[Jess Roskelley wrote the following story about a new route he climbed with Scott Coldiron on A Peak in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains on November 18-21. They named their route Canmore Wedding Party (AI5 M7, 2,625′). Coldiron, a veteran of the Gulf War, wrote an On Belay story for Alpinist 64 about returning to the Cabinet Range after a long hiatus to pursue his dreams of finding new ice and alpine routes; Alpinist 64 is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]
Some of the better things I’ve climbed have been on the fly. Someone calls, and I shuffle commitments around and make it work. Maybe it’s better that way. When the opportunity presents itself, I simply drop whatever I’m doing to head into the mountains. I had just stepped off the plane after giving a couple slide shows on the East Coast when my phone vibrated in my pocket. It was my friend and frequent climbing partner, Scott Coldiron. As usual, he had a “project” in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana. While it’s not a well-known area outside of the Pacific Northwest, there are excellent summer routes on many of the peaks, such as Ojibway, St. Paul, Ibex and Rock Peak. Ice climbing, however, is in its infancy in the range. Winter conditions in the Cabinets can be brutal this far north in Montana. There are times I feel as though I’m in Patagonia instead of three hours from my house–and the routes are world-class.
The previous week, Scott and his partner, Matt Cornell, had hiked into the Cabinets to try an unclimbed line on the north face of A Peak (8,634′). When William Echo and Dan Doody had made the first ascent sometime around the early 1960s, the north face had been a climb ahead of its time. They had attempted the same couloir Scott and Matt would try in 2018 but the Doody-Echo team traversed out onto some ledges relatively low because of the difficulties.
The north face is six miles from the trailhead. Despite the well-used trail to Granite Lake below the face, it’s still another couple of hours from the lake to get to “Thunder Dome,” a glacial cirque with 500- to 1,000-foot frozen drips as numerous as the pillars holding up the Colosseum in Rome. The mileage isn’t the reason the face is difficult to reach, though. I have always been skittish of the cirque because of the approach. On the way there last year, I was almost hit by a tree that was blown down by a microburst of wind; then I nearly drowned in a torrential flood along the creek that drains A Peak’s basin. We’d even lost our entire camp to an avalanche that would have buried a small town.
A Peak’s north face towers 4,000 feet above Granite Lake and contains a lineup of alpine ice routes, most named by Scott as references to one of his favorite movies, Mad Max. Scott and Matt had made a valiant 22-hour effort up the unknown couloir, but fell short because of relentless storm-induced spindrift that left them shivering and chilled. At last, they’d had enough and rappelled the route. Scott’s motivation skyrocketed to return in better conditions and to climb this classic gully. Matt had other commitments, so Scott, a fireman who had returned home to work two 24-hour shifts between his attempts on the climb, called me. “Jess, the weather is improving and the conditions are perfect,” he said. I knew of the couloir he was talking about and immediately agreed to give it a try.
We left Spokane, Washington, around 3 p.m., had burgers and fries in Libby, Montana, and arrived at the trailhead around 7:30. After turning on our headlamps, we shouldered more-than-heavy alpine loads and started up the trail for the lake. I was surprised by the lack of snow on the ground this late in November. Our three-hour hike was easy compared to the nine-hour struggle through deep snow the last time I made the approach. We reached camp around 10:30 p.m., cooked a good meal, and sorted through the gear, much of which we left behind the next morning to lighten our loads for the climb.
Our group gear included a lightweight bivouac tent. According to Scott, he and Matt had watched wave after wave of spindrift roar past them as they sat frozen on what Scott described as the best bivy site he’d ever seen. They had not brought a tent or a sleeping bag. This time we had both.
We were up and brewing coffee at 5 a.m. Flushed with caffeine, we left the tent within an hour, fighting through thick bramble bushes along the edge of the lake, and finally climbing up 1,500 feet of brush, broken and layered sedimentary talus fields, and scraggly trees to where the technical climbing and the deep cut of the couloir began.
We were roped up by 10:30. Scott took the first lead and disappeared in between the large walls that would enclose us for the next couple of days. We climbed moderate mixed ice and rock, occasionally plunging waist deep in pockets of soft snow. Our gear fit nicely in the shallow pockets of the quartzite rock framing the couloir and the ice reminded me of the last pitch of Cerro Torre–a neve ice that grips your tools, but means that placing ice screws is a waste of time. By noon, we had climbed close to four pitches, one was a nasty AI5 that Scott, who had led it previously with Matt, made quick work of on his second time around.
As we were climbing into the late morning, unusual fatigue slowed me down and my throat was on fire, sure signs of an oncoming cold. I had exhausted myself while traveling for the North Face team for the better part of a month and, now, right at the start of this climb, I was going to pay for it.
Acutely aware of the time, Scott and I swapped leads as fast as we could. I took the next pitch, wading through deep snow deposits and across a large rock step that spanned the width of the couloir. I placed a cam behind some loose blocks that were frozen into the back of a wide chimney and cut my feet to mantel up and over a ledge. I waded through more snow and found a lone tree perched at the top of the couloir. I grabbed the trunk and pulled on it a few times, wondering how it had lived through years of avalanches sweeping the face. It was solid. I slung the small pine and belayed Scott up.
