When our 4:00 am alarm went off and I blinked my eyes open to the pitch-black Montana sky, I questioned our sanity. Here we were, cozy as could be in our down sleeping bags on what could have been a leisurely backpacking trip. I lay there for at least five minutes, thinking that I could throw the whole thing in, attribute our failed summit to bad weather forecasted, and stay in that sleeping bag for a few more hours. Pushing those thoughts aside, I pulled on my wet boots, said good morning to Alex, and we waited for first light to give us the signal to start hiking.
We didn’t make it to the top of Mt. Wood, but I am still so grateful we pulled ourselves out of the tent that morning. We were five for six on summit attempts this summer. Successfully summiting Shasta, Hood, and Adams admittedly took some of the (self-placed) pressure off standing atop a Montana peak. Granite Peak, Montana’s tallest mountain, is acknowledged as the second most difficult US high-point (behind Denali), requiring technical climbing skills in a remote, alpine environment. After reading about the route following what’s known as “Froze-to-Death Plateau,” we started surveying other options. The highest point in Glacier National Park, Mt. Cleveland, seemed doable until reading we would have to cross the Canadian border and hitch-hike back into the wilderness after a long permit ordeal. After hours of scouring over Montana’s backcountry options, we settled on taking a stab at Mt. Wood – the third tallest peak in Montana standing at 12,660 ft.
A huge factor in Montana’s appeal is how remote and untouched the backcountry feels. We were so amazed by how well the land was treated, without any sort of permit needed to travel in the Beartooth Wilderness. However, the downside to this is the lack of information out there detailing the climbs in the area. Before summiting Mt. Hood, we were able to read detailed guides and blog posts telling us everything we needed to know before strapping on our crampons. We started the trailhead for Mt. Wood with NO idea what the summit looked like – we thought we were heading towards about five different peaks in the distance before we actually were able to see the summit. That being said, with what information we absorbed, we knew that Mt. Wood would challenge us but was not outside of our physical capabilities. After tracing our own topographic map route and renting a bear canister, we set off at West Rosebud Trailhead.
Day One: West Rosebud Trailhead to Island Lake
While technically possible in one day, we felt exponentially safer breaking up this summit into two days, considering we were in the heart of grizzly country. Our first day was a somewhat leisurely six-mile walk to Island Lake. At the three-mile marker, we hit Mystic Lake – one of the most popular destinations in the Beartooths.
Having this first day to warm up and slowly explore the Montana backcountry was phenomenal, we heartily agreed that we would have been happy as clams to have just backpacked to Island Lake and turned around the next day. But, as you already know, we pulled ourselves out of the tent and began picking our way through the trees.
Day Two: Island Lake to Mt. Wood Summit
(and the long. long. long way down)
Deep in grizzly country, we didn’t feel comfortable getting a pre-sunrise alpine start as we usually do. As soon as there was enough light for us to be able to make out the shape of trees ahead of us, we took off. This was the first time either of us had attempted a summit without a defined trail.* Following the route we had traced the day before, we hiked up nearly 1,000 vertical feet in the first 3/4 of a mile. After getting through the densely forested area, we came to a large meadow where any step could land a foot in a hidden stream. Carefully following our route, we got up and over the tree line to the scrambling.
From the reviews that we had read, there was discrepancies on the level of scrambling. Some blogs said class two, some said three, and most had no information at all. We made our way up giant boulder piles as the sun started to rise high in the sky and the two liters of water I brought dwindled. At this point, we were entirely surrounded by peaks and had absolutely no idea which one we were attempting to summit. It wasn’t until we got to the top of a mile-long scramble and finally saw the peak that we realized it might not be feasible.
Standing at the base of Mt. Wood, we had many options. Going up to the east peak would be a steep, lose scramble with thousands of feet of exposure. Going up to the west peak would require us to cross a soft snowfield on the edge of a cliff before a final scramble. I put on my micro spikes to test the snow field, and when my full leg sunk into the snow we both sat down and shared a look of acknowledgment.
“I don’t think it’s gonna happen, Katie.”
It was a really easy decision to make. It didn’t make sense at all for us to try to summit, we were about four hours away from a thunderstorm potentially rolling in. It wasn’t until we silently descended, making our way back down rough boulder fields, that the difficulty of the decision sunk in. We physically could have made it. It would have taken us awhile, but we were THREE HUNDRED VERTICAL FEET from the summit! We absolutely could have done that….
