Montana climbing, why is it unknown?
Forrest Murter and I walked quietly past two dozen buildings, sunken and leaning, the remains of an old mining town deep in the heavily forested mountains of Montana. I imagined people watching us from black windows where there used to be glass. The smell of rotting wood and centuries-old tar swirled in a breeze that blew through the twisted pines. A pile of metal mining equipment was rusting on the side of the hill, slowly sinking into the earth.
Beyond the ghost town, we followed cow tracks through thick woods. The Big Sky, visible only when we looked up, was the only reminder of a world outside our idyll. Granite boulders littered the ground, their shades of gray and white contrasting against the electric green ground cover and wildflowers. Tree branches snapped and the ground drummed as a massive animal – a bear or a moose – stalked through the woods beyond. Under my feet, a hundred thousand ants were digging their homes.
“There! I see it!” Forrest called. A month before, through a narrow gap in the trees, we had spotted a granite buttress. The 500-foot wall, standing proudly above the canopy, was split with continuous cracks.
We sat in a meadow at his feet and ate a baguette with brie and salami, surrounded by chirping nutcrackers and bright red Indian brushes. After lunch we climbed, but I barely remember. Instead, I remember the fresh rain, the warm spring sun, the loneliness and the feeling of wandering in the woods.
Appetite for destruction: the mine that devours the mountains
Growing up and learning to climb in Montana, with its low-key community and lack of a beta, sparked a sense of gratitude in me for days like these, spent exploring quiet, fantastical forests. The state’s non-publication ethic dates back to the 1960s and the Dirty Sox Club, which argued that subsequent climbs of a route should provide the same experience as the first. The Dirty Sox have maintained the wild aura of Montana climbing by avoiding in-depth course topos and rarely leaving more than a rappel sling.
Some point to ethics as the main cause of elite cliques and exclusivity, while others insist that it promotes adventure and is not rooted in excluding anyone. In today’s high-tech world, where information is available at the touch of a finger, the Montana community found itself at a crossroads. Is it time to kick the old ethic or is there a way to encourage access for all while respecting traditions?
Montana boasts granite walls the size of Half Dome and some of the best limestone in the country, so why haven’t you heard of rock climbing? Because Montana, pejoratively called by some the “Bastion of Secrets,” is different. The climbing community generally has little interest in aligning itself with the rest of America. While climbers in other places might prioritize a joy-filled or successful experience — one they might share on social media or the Mountain Project — climbers in Montana often go for the adventure. This mindset, of course, is changing. As sport climbing continues to grow and communities such as Bozeman grow exponentially each year, new areas have proliferated. Readily available rock climbing is also welcome here.
Certainly, in a state with 27 million acres of public land, there must be room for both ethics. Rock fields that span 100 square miles and sporting 800-foot limestone climbs are a quick Google search. Conversely, there are traditional 20-pitch climbs on pristine granite, 2,000-foot ice roads that have only been climbed once, and countless forgotten boulders scattered throughout the Valleys of the Hundred Ranges. mountains of Montana. Most of the time when you’re new to a climbing area here, whether it’s a sporty roadside cliff or a glacier-carved granite canyon, you have to wander around with your eyes surveyed to find routes. Trails can be weak or overgrown, and even the “trade routes” on the larger, more accessible walls are difficult to follow.
For some of us, climbing experiences are most complete when they involve the great unknown: as we seek out dark, unexplored realms, we find light emerging from within rocks, trees, moss, of ourselves. Naturally, with the unknown comes a greater likelihood of failure. I lived countless days in a humiliating, sometimes humiliating experience. However, I also acquired a will to try and a deep understanding that, for me, success is just the icing on the cake: the experience I find following my curiosity is as good as any peak.
Last week, my dad and I, carrying 45-pound packs, skied through shins-deep powder for five hours in search of a wayward icicle we had spotted years before, only to find a bare wall. So we brewed instant coffee, watched the clouds billow through the granite crags, and meandered back, swapping stories and telling jokes, alone in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
The common misconception is that the Montananese want to keep other climbers out. It’s wrong. Our aim is to maintain the sense of adventure that is an integral part of climbing here. In fact, Montanans would welcome you: if you met another climber on the trail to a wall in the Beartooth Mountains, they would be happy to see you and might even leave a beer on your windshield for your hobbled home.
Maybe every route or area shouldn’t have a 300-word description or step-by-step breakdown. Maybe strangers can be welcome, not just in Montana but elsewhere. I love that there are countless US regions where the detailed beta is just a click away, but also that our country is home to word-of-mouth areas, where you have to collect the beta yourself, often through trials and errors. I appreciate the lessons learned in these areas, although I fear they are in danger of being tamed, through exposure.
So if you ever find yourself full of curiosity but lacking the information to engage, at least healthily, on a journey, stock up and go. Walk in the valleys, carry additional equipment, put success on the back burner and keep your eyes peeled.
Justin Willis has been rock climbing for 23 of his 27 years. Having grown up in Montana, he now resides in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin.
Competitive free solo in the Gunks in 1985