The EZ Route (5.9R, 900′) — Beartooth Mountains, MT
After taking a rest day, we continued our week of alpine climbing by heading over to the Beartooth Mountains near Roscoe, MT. This mountain range offers much in the way of climbing, but beta is scarce and sometimes inaccurate. In other words, you need to be prepared for an adventure.
Earlier this year, Sarah discovered the EZ Route on the Upper Doublet in our Montana alpine guidebook and we bookmarked it for our peak period. The full climb, rated V-VI 5.9 A3, is beyond our abilities, as we’ve only ever done short pitches of clean aid. Learning how to hammer pins on a remote bigwall seemed foolish. The lower half of the climb was supposed to be 10 pitches of 5.6 to 5.7, with the last one having a short bit of A1, including a fixed RURP (a piton about the size and thickness of a large postage stamp). That felt more doable.
From the midway point, the guide said you could descend a gully, which would allow us to get a big chunk of climbing on a stellar formation without having to do the A3 upper headwall. While this wasn’t a summit, it seemed like a good opportunity to get on a big feature in the Montana back country and push ourselves. We decided to bring bivy gear and sleep on the midway ledge, another new experience for us. It would be part adventure, part training climb.
In the hours after deciding our plan, the short A1 aid section at the top of the 10 pitches started to get into my head. What if we climbed all that way and couldn’t get through it? We’d have to rappel all the way back down, likely leaving our entire rack in the process. Sarah and I talked about it more, and decided to head to the second hand gear store and buy a hammer and pitons. The only things available were a 50 year old wall hammer and one piton. We bought both.
This allayed my fears somewhat, but a couple more pitons would be even better. REI didn’t carry them, and with no other climbing gear stores and no time to order online (we were climbing the next morning), we decided it would have to do. I grabbed a couple BD Talons and Peckers off my clean aid rack and hoped for the best.
I slept really poorly the night before, anxious about the route. I’m used to having more beta for the climb, and other than a distant picture and half a paragraph of text, this was feeling like a first ascent. I know this wouldn’t be a big deal for many, and I’ve done this kind of adventure climbing before, but not in the mountains and not so far from the trail head.
On about 4 or 5 hours of poor sleep, we got up early and drove to the East Rosebud Trail head. After 2 miles of pleasant trail hiking, we found a long talus gully that seemed the best way to approach the Doublets. It became steeper and steeper, and we climbed chockstones next to waterfalls.
Much traversing on talus and scree followed as we crossed below the massive Upper Doublet. It was tough going, through deadfall and boulder fields, but we finally arrived at the gully separating the Upper and Lower Doublets. Going up this gave access to a ledge we could traverse to the far right side of Upper and the start of our route.
Almost four hours after leaving the car and 3,000′ of gain later, we we reached the start of our route. Things seemed off, however. Looking up, it didn’t look like there was 10 pitches of climbing above us to the next major ledge, although we were definitely in the correct place. Given the average for a pitch is about 150′, we should have had 1,500′ of climbing ahead of us. We could see the midway ledge, and it looked just a little over half that distance away. Alarms began going off in my head, and I wondered if the beta about being able to descend the gully or the short section of aid were as accurate. We’d come all this way and nothing had really changed (other than a possibly shorter climb), so we racked up and set off.
The first pitch was a lot of fun, easy climbing on mostly solid rock, to a short, well protected crux. The moves were neat and felt on for the 5.7 grade. Portions of the pitch were runout, but the climbing was mellow and I felt strong despite the long approach.
I built a belay and brought Sarah up, who took the gear and set off up the next pitch. Unfortunately, after getting a couple pieces in, it was runout till reaching a small roof. Sarah downclimbed back to the belay, saying she wasn’t in the right head space for that kind of climbing. Knowing your limits and not pushing too hard are critical skill in this setting. A fall will almost certainly be injurious on slabby, broken terrain, and if your not feeling in control, it is best to back off.
