Taming the Giant: A Saga in the Absarokas

The summits I love are the ones that leave me bleeding — easy summits drift swiftly out of memory. Sleeping Giant didn’t tear (much) skin, but it turned me back four times before it yielded its summit. That alone made it a mountain worth remembering.


I first scouted Sleepy G back in Feb ’13 — a foolish run at the ridge with dogs and no snowshoes. We gained about a thousand feet before hip-deep snow presented us with our limits. We tried to trick the dogs into breaking trail (by throwing sticks for them) but after a few tries, they said they were having none of it.


I went back home and looked at the maps and decided that we’d been on the wrong ridge anyway. I decided to wait for better conditions but now Sleepy G had thrown out its challenge and the thought of it lodged in the back of my mind like a splinter.

Sleeping Giant seen from Monument Mountain.

Sleeping Giant seen from Monument Mountain.

In September ’13, my friend Jarren and I made it to the summit of nearby Monument Mountain. I got a look at the Giant from there and saw there was no way to tackle it from the east. Sleeping Giant’s summit cliffs are the crumbling breccia typical of this area — volcanic choss that breaks off in your hands. I figured this would add some problems and I was right.

In October ’13, I went up with Jarren and another friend, Kristie, to take a run at the mountain from the west. We decided to go up Mormon Creek, mostly because of the pack trail in this drainage. We also felt that, by going this way, we could cut out some of what we feared would be a knife-edge ridge.

The drawback of the Mormon Creek approach is that it adds a couple of miles and for most of those miles you’re stuck in the trees with no view. Sadly for us, the distance and trail-breaking proved to be too much and we turned around a thousand feet from the summit.

looking up at Sleeping Giant's cliffs from Mormon Creek

looking up at Sleeping Giant’s cliffs from Mormon Creek

So now I really had a bee in my bonnet and got cranky at the thought of having to wait till next year. Later that month, I made it up Hoyt Peak in Yellowstone and stood there staring at Sleepy G in the distance. It looked mean but doable. My climbing partner, Ed, was with me and he liked the look of it too, so I talked him into going up in December. He was moving away at the end of the month, so this was our last hurrah and the summit, if we got it, would have some extra meaning.

Sleeping Giant seen from Hoyt Peak

Sleeping Giant seen from Hoyt Peak

A blizzard rolled in on the day of our attempt but we were in the mood for some suffering and chose to ignore it. We zipped up our jackets and tackled the ridge west of Libby Creek.

The conditions on this attempt gave new depth to the meaning of sufferfest. Brutal trail-breaking, 60 mph winds, blowing snow and temperatures down in the teens. I triggered an avalanche high on the ridge and the fracture line was inches away from my snowshoes. We finally decided things were way too dangerous and headed down in frozen-fingered defeat. (miss you, Ed!)


I waited all winter and most of spring for the snow to melt. Finally the mountain was open again, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to give it a try. Then, in July, my friend Michelle agreed to go up, as long as I didn’t insist on tagging the summit. We called it a scouting trip, to check out summer conditions on the ridge above Libby.

The ridge was a different world in July — rich with flowers and gentle sunlight and — lo!– we found an intermittent elk trail.

We got up a couple thousand feet and the face looked good but the sky was getting stormy. I had my eyes on what I thought was the summit (turns out it wasn’t) and it wouldn’t have taken much to stampede me up there. But we headed down.

Not the summit

Not the summit

Even though that didn’t technically count as a summit attempt, it left me feeling hungry for the mountain. I invited another friend and fellow peak-bagger, Tim, to give it a try with me and he said he was in and ready for some excitement. We set a date in August and hoped for good weather.

At the end of August, the day before my birthday, Tim and I went up to take a shot at it. The weather was awful when I left the house — big black storm clouds hanging down into the North Fork. I had checked the radar and it looked like it would pass so we drove up anyway.

When we got to our starting point, just west of Crossed Sabres ranch, the storm had given way to blue skies. T-Storms were forecast for late afternoon so I promised myself not to stop for too many pictures.

View across the highway from low on the ridge.

View across the highway from low on the ridge.

