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Montana personal ad

IMG_3257April 2013, Electric Peak 

Dear other states,

Do you ever park by the river and chase a split rail fence along the national park boundary, carrying your skis through mud and sage? Stash your sneakers at snow line, then crunch over frozen sugar and fresh graupel through the woods?

Do you skin up long ridgelines past grizzly bear tracks and bison, and do you know your skins won’t stick on elk droppings? When old man’s beard hanging from dead branches snags on your pack, does bark ever fall down your shirt?

Just wondering.

These are the reasons I ski. That and 3,000 foot descents from alpine summits, massive Douglas-firs and cedars deep in the forest, and unexpected powder. Also, there’s the sunrise, hot springs and beer on the tailgate. Always beer on the tailgate.


Sometimes I get tired of skinning over mud and snow berms, especially when it’s raining, of wallowing in thigh-deep isothermic mush, of scary hard slabs and wishing I had a better walk mode.

But that all dissipates in the talus, wind swirling my exhaustion and stoke away into the surrounding peaks. There, the sun reflects across blinding snowfields as clouds move in, turning my companions into silhouettes.

Does anybody know what I’m talking about? Wyoming? Alaska? Idaho.

We could get together for tea, go skiing, or maybe just do a little bushwhacking.

Let me know –

Love, Montana



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Gallatin Canyon, June 16, 2013

Time is running out.

I’m getting married in five days. The summer solstice is near. We’re about to close on a house. The deadline for this story looms. The morning light is dropping quickly down the side of the canyon.

View from the areteI’m halfway up the arête, standing on a ledge, hands stuffed in my armpits. The temperature dropped into the 30s last night, and the air and rock are still chilly at 7 a.m. I watch the light move through the forest on a nearby hillside, illuminating each needled branch, and then look up. It still hasn’t hit the rock.

Three years ago, I got a real job for my 30th birthday. I was straight off a climbing expedition, and learning to survive the 70-hour desk-jockey workweeks took battle tactics. Often, I couldn’t find a climbing partner after work, so I took to soloing. Eventually, I found that hanging on a rope, scrubbing dirty rock and trundling choss deleted the day’s anxiety and LCD glare faster than anything.

Manual labor is meditation. Its side affects are lichen in my eyes, ears and bra, and ticks climbing up my legs. Also, happiness and new routes.

I shift my feet and little pieces of rocky grit ricochet off the ledge and down toward my fiancé Pat. He doesn’t flinch.

The two of us first walked up to the arête on a hot day mid-summer last year.

The arete from behind my windshield

“I’ve looked at this thing before,” Pat said. “It’s short.”

But I’d been admiring it on my hour-long commute from Bozeman to Big Sky every day. It shines in the morning light, a beacon exemplifying all the uncharted rock in the canyon – most of it choss.

I had to climb it.

Next, I took photographer Ryan Day Thompson up on a muggy evening after work. I drilled an anchor, we top roped it and trundled a few blocks. The bottom was contrived, and the middle broken, with a rat’s nest; the climbing up top was superb, exposed and right on the arête.

Ty on the arete last fall

“It’s chossy,” Ryan said.

My co-worker Tyler Allen is game for anything, so we visited the arête in late fall, smoke from the nearby Millie Fire sitting in the canyon.

“It’s dirty,” Tyler said. “But cool.”

Pat and I went back this spring. “It’s hard,” Pat said, then found a better start. We marked spots for seven bolts.

Tyler and I returned after work for a few TR laps, trundled another block, and drank a beer from the base, watching cars wind through the canyon below. Dusk fell on the snowy northwest side of the 9,945-foot Sentinal, along the Gallatin Crest.

Pat top roping the new start

A few days later I hung on a rope and fired the bolts in, graupel and rain falling onto my shoulders and thighs. The canyon trad climbing gods know when I rap bolt, and they punish me every time.

But this morning the light is perfect. The gods must have forgiven me. Part of me is reticent to continue upward – with this send, the project will be over.

Grasping crisp crimps, I climb out of the shadow, into the sun. The canyon engulfs me: Swallows chirp and dart from a nearby ledge; the soft green mantle of fir and spruce fill my periphery; and the sun’s warmth lights my skin. I climb to the anchor, clip the chains, and look down at Pat belaying.

Here, for a moment, time and place have collided and I have all I could ever want of both.

I originally wrote this piece for Outdoor Research’s Verticulture blog.


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Leaving Argentina

I’m looking out the window on the flight from Houston to Denver, the second-to-last leg of our return trip from Patagonia. Soaring over what I think are the hills of West Texas, I reflect back on my time in Argentina. Friends, new and old, are the first thing that come to mind.

