The old quip goes that an alpinist’s finest asset is a short memory. Without it, you’d never revisit the world of cold, wet, and scared. But I knew I would remember this climb, an icefall that spilled hundreds of feet down a cliff band above Little Rock Creek in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. That winter, in the mid-90s, two local veterans had spied the line and given it a go. Easier frozen tiers yielded to sustained vertical, where the ice dwindled to chandeliers and verglas, spitting off the leader, injuring his ankle, and forcing a crawl out. Out of respect, I asked if they minded if I tried the line. They gave me their blessing.
Butterflies fluttered as my friend Dale Covington and I trudged into the canyon. We waded through deep snow beneath towering pines to the glimmering ice. I routinely lose my keys and forget directions, but I still recall the crux, zooming in to the veneer only millimeters thick, pounding a baby angle partway into a shallow, icy crack, and equalizing it to a tied-off icicle. It was one of my earliest first ascents, and, though quite modest by today’s standards, my hardest lead to date.
It was dark by the time we hiked out. Dale went ahead while I paused to turn off my headlamp and stare at the route, illuminated by moonlight. After several minutes, I snapped from my reverie and continued. I crossed Little Rock Creek, and then crossed it again. Odd, I thought—there had been only one crossing on the way in—but I hustled to catch Dale. Soon the forest broke and I stopped dead in my tracks. Rising from a clearing, spilling over a rock band, was another spectacular sheet of untouched ice. I nearly burst with excitement: We will return tomorrow and climb this one, too.
I postholed up for a closer look. Then I saw footprints. Leading to the ice. Rotten bastards. Some scoundrels had come in while we climbed our route and snaked this cherry line. Surely they knew that we would … wait a minute. I nudged closer. I recognized the stomped-out snow and the intricacies of the formation. Shitfire.
The other day, I got turned around in the dark out mountain biking near my home in Estes Park, Colorado—it was some 20 years after nearly making the first ascent of the same route twice. For a moment, I felt a flash of fear at being lost. Then I laughed and remembered that I’m only playing to my strengths.