We went up the ridge, enjoying spectacular views, and headed up the big face beneath the plateau. It went much better without deep snow to wallow in. We worked our way through a series of minor cliff bands and finally emerged above the face. There we consulted map, phone and GPS because it turned out the summit was not at all where I’d thought it was. We spent a few minutes getting things sorted out.

looking south across the plateau

looking south across the plateau

After figuring out that the the cliffs to our east did NOT lead to the summit, we hiked through a short stretch of timber and gained the plateau.

looking back down on the plateau

looking back down on the plateau

We hiked up and across the plateau and after a half mile or so, the summit revealed itself. There was the knife-edge ridge I’d been dreading — a true knife edge formed of rotten, unstable breccia. At that point, Tim declined to go further, which I respected, so I went on to see how far I could push by myself.

section of ridge

section of ridge

Maybe I pushed a little more than I should have, but the summit was so close and just too hard to give up. I took my time and moved with great care and in the end I managed to get away with it.

on the summit

on the summit

looking down into the Goff Creek drainage

looking down into the Goff Creek drainage

looking NW from the summit -- Sunlight Peak in the distance

looking NW from the summit — Sunlight Peak in the distance

I didn’t linger long on the summit — just savored that thrill of success and took a few pictures. It’s not the biggest peak around, or even the prettiest, but boy it felt good to stand up there on top of it! The sky, which had been building a threat, cleared up as I descended and we hiked down with no sign at all of those afternoon t-storms.

I recommend the ridge west of Libby Creek — beautiful views and minimal up and down. The overall elevation gain is about 4800 feet and the round-trip mileage is 10-11 miles. Start anywhere between the Wayfarer’s Chapel and the Crossed Sabres ranch and find the easiest way up onto the ridge. The ridge will take you to the base of the big face seen below.


The face looks rough but it’s not too bad — take time to glass it and look for a break in the cliffs. With some careful route-finding, you’ll find your way through them and come out onto a huge grass plateau. Head straight up (north-ish) and across the plateau for about half a mile and at that point you should get a glimpse of the summit.

I will say that the ridge to the summit is true 3rd class, maybe 4th class if you don’t watch where you’re going. The consequences of falling would be serious. The breccia is extremely loose and rotten and can break out under your hands and feet without warning. If you’ve never dealt with rotten rock, this isn’t the place to start.

Having said that, you can choose not to do the traverse and still end up within 100 vertical feet of the summit. For lots of people, that’ll be close enough. You still get tons of fantastic views, a memorable hike and a very excellent workout.

The other option is to approach the summit via Mormon Creek. Follow the pack trail as far as it goes, then head cross-country past the headwaters of the creek. You’ll hike north past the summit. Tackle the ridge wherever it seems most accessible — you’ll have to gain about 1500 feet. From the crest of the ridge, traverse back south toward the summit. This way leaves you with less of a knife-edge to deal with but you’ll still find some sketchy sections near the top. Round-trip mileage this way is 15+ miles.

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.

SAR Journal: Lost hikers and a broken leg

I stepped out of my yoga class yesterday, just before lunchtime, to find that I’d missed a page. Two hikers had been reported overdue and interestingly (at least to me), they were right in the very same area I hiked last weekend.

I jumped into the second truck out and we drove to the trailhead (an hour and a half of twisty mountain roads). The plane was already up and circling the area and Alpha ground team was 20 minutes ahead. Minutes after we strapped on our backpacks, Alpha called in to report that they’d made contact. Both hikers were fine and everything was okay.

Before we even had time to take our packs off, Command called on the radio and sent us to a new location, this one an hour away. A female subject had fallen and broken her leg. Command was sending a chopper in but we went out anyway, as helicopters don’t always make it to the scene.


We drove the truck in as far as we could, then hiked the rest of the way, beating the helicopter there by just a few minutes. It was forced to land on a ridge above the patient, so we loaded her into the litter and carried her up there. Things went smoothly and she was soon on her way to the hospital. Shortly afterwards, Alpha arrived on the scene and was able to assist with carrying down the gear.

A good day that ended with everybody safe!

