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Summer Alpine Ice Climbing in Montana's Beartooth Mountains


by Ryan Jordan and Alan Dixon | 2003-06-26 03:00:00-06

This trip report describes a four day backpacking and alpine climbing trip to Whitetail Peak in Montana's Beartooth Range, July 9-11, 2002.

See end of document for gear notes & gear lists


The following describes a three-day trip into the West Fork of Rock Creek, in the Beartooth Mountains near Red Lodge, MT, for an attempt of the longest alpine ice climb in the Beartooth range, "Whitetail Gully."

Day 1 - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

We drove from Bozeman to Red Lodge, MT in the early afternoon and proceeded immediately to the West Fork Rock Creek trailhead (elev. 7,880 feet). After making a few final adjustments and lacing up our mountaineering boots, we started hiking at 2:30 pm.

The West Fork Rock Creek trail ascends a valley harboring a stream of the same name. It winds up a series of meadow benches and subalpine cascades, including Sentinel and Calamity falls. After about five miles, the trail breaks out into Quinnebaugh Meadows (8,800 feet) with our first views of 12,551-foot Whitetail Peak's north face and its prominent couloir route, the Whitetail Gully.

Although we'd seen pictures of the peak, they didn't capture the extent of its dominance along the Castle Peak-to-Silver Run Peak skyline. Whitetail was bigger, the north face was steeper, and the couloir was longer than we'd envisioned. The couloir and the lower snowfields adjoining it ascended more than 2,900 vertical feet up Whitetail's north face, ending only 150 vertical feet short of the summit. This was a spectacular and elegant route, and we were excited to attempt it. There was not a cloud in the sky and temperatures were unseasonably warm. We only hoped that the weather would hold for a few more days.

Quinnebaugh Meadows, with Whitetail Peak as its backdrop, is a fairy tale backcountry camp with moose, mountain views, trout fishing in the creek, and soft grassy campsites. Unfortunately, we had to pass it up, as we wanted to set up a base camp closer to the peak. After leaving Quinnebaugh Meadows, the trail skirts the edge of Sundance Lake (at about mile 7; elev. 9,443 feet, see map below), which is not visible from the trail without a short side trip. This was intended to be our base camp for the next few days, but the lake was inaccessible from the west (trail) side due to some 100 foot high cliff formations rimrocking the lake's west shore. So, after a brief stop here for some blood sugar replenishment (we were very hungry and had not taken any breaks on the trail for 3 hours), we trudged another half mile to a bridge crossing the creek above a small grassy island in the middle of Rock Creek. Arrriving in the waning evening, we made camp at 9,530 feet on the island. From here we would enjoy tremendous neck-aching views of Whitetail's north face for the next few days.

USGS 7.5' Quad Map (Silver Run Peak) showing the Whitetail Peak area with our approach, climbing, and descent routes. The West Fork Rock Creek trailhead is off the map to the NE. The lake basin to the NW of our basecamp was the location of our acclimatization activities on day 2. Contour interval is 40 feet. To give you an idea of the map scale, the segment between basecamp and the base of the climbing route (the section between the two red dots marked "APPROACH ROUTE") is about one mile.

After dinner and some futile fishing for (reported) cutthroats in Sundance Lake and the lakelets and pools along the creek, we enjoyed coffee, cocoa, and bourbon while watching the alpenglow descend on the peak. We felt the clear mountain sky suck out the day's accumulated heat. The temperature dropped more than 20 degrees in two hours to 34 deg F by 10:00 pm. We had a good frost overnight and there was ice in our water bladders the next morning. We were pleased to have pitched our silnyon tarps over our (non-waterproof) bivy sacks to keep the frost off - anything outside the tarps' protection was covered in white.

Day 2 - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

It seems that we camped on a favorite nocturnal feeding ground of a local mountain goat. He visited us during a night of intermittent sleep. We would get to know this goat more intimately over the next 24 hours.

Today was a day for acclimatization, fishing, and climbing practice. After breakfast we ascended cross country to a 10,400+-foot lake basin west of camp. The basin houses some of Montana's highest alpine lake fisheries, including Marker Lake (10,868 feet), which has the distinction of being the highest lake in Montana with fishable trout. Marker and other lakes in the area are also managed as trophy Yellowstone cutthroat fisheries (stocked on 8-year cycles). We spent the morning and early afternoon fishing Ship (10,462 feet) and Triangle (10,360+) Lakes without success. Unfortunately, 2002 would not be a good fishing year in this area, since it falls around the end of the 8-year stocking cycle for most of the lakes. At this time fish are either sparse (old and died off) or too small to be caught (i.e., just planted this year).

