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.
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.