So we swapped gear, Sarah put me on belay, and I quested upwards. The moves to and through the roof weren’t horrible, but what followed was. I strung together several marginal pieces, climbing lightly on crumbly rock. The angle steepened, and I couldn’t see any spots for pro for quite sometime. At one point, a large hold I had previously thought solid started pulling off in my hand. I quickly shifted to a less positive, but more stable hold, made a move, and was surprised to find a good crack for pro. Thankfully, the rest of the pitch was less exciting.
I built a belay and hung my backpack off the anchor. As I belayed Sarah up, I tried to calm my heart rate. The loose hold I thought solid had nearly caused me to take a nasty fall. My mind was still trying to recover from the incident. You can do this, I thought, looking up at terrain that appeared to offer solid rock and better protection.
A short distance above, I could see the beginning of the massive dihedral that is the hallmark of the EZ Route. Once in it, I felt we would definitely be on route and could follow it all the way to the midway ledge.
When Sarah arrived, she said she still wasn’t feeling like leading would be a good idea, so I gathered the gear. When I put my backpack on, it felt heavier than ever. Bivying on the midway ledge was adding more weight than I was used to climbing with. We trained with 8 lbs, but were currently climbing with 16.
The first part of the next pitch was easy slab traversing into a corner. The gear was better, and I quickly popped up on a sloping ledge directly at the base of the massive dihedral. I hadn’t climbed far (~100′), so I decided to continue up the corner. From where I stood, it appeared about 40′ of almost vertical climbing to another, higher ledge. This would be a more appropriate pitch length.
As I headed up the corner, gear placements were sparse. There were hardly any cracks, and those present were filled with dirt and grass. Finally I got a piece in, protecting me from a tumbling fall to the ledge below.
I continued upwards. The climbing grew harder. I got another piece in, but it wasn’t confidence inspiring. Higher, a patch of grass was growing through an ancient nut and bail sling, showing someone had rappelled from here at some point. Why would you rap here if you can walk off the ledge? Doubts about the difficulty of climbing above as well as the feasibility of the easy descent deepened.
Questing up through the steep section, the good foot holds vanished and I was left with small hand holds that faced in all the wrong directions. Don’t do any moves you can’t reverse, I told myself, knowing that my last piece, now a body length below me, wouldn’t hold a big fall. My backpack felt like a thousand pounds, but I made one move, then another. Soon, I was even higher above my piece and the holds I thought would be jugs were only slopers. Shit, I thought, knowing I needed to reverse and reassess the situation.
But I’d forgotten the moves. There were no feet, and I’d lost track of the awkward hand holds. Keep it together, keep it together, I repeated, finding first one hand, then another. I still couldn’t find good feet, so I just jammed myself into a short section of offwidth crack in front of me. The stance was better than expected, and I was able to go hands free and breathe. After a minute of rest, I downclimbed back to the sloping ledge, rattled.
Unable to find any gear to build a belay, I simply clove hitched the belayer side of the rope to me, creating an unequalized anchor through the three pieces in the dihedral above. Thankfully, the ledge was big enough to make a braced belay possible.
When Sarah came up, I told her about my earlier experience in the scary dihedral. She encouraged me while handing me pieces from the previous pitch. I breathed deeply, removed my clove hitch, and headed back up. This time, I managed to climb more confidently, and with a couple crucial pieces I didn’t have before, found a few placements that made it less intense. Still not well-protected, but better. Mental duct tape, as I’ve heard it called.
Where I thought a ledge would be, was only a grassy corner, stretching for another 100′. Gear was sparse, and I don’t remember if I actually got anything in. Thankfully the climbing wasn’t hard. I still had to keep focused, however, as I moved past loose rock and sketchy sections.
When I reached the next ledge, all I could find was a single solid piece. Another braced belay. As I brought Sarah up, I pondered the next pitch, which looked remarkably like the one before, a steep section of dihedral/chimney, only this time there was a crack that looked to offer much better protection. It was hard to tell from our position, but I guessed this would be the last pitch. Somewhere above, the A1 lurked. I hoped it was through this steep section, and I could either free it or just pull on cams.