In the afternoon, we traversed to a 10,600-foot north facing snowfield for some alpine climbing practice. The snow was 35 degrees or so and made an adequate practice ground for crampon and ice axe technique. We belayed two short pitches up the slope, using an ice screw for intermediate protection. We made the first belay from two ice tools and the second belay in rock with a piton and a slung flake. Climbing here made our purpose on this trip much more real, although it seemed somewhat ludicrous that this 200-foot-high snowfield would prepare us adequately for the 2000-foot (and much steeper) couloir visible out of the corner of our left eye as we climbed this snowfield. Alan really appreciated the practice, as he hadn’t played around with crampons or ice tools in over 20 years. He wasn’t relishing the thought of climbing the couloir with his rusty climbing skills. We arrived back at camp in the early evening and enjoyed a wonderful sunset dinner, preparing our climbing gear in nervous apprehension of what the next day would bring, never letting both eyes stray from the Whitetail Couloir for an extended period of time.

Our friend the goat had visited our camp while we were away for the day and enjoyed chewing the rubber-and-cork grips off of Alan's Leki titanium trekking poles. The goat arrived back on the island shortly after dinner and would remain with us the rest of the night until we left for our climb. In anticipation of a night troubled by goat tramping, we both piled some rocks near our tarps. My pile was gone by midnight. Tired of retrieving a pile of rocks from the creek every hour and having to reset the main tarp line that the goat kept upending with his horns (not to mention the fact that a fastball delivered into his ribs only caused him to scratch a few times), I finally reached an understanding with the goat. I would pee on some prime goat grass about 20 feet away and allow him to eat there during the night, and he would not mess with my guy lines. It worked and I finally managed a few hours of sleep.

The nighttime low temperature was even colder than last night - into the upper 20's. Camped in a stream bottom with a clear night sky, we were bathed in crisp katabatic air that made for a great night's sleep as we snuggled into our down bags. The nips of bourbon before bed didn’t hurt either.

Day 3 - Thursday, July 11, 2002


3:00 am. Alarm goes off. Goat grunts from 15 feet away, as if to say, "Hey buddy, can't you hear your alarm? Get up!"

3:05 am. Lubricate contact lenses. Wriggle out of bivy sack. Pee. Get dressed. Go get bear bag.

3:15 am. Look up at Whitetail Peak. Note the dark, massive outline of the mountain against the dimly starlit and moonless sky. Also note that the couloir is the only apparent, but massive feature on the mountain visible in the middle of the night. I think it was then that I heard the mountain start to laugh.

3:25 am. Begin boiling water for a breakfast of hot cereal. Eagerly eat cereal and chase with a cup of very strong but outstanding coffee.

3:50 am. Make final packing preparations, mentally ticking climbing necessities off an unseen gear list.

4:25 am. Bid adieu to the goat. Warn him that if he messes with our stuff again, the size of the rocks will increase. Goat looks unimpressed and just huffs.

4:30 am. Begin the approach to the peak.

The Approach

The approach included about 200 feet of trail, a little frozen neve, and endless steps over talus that was reported in a climbing guide to be "small by Beartooth standards" (typically, about the size of truck engines). The approach allowed us some time to get focused for the actual climbing. I've learned to relish this time for mental preparation, using it to visualize what is going to happen on the climb. We climbed mostly talus (and a little snow) from our camp at to the upper fringes (10,200 feet) of the snowfield leading into the couloir, arriving there at about 5:30 am to begin the actual climbing.

Here, during sunrise (with the morning sun creeping up over the massive Castle Mountain, Montana's third highest summit at 12,604 feet), we prepared our climbing gear - crampons, one axe and hammer each, one 60m twin rope, a handful of slings, a few pitons, one ice screw, a set of stoppers, and a few hexes. We put on our harnesses and crampons, adjusted helmets and ice tool leashes, compressed our packs, and refueled our bodies with Cytomax and carbo gel. Just before climbing, we stripped down to pants and a thin top layer in anticipation of the aerobic effort to come. We were climbing by 6:00 am.

The Climb

The climbing into and in the lower half of the couloir was spectacular - hard, frozen neve offered perfect purchase for crampon points and the spike of our ice axes. We climbed this 35-40 degree, 1000-foot long section with a single axe, un-roped.

