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Exposed

Long overshadowed by more glamorous terrain elsewhere, the Bitterroots are finally attracting serious attention from hardcore mountaineers. Will the masses follow?

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Human feet rarely stand atop Sky Pilot.

With seven miles of canyon and nearly 5,000 vertical feet separating the summit from its closest trailhead, the 8,792-foot peak receives little attention. But from the ridge between Bear and Sweathouse creeks—a popular Bitterroot backcountry powder stash—Sky Pilot stands out as the hulking hunk of granite to the west. Backcountry skiers regularly ogle its plush north-facing bowl, but the cliffed-out eastern face comes off more like a BASE jumping perch than a descent route. It's possible that rock climbers have scaled the steep pitch, but nobody ever skied it.

Until March, that is, when Colin Chisholm skinned up Bear Creek, picked out a narrow, barely-connected ribbon of snow and ice linking the top to the bottom, climbed it and skied the face. Solo.

"I couldn't find anyone to go with me," he says.

Katie Goins keeps clipping along on the golden granite above Big Creek. - CHAD HARDER
  • Chad Harder
  • Katie Goins keeps clipping along on the golden granite above Big Creek.

Chisholm's inspiring first descent certainly warrants attention, but it hardly stands alone. Montana's latest crop of backcountry enthusiasts are targeting the Bitterroot's steepest shots, and descents long thought impossible are falling, one by one. Sure, small groups of talented mountaineers have been exploring the range's remote and challenging faces ever since climbing ropes and skis first came to Montana. But lighter and better gear, combined with the growing wealth of route information online, are finally exposing the range for what it really is: an adventurer's mountain Mecca.

"The terrain that people are now skiing in the Bitterroots is stuff that people in the '90's didn't really think was skiable, like the east face of El Capitan," says Chisholm, the second of perhaps only two who have skied that puckering pitch northwest of Darby. "Now all of a sudden, we're thinking, 'This is skiable!'"

Skiable to some, maybe, but not the masses. Aside from the Bitterroot's extreme eastern fringe, the range's terrain is notoriously difficult to access, a factor that has long kept all but the most committed from even finding— let alone 'scending—the challenging lines found deep in the backcountry. Today, however, more and more alpinists are pushing their limits on the area's test pieces—steep, narrow couloirs for the skiers, and soaring buttresses for the rock climbers.

A virgin descent until last winter, the east face of El Capitan has now given it up twice—first to Brian Story on alpine touring gear, then to Colin Chisolm on a telemark setup. - COLIN CHISOLM
  • Colin Chisolm
  • A virgin descent until last winter, the east face of El Capitan has now given it up twice—first to Brian Story on alpine touring gear, then to Colin Chisolm on a telemark setup.

The 'Root cause

The heart of the Bitterroot lies in a towering granitic spine running 65 unbroken miles from Highway 12 on the north to the West Fork Road on the south, protected on all sides by the 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The ridge itself aligns almost perfectly along a North-South axis and doubles as the Montana-Idaho border. From the crest, a series of rugged canyons on the Montana flank descend directly east as their creeks tumble toward the Bitterroot River. From the air, it appears like a giant yard rake has etched parallel, 15-mile-long trenches from the spine to the valley.

For trail users, the orientation of these canyons means it's hard to get lost. Unless they've humped all the way to Idaho, disoriented hikers can always just drop back down to the valley. But to alpinists questing specific, technical objectives, the mountain's orientation to the sun makes all the difference.

For instance, sun on south-facing walls—like those in Blodgett, Lost Horse and Mill creek canyons—regularly melts off enough snow to allow climbers a chance to work world-class, multi-pitch granite in the heart of winter. Just across the canyon on northerly aspects, snow hides from the sun in shaded bowls and gullies well into summer, providing plenty of off-season options for skiers willing to hike their turns.

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