Fiesta! Our Argentine friends trying on our ski goggles after a few Quilmes.Joaquin and the Colorado boys; Julian and Sandrine, whom I hope to visit in Bariloche and Chamonix; Kate, Mikey and Madaleine; Fede, who hosted us in Buenos Aires, and Gabi, who toured us around the city; Colin, Jon and the other Canadians we met in the Torre Valley; the Kiwi trekkers; the Germans and Russians we met at Paso Superior; Sergio, Santiago and Lucrecia, the family from northern Argentina we laughed and partied with at the hostel (pictured at left wearing Josh’s ski goggles); the Kauffman brothers and Malu.

Post-Whillans litrosBut most of all, my patient, optimistic, solid, beer-loving climbing partner Anne Gilbert, with whom I spent Christmas, New Year’s and nearly every other moment of the last month.

She would want me to mention Elena and Gladys, the hardworking, kind women who ran our little hostel out of their home. Although they spoke no English, they had us completely figured out. Near the end of our stay, Gilbert overheard Gladys explaining how we’d been there a month climbing and didn’t want to leave.

People come first. Then mountains.

I open my laptop, and Poincenot, Saint-Exupéry, Rafael and De la’S throw long, pointed evening shadows across the robin’s egg green Lago Sucio and the effervescent Laguna de Los 3.

Gazing at this photo, I try to stretch those shadows a few hours farther in my mind.

In the fog below Paso Superior

It started on December 30, when Gilbert and I scrambled in the pouring rain down the slippery ledges above Laguna de los 3, past the sketchy old fixed lines. At the glacier we switched to boots and headed into the fog toward Paso Superior.

By 5:30 p.m. we were soaked and tired, post-holing to our thighs on a 45-degree slope. Over it, we found a flat spot on the ridge, stamped down the snow, staked the tent out with our ice tools, and climbed in. Brewing hot water, we dozed, giggled and shared Gilbert’s iPod. At 7:30, after we’d eaten a Mountain House and some multi-colored sugar candies, we heard voices.

Opening the tent door, we saw two guys, soaked and psyched. It was Justin – who Gilbert met in Chamonix last winter – and Chris, who used to live in Missoula. They headed on, bent on finding Paso. #coloradoboys

Nearing Paso SuperiorWe set the alarm for 2:30 a.m. to check the weather: fog. The Whillans route on Poincenot, which we hoped to climb, would need a day to shed the new snow, so we slept until sun and deep blue Patagonian skies drew us out for coffee. After a 35-minute hike to Paso, we spent the day drying our stuff out, chilling and socializing.

Igor (L) and Gena, of Russia and Kazakhstan, carried champagne to Paso Superior to celebrate New Year's.

First we met Pavel and Bryan, of Boston, who were out of fuel and headed down. Next, three Argentines, Fede, Rocke and Santiago, were rolling porros before attempting Fitz. Celebrating New Year’s Eve at 4 p.m., we sipped Irish whisky and Scotch with the Colorado boys and two German scientists. At 7:30, champagne and furry pink cookies with Igor and Gena, of Russia and Kazakhstan. ¡Festejar!

After dinner we ran out of fuel. The storm had lasted longer than we thought, adding on this extra day of chilling, which led to the shortage. Damn. We were frustrated, but luckily we still had enough water to climb the next day.

Gilbert early in the day on the Whillans

We woke at 2:30 a.m. and were headed up the frozen glacier toward Poincenot by 3. At the bergshrund we tunneled through a cool hole in the snow, climbed an ice step, then crossed the snowfield in the alpenglow.

Justin and Chris had bailed from their attempt on the California Route because of bad conditions and were already headed up the snow ramp above.

We simul-climbed the snow ramp, me leading as fast as I could to get off the thing before it got too warm, clipping fixed tat like it was a sport climb. Gilbert crushed the crux mixed pitch, and off we went, trending left and up on cool moderate rock in our boots. At 2:45 p.m. (or was it 3:45?) we took turns standing on the summit.

The views: in the west the Torres and Patagonian ice cap; Lago Viedma and the steppe around Califate to the east; mountains north and south as far as the eye could see.View of the Torre group from the summit of Poincenot


We descended with the boys, Gilbert leading most of the way. 16 rappels later and a lot of goofing off, we were booting across the glacier, post-holing through breakable crust on our way back to camp.

We stumbled in at 11:45 p.m., peaks in black shadow cutting through the starlit sky. Igor and Gena were already back, snoozing in their snow cave; the Germans gone. Looking up the glacier behind me, I saw four headlamps approaching – the Colorado boys and two of the Argentines.

Happy 2013. ¡Cumbre!


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It’s 5 a.m., and rain is slathering lo de Guille, our hostel in El Chaltén, Argentina, drumming on the roof and hammering the cement outside the window.

We woke at 4, already packed for the all-day hike to Paso Superior where we plan to camp before attempting the Whillans route on Poincenot tomorrow. Coffee and breakfast downed, I’m brewing with excitement, nervousness and lack of sleep.

