The Beartooth Mountains of Montana

Publication Year: 1930.

The Beartooth Mountains of Montana

Norman Clyde

ALTHOUGH situated only a few miles from the Yellowstone National Park and containing the loftiest mountains in Montana, the Beartooth Mountains are known to comparatively few. Their most widely advertised feature is the Grasshopper Glacier, but in addition to this, their deep gorges, beautiful lakes and high mountains render them of interest both to the general vacationist and to those of mountaineering proclivities. East Rosebud Lake and the canyons above them are praised by those familiar with them. It is, however, to the higher portions of the range to which I wish to call attention.

To any who have stood on the summit of Mt. Washburn or other of the higher mountains of the Yellowstone Park, a lofty range of mountains to the northeast—second to the Tetons,—are the most conspicuous ones within view. From such vantage-points, their highest mountain, Granite Peak, is plainly visible. The approach to the range from the park is by the road which runs through the northeastern corner of the park to the quaint old mining town of Cook City. From it to the Grasshopper Glacier Camp is only about ten miles (towards the north). The road leads through a beautiful parklike region of open meadows and groves of spire-like fir and spruce—notably of the balsam and Engelmann varieties. As it gradually climbs higher and winds through boulder-strewn areas, the trees dwindle in size and number until near timber-line, it emerges from a narrow ravine and enters an oval basin several miles in length and surrounded by high and almost treeless mountains. In the middle reposes Goose Lake—a lonely expanse of water, perhaps a mile in length, with grassy shores which sweep up to steep mountains, to which for a distance of perhaps 500 feet above the lake a few dwarf firs and spruces cling in matted clumps.

The mountains possess a barren impressiveness. They rise some 2,000 feet above the lake which is about 10,000 feet above sea-level. To the southwest is a series of them called locally the Fox and Goose Ridge; to the east, from south to north, Mt. Zimmer (11,610 ft.), Avalanche Peak and the Sawtooth Mts. To the mountaineer Mt. Zimmer and Avalanche Peak afford interesting scrambles; the Sawtooth group with the exception of Glacier Peak offer good rock climbs, probably made but once. This is especially true of the most northerly of the group, Silvertop Mt., so-called from the gleaming snow on the summit and from the shine of water flowing down the rocks in the early summer. The predominant rock of the range is granite.

Across a low pass a mile or so from the resort, lies the Grasshopper Glacier, so-named from the myriads of prehistoric grasshoppers imbedded in the ice and strewn about on the surface. Incidentally, however, the phenomenon is common to a score of other glaciers in the range. From the glacier one can readily climb Avalanche Peak to the southwest and Mt. Wilse to the southeast, or by leaving it and traversing several smaller ones, scale Silvertop Mt., towards the west. The glacier contains numbers of crevasses, especially on its upper portions, but no ice-falls, except possibly one at its lower extremity. An extremely interesting feature, on the occasion of a visit several years ago, was a large moulin several rods in diameter and of unknown depth. Its size, its exquisitely colored and beautifully sculptured walls, the great icicles hanging from them and the column of water shooting down into it, rendered it one of the finest which I have seen during considerable experience among the glaciers of the north.

The views obtained from the summits of the peaks enumerated above are impressive. To the east they extend along the axis of the range past Granite Peak to the plains of Montana; to the southeast and south across a timbered basin to the sharp and isolated Pilot and Index Peaks and past them to the right along the Absarokas extending far down into Wyoming with deep, green valleys and snowcapped peaks; to the southwest and west across the Yellowstone Park, with Yellowstone Lake shimmering in its midst and perhaps a glimpse of the Tetons rising beyond it; to the north across various ranges of undulating mountains.

From a camp near Goose Lake several years since, I made ascents of all of the Sawtooth Mts. Three of them, including Silver- top Mt., I found to be thrilling but not extremely difficult rock climbs. The ascent of the first of the group, Glacier Peak, involves no real mountaineering, but the others have no easy approach. The following sketches are from my notes on the climbs.

Sawtooth Peak No. 2

On a dismal day in the latter part of August as I was strolling along the margin of Goose Lake I carefully scanned the second of the Sawteeth—one which for several days had attracted my attention. Finally, although the weather was unfavorable and the hour late, a sudden impulse incited me to attempt to scale it. From my camp it looked impossible, but I well knew that peaks appearing so from a distance, when once attempted are often found to be scalable, sometimes with comparative ease.

In order to reach its base, I found it necessary to cross a ridge and descend about a thousand feet into a gorge. I then traversed a strip of rough talus to the foot of a couloir which appeared feasible. It proved to be easier than anticipated until I neared its upper portion which became so narrow and steep that I scrambled up the wall and worked along its face, where an abundance of holds rendered the climbing interesting but not hazardous. Within a short space I reached the crest of a narrow arête and, somewhat to my surprise, came within view of the top of the mountain only about fifty yards distant. Although the connecting knife-edge dropped away hundreds of feet on either side, no difficulty was experienced in traversing it to the highest point, apparently attained for the first time.