Route Topo of the Whitetail Gully. Grade III, AI2+, Class 3 Rock

We moved quickly and efficiently, taking short breaks long enough only to suck a few ounces of water from our bladders and squeeze-eat a packet of Gu. The temperature was cool during the early part of the climb, but the humidity was low and we drank constantly just to keep our mouths from drying out. We reached 11,400 feet (the halfway point where the couloir begins to steepen) by 7:30 am. The sun had been in the upper couloir for more than two hours by now and we knew that we would have to boogie in order to reach the top before the ice conditions deteriorated into one big slushie. We kept moving, remaining unroped but using our second tools to maintain speed as the couloir steepened to 45 degrees and then to 50 degrees. The exposure was incredible but the climbing was secure. We maintained water and carbohydrate intake at regular intervals, and our climbing rate remained steady and swift. Best of all, we felt great. We noticed little if any impact of the 12,000 foot altitude on our aerobic performance. Months of intense pre-climb training and yesterday's acclimatization day were paying off.

Alan in the Whitetail Couloir at about 11,700 feet, where slope steepness was about 50 degrees. At this point we are soloing but using two tools and the couloir surface was composed of "white" alpine ice and shallow neve, shaded and in excellent climbing condition.

Whitetail Couloir is huge - 2,000 vertical feet in elevation and nearly 3,000 feet of actual climbing distance covered. It is the longest alpine ice climb in the Beartooth Range. Like many gullies, conditions in Whitetail quickly deteriorate as the sun begins to bake it. Unstable snow, wet snow avalanches, and rockfall are a few of its hazards. All of these can be minimized by climbing the route in the pre-dawn and early morning hours. Even this early in the season, our route had sustained significant afternoon deterioration. A 3-4 foot deep and 4-12 foot wide "junk rut" (caused by early season wet snow avalanches) had formed down the middle of the couloir. These ruts are the garbage chutes of couloirs, and it's not wise to climb in them. Everything that the melting suns loosens, e.g. wet snow and rocks, funnels down the junk rut. We avoided the rut for the first two thirds of the route, but found that as the sun softened the route, the only alpine ice that was solid enough for crampon and ice tool purchase was on the rut's east wall, so we climbed in the rut for the remainder of the climb. This will be considered by armchair mountaineers to be an unnecessary gamble. We reasoned like this: the rut offered the fastest climbing to the top. Spend less time in the bowling alley and you reduce the odds of getting hit. Get out of the coulior faster and you climb on colder and more stable snow. Simple axioms and a foundation of fast and light alpinism.

With about 200 vertical feet remaining, the couloir steepened to 55 degrees. Deteriorating snow conditions demanded some interesting climbing technique. Ryan found himself using the adze of his ice axe (left hand) and the front points of his left crampon for good purchase in the rut's east wall, while his right hand resorted to plunging the shaft of his alpine hammer to its head, with his right foot kicking steps into the slope. Alan’s technical ice hammer had a bit more bite and he sunk its pick deep on the rut’s east wall and made huge plunging swings with the adze of his axe into the softer west wall. Even so, he had to resort to occasionally plunging tool and axe handles into the softest sections.

Top of Couloir - 12,400 feet

Note the contribution of the black helmet and dark glacier glasses to Ryan's "Beartooth Alpinist - MIB" look. On the final steps to the top we climbed up a slope of nearly 60 degrees. We topped out at exactly 9:00 am - a total of three hours in the couloir. This exceeded our wildest expectations, as we anticipated four to six hours of climbing with several belayed pitches. Such is the benefit of moving quick and solo, of being adequately acclimatized, maintaining hydration and nutrition during the effort, being in uncompromising aerobic condition, and of course, packing light. The weather cooperated as well, although we wished for some cooler temperatures. This was an exhilarating finish to a terrific climb and wonderful validation for the light and fast climbing philosophy we brought into this adventure.

The Summit

The summit block of Whitetail Peak is not a "gimme." It took us about 10 minutes of climbing Class 3 rock to reach the 12,551-foot summit. The views from the top were amazing - sweeping expanses of glacial ice and Beartooth granite carved by lush valleys, and seemingly more alpine lakes than one can count.

Whitetail Peak Summit - 12,551'

Looking West-ish. Castle Mountain dominates the foreground skyline in the upper left. Ryan is sitting on a small talus block with a 2000-foot near-vertical drop down his backside.