As Sarah gave me gear, we discussed how the previous pitch had felt much harder than 5.7. I think it was at least 5.9, and even with the long approach and heavy pack, it was way more difficult than anything that we’d done on the previous three 5.7 pitches.
Sarah gave me more words of encouragement as I set off again. My mind was starting to feel fried from all the runouts. Now that we were reaching what was supposed to be the most difficult part of the climb, my worry kicked into overdrive. Keep it together. I’ve climbed runout terrain before, even some that was “harder” climbing, but never this sustained or for so many pitches.
From the single piece belay, I moved up carefully, getting in as many pieces as I could to protect us, which wasn’t many. When I reached the steep section, the crack proved to be as solid as I had hoped, taking good gear. Pulling out of the overhang on jugs while being well protected felt so good. I was excited to have the worst of the climbing be over. I was wrong.
Above me, another 100′ of unprotectable climbing followed. I focused and kept moving upward, checking each hand and foot placement. Just as I was nearing a belay ledge, which appeared to have good pro, the climbing got insecure and awkward. I didn’t want to do it. It was just one short move, one that would send me falling all the way back down to the belay if I messed up. Summoning everything within me, I growled loudly, angry that the climb was making me do this bullshit, and pulled the move.
Unfortunately, when I reached the ledge, all the cracks surrounding it were garbage, composed of loose blocks and choss. After further searching, I found a small crack that appeared solid, plugged in a single green C3, and braced myself as best as I could. Sarah flew up the pitch and we contemplated the options.
From our vantage point, we could see the top of the dihedral, and by extension, the midway ledge. We were soooo close! The last pitch looked short and not terribly difficult. It was similar to the ones before it, an overhang in a dihedral. This time though, the overhang was almost a roof, and was composed of stacked loose blocks.
I couldn’t see a way to aid through any of it and I wanted nothing to do with the loose roof. It would put Sarah directly in the line of fire. As I looked at the pitch though, I knew I had to find a way through. We were 800′ up, and only 100′ separated us from the walk off. Time to onsight.
A line began to materialize through the complex system of roofs, overhangs, slabs, and corners just to the left of the rotten rock. I took in several deep breaths, knowing this would be the biggest challenge yet, and set off. The climbing up to the manky roof was harder than I’d anticipated, but I carefully moved up a wide crack. I delicately traversed left under the loose blocks until I found a stance that wasn’t too strenuous. Peering out around the corner, I looked up my intended path. The small dihedral that had looked good from below had no crack for gear, and looked smooth and holdless. No go.
I began to feel a rising panic. I was less than 50′ from the top of the pitch, but I had no way to finish. Traversing further left from the main dihedral would be dangerous, since I had no gear in between and a fall would pendulum slam me into the wall.
Calling down to Sarah, I asked if she could tell what was happening in the next corner to the left of the one I was below. At this point, I was definitely willing to pull on gear or pound pitons, if I could find a place for either. She said it looked like there might be gear, but it was hard to tell.
No other option. I moved further left, into an undercling. This was insecure climbing and I was in a dangerous position, but at least the rock was solid. From the undercling, I still couldn’t see around the corner. The next few moves looked difficult. Need gear.
Awkwardly contorting myself to peer up into the undercling at waist hight, it looked like it would take a green C4. I struggled to place it blindly, having to focus hard to keep my feet on the smeery foot holds. Finally, after checking the piece, dread settled on me. The crack flared and only one set of cam lobes were solid. The piece was “good enough” to allow me to move forward, but not good enough to make me feel safe. I had to continue. You’ve fallen on worse and it held.
As I moved around the corner, I tried to move as deliberately and confidently as possible. My climbing skills were still my best protection, and if I never fell, I wouldn’t have to test the holding power of the janky piece.
