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North America, United States, Montana, South Face of Pilot Peak, Absoroka Range

South Face of Pilot Peak, Absoroka Range, Montana. Knowing only Pilot Peak’s name, its location and the fact that Phil Smith had climbed it previously, on July 31, 1955, Bill Buckingham, my wife Jean, and I followed Fox Creek as far as the limestone formation which contours around the mountain’s base. There we turned left out of the creek bed and traversed up a breach in the formation out of the forest and into the meadows which stretch below the north face of Pilot Peak. We discovered there that although from the east the mountain bears a striking resemblance to the Matterhorn, at close range it reveals its true nature as a crumbling dolmen of volcanic rock. Climbing this face was out of the question; rock was constantly falling from it. A herd of mountain sheep enticed us to the ridge between Pilot and Index Peaks. We assumed that if we could flush them higher up, they would show us an easy way up, but as we followed them around the western ledges on what was not quite rock and not quite earth, we wished for crampons. We were forced many times to deviate from their route to suit our feeble attempts at climbing. The western ridge brought us to the final summit pyramid. The summit looked about three extremely difficult leads away. We followed a large scree-covered ledge along the southern base of the pyramid until we could go no farther. Rockfall danger indicated that a party of three would be most unwise, so Jean volunteered to wait on the broad sunny ledge. Bill led the first two pitches and amid crumbling hand- and footholds drove three pitons for psychological reasons. Horribly exposed and absolutely vertical, the second lead, at the most, boasted of three finger pinch holds. For 20 feet there was nothing of any comfort. This lead was a true mountaineering nightmare, and Bill’s ascent of it testifies to his climbing ability. The next lead, an overhang, I led only with the idea born of despair to get the mountain climbed and get home. From the top of the overhang we climbed up a shallow gully, bearing right occasionally until the summit rocks were in sight. On the top we found only a shipwrecked cairn, but no record of Smith’s ascent. The eastern side of the mountain has, I understand, an easier and less dangerous route to the top. The crowning blow came a few days after the climb when a letter from Smith informed us that on the first ascent a ram’s skull was found on the summit.

John Fonda