Since Whitetail Peak is Montana's fourth highest summit, one could see a LOT of the Beartooth Range from the top! In addition to the Beartooth mountainscape that dominates the western skyline, Whitetail's summit offers views east into the plains of Montana, north to the Yellowstone River basin, and south to Yellowstone National Park. It also affords a very scary view – 2,000 very vertical feet DOWN Whitetail's imposing North Face. This is no place for a misstep!

The Descent

After returning off the summit block to the top of couloir, we packed up our climbing gear and began the scramble down Whitetail's East Ridge. The first part of the ridge was dominated by Class 2-3 downclimbing over intact rock and blocky talus, with the remaining 2/3 of the distance to Sundance Pass comprising a spectacular "Sound of Music" walk over alpine grass, wildflower, and scree fields.

The east ridge was longer than we expected. We spent more than four hours above 11,000 feet, most of it unprotected under a baking sun. Needless to say, the ridge proved to be the beginning of our eventual physiological and psychological deterioration! Fortunately, continued views, plenty of wildflowers, and the common sense to move slowly but deliberately kept our spirits up.

After climbing over Mt. Lockhart (11,647 feet), we arrived at Sundance Pass (11,037 feet) - and a trail - shortly after noon. From the pass, we could see our campsite - a mere 1,700 feet and some 40 switchbacks below. We knew now that we were "home free" - back on a trail with continued stable weather and nothing but time. So, we proceeded down the trail slowly, enjoying the descent back to camp as if we were enjoying a stroll down Smalltown, USA's Main Street in our golden years, chatting here and there about the climb and other subjects, and enjoying a head-on view of our route on every northerly switchback.

We arrived back at camp before 2:00 pm, took inventory of our trekking pole grips (no new damage), soaked our very hot feet in the stream's 38 deg F water, and began to rehydrate for the hike out.

Back to the Car

After a brief nap (mosquitoes and a baking sun prevented total rest), we packed up camp and were on the trail by 3:30 pm. The 7 1/2 miles back to the car were some of the longest miles I'd ever hiked. To describe them as anticlimatic would be a serious understatement. The fact that the balls of our feet were sore (owing to the pounding of Whitetail's East Ridge and Sundance Pass descents) and that we were running very low on fuel and water (Alan ran out of food at noon somewhere between the summit and Sundance pass) didn't help things much. We enjoyed each other's company in near total silence, partaking in brief conversation only during the two rest breaks we took on the hike out:

"Want a cracker?" "Yeah. 'Your feet hurt?" "Yeah." "Mine too." "We'll be out soon." "Yeah. Wanna get a motel?" "Yeah. One with a hot tub, OK?" "OK."

We arrived back at the car by 7:00 pm. Our first order of business? We changed into sandals. Oh the joy! (Alan says he will never hike 17 miles in climbing boots again.)

We drove back to Red Lodge for dinner (crab cakes, bratwurst, and a glass of excellent porter at the local ale house), and then sought a motel. We bypassed the local "Yodeler's Inn" in favor of something more recognizable, so we checked into a Super 8 and enjoyed the hot tub, finding that our capacity to converse had returned again. A full night's sleep, uninterrupted by goats (dreamt or otherwise), was a luxury I had temporarily forgotten about.

I woke up the next morning and it hit me. We just climbed the longest alpine ice climb in the Beartooths to a 12,500 foot summit.

Fast. Light. Solo.


What's for breakfast?

- RJ, Bozeman MT; AD Alrlington VA July 16, 2002


Following are some notes made on climbing-specific gear that we used during the actual climb of Whitetail Peak on the third day of this trip. When the term "approach" is used, it refers to the route between our basecamp and the bottom of the climb; "climb" refers to the actual time spent on snow and ice up to and in the couloir; "descent" refers to the route between the top of the couloir and Sundance Pass, and continuing via trail down to our base camp.

Note: Equipment is important but not the most important element of alpine climbing. Good physical conditioning, your climbing technique, and a good summit strategy are far more important. Alan and I spent months prior to this climbing season getting ourselves into excellent physical condition. We also got up at 3 am and left camp under headlamps at 4:30 am to give ourselves the best chance to summit early on cold, stable ice.

This paid off when we climbed the couloir in just three hours, reaching the top by 9:00 am. Had we started at dawn, been in worse shape and taken the usual four-six hours to climb the coulior, we would still have been on the route well past noon. By that time, the route might have been a horror show of soft, unstable snow and falling rock. The weather for the climb was near perfect which helped a lot. Nobody goes up a mountain if nature decides otherwise. That being said, good ice climbing equipment, and especially light climbing hardware and packs also contributed to the speed and success of our ascent.