After a couple hard moves, I found good footholds and a stance. Above me, the crack offered intermittent protection. I felt a load dissipate off me. I got a few more pieces in, beginning to feel more confident I wouldn’t pendulum into the corner.
The rest of the pitch was fairly mellow by comparison, although with all the traversing and mini-roofs, I set myself up for a heinous case of rope drag. The top out was full of large loose blocks, so I once again tiptoed past, not wanting to knock anything down on Sarah. Moving lightly is hard when you are pulling up an extra 50lbs of rope drag…
(Note: I apologize for the lack of any pictures on the route. It was such an intense experience and I was so focused I didn’t even think of pulling out the camera.)
Sarah followed the last pitch cleanly. We were both on the midway ledge. We looked around, trying to find the bivy spot the guide talked about. Everything sloped downwards and didn’t look terribly comfortable or large. With all the broken, loose rock, it would be difficult to even build an anchor.
With the climbing over, my thoughts turned to the descent. The gully was on the far side of the ledge, and from what I could see, looked precarious. I had scoped the bottom of it from the start of the climb, but couldn’t get a good view of the top. Even if you have to improvise rappels it will be shorter than going down the face.
Since the midway ledge lacked a reasonable spot to lay down, and we didn’t want to do a sitting bivy, we decided to descend the gully. The sun would be setting soon, but we thought we’d have enough time to get back to the more expansive and comfortable ledge at the start of the route.
Getting across the midway ledge proved to be difficult with several sections of loose 4th class and one short bit of low 5th. We belayed across the whole thing, as we were both really tired and a slip would likely be fatal.
When we reached the head of the gully, I felt my heart lighten. It didn’t look too bad. We went a short way down, then got cliffed out on exposed, water polished slab. With no hands or feet, we decided to improvise a rappel off a choke point between two boulders. More scrambling lead to another steep step. Same slick rock, only this time the bottom was overhung. We improved another rap off a single, bomber nut.
The rest of the gully was 3rd class and we popped out at the base of the climb with just enough time to set up a bivy and cook dinner before dark.
We covered up with a tarp just as a rain squall moved through. As droplets spattered above us, we stayed warm and dry, joking about how we carried our gear all the way up the climb just to bivy where we started. It was the perfect end to a difficult day. We’d been moving for almost 12 hours.
The next morning, we felt energized and psyched, which I wasn’t expecting. I continue to be amazing at what our training time accomplished. We did the long hike down at a leisurely pace, eating lots of raspberries and huckleberries. It felt good to sit down when we made it back to the car.
In hindsight, I think this route tested every climbing skill I’ve developed over the past eight years. We knew it would be a challenge, and we were ready for it. I learned a lot, and look forward to doing even bigger, more difficult objectives in the future. I wish our skills were up for the headwall (still don’t feel ready for A3 or big wall 5.11), but that will come in time.
Detailed Route Beta:
The first half of the EZ Route is a worthwhile objective for parties with solid skills. The climbing is fun and engaging, but serious, with long runouts on mostly moderate terrain. While there are a few spots with bad rock, most of the first half is on solid rock. With solid fitness and an early start, a car-to-car ascent of the first half (descending from the midway ledge) is possible.
The Select Alpine Climbs to Montana guide calls this first half 10 pitches of 5.6 or 5.7, with a bit of A1/2 on the last pitch. We were able to free everything at 5.9 or 10a in 6 pitches and found some of the 5.7 pitches to be harder than advertised. It is possible we were on a variation, but based on all info we could find, we stayed on route.
The first pitch starts off the far right side of the large approach ledge. Look for a right tending crack above a rocky flat spot, beginning below the massive dihedral that defines the right hand side of the Upper Doublet. If you get to the talus gully, you’ve gone too far.