But it wouldn’t have been smart. On our fourth summit attempt, we learned that it takes just as much strength to turn around as it does to summit. Had it been our first mountain, I’m not sure we would have had the awareness to say no and put our safety first. Over the course of just a few months in the mountains, we learned to relinquish control and listen to what the mountains are telling you. Plus, we knew we had a hellish descent waiting.
After a couple hours of scrambling back down on loose rock and making our way back into the woods, we had that last steep section to descend. I think Alex and I can both agree the half hour it took us to make our way down that last .75 of a mile to our basecamp might have been the worst half hour of the summer. To keep ourselves from sliding down or slipping in the dirt, we would grab onto a tree trunk and then run / slide/ crab walk to the next tree. Ping-ponging back down through the trees, we couldn’t help but laugh. It was comical, what we had put ourselves through on a day we didn’t summit.
Our relief when we saw the tent only lasted briefly – we still had to backpack out those last six miles to the trailhead. After soaking our destroyed feet and eating all of the snacks we had, it was time. Retracing our steps from the day before, we felt as if we had lived five years in the last 24 hours.
* Leave No Trace tip: when bushwhacking, don’t follow your partner’s exact footsteps. Taking slightly different routes allows the environment to bounce back much quicker! Also, don’t bushwhack where it’s not allowed. Do yo research.
When we got to the car at the end of our summit attempt, we didn’t at all feel defeated. We felt victorious, even though we had failed in what we set out to do. We had proved to ourselves that we have the mental strength to overcome our stubbornness and acknowledge that it just wasn’t our day. Upon reflection, we recognized that the most valuable lessons of the summer thus far had come from the summit we left behind.
“We proved to ourselves and to those who want us to be safe that we are smart enough to know our own limits. And I’m honestly really proud of ourselves for that. We could’ve easily spent another hour or two up there just trying to get to the summit but we didn’t… we took our safety into our own hands because we knew we were alone out there.”Katie – reflection post trip
“I think that we were not meant to summit that day, whether it was to learn the lesson to let go and accept what’s been given to you on that day, or whether it was just the experience of creating our own trail, scrambling up sketchy rocks, getting to see amazing views… We learned to enjoy the beartooths without the summit.”Alex – reflection post trip
In any case, leaving Mt. Wood behind gives us something to come back to. The Beartooths have been a frequent member of the “what we miss” tour that Alex and I seem to discuss every time we see each other. The night before we got up to attempt our summit, we met a few friends who shared their thoughts of what makes the Beartooths so darn special.
“Remote is my go to word for the beartooths […] There’s just so many untouched places in these mountains that are really pretty cool.”– Carter Jackson
“It’s so stunning, you can just see… plains on the top of the mountains and then just jagged mountains in the distance. I always think of how majestic it is… unlike anywhere I’ve seen before.”– Hannah Jackson
“I think it’s the most overwhelming and beautiful underrated, unknown of place. Everyone always thinks of Colorado, Canyonlands, all these beautiful places, but everyone overlooks Montana.”Braeden Ujfalusy
How could you not feel victorious about any opportunity to spend time in this place?
We had so much to look forward to beyond Montana. We already knew at that point that we would be climbing the Grand Teton with Exum Guides, which was a major incentive to make it off that mountain without injury. We think of this day very fondly, even though we can acknowledge that the reality was very different. Small Towns to Summits is not only about summiting mountains – we set out to explore connections and communities that all have a passion for nature in common. Though we missed the top of Mt. Wood, we arguably walked (or limped) away with very valuable lessons. As we headed south towards Wyoming, this humbling experience was crucial in our eventual summit of the Grand Teton.
Going through all of this content and parsing through the experiences Alex and I had this summer almost feels as if we’re living it again. Next, we’ll take you with us back to Livingston, Montana and down south to The Tetons. The project only became more exciting as we continued on.
We’re now posting a video on Youtube EVERY WEEK! If you missed last week’s recap of our tour of Washington, from Olympic National Park on the coast to The Cascades, treat yourself to three minutes of pure Pacific Northwest paradise here.