A Bit of Heaven in Montana's Beartooth Mountains

Guarded by dense brush, fickle weather, and rugged terrain, Montana’s Beartooth Mountains are an unsung alpine paradise.
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Guarded by dense brush, fickle weather, and rugged terrain, Montana’s Beartooth Mountains are an unsung alpine paradise.
Beartooth Mountains The Ramp Rock Climbing Montana

Alton Richardson enters a perfect hand crack on The Ramp (5.8). Photo: Julie Ellison

With each purposeful movement, I make my way slowly up the second pitch of The Ramp (5.8), anxious to meet my climbing partner on the next belay ledge. The higher I go, the harder it is to climb with any sort of grace thanks to the howling 45 mph gusts trying to blow me off this chunk of granite in East Rosebud canyon, Montana. The next moment, another gale rips through the valley, and I press my body and face against the low-angle gray rock.

“Woohoooo!” my belayer shouts out into the vast openness all around us. I look up and smile. The wind pauses for a brief moment, giving me enough time to scamper to the next anchor. As I’m clipping myself in, there’s a dramatic shift in light that commands my attention—bright sunshine has given way to dark clouds, and a split-second later, a flurry of snowflakes swirl around my head. I glance to the southern terminus of the canyon where the clouds have blanketed everything but the very tips of the jagged spires looming in every direction, rigid and inspiring. This is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, the place that planted the seed of adventure in my soul more than 20 years ago.

For me, the Beartooth Mountains are more than just a place to climb. Fortunate enough to have a family cabin in the foothills, I took some of my first steps on the trails that weave through this mountain range. The Beartooths are just northeast of Yellowstone, running from south central Montana down into northwest Wyoming. The Eiselein cabin, named after my grandfather Gordon M. Eiselein who authored a book about the area, is located in the “town” of Alpine, Montana, which sits on the north side of East Rosebud Lake. The area was established in the 1900s, and today it is home to 69 private cabins, all surrounding a mile-long lake that sits at 6,200 feet above sea level.

Beartooth Mountains Montana Landscape Scenery

Karissa Frye takes in the Beartooths scenery. Photo: Julie Ellison

“It is a place where the mountains with majestic height and snow-capped peaks humble you, it is a place [that] on a summer’s day with the blue sky, drifting white clouds, green mountain slopes, and deep blue lake, gives one a feeling of well-being, of peace and tranquility,” my grandfather wrote in A Bit of Heaven, his book about the history of East Rosebud Lake. While the fresh smell of pine and sage and the sound of birds is relaxing to most, a restlessness overtakes many climbers when they see the sheer faces of First Wall (also called the Giant’s Foot), Chocolate Drop, and the Bear’s Face, formations that are even more unforgiving than the miles of bushwhacking and scrambling terrain that characterizes the area.

The late Jim Kanzler, a climber with many first ascents in the Big Sky State, attempted First Wall several times in the 1970s with multiple partners, and Alex Lowe and Andrew McLean did the only route on the Bear’s Face in the late 1990s. Before that, Jack Tackle, another respected Montana climber, attempted it with Kanzler, who dislodged a rock that smashed into Tackle’s face. “So we bailed,” Tackle says. “The rock is quite poor.” To this day, First Wall remains unclimbed, and the Bear’s Face has only seen one ascent.

Bailing off the third pitch, I start to rappel as the wind picks up again, then I hear the tap-tap-tap of hail sprinkling my helmet. We didn’t make it through the five short pitches to the top, but that isn’t really a disappointment in the Beartooths—it’s an expectation. Weather changes drastically a dozen times a day, from sun to rain to sleet to snow to wind, and the forecast almost always calls for precipitation of some kind. Anyone who has explored the backcountry here knows that getting anywhere requires a lot of effort, and whatever activity you choose, nothing comes easy. From this trip alone, I have an 18-inch-long scrape on the back of my leg, a windburned face, and I’ve pulled 40 ticks off my body. Some local climbers believe the ruggedness is enough to keep crowds away, while others feel the need to guard the area from outsiders.

