Category Archives: Climbing

Metcalf Mountain: North Rib


The North Rib of Metcalf Mountain, in Montana’s Beartooths, is a wild and interesting climb on a serrated ridge. It’s a mix of 4th class scrambling and technical climbing, with several short pitches rated around 5.9.

Metcalf on the left, Spirit Mountain on the right

Metcalf on the left, Spirit Mountain in the center

At 11, 977 feet, Metcalf is the highest of the 11-ers in Montana. It also has one of the shortest and easiest approaches. A few miles on a rough but decent trail get you right to the base of this beautifully jagged mountain.

Frosty Lake, below Spirit Mountain

Frosty Lake seen from the saddle between Spirit and Metcalf


Easy scrambling at the base of the north ridge soon turns into roped climbing. Route-finding is tricky. At times it seemed that moving between the notches was the hardest part. This involved a fair bit of downclimbing, a couple of sketchy traverses and one short rappel. We found an old fixed nut above the rappel and went off that. We also found an old sling in the gully below but chose to just downclimb that section.

Anchors consisted mainly of slung horns. The rock quality was decent. Except when a piece below me broke off and set off a tremendous rock fall. Nothing like the hot smell of granite smashed hard against granite.



The roped climbing had a bit of everything: cracks, slabs and a chimney. The chimney was more of a squeeze on the side of a chockstone. I left some skin in one of the cracks and called it the crux, but Matt thought it was easy. Guess things always depend on how big your hands are.


View of Moon Lake from near the top of Metcalf

View of Moon Lake from near the top of Metcalf

View of Spirit and Silver Run Mountains from the summit of Metcalf

View of Spirit and Silver Run Mountains from the summit of Metcalf

The weather in the Beartooths is notoriously changeable and violent. Since this is a somewhat committing route, an early start is advised! We were lucky to escape the storm in the picture above. If you do have to descend the route, it will be tedious and slow, but doable. From the summit, you can descend the Class 2 South Ridge

Interested In Climbing This Mountain?
The best way to reach Metcalf is from the Rock Creek trailhead, southwest of Red Lodge. You’ll go about a mile on the big, maintained trail, then cut off right through the trees on a much fainter path. This trail will take you close to Shelf Lake, if you can manage to follow it through several creek crossings, marshes and boulder fields. Even if you lose it, getting to the Shelf Lake area is easy.

Peakbaggers should check out the South Ridge route, which is a steep hike to the ridge, then an easy scramble over boulders to the summit. This is the route we descended. There’s no trail to the ridge so just pick the easiest path. You’ll be hiking up steep loose dirt and scree and might have to get around some snow. The boulders at the top could have some Class 3 moments.

Climbers will follow the trail to where it peters out below Shelf Lake, then hike the steep slope to the saddle between Spirit and Metcalf. Once you’re up there, try to take the line of least resistance. Endless variations on the route are possible and you could definitely get into harder climbing if you wanted to (or even if you didn’t want to). We took a 30m rope on this route and it was perfect.


Crampons On, Crampons Off: The Koven on Mt. Owen

dawn on the Teton Glacier

dawn on the Teton Glacier

The Koven Couloir is a long, varied route on the east face of Mt Owen which, at 12,928 feet, is the second-highest peak in the Teton Range. The Koven mixes steep snow, scrambling and low 5th class rock into a full-strength adventure that’ll have your thumbs sore from buckling and unbuckling crampons. And just getting to the base of this beautiful route is a workout.

The journey up the Koven begins at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, which is also the starting point of many routes up the Grand. A well-traveled trail switchbacks up 3,000 feet, leading to a pair of alpine lakes. Three camping permits are available for Surprise Lake and some climbers choose to base there. That would make for a very very long summit day.

The Grand seen from Surprise Lake

Disappointment Peak and Mt Owen seen from Surprise Lake

After passing Surprise Lake, the trail continues about another quarter mile to Amphitheatre Lake. At that point, the official trail ends and most hikers don’t go any farther. However, a steep climber’s trail continues up a couple hundred feet to the saddle overlooking Glacier Gulch. We followed it as it descended into the gulch and traversed the north face of Disappointment Peak.