Boots. We both used La Sportiva Trango S boots. Ryan's boots (size 42) weighed 52 oz (3 lb 4 oz) for the pair with aftermarket insoles (Superfeet), making them the lightest boot on the market suitable for alpine ice climbing. They offer the excellent Vibram Dru mountaineering sole, lateral and torsional rigidity with a full-length nylon plate and 1/2-length steel shank, a completely synthetic upper, and a reinforced crampon groove in the heel for using semi-automatic crampons.

For hiking comfort, the boots are heavily rockered. This, combined with only a 1/2-length steel shank, make these some of the more comfortable hikers in the mountaineering boot genre. Other features of particular interest include a roomy toe box that provides great protection for downhill hiking. The only hiking downside is that the boots have little shock absorption through the ball and arch of the foot. This boosts rock and ice climbing performance but certainly reduces hiking comfort. This was noticeable on long mileage days. Ryan was pretty happy to be out of the boots after 17 hours in them on our last day. Alan, although he had no blisters, had very sore large toes and foot bottoms the last day. If he had to do it again, he would pack a pair of trail runners in his summit pack and use them for the decent to base camp and the hike out. He did think the boots had excellent performance climbing and negotiating over talus and that they were comfortable enough for the eight mile hike to base camp.

The Trango S boots accept semi-auto crampons easily. I do not know how they would fare with rigid crampons, but I suspect that between the flexible forefoot and the pronounced rocker, this marriage would not be a particularly good one. The Trango S climbs extremely well on moderate grade ice.

Very flexible uppers offer great latitude in French (flat-footed) climbing technique, while the midsole rigidity was adequate for sustained frontpointing. I would suspect that the rigidity would be inappropriate for sustained, steep ice climbing, and would result in some serious calf burn.

A testament to the boot's design is the fact that Ryan had spent only 1/2 an hour breaking them in on a flat treadmill (wearing no pack) prior to bringing them on this hike and climb. Out of the box, so to speak, the boots gave him no significant problems in fit. Alan hiked about 24 miles in his pair prior to the trip. Neither of us suffered blisters or much foot pain.

Crampons. Our mutual crampon choice was the Kong Grand Course (semi-auto version with heel level and strap-on toe). These aluminum crampons weigh only 22 oz. Because aluminum doesn't remain as sharp as steel and sharpening their points may deteriorate the temper, they are best suited for hard snow, neve, and not-too-hard (white or blue) alpine ice. We found that the Grand Course mated well with the Trango S boots and climb alpine ice extremely well, although we did not experience conditions harder than frozen neve or white ice. The crampons' front points penetrated white ice easily. As we encountered some softening neve due to sun-aging in the couloir, we had no problems with balling snow, which factored significantly in our decision to continue climbing solo.

Having used the Grand Course on both black and water ice, I prefer steel points for the latter.

Ice Tools. We both used a 58 cm Grivel Air Tech Racing ice axe (14 oz) as our primary tool. The Air Tech has a steel head/pick/adze, aluminum shaft, and aluminum "tube" type spike. We found the length to be long enough for comfortable single piolet techniques on snow slopes greater than 35 degrees (I’m 5’7" and Alan is 5’8"), but short enough to allow for standard use in piolet traction. For self-belay, we employed the axe in all modes: spike-sticking (hard neve) and shaft-plunging (sunaged neve), pick-sticking (steep hard ice), and adze-sticking (steep soft ice). The Air Tech swings effortlessly and in this short length, may be the epitome of a lightweight alpine ice climbing tool. Our only complaint was the shallow curvature of the pick, which made removal from deep placements in ice a little problematic. Quite often we had to slide our hands up the shaft to free the head. The light swing weight posed no problems for our harder ice placements in white ice.

Ryan's second tool was a 43cm Grivel Compact Black 3 hammer (16 oz). Our hammers were used primarily in the upper, steeper half of the couloir. The Black 3 was used in both pick-sticking and shaft-plunging mode, with the latter mode dominating as the morning sun aged the couloir surface.

As such, the 43 cm length was long enough to provide a secure self-belay while short enough to minimize plunging depth.

Alan's second tool was a DMM Fly Hammer (22 oz), a technical ice tool with a curved shaft and reverse curve pick. Alan accepted the extra weight and was thrilled at the increased performance of using a technical tool on this route. The head weight provided effortless placements in hard ice and the reverse curve pick made removal from deep placements a simple "flick of the wrist" affair.