Formed in the 1960s, the Dirty Socks Club is an unofficial organization of local climbers whose missions are to have fun, to discuss climbing, and to go climbing. Montana climber and longtime Beartooths explorer Chad Chadwick joined the group around the time of its inception. “It’s really a unique place,” he says. “Almost any place else, you can get a guidebook. Right now, this is probably one of the few places in the world you can take your climbing skills and just go off. We have a history of a lot of first ascents.”

Beartooth Mountains Rock Climbing Montana Double Book Dome

Montanan Ben Hoiness climbs a long bolted route on Double Book Dome, East Rosebud, Montana. Photo: Karissa Frye

Over the years, as more climbers joined the club, the group feared their climbing paradise would be threatened by popularity. They decided to take a vow. They would not identify any routes they came across, they would not grade any climbs, and they would keep their exploration deep within the backcountry to prevent too much traffic. To this day, visitors won’t find information published online or in print; anyone who wants to climb there must get beta from a local. (The Ramp is one of the only named routes.) Chadwick thinks this ultra-traditional style of establishing routes only adds to the experience. “If someone is willing to work their ass off in the backcountry, they deserve to give that line a first ascent,” he says.

We pack up our gear as a storm—the third (or fourth?) of the day—rolls in, but our journey is only halfway over. Loose scree leads to tightly packed aspen forests and thick bushes on top of slippery deadfall that all makes for very slow going. We can see the car the whole time. A descent that would take 25 minutes or less on a trail is almost an hour and a half of carefully searching for “good” steps. In that 90 minutes, we experience rain, sleet, and snow as the clouds pulse up and down, blowing in fast then whooshing out even faster. Luckily, there are a few bolted climbs on nearby Double Book Dome and plenty of granite boulders farther up the canyon to keep us entertained in this fast-changing weather.

We make it back to the cabin to wait out this most recent tempest, and I’m reminded of the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” as I nurse scrapes and bruises and pull two more hungry ticks off my back. It’s always worth it. I look down and see my feet firmly planted on the earth, then glance up at the abrupt rise and fall of the granite ridgeline, understanding how lucky I am to have known this place my entire life. Every adventurer has a special place, and the Beartooth Mountains are mine, my little bit of heaven.

History

The Great Fire of 1996

Beartooth Mountains Cabin East Rosebud Lake

The author’s family cabin on East Rosebud Lake. Photo: Karissa Frye

Purchased by my grandfather, Gordon M. Eiselein, in 1961, our cabin was one of 32 that burned in a massive 1996 blaze—amazingly, the neighboring cabin that sits 30 feet away didn’t have a scratch on it. Lightning struck a plateau on a nearby mountain just above timberline, and with little to no fuel, it moved slowly for a few days. My mom would point out helicopters flying over the lake, dipping down to load their buckets, and heading up toward the fire. When we saw it, the fire was distant and unthreatening, so we left, taking none of our belongings with us. A few days later, a cold front blew in, causing the fire to change direction. High winds pushed it to timberline, where it exploded. Firefighters battled the blaze for weeks, but only heavy rains could extinguish it after it had burned approximately 12,800 acres.

Some of my first memories of the family cabin are wandering around the property with my siblings, searching for our toys, clothes, and anything that was previously there. All that remained was half a chimney, a ceramic spoon, and our old dinner bell, which was made of steel salvaged from the engine of a train. The once-bountiful forest, full of trees and wildlife, was desolate and abandoned. The most recent fire before that was recorded in 1896, exactly 100 years earlier. It’s predicted that these fires will repeat every century as a way for the forest to rejuvenate itself and maintain ecological health.

It took a full year to clean up the ruins of our mountain home, and only after that could we begin to rebuild.

“We wanted to say we built this, just like all of the people that built them in the beginning,” my parents said. Now two decades later, it’s still not complete, but it’s the perfect home base for alpine adventures.