Scrambling up the crown of the Absarokas.
Nestled among the high peaks of the Absarokas, Elbow Lake sits waveless and inviting on a hot July day. Above the eastern shore towers the granite walls of Eenie, Meenie, Miney, and Moe. This basin is a paradise for rock climbers, hikers, and campers alike.
While most visitors shuffle in weighed down with heavy loads, Charlie Firer and I found ourselves sitting on the lakeshore in simple trail-running attire. Traveling light, we set out to run and scramble the crown of the Absarokas in a day.
Mount Cowen sits at 11,206 feet and rises above the Yellowstone River on the east side of Paradise Valley. To access the mountain, the approach begins at the East Fork of Mill Creek trailhead. Shortly after 5am, we started our watches and jogged up the drainage in the early-morning light.
Moving quietly through the summer morning, we kept an easy pace up the drainage. The trail passed through sage-covered meadows speckling the north side of the canyon; soon we crested the 2,500-foot divide above Elbow Creek. Charging down the back side of the divide, we revelled in the smooth singletrack weaving through mossy, north-facing forest and over cool, murmuring creeks.
Eventually we paused on the granite dome that forms the southern shore of Elbow Lake. Refilling water and being mindful of the campers still sleeping, we crept around the lake and toward the imposing rise of Cowen.
Along the headwall above the lake, we treaded lightly up ramps of wildflowers and over glacier-smoothed boulders. Goat trails led us around steep cliff-bands toward snowline and the frozen tarn below the southwest face. Kicking steps with our running shoes, we climbed the gully left of the lake and, just shy of the ridgeline, transitioned to easy rock climbing out on the face.
Cairns dotted the zigzagging route ahead, but even then, I ended up off-route and scrambling the more exposed ridgeline toward the summit. Charlie managed to find the easiest way across the face, and we both reached the summit block that guards the last few feet of the mountain.
While most of the route is easy 3rd- and exposed 4th-class climbing, the final few feet ascends a 5th-class chimney. In running shoes, we tested each hold and committed to the summit knowing we had to down-climb the same terrain shortly. For parties that are uncomfortable with exposure and steep terrain, a rope is valuable for this final pitch.
On top, the climber’s logs include a long list of Bozeman’s historic climbing community: Alex Lowe, Jack Tackle, and Thomas Turiano to name a few. After four-and-a-half hours of running/climbing, we took a moment to enjoy the sunshine and the sweeping views from Emigrant to Hyalite to Black Mountain.
After our brief rest, the 6,500-foot descent awaited. With crushed quads and tender toes, we reversed our route down the face and back toward the trailhead. Passing the wilderness boundary, I thought about the miles of still unexplored trails spreading back into the mountains and I day-dreamed of coming back.
Our pace slowed on the jog out, but by 1pm, we were eating lunch back at the car, wrapping up a perfect day above paradise.
This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. It’s a great time to set goals and get out into some unchartered territory.