Surprisingly, the curved shaft (with the curve near the head of the tool) plunged beautifully while providing hand clearance and bash protection when swinging the tool into the ice. DMM seems to have found a versatile shaft geometry ideally suited for alpine ice climbing. I’m considering a pair of Fly tools for myself if I can part with my Black Diamond carbon fiber Black Prophet tools, but don’t hold your breath. The straight-shaft CFBP's with Alaska picks are hard to beat for steep alpine ice climbing.

Helmet. Ryan's helmet is an HB Dyneema / Carbon (12.5 oz). His choice was motivated by one thing and one thing only: superior protection from falling rock. The HB can handle multiple sharp object impacts and thus, is one of the most durable helmets on the market. And, it is also one of the lightest alpine helmets on the market. Ryan won't consider the new wave of "bike"-style helmets for alpine climbing, where rockfall is the most significant objective hazard (not fall impact, for which the "bike" helmets are adequate).

Alan’s helmet was a Petzl Elios Class (12.0 oz). It is a hard shell helmet with polypropylene foam liner in the top. I may be the lightest hard shell helmet on the market. Although not as durable for multiple rock impacts as the HB, the foam provides better impact (fall) protection ("concussionresistance?!").

The Elios has Petzl’s excellent harness - comfortable, easily adjustable and with no fabric to saturate and get smelly with sweat. The white shell might keep your head cooler in the intense alpine sun (but Ryan noticed no adverse affects from his black HB). Alan’s daughter thinks her dad looks like a dork in the white Petzl but thinks Ryan looks cool in the black HB Dyneema - the MIB of Beartooth Alpinism). For vanity alone, Alan may buy a HB helmet for the next trip.

Protection. We completed the climb solo. It improved our speed and kept the climbing simple. We did bring a rope and climbing protection since we had never done the climb before and did not know in advance what the ice conditions on the route would be like. Most climbers do at least the upper third of the route belayed, so we decided that (1) we should bring protection, but (2) we should keep it minimal to keep our packs light and maximize our climbing speed. Our rope choice was a single twin rope: a 60m Sterling 7.6mm Ice Thong. We chose the long length to reduce the number of belays (saving time) and we accepted the thin diameter as sufficient protection for falls with expected low fall factors from the 45 to 60 degree angle of the climb. The remainder of our equipment included: Cassin Eolo harnesses, Black Diamond ATC's (belay devices), Black Diamond Neutrino wiregate carabiners (20), Black Diamond Enduro locking carabiners (2 each), DMM 12mm Dyneema slings (four 48", eight 24"), five wired nuts, three Dyneema-slung hexes, two pitons (one angle, one knifeblade), one 17 cm Black Diamond steel ice screw, and a single titanium nut tool (Ushba) for the follower. Our shared climbing equipment amounted to less than 11 pounds, a remarkable accomplishment for any technical alpine route. The light climbing gear contributed to the speed of our ascent, especially since we ended up carrying it in our packs the whole time.

Pack. Both of our packs were custom-made by Dan McHale in Seattle. Alan carried a 3500-ci Speed Bump and Ryan carried a 2800-ci Sub Pop. We used the same packs on both the approach and the climb. Both of our approach packs weighed less than 3.4 pounds (our total pack weights sans water were 26-27 pounds at the trailhead), and Ryan chose to "strip" his pack into a 28-oz summit pack for the climb (compressed packbag only with a webbing belt, no pockets, and no frame) to accommodate the 19 pounds of gear on the approach (including 4L of water) and the 5-8 pounds of gear on the climb. Ryan’s appreciation of the pack increases after each use. This is unlike Gregory, Dana, North Face, and other packs he’s owned where with each use they seem more uncomfortable and ill suited to hiking or climbing. It becomes increasingly clear that our McHale packs were borne out of long pack making experience, especially for mountaineers. They are built with an attention to detail, simplicity, and fit that can be found nowhere else.

