As you cruise through Paradise Valley in winter, the ragged summits of the Absaroka Range hang high in the frosty air. Venture off the highway up the backroads and witness winter ice transforming burbling creeks into hushed, magical channels of ever-changing texture and form. On steeper terrain, the ice builds as winter progresses, forming alluring flows that beckon the climber. Pine Creek holds several real gems for ice climbers, namely the Blue and Green Gullies, plastered to the mountain like glittering sapphires.
These are some of the finest ice climbs in Montana. Beginning ice climbers can learn techniques on the easier flows that form on Pine Creek Falls, while the Blue Gully (WI 3) serves as a fine apprenticeship for the intermediate climber. At a solid Grade 4, Green Gully offers a true alpine ice climbing adventure for experienced teams.
Blue Gully was my first ice lead in Montana, following several winters climbing on flows in New Hampshire. While the climbing the Blue is relatively easy, the approach is fairly long and the climb feels remote. Add in the challenge of driving up the unplowed Pine Creek Road in winter, the avalanche danger, and the necessity of rappelling off the route, and you’ve got yourself a wild adventure.
When I climbed Blue with my friend Steve, we had only one set of ice climbing tools, so after I led the full rope-length pitch, I had to lower the tools down to Steve. The axes kept getting hung up on ledges and I’d have to pull them up and hurl them again. The sun was long gone by the time we started the rappel, and the rope became a frozen cable. We got off after dark, good and tired.
It took me another couple seasons to finally step it up and venture onto Green Gully. Ted and I made the drive on a snowy day in early March, a clearing storm leaving deep snow on Pine Creek Road and blue skies overhead. The drifts on the road required some rallying, and my Subaru was the only car to make it to the trailhead that day. Ted’s leading skills made the climb go smoothly, and what a route! It gets steeper as you climb, but remains wide with plenty of options. The location is stunning, and the ice was as good as it gets. This is another full-pitch route, so we were good and worked by the time we made it back to the car and headed for Chico for a well-earned soak.
Drive to the Pine Creek trailhead and take the trail toward Pine Creek Falls. If headed for Blue or Green, look for the climbers’ trails beat into the snow, climbing up the north-facing slope to your right. There are some decent places to cross Pine Creek on logs. You should see the climbs looming several hundred yards up the slope. Green appears first, then Blue is a bit further on. Take two ropes for full-length rappels. The climbs are equipped with belay/rappel anchors, but be ready to build a v-thread just in case.
Since both gullies are funnels for avalanches, be sure to climb equipped with avalanche gear—transceiver, shovel, and probe—and know how to use them. Stay off these climbs when avy danger is high.