo Creek descent
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.
Whitetail Peak from Shadow Lake
Shadow Lake Reflection
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.
Whitetail from Sundance
Castle Mountain and NE couloir
Sundance from Shadow Lake
We made a very nice dinner and went right to sleep. We had the Whitetail Couloir ahead of us for the next day and I was very excited but a little nervous since I had never been on snow quite as steep and sustained before. This is why I hauled my plastic boots all the way up there however. The next morning which was July 17th we quickly began hiking up the valley and right before reaching the Silt Lakes we crossed the creek on some rocks and began hiking a small talus slope until we hit the snow. We changed our shoes, put the crampons on and retrieved our ice axes and began up the moderate snow at first but once we made that slight right turn into the couloir proper it steepened to 50 degrees and never relented. We began simul-climbing using pickets as anchors just to be safe. To my astonishment I noticed someone was crazy enough to glissade down the couloir. I admit I am one crazy person when it comes to glissades but this was a little too steep for my bones. About 60 feet from the top of the couloir we hit bullet ice. Stephan only had aluminum crampons and neither of us had second tools or any ice screws so we were forced to retreat off the snow onto the rock. Luckily the rock was just broken enough to scramble up to the summit on steep steps where a fall wasn't an option. We both managed to summit and felt very accomplished. That was the steepest snow line I have ever climbed and topping it off with a great and challenging scramble was icing on the cake. We sent quite some time on this nice peak which had views in every direction. We admired and looked to our future as we saw many of the 12ers we were going to climb. What a beautiful and inspiring place this was. Noticing clouds coming in from the southwest (this would be all too common) we began descending down the easy northeast ridge standard route to Sundance Pass. This was a simple but rocky hike where we got rained on heavily just as we reached the pass. Since we heard thunder we waited out the storm near the pass before making the hike down the 100 switchbacks back to Shadow Lake. Just as we reached the tent it really started to downpour on us. The clouds just gobbled up the mountains and it rained for hours the rest of the day.
In the Couloir
Looking down Whitetail Couloir
Sundance and Bowback from the pass
Big storm coming
We simply went to sleep as it rained for hours. Knowing how icy the top of the Whitetail Couloir was and adding to that all the rain that just fell, we decided against climbing the NE couloir on Castle Mountain knowing it would only get worse. After the rains let up we emerged to a very cool evening which prompted a quick dinner and a nice long rest. The next day was nice and sunny and we took our sweet time getting up and going to try and dry everything out. The 8 mile hike back to the car ended up being very nice due to all the nice people we talked to on the way out. Only one party of the 8 or 9 parties we saw were headed in to climb though. Once back at the car we went back to Red Lodge for a big pizza at the Red Lodge Pizza Company and returned back to the Timberline Creek Trailhead on the same road to climb Silver Run Peak as a day hike. We slept at the trailhead.
Knowing all about the southwest ridge route on Silver Run Peak in addition to how easy it was and the fact we were stormed off Sundance Pass before getting a chance to do Silver Run Peak we decided to take a different approach. We would climb Silver Run from Timberline Creek which is a 16 mile day hike. We started up the heavily burned Timberline Creek Trail and reached Timberline Lake by mid-morning. The massive pillar of rock seen at the head of the valley was inspiring to say the least. Only later afte reading more of Turiano's book did I find out this face had actually been climbed but at the time I wasn't sure. We hiked around the lake and climbed up easy slopes to the plateau then walked across the massive top gaining altitude ever slowly until we reached the summit marked by two USGS markers and a register. However the USGS had the true summit of Silver Run Peak misplaced on their maps. The true summit lies a half mile to the west so we ran over there as well. The return hike back over the plateau was a slog but the puffy clouds that had begun to form made the scenery just grand.
Silver Run Plateau
Whitetail from Silver Run
After we made it back to the car we headed back into town to visit a friend who offered us a place to stay if we ever needed during our time in Montana. We had a great dinner and recovered well and I started some writing from the notes I took while in the mountains.
Lake Fork Rock Creek: July 19 - July 21
The next morning we got up late and went to the Beartooth Market (one of many stops here) to pick up some food and drive to the Lake Fork Rock Creek Trailhead where we saw a lot of cars parked. Since we only had planned to climb one peak from this approach we started late and hiked the 5 easy miles to Lost Lake where we set up camp. This trail follows along the south side of the Silver Run Plateau while the West Fork Trail follows the north side. These two trails meet at Sundance Pass. We tried fishing for our first time at Lost Lake but since it is so close to the trailhead we didn't have much luck. We fished until it got too dark then cooked dinner and hit the sack. We had another very long day ahead.
We got up early and worked our way up to the large Black Canyon Lake by leaving the main trail just before the big bridge over Lake Fork Rock Creek and onto a small boot path heading southwest. After wandering for awhile we eventually found the correct path through the trees and made our way to the northern end of the lake. Upon first glance I was stunned at the beauty of the place.
