Marcus Donaldson on early season Montana ice

November 04, 2013

I had erased the Lowe Direct from my tick list a long time ago.  Sphinx Mountain lies in the Madison Range of western Montana, 750 miles from my doorstep - not as far or remote as many places I've visited - but far enough to require a real effort to reach the ice routes snaking up it's northern flanks.  After two previous attempts had ended with poor weather and unstable snow, I'd written off the Sphinx finally, told myself that it was "too small, too far" to be worth that effort. 

Unfortunately, I kept bumping into the Sphinx. Speeding along I-90 to access the dense concentration of water ice up the road in Hyalite Canyon each winter, I was often reminded of that looming absence waiting just beyond the horizon.

Photo: John Frieh

Photo: John Frieh

But secrets are never safe in the age of social media: images came trickling in this fall tagged #sphinx, #montanaice, #lowedirect.  Tasty pics of long blue ice and reports of once-a-decade conditions.  An October storm was on it's way in, so we piled gear in the rig and sped off Montana-bound, knowing that in just a few days the face could be loaded up and off-limits once again.  

Photo: John Frieh

Photo: John Frieh

Photo: Kevin Oberholser

Photo: Kevin Oberholser

The climb itself went off just as planned:  gorgeous open trails led to pitch after pitch of enjoyable ice and a sunny topout under windless skies.  We'd been on enough trips gone awry in the past to appreciate just what we were missing on this one.  We savored every swing of the tool and the crunch of snow beneath our feet.  Things have to line up just right to nab even the most ordinary ascent: partners, schedules, weather and conditions all have to come together.  When it does happen and the stars all align, one might be tempted to think,"Well that was pretty easy!"  But back down at the trailhead, ditching the pack and psyching up for many hours of long road that still lie between us and home, we are reminded that even on the best of days in the mountains, easy is never easy. 

 

Photo: Kevin Oberholser

Photo: Kevin Oberholser

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