Despite 10 years and 14 attempts using different approaches, all of which failed, Rusty Willis never entertained the thought of giving up on a winter ascent of the Bears Tooth.
“It kind of turned into an annual winter pilgrimage,” said Willis, 38, a Billings tile layer. “It became harder to find partners to go back there, though.”
The spire of granite is the 11,000-foot fanglike namesake for the Beartooth Mountains.
Last year, the annual journey was nearly Willis’ last. He and fellow climber Loren Rausch were swept off a cliff in an avalanche. Amazingly, Willis swam out of it with only a black eye. Rausch suffered a bruised calf.
“We were extremely lucky,” Willis said. “But that’s part of the game, part of the risk. It’s also the reason we decided to not put us in that position again.”
On March 15, only a few days before the official end of winter, the climbers’ persistence paid off when they made what they believed to be the first winter ascent of the Bears Tooth.
“It’s probably one of the coolest places in the Beartooths to me,” Willis said
There are several reasons the Bears Tooth had never been climbed in winter before. For one, the nearest road is about 10 miles away and 3,000 feet below, so the approach is long. With the spire’s base at around 10,000 feet and located near the spine of the Beartooth Mountains, the weather is notoriously windy and unpredictable. Then there’s the concern about avalanches, as Willis and Rausch found out. Since it’s rarely climbed, even in summer, there’s also little information on the route, unlike more popular areas found in places like Wyoming’s Teton Mountains.
“I think it’s a very tough climb, and they added a new variation to it, too, which not only makes it more difficult but also the smart thing to do,” said Joe Josephson, a veteran Montana climber and author from Livingston.
The new variation Josephson referred to was how Willis and Rausch avoided the avalanche zone by climbing a buttress at the spire’s base. Although safer, the route added another seven hours of climbing, Willis estimated.
“We made a conscious effort this time that, even if the conditions were good, we would avoid that (avalanche) slope,” Willis said. “So it added a lot of time to take that lower buttress.”
The duo also chose to travel light and fast. Rather than camp out and carry more gear in, they hauled in down coats, ropes and climbing gear, a small stove and food. That kept their pack weight at about 25 pounds. A three-day trip would require about 60 pounds of gear. Going light does have its risks, though.
“It’s a big commitment,” Willis said. “If anything goes wrong, you have to trust your partner.”
Starting out at 1:30 a.m. from the Lake Fork Road, Rausch and Willis skied up the creek drainage and across Black Canyon Lake to arrive at the base of their route at about 7 a.m. They then made a first ascent of the buttress on the southwest side of the spire, a route they’d scouted three weeks earlier. Willis said the buttress had 10 pitches, each about 150 feet, all of it technical rock climbing.
“That allowed us a way to get to the Bears Tooth that was safe,” Willis said. “The downside was that it took extra time.”
Rausch said the ridge route up the buttress turned out to be longer and more complicated than they originally thought.
“We didn’t know if we would have to turn around or not,” he said.
The climbing partners reached the summit of the Bears Tooth just before dusk. The sky was blue and there was no wind, an unusual occurrence.
After a 15-minute celebration that included signing the register and shooting photos and videos, they rappelled down, finishing in the dark. By the time they skied back out and arrived at their vehicles it was 4:30 a.m. The round trip had taken about 27 hours.
“It’s pretty rough,” said Rausch, 28, who grew up in Shepherd but now lives in Bozeman. “You’re tired and want to sleep. You eat a lot. But we’ve both been up in Alaska and done 40-hour pushes.”
Upon getting back to their vehicles they crashed, taking a four-hour nap. After waking and caffeinating, Rausch drove back to Bozeman to work at a sporting goods store at noon.
Billings climber Chad Chadwick, one of the first to scale the Bears Tooth, said his attempts to climb the rock in winter always ground to a halt in the snow.
“It’s just a really neat ascent,” he said. “For me, it’s one of the more classic summits in the Beartooths.”
Once on top of the spire at about 11,000 feet, Chadwick said, there’s a 6-foot-by-15-foot space that provides incredible views of Beartooth and Grasshopper glaciers, along with the nearby peaks of Spirit, Whitetail and Rearguard.
“Every time you look off one edge or another, it’s a long way down,” Chadwick said.
Josephson said the Bears Tooth is “as difficult a winter ascent in the Beartooths as there is. It requires a combination of skill, luck and tenacity. The last time anyone had done anything like that was (world-famous climber) Alex Lowe, so it’s on a par with that.”
He added that it’s great to see a new generation of climbers rediscovering the Beartooths, just as Chadwick and The Dirty Socks Club did in the 1970s.
Rausch said reaching the summit of the Bears Tooth in winter meant a lot to him, noting that the spire is the reason he became a climber. The first time he saw it from the top of the Beartooth Pass, traveling as a child with his parents, he told himself, “I’m going to climb that someday.” Now he has climbed it three times in summer and once in winter.
Josephson said it was about time someone made a documented winter ascent.
“To have a feature like that and not have a winter ascent is pretty unusual,” he said, adding that there aren’t many such routes left in the West.
Now that they’ve solved the puzzle, will Rausch and Willis return?
“It’s funny, the one thing we both agreed on is we’re glad we don’t have to ski in there again to try it,” Willis said. “We’re sick of that approach.”
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.