Black Canyon Lake
Black Canyon Lake
We descended slightly to the shore and realized it was going to take quite a long time to walk around this lake. We were wishing there was a canoe or something there as this lake is over a mile long and lined with rough talus the entire way across. After finally getting to the other end after over an hour of talus hopping and ankle breaking car sized rocks, we followed the inlet creek up and we finally got our first views of the Bears Tooth. Although we weren't climbing this I knew someday I will. Our objective was Beartooth Mountain which sits 400 feet higher than the namesake spire. Views of the north faces of Forget Me Not Mountain and Spirit Mountain were awe inspiring as we continued up the valley on a very nice band of snow which made travel much easier. This valley is one giant pile of rocks when all the snow is gone so we were lucky to have this continuous band of snow both up and down. We continued up along a flat bench on the left of the valley bottom and located our target, the false summit just southwest of Beartooth Mountain. We climbed a nice steep snow couloir leading directly to the flat top of this sub-peak.
NF of Forget Me Not
The Bears Tooth
Hiking up the snow band
We took a nice break on the false summit and then dropped off and onto the third class southwest ridge. We dropped a little less than 200 feet on 4 or 5 large steps with decent exposure. The scenery to the south was incredible with all the high Beartooth Lakes and the massive Beartooth Plateau. We knew we were headed there soon. Once we reached the saddle we continued across the ridge and crossed over a black dike then ascended loose orange colored rocks to the summit plateau of Beartooth Mountain. Another half mile walk over easy terrain got us to the summit with superb views overlooking the Bears Tooth and nearly every 12er in the range. The weather was perfect with just the right amount of clouds and nice crisp air. We wondered if anyone had been up there this year but with no register and no signs of people we felt truly alone in a perfect alpine wilderness.
Castle Group from Beartooth
On the SW Ridge traverse
Forget Me Not Mountain
Beartooth SW Ridge traverse
Spirit from Beartooth summit Beartooth Mountain Summit Panorama
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.
Forget Me Not from the low saddle
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.
Second Rock Lake
Main Fork Rock Creek: July 22 - July 24
Awaking the next morning we started hiking up the switchbacking trail towards Shelf and Moon Lakes. It was short but steep, something I'd rather have then the long flat approaches we did previously. In only a couple hours we made it to Shelf Lake and set up camp. We quickly made up our day packs and hiked the easy grassy terrain to Moon Lake and began ascending orange talus up Mount Rearguard. As we gained elevation the impressive east face of Spirit Mountain was inspiring and I wondered if anyone had ever climbed it before. I also noticed an awesome NE couloir on Spirit that looked like a great snow route to climb but it was too late then. After an hour of grueling talus slogging we crested the west ridge of Mount Rearguard but just in time for a storm to roll in (man this place sure is stormy). We found a nice cave-like rock to hide under for a half hour before making the rest of the easy ascent to the summit. The summit area of Rearguard was very interesting since there were a couple 5th class towers but the highest point was an easy class 2 walk up.
Spirit Mountain and Moon Lake
Spirit Mountain E face
Spirit NE couloir on right
We descended down the Hellroaring Plateau which was an easy grassy and talus walk for quite a ways. When we got to the edge of the plateau just above Shelf Lake we descended a very loose pile of crap talus and scree slope back to the lake and pulled out the fishing rod. Just as we got back to the tent though it began raining (whew). That would have sucked if we were still on the plateau! So we waited out the storm and we noticed it get considerably colder. We managed to catch and cook one fish because it got so chilly. We did have a spectacular sunset though after the storm.
Descending Hellroaring Plateau
Shelf Lake Sunset
When we got up the next day we were treated to a beautiful sunrise. We hiked the grassy terrain to Moon Lake again but this time cut left since the plan was to climb Spirit Mountain. The lupine wildflowers were beautiful in the morning sun. We crossed the Moon Lake outlet stream and ascended a grassy slope to a small tarn and traversed around and above Frosty Lake. This area had lots of loose rock but we crossed over a small rib and hit the south slopes snow route.
Spirit Mountain and Lupines
Spirit from Shelf Lake
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.
South slopes snow route
We had a nice break at the top and began the traverse to Forget Me Not Mountain. This was a long talus slog atop desolate plateaus. Stephan mentioned all these summit plateaus we were walking on were god forsaken places and I could only imagine how horrid they would be in the middle of winter. We descended to the broad saddle between the two peaks and hiked up to what we thought was the highest rock on Forget Me Not Mountain. The summit area was so huge it was hard to determine what the highest point was. Regardless though the view off the north face was one of the best drop offs I have ever seen. Views of the Bears Tooth and Beartooth Mountain as well as our entire route up from Black Canyon Lake were clearly visible. What a place to reflect this was. After a long time to think and reflect, we made the trip back to Shelf Lake (which involved a bomber glissade down the snow slope) and hiked out to the car. The drive back out the long road seemed to take forever since we so looking forward to food in Red Lodge so much. Once returning to town bikes still lined all the streets and we snagged a great dinner at another local eatery and finished it off with fantastic ice cream at the Scoops Diner. Part one of our Montana project was complete. We summitted eight of the 26 ranked 12ers in the southeastern portion of the Beartooth Mountains. We were well on our way and still had lots of fun and exploring to do. Please stay tuned for part 2 of my Montana 12ers project which will describe our climbs of the Granite Peak area and the Castle group. There will also be a part 3 coming out next year which will describe the peaks we didn't have time to get this past summer including the Wood group in the northern margin of the mountain range.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the photos!
Sundance Mountain Summit Panorama
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