Hiking up to the Teton Glacier

Hiking up to the Teton Glacier

Hard snow and an ugly boulder field had to be dealt with (the trail fades out by this point), then we put our heads down and climbed the crumbling moraine. After that, things eased up for a traverse of the relatively flat Teton Glacier. We set up camp there. The next day we headed up the Koven just before dawn.
camp on the Teton Glacier



The route starts on a buttress between two waterfalls and this part could be 4th class or up to mid-5th, depending on how it’s tackled. We weren’t sure what to expect, so we roped up at the bottom and Bill went up the hardest way possible (not on purpose).

After clearing the buttress, we got into the couloir (crampons on) and found unexpectedly hard, icy snow. It was nothing like the perfect snow we found in the Whitetail Couloir last month. Since a slip in the Koven would have been catastrophic, we stayed roped up. After several hundred feet of steep, lung-busting snow, we escaped onto the 4th class ledges and did some scrambling (crampons off). Near the top of the couloir, we were forced back onto the snow, which was very steep at that point (crampons on). It was so steep, in fact, that we belayed it.



We climbed out of the couloir onto a steepish ridge. We hiked the ridge and then climbed steep, runneled snow to the base of a deep black chimney. It had warmed up by then and a waterfall was pouring down the chimney. No choice but to climb through it and I have no pics of that part as it just generally sucked too hard. But I will note that it was crampons off again, though I saw scratch marks on the rock from others who hadn’t bothered.


Once out of the chimney, we did a short stretch of scrambling to gain a snow bench. Crampons back on. We traversed the snow bench all the way around to where the ridge connects Mt. Owen to the Grand. Halfway across, we had to scramble a melted-out rock rib. Crampons off. We stopped to melt snow and take a short break, then eased back onto snow (crampons on). We climbed a long steep snow slope to the cliffs, then tried to figure out how to climb the summit block. Crampons off.

After a couple of false starts, we located and climbed what may or may not have been the crux chimney. It was supposed to be 5.4 but felt considerably harder. That might have been because we were climbing it in boots and kept banging our heads on our packs when we tried to look up.

Above the chimney, we got lost for a while, but eventually found a scramble that went all the way around to the west side of the mountain. As I was creeping along some ledges, trying to figure out a way to to the top, I was suddenly blinded by a ray of sunlight coming through a deep cleft beside me. Aha! The third and final chimney. (Or so we hoped).

Bill went up first and gave me a belay and I was thrilled to poke my head out of the chimney and find myself pulling up onto the summit. There was Teewinot way below us and the north face of the Grand looming above. I tried to do a woohoo but ran out of breath. The summit is just shy of 13,000 feet.

Since the hour was late and the wind was a-rippin’, we took a few shots and immediately started down. We scrambled and rappelled back to the top of the snow slope, only to find it a slippery, scary mess. Once again, a slip would have been catastrophic (ie. fatal), so we downclimbed with pickets for protection.

As you might expect, the descent was long and varied: slippery snow, a soaking in the waterfall chimney, and lots of tangled ropes as we tried to rappel. We got back to the tent looking a little bit wild-eyed, but totally stoked that we’d made it to the summit. With its variety of challenges and spectacular views, this was a climb we’ll probably never forget!

Once again, my OR Cirque Pants outdid themselves, protecting me (twice) from the chimney waterfall, drying fast and taking a lot of abuse. I already reviewed these pants in detail here.

I was mostly pleased with my Salewa Rapace GTX boots, which did equally well front-pointing up hard snow and climbing low 5th class rock. I’ll review these boots more thoroughly in a separate post.

Whitetail Peak: Stormy Success


Earlier this week, we headed into the Beartooths, armed with a perfect weather forecast and some sexy new gear. Our objective: the north face couloir on Whitetail Peak, a mountain that sent us whimpering back home last time we tried it. The route is the big obvious couloir in the picture above.

We left late, but made good time in, despite the heavily drifted trail that eventually became impossible to follow. Much post-holing ensued, followed by a short but insistent rain storm and we picked a camp near Sundance Pass in time to dodge a succession of many more rains.


We left the tent at 3 a.m. on summit day, picking our way toward the couloir in the dark. Rotten snow and unstable boulder fields gave us an early morning workout, accompanied by the clang of ice-axe on rock and the steady background noise of heavy breathing. By dawn we were close to the couloir, but sunrise revealed a black and yellow horizon. What happened to the forecast for clear skies and afternoon thunderstorms?


