Obscure Ice

Climbing around Cooke City.

At the end of the winter road through Yellowstone National Park you’ll find the unique and isolated town of Cooke City, Montana. Beyond this snowmobiler’s mecca lies a winter playground unparalleled in remoteness, beauty, and recreational potential. Ice climbing around Cooke, in particular, is in some ways a more adventurous proposition than Hyalite Canyon or Pine Creek. Most of the climbs are big, steep, and remote, with significant avalanche danger. Many require four-hour wallows through waist deep snow.There are no climbing-guide services in town, so you’re on your own. Here’s a primer to get you started.

If you’re staying more than a day—a good idea if you want an alpine start—try the cozy Pine Edge Cabins in Silver Gate. Silver Gate is a quieter alternative to the sled-madness of Cooke City, and has excellent ice climbs right on its doorstep. The climbs Silver Gate Right, Center, and Left all grace the limestone wall above town to the north, and are standards for local climbers, though they also have high avalanche danger. Center, at WI 5, is the hardest and most obvious route. Get an early breakfast at Miners Saloon in Cooke City and fuel up to thrash the frozen delights.

The spectacular canyon of Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone Park has huge walls of loose rock and lots of ice. The main climbing venues in the Soda Butte and nearby Pebble Creek are well described in Joe Josephson’s guidebook Winter Dance. One look at the photo of Hydromonster on the cover will get your blood pumping. This route graces the lower flanks of Abiathar Peak in Yellowstone, where you can also find such challenges as Banchi Land (WI 4) and Zukied (WI 5+). One of the better outings here is the 120-meter Marlboro Madness, which Josephson describes as “reminiscent of climbs in the Canadian Rockies.” That description could apply to almost any climb in this area.

Austin Hart, owner of Beartooth Mountain Guides out of Red Lodge, also recommends Silver Creek Falls, The Plum, and the Fossil Cave area. Silver Creek Falls (45m, WI 4) is one of the few Cooke City climbs with low avalanche danger. Fossil Cave, on the huge east face of Barronette Peak boasts two different mixed lines (with bolts) on overhanging rock and steep ice pillars. Dancing with the Hippo, a WI 6 free-hanging pillar that has graced the cover of Climbing magazine, is found higher on Barronette. Prolific local climber Whit Magro taps South of Summit (WI 5), a free-hanging pillar on Barronette Peak, as one of his favorite climbs.

There are some more accessible ice venues in Yellowstone, such as Tower Falls, Lost Creek Falls, and Ice Box Canyon (WI 3 to 4). Yellowstone has no official policy on climbing other than in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where it is not allowed near the main falls. Near the northeast entrance you’ll find a climb called The Park Gate (50m, WI 3 to 5), which offers a moderate approach and plenty of ice (but high avalanche danger).

The Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone holds all sorts of rock and ice to explore, but you’ll need a snowmobile to get in there. Booger, an intimidating splash of ice in Pilot Creek, was climbed in 1995 by Montana ice legends Chad Chadwick and Charlie Manfredi at 600 meters, WI 5, Grade III.

Route development around Cooke is hard to track, since a lot of it is unpublished. But a few winters ago, Sam Magro, Kyler Pallister, and Tyler Nygard put together a new mixed route in Yellowstone called The Reverie (500 feet, 5.10+ A1 WI 6), near the immense Jack Tackle route Fossilized Dreams. Sam describes it as “a sequence of two massive drips that poured out of a wall of mudflow rock and petrified wood.” Climbed in three pitches and bolted on lead, The Reverie was freed a week later by the same climbers.

If you happen to be looking to forge your own route, there is plenty of untapped ice high in the Beartooth Range and in Yellowstone Park. According to Sam Magro of Montana Alpine Guides, “Montana’s real [ice climbing] potential lies in the Yellowstone ecosystem, where there is an abundance of conglomerate ice-seeping cliff bands below the seemingly endless alpine faces of the Beartooths.”

For more beta, see Joe Josephson’s Winter Dance or Big Sky Ice by Ron Brunckhorst, or contact Montana Alpine Guides at mtalpine.com.