Realizing a childhood vision.
On my first drive into Bozeman, over the pass from Livingston, the limestone fins rising high above transfixed my gaze. I was just a kid and knew nothing of modern rock climbing... yet. Those rocks were merely inspiration: a siren song of adventure into the unknown. I vowed to return—to Frog Rock and to Bozeman. The place seemed to hold something valuable.
Fast-forward many years. My friend Robbie and I are making the most of a sunny evening. It’s 6:30 pm on a Tuesday when we head up. The route is Panthalassa, on the Evolution Fin. It’s five pitches, grade 5.11, our latest test piece. The stoke is high and we crush the approach, even though the trail is not well marked. My advice: at Frog Rock proper, go left, aim high, and if you aren’t confident that you’re at the start, keep walking.
Stashing our packs under a huge fallen flake—an obvious indicator of the start—we rack up: eight quickdraws, four alpine draws, and two dummy-proof anchors (pre-tied quads). Luckily, we brought a blanket to flake the rope onto at the base, which later doubles as a landmark when we rappel under the stars.
Headlights on the interstate flicker, creating a brilliant ribbon spreading east toward a purple Bridger Range. It’s getting late.
Pitch one is 5.7, my lead. It’s grassy, dirty, and loose enough that I wish the bolts were closer together. The best part is the end: a cozy ledge with bolts and chains.
Pitch two, 5.11, has the cleanest rock on the route. The crux is obvious: 40 feet up, the holds few and far between. The bolts tighten and traverse left, just before a lip. Robbie is cool, calm, and collected, inspiring confidence. He nearly manages the onsight.
My turn and my side goes tight. I rub my fingers together one last time for luck. “Climbing,” I call. I am the quintessential top-rope tough-guy, cruising up the rope—until the crux. Peel one. Peel two. Then I begin to flail. Robbie, as always, gives me good advice. “Aaron, give it a rest.” Spinning around, so I don’t have to stare at a blank wall, I take in the view. Headlights on the interstate flicker, creating a brilliant ribbon spreading east toward a purple Bridger Range. It’s getting late. My final attempt: the holds are closer, the rock grittier, the edges cleaner. I make it.
Pitch three, 5.9, is a delight. The plentiful jugs, cups, and flakes make for easy work up the vertical face. Robbie is on belay mere minutes after I clip the first bolt. I have never felt so sure of my prowess as a climber.
Pitch four, at 5.10, is the money pitch. Bouldery face-moves, followed by liebacking in a well-protected corner, bring us to a set of chains just shy of the top.
I take the last lead. Only 15 feet separate us from the summit, but there is no protection. In the back of my mind, I recall the definition of a factor-two fall (the farthest possible while tied in), and yet, the exposure invigorates me. I top out without incident, and Robbie follows.
We linger there, watching the sunset from our perch overlooking town. But we cannot stay forever, so we make ready to rappel. Another note: when rappelling in the dark, save your headlamp for the rigging. Enjoy the stars.
We make the first rappel short, stopping at the top of the fourth pitch. The second rappel is straightforward; the two anchors nearly form a plumb line. Forgetting the rock is a touch chossy at the top, we give the rope a nice tug, which proves a bad idea. “Tchuch-tchuch… tchuch-tchuch-tchuch.” We hug the wall, taking shelter under our helmets. We survive the bombardment of finger-sized rocks, a few glancing off our brain-buckets.
I go first on the next rappel, and I forget about the traverse. After rappelling down three-quarters of the rope, I come across three sets of chains. Splitting the difference, I choose the middle anchor—incorrectly.
Robbie lowers nearly to the end of the rope before coming to rest on a ramp, still far from the floor, with no anchor in sight (I learn later that we could have walked off from here). Searching with our headlamps for a landmark, we light up the high-vis lettering on our blanket. Getting back on route requires some climbing, but Robbie manages in good style.
I attempt to use the rope’s tension to traverse to the anchor. I descend smoothly, using solid features to help me swing. My feet slip just above the anchor, hurling me into the darkness on my self-made pendulum. I come to rest, eventually, unharmed.
I am shaken and embarrassed. Robbie is not impressed. But, once the rope is coiled and our gear is stowed in our packs, we celebrate. Elated with our triumph, the stoke is high once again for the moonlight stroll out. Victory pitas await us in town.
Coming to Bozeman was by far the best decision I’ve made. The endless exploration in and around our bubble gave me room to grow. I assume that you, reader, are cut of a similar cloth. Keep going outside, and do what inspires you—but I don’t have to tell you that, do I?