After much debate, we decided to wait and see (a climbing technique used often in times of duress). We continued forward as the storm rolled blackly toward us. A flash of lightning declared the moment of truth–and the burst of thunder was 8 seconds behind it. I threw the pack cover over my pack and we hunched down to wait out the ensuing rain. It was over in 5 minutes and a clean blue sky opened up. This matched the prevailing weather pattern we’d been observing: frequent small rainstorms lasting 5-10 minutes, followed by periods of partly cloudy skies. We decided to continue.

Heading up the couloir

Heading up the couloir

The snow in the couloir was fabulous and we chose not to rope up. It steepened from about 40 degrees at the bottom to 51 degrees higher up, where a fall would likely have been impossible to self-arrest. As the Queen of Cowards, I would not have continued unroped had the snow not been in such excellent condition. We were kicking deep, solid steps and getting stonker axe plunges. But unfortunately our blue sky disappeared. From inside the couloir, we could no longer see the approaching weather, so we found out about the blizzard when it descended.

Blizzard descending

Blizzard descending

At that point, there wasn’t much to be gained from retreating, so we continued upward with many grim thoughts about NOAA. Visibility was pretty low, but all we needed to see was the snow in front of us. And the cornice above. Bypassing the cornice involved a short stretch of 60-70 degree snow, which was exciting.

Bill bypassing the cornice

Bill bypassing the cornice

And the top-out was even more exciting, as I pretty much had to back-step on the cornice, fling one leg over and yell for Bill to grab me if I fell.

Me about to climb past the cornice.

Me about to climb past the cornice.

After climbing out of the couloir, we met the full force of the storm: 60 mph winds and near white-out conditions. And we were still faced with finding our way down an unknown and rather nasty ridge, to locate the trail over Sundance Pass about a mile and a half away.

Our hero shot at the top

Our hero shot at the top

The first part of the ridge was a series of ugly boulder fields: wet granite now coated with an inch of slippery snow. The older, deep snow between the boulders was rotten and treacherous and we picked our way down very carefully, with visions of spiral fractures dancing in our heads. Navigation was tricky with the very low visibility.

High on the ridge

High on the ridge

creeping down the  ridge

creeping down the ridge

We got down eventually and found the trail and the whiteout lifted, but Whitetail wasn’t finished with us. Almost as soon as our boots hit the trail, the snow/hail turned into drenching, sideways rain. We raced for the tent as fast as we could, even jumping off the trail in the end for some high-speed glissades. But even our top-notch, much-trusted gear couldn’t save us from a downpour of that magnitude. Anything not in a dry-bag was thoroughly soaked.


Luckily for us, the storm eventually ended and the sun (sort of) came out. We dried our clothes, had a good dinner and went to bed, exhausted. We made good time out the next day, despite the endless post-holing and a painful detour through boulders and deadfall to avoid two big moose grazing on the trail. We arrived at the car happy and hungry and only slightly damp, and not sure if we’d tangle with the Beartooths again in June.


I had several pieces of new gear that I tried on this trip and a couple of them really stood out.


First, I was extremely pleased with my Outdoor Research Women’s Cirque Pants which stood up to some serious abuse. They kept me dry through two small rainstorms, a prolonged wet blizzard, lots of postholing and several wet glissades. I’m wearing these pants in all the pictures above.

The integrated gaiters worked better than I expected, though I did finally back them up with real gaiters (for postholing). The fabric breathes extremely well and I stayed reasonably cool on the hike in (60 degrees/partly sunny at the lower elevations). I was able to open the ankle zips and roll the pants up to my knees and they stayed put there. They did fail in the final drenching rainstorm, but I wouldn’t expect any softshell to stand up to that amount of rain. And the plus was that they went from wringing wet to dry in just a couple of hours.

The stretchy fabric and articulated knees allowed me to scramble over boulders and fling my leg over a bulky cornice with ease.

One especially nice feature of these pants is that the waistband is adjustable via velcro tabs, so you can ensure a good fit. I was able to fit my Capilene 4 thermal underwear beneath them and forget I was wearing it.

The only real drawback to these pants is that they’re heavy at 19 ounces and include an unnecessary crampon patch that adds weight. Any time I’m wearing crampons, I’m also wearing real gaiters so I find a patch on my pants to be unnecessary. The belt loops are also thicker and bulkier than they need to be. I was afraid they’d bunch up under my pack and maybe cause chafing, but in the end they didn’t.