What We Can Learn From This
The hikers were late because they’d gotten lost. However, they had people who knew their plan and were able to call for help when they didn’t show up.

Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

They were well-equipped and had plenty of food and thus could survive an unpredicted night out.

Always carry a little extra food with you.

I don’t know exactly how these hikers got lost, but their experience shows that trails can be confusing. Junctions can be easy to miss and not all trails are well-signed (especially around here).

Always carry a map and compass and know how to use them.

The injured woman did nothing wrong–her experience reminds us that an accident can happen to anyone. What would you do if you broke your leg in the backcountry? Do you have a way to stay warm until we can reach you? Lying on the ground for hours will make you cold, especially if you lie there into the night. Always carry an extra layer of clothing and consider buying an inexpensive bivvy sack for day-hiking. They’re small and light and tuck away into your daypack until you need them.

Stay safe out there!

Lonesome Mountain (11, 409)

I first glimpsed Lonesome Mountain on a hike of Beartooth Butte and was instantly smitten by the distinctively shaped summit.

My first sighting of Lonesome (looming in the background). Photo by Kathy Lichtendahl

My first view of Lonesome (looming in the background) in 2013. Photo by Kathy Lichtendahl

A year later, I returned with two adventurous friends to climb it. We braved bogs, creek crossings and some truly world-class mosquitoes to make our way up to the rocky 3rd class summit cap. Some easy 3rd classing led to the summit and rewarded us with sweeping spectacular views. What a great day!


There were still snow patches here and there.

There were still snow patches here and there.

Fun on the rocks!

Enthusiastic partners are always a good thing!

Starting up the talus beneath the summit cap

Working up the talus beneath the summit cap

Summit Joy!

Summit Joy!

Interested In Doing This Hike?
We started at Beartooth Lake campgound and followed the trail northwest (along Beartooth Creek) for 2.5 miles before leaving it to go cross-country for another 3 miles to the summit. Lonesome Mountain is visible well before this point, so you just head toward it, picking the path of least resistance. There are lakes scattered throughout this area and you might have to walk around some of them. Lonesome Lake lies at the base of its namesake peak and we skirted it on the right. The last few hundred feet to the summit are easy 3rd class scrambling on big granite boulders. This approach takes you to the south face, which is the easiest.

We made a loop out of this hike and returned to the trailhead by bushwhacking down past Becker Lake and picking up the Beauty Lake trail. It was just under 6 miles to get out this way. We later learned there was a trail around the east side of Becker Lake (it’s not on NAD27 maps). Using it would have made things a lot easier!

The net elevation gain from trailhead to summit was just under 2500 feet. However, there were lots of ups and downs on this hike and I think our total elevation gain was much higher.

Other options are to start from Island Lake (longer but I hear it’s less boggy) or from the Clay Butte Lookout.

Lonesome Lake is visible in the picture. There are many options, but skirting it on the east side worked for us.

Lonesome Lake is visible in the picture. There are many options, but skirting it on the east side worked for us.

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.

Hiking the Morrison Jeep Trail

This year, my old friend Springer and I decided to hike from Pahaska Teepee (near the East gate of Yellowstone) to the headwaters of the North Fork River in Silvertip Basin and then up and over into Sunlight Basin. But a heavy snow year plus unseasonable temperatures conspired to make July creek crossings unusually dangerous. After scouting the final (scary) creek crossing on our intended route, we decided to switch gears and do the Morrison Jeep Trail instead.

Since Springer was coming directly from sea level and we were starting at around 10,000 feet, we agreed to take a leisurely pace and simply enjoy the journey. We ended up taking four days to hike the trail, but it could definitely be done in three. On the first day, we shuttled a car, then drove up to the trailhead on the Beartooth Highway. We hiked about 5 miles in and camped at Sawtooth Lake. The terrain forced us to camp right on top of the lake, which was full of trout.

