Exposed 

Long overshadowed by more glamorous terrain elsewhere, the Bitterroots are finally attracting serious attention from hardcore mountaineers. Will the masses follow?

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"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.

click to enlarge Earning turns above Bass Creek. - CHAD HARDER

"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.'"

click to enlarge Cragging on the Kootenai classic "Arms Race" (5.9). - CHAD HARDER
  • Chad Harder
  • Cragging on the Kootenai classic "Arms Race" (5.9).

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."

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