To the east and west it dropped precipitously to a glacier belonging to a chain of which the Grasshopper, covering several square miles, is the largest. Tucked away in the sheltered cirques of the range occur perhaps thirty of them, small residual glaciers, deeply crevassed in places, but in the main affording few obstacles to the ascent of the peaks rising above them. Farther to the north in the group stood nameless Sawtooth, No. 3, and beyond it, the highest of all, a square-topped peak with apparently unscalable walls, called Silvertop Mt. To the east lay profound gorges with lofty, rough-hewn peaks towering high above them, culminating in Granite Peak about 12,850 feet in elevation, half a dozen miles away.

Heavy clouds hanging over the peaks imparted a tone of sombre grandeur to the sublimely rugged panorama. To the horizon in every direction extended range after range of mountains which eventually faded from sight in the clouds that obscured the sky. Immediately below, sheer cliffs and crevassed glaciers attracted my attention. To the northwest ran a deep canyon along whose lower course could be descried the spires of Engelmann spruce and balsam fir ranged in serried ranks. In the same direction also, great masses of clouds were lowering and advancing toward the peak upon which I was sitting. I could not afford to tarry longer.

After descending the face of the peak and the wall of the couloir, I continued down the latter. While I was nearing the base of the peak, the storm swept over the summit and began to extend rapidly down the mountain-side. Hurrying across the talus, I reached the bottom of the gorge and began to climb it. In the meantime the clouds had lowered until they filled the bottom of the canyon and were rolling up toward its head; when I gained the pass, they were close behind. It was already growing dark. Hurrying down the slope, I arrived at a miners’ camp just as torrents of rain began to fall—the prelude of an all night storm.

Sawtooth Peak No. 3

The nameless Sawtooth immediately north of the one already ascended also afforded an intriguing climb. On a pleasant morning I left camp, crossed the pass to the north of Goose Lake, dropped down the gorge and scrambled up to the base of a couloir south of the pinnacle. Without encountering any special obstacles, I gained a notch to the south of and several hundred feet below the summit. By scrambling up a crack in a rather sheer wall, I reached broken rock up which I continued with comparative ease to the top, apparently previously unclimbed.

Warm sunshine fell on the craggy summit and numerous masses of white clouds were floating in the blue sky. My lofty perch commanded almost the entire range. From the southwest it sweeps up for the most part gradually, to its axis some fifty miles in length. North of the crest precipitous slopes drop away to deep gorges which drain into the East Rosebud River, a tributary of the Stillwater River which flows into the Yellowstone. North of the East Rosebud other, but less numerous, high mountains occur. In the entire range there are possibly thirty peaks which attain elevations ranging from 11,000 to over 12,000 feet above sea-level.

For an hour or more I remained on the summit. In the meantime numerous clouds had sprung up in the west and were bearing down upon the mountains. As I did not relish becoming involved in an electric storm on the narrow summit of the pinnacle, I began to retrace my way down. Having arrived at the base of the mountain, I stopped for a time at a brook. The transient storm having hurried past the mountain tops, the sunshine fell warm on the flowery meadow through which the crystal brook ran with silvery murmur. Presently, however, I was on my way again, up the gorge, over the pass and across the basin to camp.

Silvertop Mt.

There still remained Silvertop Mt. As a result of a rather careful survey, it appeared best to endeavor to scale it from the glacier to the east of it. From Goose Lake, I followed the trail to the pass above Grasshopper Glacier and then, swinging sharply to the northwest, continued across a glacier lying northeast of the Sawtooth Range. Masses of white clouds hung above them, the sunshine was warm and the air rather sultry. From time to time rocks fell from the crags and ricocheted down the glacier, most of which was free from snow. In one instance a boulder weighing half a ton or more broke loose from its resting place and thundered across my path a few yards ahead of me.

By the time that I had crossed the glacier and reached a low pass above it, a layer of clouds concealed the sky and snowflakes were whirled about by a gusty wind. A half-mile or so to the west, across another glacier, loomed the sheer eastern face of Silvertop Mt. Above a notch to the left, however, the rock appeared to be sufficiently broken to render it scalable. I therefore proceeded across the glacier and clambered up to the col. As I made my way up steep couloirs and broken rock faces, I encountered rather arduous but only moderately difficult climbing. Upon arriving on the summit, I walked northward to its highest point—apparently the first time that human foot had ever trodden upon it. The view was a magnificent one extending over numerous high mountain ranges and broad valleys to a far away horizon.

As a rather strong wind was blowing, I sought shelter from it by descending to a shelf above the eastern precipice. Soon the clouds grew heavier and presently an electric storm was in progress. Feeling that a high pinnacle directly above me might attract a thunderbolt, I scrambled back to the summit. Instantly my head seemed to crackle and I detected the odor of ozone. Breaking into a run, I hurried down the slope of the summit, but with no apparent diminution of the embarrassing phenomena. Gendarmes projecting above the general level of the rocks, hummed loudly. Thinking that I was making an animated lightning rod of myself by remaining in an upright position, I threw myself prone on the rocks, whereupon the crackling sound ceased and the odor of ozone seemed to disappear. The storm proving a transient one, I was soon exploring the summit, but observing what appeared to be a second squall approaching. I hastened down the south wall of the mountain to the notch.

