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.

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