Clothing. We both wore pants made of Schoeller Dynamic fabric: Alan, a pair of Ibex Alp pants, and Ryan, a pair Arc'Teryx Gamma LT pants. The Schoeller Dynamic fabric is durable enough for alpine ice and works over a broad range of temperatures and conditions. These pants were the only bottoms we brought (no raingear, no long underwear) and they worked well in both 80 degree hiking weather and on sub freezing mornings. We waded though creeks in them, bushwhacked through pine and willows and thrashed them ice and rock climbing. Both pants looked new when we came back. Patagonia R0.5 zip-T's (and for Alan a Rail Riders Eccomesh shirt as a shell) completed our climbing clothing. Conditions were calm, clear, and warm, with temperatures ranging from 30 to 45 degrees on the approach, 45 to 55 degrees on the climb, and 55 to 75 degrees on the descent. We made no clothing adjustments except to wear a wind shell at the breezy summit. The clothing was perfect for these conditions. Our climbing packs including the following extra clothing: Ryan (12 oz PHD Mimimus down jacket, 9 oz Feathered Friends Jackorack EPIC jacket, 1.6 oz powerstretch balaclava (worn only on the approach)), Alan (14 oz GoLite Chill Polarguard 3D vest, 9 oz Feathered Friends Jackorack EPIC jacket and a 2.7 oz 200 weight fleece balaclava). Ryan's gloves (we wore gloves on the entire climb of the couloir) were Tempest SL's from Mountain Hardwear (2.8 oz, waterproof breathable shell with a tricot lining), which proved to be adequate for snow climbing but probably couldn't withstand repeated use on rock or ice routes and provide very little hand protection from the snow surface while swinging ice tools. Alan's choice was the Schoeller Extreme gloves from Black Diamond (Dry Tool, 3.6 oz), which provided durability, warmth, and some knuckle protection from the snow surface while swinging tools. Neither one of us brought waterproof raingear (except the ponchos that we left in camp while climbing) or other emergency shelter (except our packs? Ziploc baggies?!). This was a roll of the dice in a volatile mountain range like the Beartooths, but with a very stable system of extreme high pressure sitting over us (as promised by NOAA before we hit the trail), we figured it was worth the gamble. It turned out to be a good bet.

Hydration and Food. While climbing, we like to keep both hydration and food simple. Simple access and fast access time means that you'll actually eat and drink, which is vital to maintaining good speed on a route. We both used 3L hydration bladders (Platypus Big Zips) as our main hydration source. We started the approach with 1L of Cytomax (in a Powerade bottle) to bring our glycogen levels up before the start of the climb, and maintained those glycogen levels with carbohydrate gel (Clif Shot) during the climb at a rate of about 150-200 calories per hour. Keep in mind that we consumed more than 1000 calories in a morning breakfast at 3:30 am that consisted mostly of fats and complex carbs, and climbed below our anaerobic threshold the entire climb.

Neither of us had water when we returned to camp - we consumed all 4L during the 7 or so hours between the time we left camp and shortly after reaching Sundance Pass on the descent. We both brought a half pound or so of lunch food (gorp, meat sticks, cheese, crackers, and dried fruit) that we consumed after reaching the top of the couloir and along the descent route.

Light. We only used a light for 45 minutes (we started our approach at 4:30 am). Ryan's choice was a Black Diamond Gemini headlamp (6 oz) in 1-LED mode and Alan's was a Photon Fusion LED headlamp (5 oz) in its lowest illumination setting. We used them to light our path over large, blocky talus, and the only ambient light was starlight (no moon) and the coming dawn. A light was necessary for this early start but both lamps were overkill for the conditions, and Ryan was yearning for his 1.1- oz Black Diamond Ion headlamp (2-LED's) back in the car at the trailhead. Alan thought he could have done nearly as well with his ½ oz Pocket Brite.

Hiking & Camping Gear

Hiking and camping gear was essentially the same as for a companion 3-day backpacking and fishing trip that we took following the Whitetail climb, and is described in another trip report.


An essential piece of pre-climb equipment. Alan picked up a bottle of Knob Hill single batch bourbon which he decanted into an 8 oz Platy for the trip. A nip of this stuff in the evening made the mosquitoes more tolerable and helped us get to sleep. Alan was surprised to get 5 hours of decent sleep before awakening at 3 am to prepare for the climb. He contributes much of this to the bourbon and some to Ryan who was busy playing with the goat while Alan slept.