After simulclimbing for several more pitches, we left the first couloir and started up a new one that would eventually take us to the summit. We swapped leads as fast as we could while the tunnel-like couloir faded further into darkness and all light disappeared from the western sky. I was surprised with the difficulty of some of the ice-covered rock steps. I reached a chair-sized belay out of the rockfall zone with a steep chimney above. Scott came up and grabbed the gear. His eyes looked tired but he showed an intensity I had not seen all day. He placed his tools, one on top of the other, in a vertical crack that would widen and choke down every few inches. The moves looked like fun: he found perfect hooks for his tools aided by his thoughtful frontpoint placements. “Off belay,” Scott called down to me through the darkness. I shouldered my pack and turned up the high beam on my headlamp, pleased at the quality of the vertical pitches on this entertaining route.
Weary and hungry enough to eat the moss off the rock, Scott and I finally reached his much-anticipated “bivy” site after 15 strenuous pitches that had difficulties up to AI5 and M5. Through the years I’ve spent the night on some really bad bivy sites, some chopped out of thin ice on a slant or by wedging myself in-between rocks. This platform, however, was as flat as a pool table and the size of a sheet of plywood. Above our site and looming over us was a house-sized chockstone that would protect us from any spindrift, rockfall or the cornices lining the summit wall. Scott and I set up our small tent, boiled some water and chowed down on some instant mashed potatoes, cheese and sausage. We had brought one sleeping bag. This was a typical setup that we had tried several times. We both put our feet in the foot of the bag and draped the rest over us.
We slept all night and waited until well after first light to get out of the tent. We guessed from some photos of the face on my phone that we had maybe five difficult pitches left to reach the summit. We packed up and Scott led out of the bivouac around 10 a.m. after another breakfast of oatmeal and coffee.
Scott had the first pitch wired from his previous attempt and it went quickly, protected by scattered gear placements in cracks that ran along the walls of the couloir. I took the rack and led out on some more mixed ground. I still felt congested and ill, but better after a long night’s sleep. At the end of the second full pitch of the morning, we reached the high point that Scott and Matt had climbed to several days before. A red carabiner attached to a nut marked their turn-around spot. I could see why. The couloir was jam-packed with car-sized boulders forming a tier of sizeable roofs, big enough to get in our way, but too small to stop the flow of spindrift they had encountered.
With the weather and conditions on our side, Scott felt bold that morning. He danced about from sidewall to gully to sidewall with delicate placements of his picks and frontpoints to overcome the rock and ice overhangs that had turned him and Matt around just a few days before. With a final acrobatic, leg-spitting move, he pulled himself over the lip of the last protruding rock and finished the sustained M7 pitch. At 51, Scott appeared as athletic and flexible as a yoga instructor. After two more pitches of moderate M5/6, the couloir opened up onto strata that formed the upper face. From left to right, we had our pick of several climbable lines. I moved left to take advantage of what looked like many horizontal cracks and an obvious exit up high.
The Cabinets have a variety of metamorphic rock; some of it layered and lifted like the quartzite on A Peak; some of it solid gneiss with crack systems that fan out in near vertical angles. The A Peak quartzite was too loose to climb in the warmer weather, but in November it was frozen in place and reasonably solid. Even so, my lead rope was pulling a few blocks loose. Scott took the hint and quickly moved his belay to a safer stance out of harm’s way. Eager to get off the face before dark, I weaved up a full pitch of M5 climbing and then brought Scott up. The summit was within one pitch. Scott grabbed a few cams and took off, jamming the few cracks and pulling down on the small holds and blocks to a small overhang. With an effort-induced grunt, he manteled up and over the thin block to the summit.
The last five pitches had taken us over seven hours. Exhausted, we sat down and enjoyed the last rays of the sun before packing up for the long and complicated descent along the north ridge. Little did we suspect that our journey’s end was not that near. There were places where what appeared to be easy ground ended up being the most treacherous. We bivouacked once again, this time on the north ridge, after skirting and climbing around multiple gendarmes and ice-covered boulderfields in the dark. Early the next morning, we dropped another 2,000 feet through alpine forest to Granite Lake and the trail out. We reached the car 11 hours after leaving out bivouac.
We sank into the seats of the car, dreading the final push for home. While driving out, we spotted a large five-point elk. I’ve been hunting my whole life and wondered why this big bull was just sitting there so close to the road during hunting season. I rolled down the window and yelled at him. He wouldn’t budge. We flashed our headlights and yelled for the better part of ten minutes. It didn’t move.
“Wait a minute, Jess,” Scott said. “That’s not an elk; it’s a decoy set up for poachers!” We looked at each other before bursting out laughing. On the three-hour drive home we discussed what we wanted to name the route. We were close to naming it after the elk decoy that we had yelled at for ten minutes. In the end, we named it Canmore Wedding Party in homage to another last-minute ice climbing trip to Canada a couple years ago. But that’s another story.