A group of climbers based in Missoula, Montana–birthplace of legendary climber Alex Lowe–have been working on establishing some long, difficult free routes in the Bitterroot Range over the last several years. If Lowe hadn’t died in an avalanche on Shishapangma in 1999 at age 40, Cole Lawrence believes he would have continued exploring more climbs in the range.
“If you top out the Lowe Extension [5.10] on No Sweat Arete [5.7, 4 pitches], there’s a plaque up there dedicated to [Lowe] on top of a spire,” Lawrence said. It was in this spot about 10 years ago where he looked across the valley at an unclimbed, unnamed buttress and became enchanted with part of the headwall that formed a prominent skyline, where he eventually would establish a route named Super Ultra Mega (5.13a, 8 pitches), which he redpointed in September 2018 after a series of joint efforts over the last decade with Conor Dysinger, Peter Caracciolo and Damian Mast.
Lawrence and Winter Ramos, who took the photos featured in this article, agree that Super Ultra Mega is indicative of what the region has to offer.
“I believe that the story of the Bitterroots could be part of something much bigger,” Ramos said. To back up his point, he showed some of his photos of another seven-pitch route that is estimated at 5.13b and has yet to be redpointed.
Lawrence is currently a general manager at a coffee roastery. He moved to Montana for college in 2007. When he picked up the guidebook for the western part of the state there were only about 20 climbs in it.
“There’s some twenty canyons in the Bitterroot Valley, and each one is probably 10 miles deep. Within the first 5 miles all of them have granite towers,” he said. Once he climbed all the established routes in the book, he and Dysinger, who works as a nurse in Missoula, started looking for other unclimbed lines, going out every weekend with a rack and a drill. Together they’ve put up about 20 routes in the Mill Creek drainage, all alpine routes, with Super Ultra Mega being the best one yet in their opinion. Lawrence and Dysinger have both written guidebooks, and are working on another one about the alpine routes they’ve put up in the area.
“Sometimes names are the reasons why people climb things, and we really want people to climb this thing,” Lawrence said of the Super Ultra Mega’s name. “It’s a wall that’s never been climbed because of how imposing it is–it was basically the biggest, baddest wall we could climb. The name is a bit of a joke on gear companies who are always naming things the ‘ultimate elite’ this or the ‘super light elite’ that.”
The 1,000-foot granite face is stacked on top of another 600- to 800-foot cliff. “It’s very exposed,” Ramos said.
“The wall has no distinguishable crack systems and I think that’s why it hadn’t gotten done,” said Dysinger, who’s freed every pitch but the 5.13a crux pitch; he plans to attempt a complete free ascent this spring.
According to Lawrence and Dysinger, the Montana climbing seasons are finicky and the aspect of their route is south facing so they take the hot summers off. Winter is too snowy and spring is often wet, so autumn ends up being the primary window for sending. They spent the first two seasons aiding to the top, one more season when they got close, and then a fourth season where Lawrence was able to free the route.
“Some pitches on the first ascent were for sure A3,” Lawrence said. “Not deadly, but getting four or five beak placements from anything that would hold a fall. Once we had the route equipped we started bolting and putting it up free.”
The pair put in bolts where necessary and not next to cracks, only bolting if there wasn’t a good gear placement or if it was going to hinder the climbing or aesthetic having to go off route to get a piece in. Overall, about half the route is protected by gear and the other half by bolts.
The first pitch is a runout 5.10+ R that heads into a 12c seam–“60 or 70 feet of purple master cams”–then a pitch of 10+, one at 5.9, and then a 12c that approaches the headwall and the crux pitch. The crux, at 5.13a, is overhanging and exposed and has five gear placements.
“It starts out mellow and then climbs through a chossy layer. You pull around a roof onto a desperate slab with one crimper and do a weird overhanging stand-up move onto a slab. Then there’s a dyno to a good hold and you slap up this refrigerator block to a stance where you can shake out,” said Dysinger.
The headwall, which kicks back about 15 degrees is the steepest and most exposed part of the wall. “It makes the climbing ridiculous,” Lawrence said. The seventh pitch is around 12a and the final pitch is 5.11.
Lawrence is on the board of the Western Montana Climbers Coalition and is well aware of the cultural and bureaucratic challenges surrounding the area when it comes to climbing. The cultural challenge in this case is that there has been a long tradition of not reporting routes, though there is some debate if that is because the climbers of yore simply didn’t bother recording their climbs or if they deliberately wanted to maintain the adventure. Climbers are also a minority user group of the Mill Creek Valley, and the activity has not always been smiled upon by the other user groups and property owners.
The Bitterroot National Forest Service instituted a widespread bolting ban in 2016 after local residents voiced their displeasure with a particular sport climbing area known as the Tick Farm. The Access Fund, a special interest group for climbing, got involved and in March 2017 the Forest Service ended up reducing the bolting ban to just a few specific cliffs. Meanwhile, the area is also currently designated as a “recommended wilderness area.” If legislation were to designate the valley as a full-blown wilderness area, Lawrence and his partners want to make sure climbers make their presence known and have their voices heard along with all the other stakeholders before any laws are drafted.
“This place feels like a hidden gem…but we need awareness and we want people to come out and show support,” he said.
Of course climbers are just one of the many groups with ties to the land. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service webpage, “these intermountain areas of western Montana were the last areas of the United States to be settled by whites,” with the Salish and Kutenai people stewarding the land for at least 8,000 years. The webpage reads:
The respect and love for the Bitterroot can be summed up in the words of Louise Vanderburg, a Salish elder: “When we go home I think about our old people. I walk lightly when I walk around. The bones of my Grandparents and their Grandparents are all around here. We return to the Bitterroot each year on a Pilgrimage to honor our connection with our homeland. Also to ensure the preservation of our ancestors’ graves and sacred sites. In doing so we acknowledge the gifts left here by those who have gone on before us, gifts of language, songs, dance, spirituality. This way of life has been sustained for generations by our ancestors’ prayers.”
The Access Fund posted an article on April 24 titled, “Climbing and Respect for Indigenous Lands.” The article states:
Nearly every climbing area in America is still connected to an indigenous community today– whether as a homeland, a sacred site, or both–and it is important for climbers to think about how we interact with these lands. Though plenty of indigenous people are also climbers, the climbing community has had a mixed relationship with tribes over the years. Climbing on certain formations has been, and continues to be, in opposition to the wishes of some tribal governments (climbing is banned within the Navajo Nation in the four corners region, for example).
Alpinist recently contacted the office for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to invite their opinions about climbing in the Bitterroots but no messages have been returned at the time of this posting.