As I type, my fingertips are raw, reminding me that the last weather window, known as a brecha, was only a few days ago over Christmas. The next one starts on New Years Eve and peters out Jan. 2. With data from a weather buoy off the Chilean coast, it’s possible to predict brechas, and this little mountain town buzzes during the days prior.

During the Christmas window Gilbert and I spent two days on Chiaro di Luna, a 19-pitch rock climb on Aguja Saint-Exupéry. Named for the French WWII pilot who wrote The Little Prince, the tower is one of the smaller peaks in the iconic Fitz Roy massif. However, the 2,200-foot route is on par with the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. Big.

The cache of gear we’d banked on finding after hiking eight hours into the Torre Valley had been raided, leaving us up a creek at the Niponino bivy with one thin rope, one 30-degree sleeping bag, and Whit’s old sleeping bag, sopping wet.

Luckily some Canadian climbers sent us over to Colin Haley, who I’d met in Yosemite several years ago. He climbs in Patagonia every year and is dialed. He lent us two old ropes, we dried out the wet sleeping bag, and spent the next four nights spooning to stay warm.

Snow and ice on Saint-Exupéry made for slow going, but after a cold start we climbed out of the clouds and into the sun. The combination of ultra-splitter cracks, wild exposure and some of the world’s greatest peaks surrounding us is something I will forever keep in the treasure chest.

An Argentine team above us rappelled early the first afternoon, and we made it to the flat spot atop pitch 11 in time to fix one more pitch before dark. The bivy site was loaded with snow and ice, so I spent three hours digging out a jagged alley between sharp rocks that would have been uncomfortable for even one person. We squashed ourselves into the 30-degree sleeping bag, which took some 5.9+ squeeze chimneying, zipped it up (at least 5.11), and slept like little girls.

Morning brought pink alpenglow on Poincenot and the peaks of the Cerro Torre group. Another slow, cold start. The sun caught us on pitch 14, lighting the golden rock and amazing 6b crack. An Austrian party of three appeared below us while we were on it, moving quickly, shouting to us in accented English about the ice on pitch 12.

We made it to pitch 15, just below the chimneys, and then it was time to go down. Weather was moving in, and summitting would have put us out for another night.

I’ll post photos once we leave Chaltén, which has Stone Age speed Internet.

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Mount Cowen, Hollywood

Last summer Fats horsepacked Justin, Pat and me nine miles into the Absaroka Mountains, to Mount Cowen. Justin and I did a new 600-foot route on Eenie, a sub-peak of Cowen, and named it after a runaway packhorse. Here’s the story, plus photos.


Storm clouds moved over Mount Wallace, 10 miles south, and thunder echoed up the valley. The mid-day sun was still out over my belay perch on Mount Cowen, but even so, my were palms sweating as I fed out rope. Justin was out of sight, moving steadily upward, and there was only about 30 feet of rope left.

I started reorganizing in case I had to simul climb—re-tied my shoes, closed up the bullet pack and put it on, made a plan to take down the anchor. The ledge sloped away from me in several directions, and standing up was awkward.

Come on, Justin, keep moving.

With only five feet remaining the rope stopped. I cleaned up shop, and the rope came tight so I started climbing. After a short struggle up the overhanging wide crack above the ledge, I mantled onto the horn at its top and then headed up a long, lower-angle splitter.

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Face holds appeared as the crack kicked back more steeply, reminding me of Gallatin Canyon. Similar rock, similar hard-to-read climbing style. I climbed as fast as I could, and my forearms flamed.

First thing that morning when we’d started up the gully, we had Pat and Boots with us, but they bailed when the terrain got foul, loose and technical.

“This is no place for a dog,” Pat said and turned downhill, mentioning something about scouting for elk. Justin was long gone, far above us in the gully.

“What do I do?” I asked. Pat shrugged, mumbled, and up I went.

Fats was on her own adventure that day in search of the packhorse that wandered off the previous evening. A badass horsewoman and experienced packer, she took off that morning riding her own horse and trailing another. She found the missing animal, which she’d borrowed from a friend, back at the trailhead. Apparently he wanted back to the barn.

We’d originally planned to climb Passive Aggressive Disorder, a Tom Kalakay 5.10+. Well, Justin actually wanted to do the 5.12 A0 to the left, Mark of the Beast, and I hoped to climb the ultra-classic Montana Centennial Route. But we couldn’t really find the start to Mark or Passive Agressive and took the next best option.

“Let’s climb that clean dihedral,” I said, pointing to the most obvious feature on the wall.

“OK,” Justin said and led off, starting on what I now think is the first pitch of Passive Aggressive Disorder and veering right under the roof partway up, toward the corner I’d picked out. He stopped on a ledge when he was out of rope and brought me up.