From the East Rosebud Trail head near Alpine, MT (GPS: 45.197266, -109.635143), hike south on the trail for approximately 2.25 miles, passing the end of the lake, a rock outcrop, a stream crossing, a big waterfall, and up some switchbacks. Leave the trail when you see a broad talus wash leading all the way up to the left side of the Lower Doublet.
Head up this, negotiating chock stones and boulders until you reach the Lower Doublet. If you leave too early, you’ll have to go through lots of deadfall, which is slow going. The best path is hard to describe, but I would recommend continuing up until you pass a cliff band on the right (almost all the way to the Lower) and reach a vertical waterfall. From here, head right, scrambling up a 4th class slab an onto the hillside directly below the Lower.
Traverse along the base of Lower Doublet, being careful not to get too high (will cliff out eventually). When you reach the broad gully (house size boulder at the base) between Upper and Lower, head up it. Near the upper right margin you can skirt your way onto the approach ledge for the Upper Doublet. Walk across this grass/scree ledge until you reach the base of the route. It is possible to bivy here if you don’t want to do the whole thing in a day.
We brought doubles from #3–0.75 C4’s, and overlapping sets of smaller cams (.5-.3 C4’s, 3–2 Mastercams, 2–00 C3’s). A set of nuts (including DMM alloy offsets), some quickdraws, and 10 shoulder length slings rounded out the rack. We brought a hammer and a few pins (for the A1 section), but never needed them.
P1: Head up easy terrain, linking crack systems. A bit of runout on ledgy sections to get you warmed up, then good gear before pulling a short finger crack layback crux. Belay below a short dihedral capped by a mini-roof. (5.7 PG-13, 160′)
P2: Climb up the slab, pull the roof, and head up steeping terrain past a small tree. The rock here is marginal and protection sparse, so be careful. Belay at a good stance below and slightly to the right of the massive dihedral. (5.7 PG-13, 160′)
P3: Climb up slab and into an overhanging corner just to the right of the belay. From here, head up and left, onto a large sloping ledge at the base of the massive left facing corner. Solid rock/gear is sparse on the ledge, so get creative with your belay. A few solid pieces can be found up in the dihedral, or you can brace belay. (5.6, 110′)
P4: Venture up into the dihedral, pulling tricky moves to get through the steep (sometimes wet) section. Good gear is hard to get. C3’s make things bearable. Continue up on runout but more moderate terrain till you reach another belay ledge. We belayed from a braced position with one solid orange Mastercam. (5.9R, 160′)
P5: This pitch looks very similar to the last, although the crux is better protected. The overhanging dihedral is easier than it appears, and is pulled on mostly good holds. The rock is relatively solid, and gear in the crack is good. After the crux, continue up easier, but runout terrain. It might be possible to traverse to the left to get gear, but it also might be a trap. We belayed from a braced position with a solid green C3. (5.8R, 180′)
P6: One more pitch and perhaps the most exciting of all. From the belay, head up the corner and wide crack until you hit the chossy roof. Traverse left to a good undercling. Careful here as a fall would swing you hard into the dihedral. I got a green C4 in the undercling and made a move around the corner to the left to better protected terrain. Climb through the short dihedral, then traverse back right and into the main corner to finish the pitch. A bit contrived, but has protection and avoids most of the worst rock on the pitch. (5.9/10a PG-13, 120′)
Descent: If you aren’t up for the A2/3 pitches to finish the route (or the 5.11 pitches of Time Trip), you can 3rd/4th class traverse across the broad ledge to the climbers right to a descent gully. We improvised raps over two steep sections in the gully. Down climbing them might be possible, but the rock is extremely water polished and exposed. It wouldn’t be easy. Eventually, the gully opens up, allowing access to the approach ledge. Reverse the approach back across it and down the gully separating the Upper and Lower Doublets.
(Disclaimer: If you decide to use this beta, you take all responsibility. I’ve done my best to write this from memory, but I may have made mistakes. It is your job to exercise good judgment and not just follow blindly… 🙂
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Originally published at zachariahwahrer.com on September 6, 2017.