Gear Lists



  • down top bag (Nunatak Arc Alpinist) in 1000 ci silnylon stuff sack 22.0
  • 18" x 36" closed cell foam sleeping pad (Paramount Outfitters' Mt. Washington) 4.0
  • bivy sack with EPIC top and silnylon bottom (Oware) 11.0
  • silnylon poncho-tarp (Integral Designs) 9.0
  • titanium stakes (14) and mason twine guylines (50 ft) in small ballistics nylon stuff sack 4.0
  • 210d Spectra ripstop pack 2800 ci (McHale) with top pocket/fanny pack, two side pockets, and frame 52.0
  • clothing worn (Supplex shirt, Schoeller Dynamic pants, merino trail socks, mountain boots, Supplex hat, bandana) n/a
  • EPIC shell jacket (Feathered Friends Jackorak) 9.0
  • down jacket (PhD Minimus) 12.0
  • other clothing (1 pr extra socks, Powerstretch balaclava, climbing gloves) 6.0
  • personal cookware (Snowpeak 21 oz ti mug, lid, ti spork) 4.2
  • 1/2 of group cook kit (Snowpeak GigaPower canister stove, lighter, and empty wt of MSR IsoPro fuel canister) 6.0
  • bear bag (Ursack) 5.0
  • hydration (3L bladder, 1L sports bottle, Aqua Mira Kit) 8.0
  • emergency kit (blister kit, meds, whistle, pocket LED light, cell phone) 7.0
  • toilet kit (toothbrush, Dr. Bronner's, Dermatone, headnet, DEET, TP, Purell, contact lens solution) 7.0
  • navigation (map, headlamp, climbing notes, Suunto Vector worn) 7.0
  • camera (Contax T3, case, extra battery, 4 rolls film) 16.0
  • fishing (5-piece fly rod, vinyl rod tube, reel, 1 box of flies, tippet, split shot, strike indicator, nippers, floatant, lanyard) 16.0


  • personal climbing gear (helmet, crampons, ice tools, harness, ATC, two locking carabiners) 78.0
  • group climbing gear (half of the total that included the rope + rack) 72.0


  • breakfasts (2 x 6 oz ea) 12.0
  • lunches (2 x 12 oz ea) 24.0
  • dinners (2 x 6 oz ea) 12.0
  • coffees (4 x 1 oz ea) 4.0
  • Cytomax (4 oz) 4.0
  • carbo gel (8 oz) 8.0
  • 1/2 of fuel (net wt) 4.0




  • down bag (Rab Top bag - modified) in silnylon stuff sack 20.0
  • 3/4 length closed cell foam sleeping pad (Paramount Outfitters' Mt. Washington) 7.0
  • bivy sack with EPIC top and silnylon bottom (Oware) 9.5
  • silnylon poncho-tarp (Integral Designs) 8.5
  • titanium stakes (9) and Triptease guylines in ziploc bag 3.0
  • 210d Spectra ripstop pack 3500 ci (McHale) with top pocket/fanny pack, two side pockets, and frame 54.0
  • clothing worn (Supplex shirt, Ibex Schoeller Dynamic pants, merino trail socks, mountain boots, Supplex hat, bandana) n/a
  • EPIC shell jacket (Feathered Friends Jackorak) 9.0
  • Polarguard 3D vest (GoLite Chill) lots of loft! 14.5
  • other clothing (1 pr extra socks, 200 wt balaclava, climbing gloves, light poly gloves) 10.0
  • personal cook kit (Snowpeak 21 oz ti mug, plastic spoon) 3.0
  • 1/2 group cookwear (Snowpeak GigaPower canister stove, 1.3 L ti
  • pot, lighter, empty wt of 8 oz fuel canister) 6.0
  • bear bag (Ursack TKO) and mylar liner 5.0
  • hydration (3L bladder, 1L sports bottle, Aqua Mira Kit) 8.0
  • emergency kit (blister kit, meds, whistle, pocket LED light) 3.0
  • toilet kit (toothbrush & paste, headnet, DEET, TP, Purell) 5.0
  • navigation (map, headlamp, Suunto Vector worn) 6.0
  • camera (Olympus digital w. Li batts & 128 Mb card) 15.0
  • fishing (4-pc fly rod, cloth cover, reel, 2 box of flies, tippet, split shot, strike indicator, nippers, hemostats, floatant, lanyard) 18.0


  • personal climbing gear (helmet, crampons, ice tools, harness, ATC, two locking carabiners) 84.0
  • group climbing gear (half of the total that included the rope + rack) 72.0


  • breakfasts (2 x 6 oz ea) 12.0
  • lunches (2 x 12 oz ea) 24.0
  • dinners (2 x 6 oz ea) 12.0
  • coffees (2 x 1 oz ea) 2.0
  • Cytomax (4 oz) 4.0
  • carbo gel (6 oz) 6.0
  • 1/2 fuel (net wt) 4.0



"Summer Alpine Ice Climbing in Montana's Beartooth Mountains," by Ryan Jordan and Alan Dixon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2003-06-26 03:00:00-06.