I sent him up the next pitch, too, channeling Chouinard’s advice from the seminal 1970s instructional book, Climbing Ice—In the mountains, the stronger leader should always go first… or something of that ilk.

Justin trundled a bunch of rocks, laughing, and I swatted bees. Then he flew up the corner, a gorgeous 70-meter, 5.10+ rope stretcher with a wild top-out move onto the sloping ledge. With the thunderstorm rolling in and him making such good time, I sent him off again.

“I can’t tell where to go,” he said when I handed him the rack back and started restacking the rope. I pointed at the offwidth and up he went. Go, Justin, go!

I don’t remember the last pitch, except that it had a little 5.9 roof at the start and then went straight up for another 60 meters. We reached the grassy ledges near the summit as the rain started, scrambled around to the rappels and descended to the notch.

Our stuff was right where we left it, albeit a bit beat up from the trundled rocks. We agreed we’d name the route after the runaway packhorse, when we figured out his name.

The next day, Fats and I rode bareback up to Elbow Lake. She and Pat fished, and I attempted to fish, then swam instead and lolled around, looking up at Cowen. Justin ran four miles to the Northeast Ridge, passed Cotton and friends on the route, made it to the top and back down just in time for the start of a massive storm.

We rode out that night talking about pizza and beer the whole way. At the trailhead, a friendly Bridger Bowl patroller whom we’d met before, Lee, appeared on his mountain bike and invited us to his house for pizza and beer with his family.

Fats returned the packhorse on Monday morning and found out his name is Hollywood. I made it to work by 9 a.m. 

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The crew

Felicia sent me a few photos this week from one of our spring climbing missions to the Clarky, and I liked this one.

With that pose, Rose (left) looks like she’s straight out of some 1950s climbing scene, a prophet explaining to me and Bridget (blue jacket) the ways of the big stone. Loren (black) is just bone-cold chilling, because that’s what he does, always with a quiet smile. And I can’t quite tell what Emily is up to… perhaps checking out the view improvements Bobby made the previous weekend with the chainsaw.

Plus, all the other photos are top secret.

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MNA awards and U.S. Senate debate

The Montana Newspaper Association held its annual conference at Buck’s T-4 in Big Sky this week. Yesterday, it hosted the first official debate in the race for Sen. Jon Tester’s seat in the U.S. Senate, between Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg.

As soon as they announced the debate last week, I called the MNA and signed Big Sky Weekly reporter Taylor Anderson up for the panel of journalists asking questions of the politicians. I’m proud of Taylor for his good work up there.

Also, I’m proud of myself for winning two MNA awards! In total the Weekly won four and placed in seven others.

My award winning stories are Turf War, which is about eminent domain and proposed high voltage transmission lines in Montana, and Effluent snowmaking pilot project on track, which is about making snow from wastewater and really should have had some clever double-entendre about poop in the title.

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Snow and sun

If you were wondering how snowy Memorial Day weekend was in Yellowstone, the first few photos here will give you an idea.

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The chocolate river is the Gallatin from Squaw Creek/Storm Castle. It peaked for the season on Tuesday afternoon a few hours after I shot the photo, at about 5,200 cfs. Also, I recently read the historical marker at the Squaw Creek turnoff for the first time and found out there was once a CCC camp there, right near where we climb.

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A hundred excuses

Driving home from work on Wednesday night, I had a hundred excuses not to pull over and take a hike.

I forgot a sports bra. It was sprinkling. I left the bear spray at home. I stayed up late last night working on an article about bears. I’m afraid of bears. It’s tick season.

Well that’s at least five and I can no longer think of any additional reasons, because I ended up hiking and didn’t see any bears and, after some ado, am glad I went.

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When I got to the trailhead I changed clothes because they say if you get dressed to do something you’re more likely to go. But then I got scared of the bears and slumped back into the driver’s seat.

Then a mountain biker with a full-face mask pulled into the parking lot and rode up to say hi. We high-fived, and I was like “cool, who are you?”

It was Wieland, I realized, when he took off his helmet. Maggie rolled up too, and they said I had to go for a walk.

“You probably spent all day at a desk,” Wieland said.

“The last three, actually,” I said.

I showed him the sign about the bears at Rat Lake and we talked about how neither of us had ever seen any bears in the canyon and about how he had just sold his dirt bike.

So I walked up to the K9 Cliffs and almost didn’t make it. I actually sat down in the middle of the River Trail for a while, but something slowly, eventually dragged my ass up the talus field. Upon arriving at the scruffy-looking cliffs it didn’t really seem worth it, so I sat back down and drank a beer and flicked ticks off of my legs.

It sprinkled as I walked downhill, and when I got back to the River Trail I saw a pair of whitetail deer. Then I started taking some photos of flowers and realized that’s what I should’ve been doing all along.

Now it’s snowing. Perfect.

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