Bracken Spencer wearing the NW Alpine Fortis Hoody by his bivy for the night.
It was a late start to an already late start. The plan had been to hit the West Fork of Rock Creek trailhead, located outside of Red Lodge, MT on July 5th for a solo two nights and three days of backpacking and climbing several of the high peaks in the Beartooth Mountains of south-central Montana. Beyond the siren call of the high country, a much-needed reprieve from work was due to clear my head from the many long hours. Yet due to continued heavy snow melt and run off saturating the ground an hour north of the trailhead at my home, the need to deal with minor flooding in the house took precedent and robbed the first day of the trip. Being the first sortie into the Montana high alpine for the summer season, and the fact that the day before had been spent digging a French drain, packing took place the morning I departed causing the doubly delayed start.
This was going to be a light and fast trip, in the truest of alpine forms. Just me, a light overnight kit, and a few pieces of gear for climbing the Castle Mountain Northeast Couloir, a beautiful cut of snow from the base of the peak directly to the summit plateau for more than 1,300 vertical feet. Being that the trip was already abridged, I was going to forgo the other worthy objectives at the head of the valley for this trip, such as the Sundance Peak and Bowback Peak traverse. Camp was planned nine miles in from the trailhead at Silt Lakes, another two and a half miles to the summit the next morning, and the entire return trip the second afternoon. To go fast, I was going to have to go light! Minimal gear, high octane food and almost 5,000 feet of elevation to gain I was off just after lunch time on July 6th.
The trail begins through a burn scar from a wildland fire. Despite the devastation that wildfire brings, new growth was abundant and healthy, plus the views that were afforded in the absence of the trees were breath taking. A massive glacial valley with near vertical walls thrusting up to hem in the expanse of the sky, granite faces that have yet to see first ascents, snowmelt finding its way through the labyrinth of cracks in the rock until it ejects into space in glorious waterfalls and a swollen mountain creek ever racing to the sea despite the mountains effort to claim it as it’s own. This is paradise, this is right, this is home.
The trail gradually but steadily fights for elevation, first by steps, then by feet until after four miles the elusive Whitetail is spotted. However, unlike it’s four-legged namesake, Whitetail peak does not flee at the first sighting but calls the elite alpinist with its famed Whitetail Couloir higher up and further in. The view of the magnificent couloir brings a deluge of memories from previous summers climb and hopes of what lies ahead. Despite the fond memories my objective is beyond Whitetail, to the very head of the valley.
People on the trail are sparse, mostly hiking and backpacking to any of the numerous camp spots, lakes or fishing holes, some are looking for decent lines in winter’s final stronghold, but the closest companion on the trail is the deafening silence. Running water below, wind gently caressing the tops of the trees, the refreshing cool of an afternoon shower and rhythmic beating of footsteps bringing me closer are my constant companions.
After nine miles of every step gaining little victories over the valley walls, striving to touch the sky, a temporary home is made on the shores of Silt Lakes. Tired legs, a soft subalpine bed under the tender lullaby of the stars quickly bring me to sleep. Tomorrow will bring an alpine start, Lord willing Montana’s fourth highest summit, 14 total miles back to the trailhead and an hour drive home.
It is not long though that I find myself lying awake in my bivy. Whether it is the nervous anticipation of what is to come, the offense received from the nine miles in three hours on the hike in, or simply the mountains scolding me for not visiting more frequently, I do not know. Yet, the night was fitful at best. The alarm pierces the air with its alien tone, ripping the tranquility of the night, but because of the fitful night, I ignore the tether to the world outside the mountains, to clocks, to schedules and sleep on.
It is just before 6:00 a.m. that I awake with a start knowing that today I am going climbing! A quick breakfast, top off the water bottle, button up the bivy and I am off as morning is just beginning to role back the blanket of night. At first it is boulders and talus as the commanding view of Castle Mountain’s north face comes into view. It is named Castle Mountain as the north face resembles that of a medieval castle, entirely impenetrable with 1,300 feet of sheer cliffs rising from the valley floor directly to the summit. That is until you are at the very base of the inset Northeast Couloir. Boulders and talus give way to hard alpine snow. Despite the relatively warm temperatures, the snow does not yield underfoot requiring the use of crampons.
Ascending into the final head of the valley with Castle Mountain on my left, Sundance Peak on my right and an equally impenetrable divide straight ahead forming an immense bowl of pure white snow is contrasted exquisitely with the orange and grey hues of the rock and the deep blue sky are locked from the outside world to all but those who heed the call of the mountains. Indeed, I am blessed to have been here!
The bergshrund is located immediately at the foot of the couloir and is known throughout the Beartooths as one of the largest, yet early in the summer climbing season a simple step with intentional axe placement and it is below the points of my crampons. Left foot, right foot, place axe, left foot, right foot, place axe, left foot, right foot, place axe. The bowl and the head of the west fork of rock creek quickly slip into a thing of the past, a vague memory. Everything is snow, rock, up. After several hundred feet, I cut in a small bench under the protection of a large slab, anchoring in to enjoy the view and the experience. The guidebook said the steepest part was immediately after the ‘schrund at about 45°; yet more than half way up my inclinometer says it is 48° which is significantly shallower than the snow immediately above the ‘schrund. Part of the joys of climbing in the Beartooths! Life drops into a mechanical rhythm; left foot, right foot, axe, repeat with the harmonizing melody of intentional breathing in the thinning air; yet the couloir continues to slip below much like the snow flakes that begin to sporadically fall. It isn’t until I take the final step up and out of the couloir onto the broad summit plateau that I realize the climb is only recorded in my memory, no photo or video to commemorate the climb save the start and the top.
The summit, with its 25-acre expanse affords a commanding view of the surrounding peaks and being the highest peak in the area affords unobstructed views of most of the other 12’ers in Montana and even some of the 13’ers in Wyoming. A short walk to the south finds the USGS benchmark indicating the true summit. A couple of phone calls so that loved ones know I made it and I sit down and soak it all in. A little over an hour and a half in the couloir, about three hours from leaving camp, 9:30 in the morning at 12,612, just the mountain and me enjoying being in the presence of the Creator of all things.
The descent through Omega Pass was marked by ever softening snow interspersed with bands of loose rock until the pass was finally reached. Once on the pass, 1,500 feet of perfect snow brought me almost right back to my bivy. No sooner did I slip into my bivy from the night before that a symphony of thunder, hail and rain erupted from the sky. Whitetail Peak, Medicine Mountain, Castle Mountain, and Sundance Mountain all echoed the thunder, which seemed to emanate from the ground itself. No sooner was there a flash of lightning that the earth shook with the explosive report. All I was left to do was pray and be in sheer dumb struck awe at how small I am, how great God is and His creation and how blessed I was to have climbed Castle Mountain!
The final nine miles slipped past, as a wakening from a dream, a return to reality. Wanting the dream to go but the call of life outside the mountains slowly but assuredly drowns the sweet song.
23 miles, more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain in 29 hours, the summit of Montana’s 4th highest peak via a solo steep snow climb and a time of my life! As with any outing into the mountains, if you allow yourself you will always leave changed. A couple of items I learned on this trip: while solo trips are great and sometimes very needed, the mountains need to be shared and the joy that can be found in them is far greater with friends and family; and do not forget to take pictures of the climb!