Upon my arrival there, I decided to attempt the descent of a couloir to the west of it. Although there was some possibility of being unable to reach the foot of the chimney, the distance to camp would be so much shorter that it seemed worth while to run the risk. Somewhat to my surprise I arrived at the base without encountering any real difficulty. I then hastened to the meadow visited on the preceding climb. After the strenuous and somewhat thrilling ascent the grass, lovely flowers and limpid brook scintillating in the sunshine, together with a blue sky, following the vanished storms, were extremely welcome. After a pause of perhaps a half-hour, I continued up the gorge and on to camp.

Granite Peak

A most interesting and unique trip is one from Goose Lake to Granite Peak. The route lies across the Grasshopper Glacier, around the western shoulder of Mt. Wilse and eastward for eight or ten miles over an area of rough, broken terrain a few miles in width and almost entirely above timberline. It is a strip of alpine desolation, yet possesses a certain fascination in its rugged and almost vegetationless basins and ridges and in its azure lakes and tarns. At long intervals, one comes upon a stunted albicaulis pine or a dwarfed willow. Only a few herbs grow upon the rocky and almost soilless ravines and acclivities.

After trudging across a number of miles of such topography, one clambers over a pass, swings across an upper basin, crosses a small glacier to a second pass, descends a glacier—keeping to the right—to Avalanche Lake at the southeastern base of Granite Peak. A jade-colored lake, hemmed in on three sides by mountains crowding to its shores, steeply-pitching glaciers overhanging two sides, and an almost impassable valley below it, form a scene of wild and isolated grandeur. A small, matted thicket of alpine conifers on its northern margin is the only timber found in the upper basin.

The ascent of Granite Peak is one of considerable difficulty and has been accomplished but twice.1 After picking one’s way up rocky acclivities for some 1,500 feet, the climber comes suddenly upon a long line of jagged pinnacles gradually rising to the summit perhaps a half-mile distant. To the right they drop away to a precipitous glacier, to the left to almost vertical cliffs furrowed by couloirs. The climb is essentially one of traversing shelves to the south of the arête, varied by occasional scrambles up steep chutes and rock faces. The summit, 12,850 feet above sea-level and but a few yards in diameter, is the highest point on a jagged knife-edge which continues some distance farther to the west. The view is similar to those obtained from other peaks farther west, but owing to the greater elevation of Granite Peak, is both more imposing and more comprehensive.

Second to the Tetons, the Beartooth Mountains are the most interesting of those in the environs of Yellowstone Park. The mountaineer will find them worthy of a visit, both for scenic impressiveness and for opportunities to make interesting and, in several cases, rather difficult climbs.

Pilot and Index Peaks

A few miles southeast of Cook City in the extreme northwest corner of Wyoming adjacent to Yellowstone Park and accessible from it by motor, stand two interesting and striking uplifts—Pilot and Index Peaks. Visible far over the prairies of Montana, their isolated and spectacular forms served as landmarks for the early pioneers of the state—Index Peak attaining an elevation of 11,741 feet and its neighbor only slightly less. From different directions they present a variety of castellated and spiry shapes.

They are of volcanic origin, being remnants of a thick formation which has been eroded away, leaving only the two lofty spires projecting for hundreds of feet above a rather even ridge. They consist of sheer-faced basaltic rock alternating with an andesitic type of a more or less crumbling, and sometimes conglomerate, character.

So far as I am aware, neither has been ascended. Various rumors are current in the locality relative to futile attempts and even of fatalities among those who made them. How much veracity there is in them I do not know, but probably none, in either case.

I once undertook a hasty reconnaisance of both peaks, but made no serious endeavor to climb either. The general impression that I received was that the basaltic walls were in most cases too sheer to be scalable and the andesitic ones too friable to be climbed, without incurring unjustifiable hazard.

1 The first ascent of Granite Peak, the highest summit in Montana, was made late in August 1923 by a party from the U. S. Forestry Service, consisting of R. T. Ferguson, Supervisor of the Beartooth Forest, J. C. Witham and Elders Koch. From East Rosebud Inn, horses took them to West Rosebud Plateau whence a camp was packed to Avalanche Lake and the climb carried out the next day by way of the southeast arête. Mr. Clyde’s ascent was the second, made in August 1926 with Ernest Vogel. The region of the Beartooth Mts. was explored for many years by Mr. Fred Inabnit of Billings, a devoted nature enthusiast. He prepared an elaborate relief model of Yellowstone Park and its environs and was largely responsible for the conquest of Granite Peak by the Forestry Service.—Ed. A. A. J.