Montana Headwall » Head Trip

On the move

One climber’s future comes into focus on Canyon Peak



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The jagged beauty of the Bitterroots continued to reveal itself along the hike. At one point I peered through an opening in the trees, past a moss-covered boulder, and saw the valley drop away sharply beneath me in a dizzying array of cliffs, interrupted only by the silvery tongue of Canyon Creek as it fell from the head of the valley. It was a breathtaking moment, spoiled only by the fact that we were nowhere near our desired stopping point at Canyon Lake.

As is often the case in an alpine environment, everything in the Canyon Creek drainage is bigger than it seems. We expected the lake around every bend, but time and again we were faced with another hummock or switchback taking us even higher. We had been grunting upwards for what felt like an eternity when the narrow trail suddenly pointed down. I thought for sure it would be the beginning of the Canyon Lake basin. Instead, we found a muddy patch of nothing.

Montana Headwall
  • Robin Carleton

We stopped in the waning evening light and looked at one another, speechless. With a feeling of dread that had been slowly taking hold over the last few grueling miles, I thought of the anonymous fork in the trail about an hour back. Could it be that we were lost?

It’s times like these that Robin tends to thrive. His wisdom—or luck; I’m never quite sure—during self-induced mountain hardship has never ceased to amaze me. He’s optimistic and firm and calm. In times of upheaval in my personal life I have relied on this same rock-steady insight from him for inspiration and advice.

“We need to continue across this open area and search for a trail,” Robin said confidently. “I am sure if we just follow this drainage we will be able to spot Canyon Peak and take our bearings.”

It occurred to me later that this is why I decided to do this climb. The challenge and connection to the outdoors are part of it, but sharing the adventure with an old friend is what I’d missed most.

The hours of early evening came and went by the time we finally flopped down in a soft, grassy meadow at the far end of upper Canyon Lake. Robin had been right. He found the trail, which had been partially hidden in a thicket of brush, and we safely reached the lake before sundown. The impressive east face of Canyon Peak stood directly above us.

Montana Headwall
  • Robin Carleton

The next day dawned clear and warm and we were glad we had positioned ourselves close to the base of the climb. We hopped from boulder to boulder across the scree below the peak, pausing only to rope up as the north ridge rose and steepened. As we made our way up the ridge, following crack systems and face features that led across sheer slabs, the ground dropped away, replaced with the void created by the near-vertical faces of the peak.

We climbed as two teams of two, each couple experiencing the route-finding challenges and overcoming technical crux sections. The granite crystals bit into the rubber of our climbing shoes and provided solid purchase when handholds were scarce, and cracks and fissures of varying sizes offered excellent jamming for our hands when the wall steepened.

“On belay,” I shouted as my wife prepared to tackle the third pitch of the climb. The next pitch would gain us the ridge and a breathtaking view with thousands of feet of exposure.

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