First camp

First camp

The second day, we woke up late, sat around drinking coffee for way too long, then started the 1000 foot ascent onto Dillworth Bench. We’d seen snow patches on the bench from the Chief Joseph Highway and planned to use those for water. The concern was that the trail would be dry from the bench all the way back down to the Clark’s Fork.
view of Sawtooth Mountain

view of Sawtooth Mountain

Thanks to the unusual conditions, we found plenty of running water high on the bench and so decided to keep hiking instead of camping there. The views were majestic and the wildflowers were abundant.
We hiked six or seven miles, descended from the bench and found a pretty meadow to camp in, not far from a creek. After pitching our tents, we crossed the meadow to go cook dinner on the edge and walked right past a gigantic pile of fresh bear scat. We kept our eyes peeled as bear-thirty rolled around. A rain storm finally drove us into our tents. That night something chewed a couple of holes in my food bag (which was well hung in the trees on the edge of the meadow). Luckily it gave up before actually reaching my food.

Camp 2
The next morning, we woke up to stormy skies and a bit of rain. We packed up and followed the trail into deep timber.
From then on, the terrain alternated between pretty forests and beautiful open meadows. The views of Sunlight Basin were spectacular.
Thunderstorms came and went all day and we hiked through steady rain for a while.
I was hoping we could camp up high, but we eventually ran out of water. The creeks lower down were all dried up, so we had no choice but to descend all the way to the Clark’s Fork river.

The switchbacks down were steeper than I expected and very loose and rocky. We both got a pretty good quad workout as we descended.

Me at the top of the second set of switchbacks

Me at the top of the second set of switchbacks

Looking down at the mighty Clark's Fork

Looking down at the mighty Clark’s Fork

Halfway down, I almost stepped on this baby rattlesnake. He was coiled up in the middle of the trail, just like a grown-up rattlesnake, ready to strike and darting his tiny head at me. It was a good thing I saw him because baby rattlesnakes are actually more dangerous than their parents.
Baby rattlesnake

Baby rattlesnake

After ten miles of hiking, we made it down to the river. At that point, we were only four miles from the car, but we decided to camp there anyway. Our feet were sore from the pounding on the switchbacks and we’d been looking forward to another night in our tents.
Looking down the Clark's Fork canyon at river level

Looking down the Clark’s Fork canyon at river level

The next day we hiked out before it got too hot. We crossed paths with a black bear and were glad we’d hung our food on the one available tree the night before. We had to go back up to the Beartooth Highway to retrieve the other car, so we detoured to Cooke City and pigged out at the Beartooth Cafe, which has come to be my go-to restaurant for post-adventure pig-outs in this area. The smoked trout alone is worth any extra drive.

Overall, this was a beautiful and very easy hike: roughly 25-26 miles and about a thousand feet of elevation gain if you start on the Beartooth Highway side. You could start on the Clark side, at lower elevation, but it’s a long haul up to Dillworth Bench from there. This hike is best before July 15th, when the road opens to jeeps and ATVs. Doing it the second week of July, we had the entire trail to ourselves. I’m not sure there’d be any water on the bench in normal years, though you might find small lingering snow patches.

My favorite new piece of gear on this hike was my Marmot Pulsar Tent
which I’ll review thoroughly in a separate post.

SAR Journal: Heart Mountain Evac

Hiker Rescued from Heart Mountain (press release)


A female hiker from Atlanta, Georgia was brought down off of Heart Mountain yesterday, by the Park County Search and Rescue Unit (SAR) after she complained of severe abdominal pains such that she was unable to hike back down the mountain.

The initial call came into the Park County 911 Communications Center at 11:15 a.m. The 17 year old was hiking with friends from the trailhead at the Heart Mountain Ranch which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. They had made it to within 400 feet from the summit when her condition deteriorated.

A SAR ground unit as well as a wilderness medical team from West Park Hospital was deployed and able to reach the victim at 1:15 p.m. They were able to stabilize her before walking her down the mountain on a “wheeled litter.”

Due to the elevation and rugged terrain, it took the teams approximately 3 hours to get her back to the trailhead. She was then transported to West Park Hospital by ambulance where her condition is unknown at this time.

My Comments
this is a narrow and often steep trail with many rocky sections. Even with the wheeled litter, we needed lots of manpower to safely bring the victim down.