Human feet rarely stand atop Sky Pilot.
With seven miles of canyon and nearly 5,000 vertical feet separating the summit from its closest trailhead, the 8,792-foot peak receives little attention. But from the ridge between Bear and Sweathouse creeks—a popular Bitterroot backcountry powder stash—Sky Pilot stands out as the hulking hunk of granite to the west. Backcountry skiers regularly ogle its plush north-facing bowl, but the cliffed-out eastern face comes off more like a BASE jumping perch than a descent route. It's possible that rock climbers have scaled the steep pitch, but nobody ever skied it.
Until March, that is, when Colin Chisholm skinned up Bear Creek, picked out a narrow, barely-connected ribbon of snow and ice linking the top to the bottom, climbed it and skied the face. Solo.
"I couldn't find anyone to go with me," he says.
Chisholm's inspiring first descent certainly warrants attention, but it hardly stands alone. Montana's latest crop of backcountry enthusiasts are targeting the Bitterroot's steepest shots, and descents long thought impossible are falling, one by one. Sure, small groups of talented mountaineers have been exploring the range's remote and challenging faces ever since climbing ropes and skis first came to Montana. But lighter and better gear, combined with the growing wealth of route information online, are finally exposing the range for what it really is: an adventurer's mountain Mecca.
"The terrain that people are now skiing in the Bitterroots is stuff that people in the '90's didn't really think was skiable, like the east face of El Capitan," says Chisholm, the second of perhaps only two who have skied that puckering pitch northwest of Darby. "Now all of a sudden, we're thinking, 'This is skiable!'"
Skiable to some, maybe, but not the masses. Aside from the Bitterroot's extreme eastern fringe, the range's terrain is notoriously difficult to access, a factor that has long kept all but the most committed from even finding— let alone 'scending—the challenging lines found deep in the backcountry. Today, however, more and more alpinists are pushing their limits on the area's test pieces—steep, narrow couloirs for the skiers, and soaring buttresses for the rock climbers.
The 'Root cause
The heart of the Bitterroot lies in a towering granitic spine running 65 unbroken miles from Highway 12 on the north to the West Fork Road on the south, protected on all sides by the 1.3 million-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The ridge itself aligns almost perfectly along a North-South axis and doubles as the Montana-Idaho border. From the crest, a series of rugged canyons on the Montana flank descend directly east as their creeks tumble toward the Bitterroot River. From the air, it appears like a giant yard rake has etched parallel, 15-mile-long trenches from the spine to the valley.
For trail users, the orientation of these canyons means it's hard to get lost. Unless they've humped all the way to Idaho, disoriented hikers can always just drop back down to the valley. But to alpinists questing specific, technical objectives, the mountain's orientation to the sun makes all the difference.
For instance, sun on south-facing walls—like those in Blodgett, Lost Horse and Mill creek canyons—regularly melts off enough snow to allow climbers a chance to work world-class, multi-pitch granite in the heart of winter. Just across the canyon on northerly aspects, snow hides from the sun in shaded bowls and gullies well into summer, providing plenty of off-season options for skiers willing to hike their turns.
Of course, the deeper options don't get targeted if nobody knows they're there, and it's likely that many aesthetic Bitterroot lines aren't just unskied, they're unnoticed. Most potential adventurers either don't have the endurance to penetrate far enough to scope the deep-in-there lines, or they lack the technical skills (or cajones) to safely negotiate the terrain.
"The Bitterroots are just really hard to access. It's not like you're just going up to a pass and going from there, because there's not even really any roads," says John Lehrman, a dedicated Bitterroot skier and entrepreneur.
But for the committed few willing to slog uphill for the better part of day, the payoff can be huge—thousands of vertical feet riding a blank canvas of untouched snow.
This "subcult of backcountry skiers," as Lehrman calls them, provides the clientele for his new business venture, the Downing Mountain Backcountry Snowsports Lodge. Positioned on private property halfway up the terrain-rich Downing Mountain, Lehrman's lodge stands out as an anomaly in a range otherwise devoid of backcountry accommodations. Operating out of the Grubstake Restaurant high above Hamilton, Lehrman provides customers with a steep ski-in, ski-out experience, epicurean meals and an outdoor hot tub with magnificent views. These amenities may attract less hardened winter travelers to the Bitterroots, encouraging them to comfortably explore the impressive 2,500-foot bowl rising directly above the lodge. But Lehrman's quick to point out that it's just a taste of the terrain available on the range's more secluded ridges and peaks.
"I've been to so many places in the Bitterroot and been like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe this is here!" he says. "It doesn't get better than this. It only gets longer. The Bitterroot is a world-class backcountry skiing destination."
Lost and found
Dan Hoffman has spent more than a decade jamming his fists into the chossy towers of the Bitterroot's hardest and most aesthetic walls, largely focusing his energy in the rock climbing showcase of Blodgett Canyon. He may work as a mild-mannered hydrologist in the horizontal world, but when things get vertical the 32-year-old Hoffman is widely known as "Deathwish Dan."
"A lot of climbers have nicknames, you know? Some stick, others don't. This one stuck," he says flatly.
It stuck for a reason: the lanky Hoffman moves like a spider over difficult rock, completing (with climbing partner Solon Linton) an unheard of link-up, climbing Blodgett's three most prominent buttresses—Flathead, Shoshone and Nez Perce—in less than a day. In 2007, he spent an entire summer putting up new routes on Nez Perce, giving him a unique and perhaps unparalleled perspective of the valley.
