Montana Headwall » Head Trip

On the move

One climber’s future comes into focus on Canyon Peak



All we needed to do was get down. I followed the taught line of 10mm climbing rope that stretched over the edge and out of sight past the first overhang. The granite dropped steeply away beneath me, revealing the stark contrast between the snowfield down below and the scree field beyond that. It was at that paralyzing moment I felt the first pangs of doubt seeping into my consciousness. We were stuck. This route wasn’t going to work. And it was up to me to figure out a different way.

I took a deep breath and assessed the situation: I was stranded in a sea of near-vertical granite in the middle of the Bitterroot Mountains, responsible for two less experienced climbers and separated from our de facto guide. Assuming I found a safe way down, we still faced a six-mile hike back to our cars before the afternoon sun turned to dark. I wasn’t sure what to do.

Montana Headwall
  • Robin Carleton

And yet, as daunting as the situation appeared to be, the thought crossed my mind that this was exactly what I had longed for. I had exchanged the personal stumbling and searching of my recent past with a more immediate predicament. I asked for this. Now I just needed to find a way out.

One week earlier, with coffee balanced precariously in my lap, I’d turned my car east onto Interstate 84 for the beginning of a move from Oregon to Idaho. After months of job searching, my wife and I had a reason to relocate. I’d landed a new job as a teacher and it left me feeling the excitement of change for the first time in what seemed like forever. The move and my new opportunity were all I was thinking of when my friend Robin Carleton called just days before the drive.

“You will only be three hours away, why don’t you come over and visit us in Missoula next week?” he blurted through the earpiece. “It’s the perfect time of year for the high country!”

Robin and I met at Eastern Oregon University, when I was a confused freshman and he was an upperclassman with a penchant for sniffing out bold expeditions. During my four years at EOU, it was a rare weekend that Robin did not convince our unsuspecting group of friends to partake in three-day forays into the mountains and onto the rivers of eastern Oregon. He referred to them simply as “adventures,” which made them sound as if they were no big deal. For me, they weren’t quite so nonchalant. It was during those challenging weekends that I learned the most about my potential and resolve, and began to appreciate the endless possibilities of exploring the outdoors.

The everyday humdrum of life can, however, get in the way of pursuing such eye-opening experiences. My wife and I used to explore other countries and climb remote mountains, but other things started to take precedence. We’d lost touch with the outdoors. Routine had dulled our senses. It was partly for this reason that my wife and I wanted to move to Idaho, needed a change of scenery and were ready for something new. So it couldn’t have been more perfect to have Robin on the phone, beckoning us to take a detour and tag along on his latest “adventure.”

Montana Headwall
  • Robin Carleton

Canyon Peak sits on the west side of the Bitterroot Valley, 9,154 feet high, situated above Canyon Lake and, farther below, the city of Hamilton. The plan was to hike from the trailhead about five miles in to Canyon Lake and then hike a little farther before tackling the exposed fifth-class face to the summit. We carried gear and food for one night, as well as a light rope and a small assortment of climbing gear.

When my wife and I arrived at the trailhead, we greeted Robin and his wife, Chris. The day was hot, but the four of us quickly trekked up the trail alongside Canyon Creek and left the smothering temperatures of the valley behind. I remember my pack feeling light and our pace fast during the first four miles. Then the trail began to steepen. We reached a narrow canyon guarded on both sides with towering rock walls, and filled with the sounds of water cascading down the granite slides of Canyon Creek. We hadn’t even reached the climbing portion, and already I was beginning to feel a freedom I had not felt in a long time.

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.

Once on the ridge, we regrouped. After pausing to gaze down on the dramatic formations of Blodgett Canyon to the north, we turned to face the last and most difficult portion of the climb. At this point, about 250 feet below the summit, the ridge narrowed and rose drastically. The climbing was never extremely technical, but the exposure made us happy to periodically place cams and chocks, clipping the rope to them and allowing our system to give us the confidence needed to balance and smear through the final moves.

We reached the summit one by one and exchanged high-fives and handshakes on a small area of flat, crystal-infused granite that glittered and reflected the intense rays of a sun that now caused us to shield our eyes. A breathtaking panorama of the Bitterroots stretched out before us. I was aware of a feeling that I had not felt in many months. This was where I needed to be.

The hardest part of savoring a moment like this one is remembering that you still have to get down. And it’s easy to forget that in a harsh, unforgiving environment like Canyon Peak, the way down can be more treacherous than the way up.

Montana Headwall
  • Robin Carleton

Once the four of us finished admiring the view and snapping photos, we rappelled and traversed our way down the east face with slings wrapped around trees and rock horns for anchors. We avoided the difficulties of the ridge we had just ascended, until noticing that what had looked like a low-angle and relatively broken face was actually dangerously steep and as smooth as a newborn’s behind. Robin hung 60 meters below with no apparent tree or protrusion to set up a rappel anchor. The rest of us looked on from a ledge above and realized this route wasn’t going to work. We were stuck. Even worse, we’d been separated from Robin.

Thanks to those early years of weekend adventures in the mountains, Robin and I have plenty of experience solving problems. With Robin hanging below, he and I shouted ideas back and forth and eventually devised a plan. I tied two 60-meter ropes together to create one 120-meter line, which we thought would be just long enough to get Robin past an overhanging rock to safe, low-angle terrain below.

I took my time lowering him, holding his full weight, until he reached the easier footing. Once there, Robin carefully climbed and slid his way toward the talus field below, but the move meant our extended rope was left dangling above the passable but treacherous terrain.

The whole process of lowering him past the knot had been exhausting and complicated, and the less experienced climbers of our group didn’t exactly feel comfortable about following Robin’s path. We needed an alternate route—and, as the day was moving to evening, we needed it fast. We still had a long hike waiting for us.

Montana Headwall
  • Robin Carleton

For the past hour I had been scanning the face for weaknesses. Although much of the terrain surrounding us looked moderate, I knew that looks can be deceiving; one short, blank section can render a feature-filled route impassible, and loose rocks can lead to a slip and disaster. We didn’t have Robin to help guide us since he was already safe below, so I had to trust my instincts and get the rest of us down. I pointed toward a possible escape route and we headed that direction. In that moment, challenged by the elements and humbled by the surroundings, I couldn’t have been further from my recent routine. My senses were no longer dulled.

“What took you so long?” Robin asked.

“I had a nice, mid-afternoon nap in the shade.”

We couldn’t help but laugh, thankful to be standing on solid ground and be done with Canyon Peak’s daunting east face. Looking back across the tiny ledge system we had followed, I felt the strain of hours of concentration ease. I enjoy the focus necessary to navigating alpine terrain, but I also enjoy a deep exhale after successfully conquering it.

I hardly remember the leg-numbing stumble back down the scree. We packed camp and had enough time to take a refreshing swim in the lake before hiking back down the trail to our vehicles.

We had just completed one of the most invigorating weekend trips I had ever experienced. In the car on the way back to Missoula I felt exhausted and starved, and my mind drifted to thoughts of food and cold beer. But I was also aware of an overall feeling of satisfaction. This trip marked the true beginning of my new future and affirmed the decision my wife and I made to move. We were where we belonged. We were ready for our next adventure.

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