These pants do seem to run slightly big. At 5’7″ and 125 lbs (give or take, ahem), with an athletic build, I fit comfortably into the size Small with some minor cinching of the velcro when I wasn’t wearing thermals.

TETON SPORTS HIKER 3700 Ultralight Backpack

This 60 L pack was actually loaned to me by a friend, who happens to be an ambassador for Teton Sports. I’m a hard sell when it comes to backpacks and I’ve been pretty loyal to Black Diamond packs for several years. However, my current 60 liter is nearing the end of its life so I decided to give this pack a try when my friend offered to lend it to me.

The first thing I noticed was how nicely this pack loaded up. I took it on a training hike and was very pleased with how well it carried. At 4lbs, it’s only 3 ounces heavier than my 60 L Black Diamond, but the extra weight goes into extremely strategic padding in the shoulder straps and hip-belt, which allowed me to carry 40 lbs without bruising my hips or collarbones (an ongoing problem for me).

The torso length is adjustable (16″ to 21.5″), which meant I got a very custom fit. The lumbar support is excellent and I love the “wrapped” feeling of the cushy split dual wishbone hipbelt. There are lots of pockets, sleeping pad straps and two ice-axe loops. I easily carried a full load of backpacking gear, plus a snow picket, avalanche shovel and ice axe all attached to the outside of the pack. To climb the route, I used the compression straps to cinch the pack down as skinny as it would go–it carried my load tightly and never shifted or got in my way.

For such a light pack, it really has a lot of features, including a built-in rainfly, which I used repeatedly on this trip. With most packs, you’re forced to drop another $30-$40 on a rain-fly and the after-market ones may or may not fit. And, while there are lighter packs available, they’re usually so stripped down as to be annoying (no pockets) and uncomfortable (skimpy padding). To me, 4lbs is a fantastic weight for a full-featured, comfortable pack like this.

Perhaps the best part of this pack is the amazing price! At only $90 on Amazon, it blows most other packs of this size and quality out of the water. For comparison, my current 60 L retails for $229 (though I bought it on sale for about $170). Now that’s a good deal!

The only thing I could really ask for with this pack would be the ability to pull another inch of slack out of the hip-belt. Also, the fabric is not very water-resistant, but I can fix that with a coating of Kiwi Camp Dry. Other than that, this is a truly well-designed and comfortable backpack that I would recommend to anybody.

Alpine Spankings

I decided that the first day of summer would be the perfect time to launch my new blog. But then I tackled a long hike instead and my pager went off and tangled me up in a SAR mission. So the third day of summer will have to do instead.

I’m caught, as usual, between a trailhead and a time crunch, because tomorrow we’re heading out into the Beartooth Mountains. We’re going for a second attempt on Whitetail Peak — a mountain that thoroughly spanked us several years ago. Last time, we made our attempt in July, hoping for a technical ice-climb, and we got ice alright, but not the kind we wanted. Much of the route was melted out and it turned into a rockfall bowling alley as we climbed.

We ended up bailing — a series of frightening rappels — and right at the bottom, a rock slammed into my back. It was big enough to knock me down and break the skin through several layers of clothes. Bill thought it had killed me.

It hadn’t, of course, and I managed to stagger to camp, bruised and half-blind from a fine glaze of sand in my eyes. I was shocked that the mountain had almost taken me down. I couldn’t shake that feeling I’d had when I saw the rock coming and knew I couldn’t dodge it. Those are the moments that change you in tangible ways, that leave you a scar of fear, or a twist of gratitude.

Still, we had to admit defeat and it was certainly bitter. We’d carried in way too much gear for the route, not knowing what we were up against, and our aching shoulders and hips were all we took home. It was a long hike out.


So tomorrow we’re heading in again, with smaller packs and a better sense of the mountain. The forecast looks good and I believe the snow is stable.

But I might be wrong. The mountain might kick us off again, with or without a rock to the back of the shoulder. We might come back feeling small and stupid, having to tell our friends we failed again.

But that’s okay. For one thing, they’re pretty well used to our epic failures and, for another, it’s the failures that make the best memories. The mountains that are easily climbed are not the ones we remember–it’s the ones we have to go back for that tell our story. Remember that time? With a nod and a grin and a shiver.


You haven’t really failed till you stop trying, right? That’s what we tell ourselves. This time we’ll be fitter and braver and smarter. OK, probably not too much braver, but maybe a little bit smarter?

Wish us luck!