"We spent like seven or eight weekends up there, both days of every weekend, and over the course of the summer we saw other climbers maybe twice," Hoffman says. "Most summer weekends there's just two or three parties up there in Blodgett, and that's different than a lot of other areas, like Lost Horse."
For years, the Lost Horse Creek drainage remained a sleepy canyon with expansive but rarely-visited walls. It started gaining popularity about a decade ago as boulderers—gymnastic climbers interested in low-to-the-ground, dynamic moves—began testing themselves on the high-quality erratics scattered about the wide valley floor. Climbing contests sprung up, drawing a new crop of climbers to the valley, including many from the University of Montana's substantial wall- crawling community.
But a pair of events really caused the area to blow up in 2008. First, Joe Josephson's climbing guide, Lost Horse Canyon: A Climber's Guide to Montana's Best Climbing and Bouldering, comprehensively laid out the canyon's established routes and anchored the area on Montana's rock climbing map. Soon after, the Bitterroot National Forest proposed reopening a retired gravel pit at the base of some of the area's premier climbs, bringing front-page recognition to the burgeoning scene and effectively uniting the formerly loose-knit rock jocks in opposition to the quarry. Nevertheless, their lawsuit failed to stop the project.
"The Forest Service blew it pretty seriously on the Lost Horse situation," says Gray Thompson, an elder statesman of Montana climbing. A prolific rocksmith, alpine mentor and recently-retired geology professor at the University of Montana, Thompson has relentlessly explored the rock world for decades, putting up his first Bitterroot ascent in 1969. Still a Missoula resident, the 68-year-old Thompson has climbed "Oh, about half the days since New Year's."
"They just plain didn't understand the recreational value of Lost Horse to climbers when they pushed the quarry through," he says. "They're still lost in the 'timber beast' days, and haven't made the transition to understanding that recreation value is a lot bigger today."
Thompson's not alone in recognizing the value the Bitterroots provide for hardcore adventurers. Multiple guidebooks and a number of magazine articles over the past decade have shared the range's lesser-known routes with alpinists from outside the region, from Tom Toula's Rock and Road, an encyclopedic, 536-page tome of North America's climbing areas, to Randall Green's detailed Rock Climbing Montana. However, the widespread exposure has met resistance from a number of locals reluctant to share "their" stash.
"There was a real anti-publication ethic for a long time," says Rick Torre, a longtime Bitterroot climber and author/publisher of The Bitterroot Mountainbike Guidebook and The Bitterroot Climber's Guidebook, an updated version of which is scheduled for release this summer. "People were like, 'Who's this asshole who wants to write a climbing guide?'"
Maybe that was once true, says Thompson, but times have changed.
"I think that ethic has largely disappeared. If the climbing exists, you should try to make it available to other climbers," he says. "But that's the perspective of a scientist, to share everything you know."
Thompson's ethos might apply in the climbing world, but Bitterroot skiers lag further behind on the sharing curve, and many remain protective of the goods. Just ask Lehrman. He publishes an online journal called backcountryfocus.com, providing a detailed collection of trip reports and photographs describing his Bitterroot ski outings to remote peaks and ridges. Focusing primarily on terrain that's either physically or technically beyond the grasp of most winter adventurers, the website could hardly be called a guidebook for the masses.
Still, Chisholm felt betrayed when he came across backcountryfocus.com two years ago. Here was essentially an online instruction manual, broadcasting the exact beta he'd been identifying and exploring for more than a decade, now available to anyone.
To be clear, the 42-year-old Chisholm is a rare specimen, an adrenalinized hospice worker who finds skiing "no-fall" first descents—often by himself—to be a meditative experience.
"The risk of death elevates the need for focus and attention," he says. "When you are climbing or skiing a difficult line, the ego, the self vanishes, and you have only the immediate, pure moment."
This kind of meditation works best in an uncrowded setting, and like Jesus defending the temple against the scourge of gambling, Chisholm sent a sharply-worded e-mail to Lehrman, chastising him for recklessly exposing the sacred mountains—through his web site and ski lodge—to a death of a thousand ski cuts.
Lehrman anticipated that kind of feedback, but not from such a reputable source. "Colin came in and reached out to me with his concerns, and his e-mail was crippling," he says. "I said to myself, 'this is the guy whose mind I have to change.'"
After talking on the phone, the two decided to go for a ski and try to powder over their differences. It worked, and they're now frequent ski partners, although Lehrman still struggles to balance the joy he gets from sharing his adventures on the Internet with the fears of his critics.
"Some people say, and I really sympathize with this, that if you read one of my posts then you can't go and experience it as an exploration for yourself," he says, noting that his site exists in an online reality of Google Earth and endless Internet adventure forums. "Of course you can choose not to read these things, not be networked, and just go out and do it on your own," he says. "But as long as you disseminate the info to create culture, growth and discussion, I'd say it's for the better."
Let's hope so. Technology and the spread of information continue to influence the way adventurers approach the Bitterroots. And new guidebooks, like Missoula's Climbing Guide and Big Sky Rock, Vol. 6, both due for publication by First Ascent Press this summer, will undoubtedly bring even more users to our fantastic and fragile backyard range. It's something Lehrman's acutely aware of.
"Maybe the time has come for the Bitterroot," he says. "If it has, and the public decides it has, and the Forest Service decides it has, then I want a role in shaping it. And I want everyone else to have a role in shaping it, too."