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New Ice Routes in Montana's Cabinet Mountains

Posted on: March 13, 2015


The northeast buttress of A Peak (8,634'): the location of two routes established by Scott Coldiron and company between February 22 and March 7, 2015: Blackwell Falls (WI5 M4, 900') and Unprotected Four-Play (AI4+ M6 R, 2,000'). "Unprotected Four-Play is the leftmost couloir in the pic; Blackwell Falls buttress is in the foreground, with the route not shown," says Coldiron. [Photo] Scott Coldiron

On February 22 Scott Coldiron and Christian Thompson from Spokane, Washington, and Sandpoint, Idaho, respectively, established, "to my knowledge, the biggest steep pure-ice route in this little region," says Coldiron of their line in northwestern Montana's Cabinet Mountains, calling it Blackwell Falls (WI5 M4, ca. 900'). Their route ascends two-thirds of a 1400-foot buttress beneath Blackwell Glacier adjacent to A Peak's (8,634') northeast face. After 300 feet of easy terrain, Blackwell Falls angles up for continuously steep WI5 and M4 climbing that Coldiron describes as "just plain fun." Though many lines in the area were out of condition due to recent atypically warm temperatures, the north-facing route was still fat and in great shape, according to Coldiron. Except for the final pitch, the route protected almost exclusively with ice screws. The climbers used V-threads, cams and nuts predominantly for belays, and placed no pitons.

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Leaving camp at Granite Lake at the foot of A Peak's northeast face at 6:30 a.m., the pair reached the base of the ice flow at around 8:30 a.m. After simulclimbing a few hundred feet of WI3, they pitched out another six to seven ropelengths of steep ice, and a final pitch of mixed terrain, before their route ended beneath an enormous impassable chimney. They began their rappels at 5 p.m., but did not return to the base of the wall until twelve V-thread rappels and three hours later. Having forgotten one of their ropes at the car, Coldiron and Thompson climbed and rappelled throughout the day on a single 70-meter half rope, which accounted for slow progress.

Scott Coldiron leading Blackwell Falls' third-to-last pitch. "To my knowledge [it's] the biggest steep pure-ice route" in northwestern Montana's Cabinet Mountains, he says. [Photo] Christian Thompson

Coldiron emphasized that what makes Blackwell Falls noteworthy is not its difficulty, but its quality. In 2013 Coldiron helped Craig Pope establish Chuck Norris and the Mortal (WI7 M8 R/X, 90m; bolt free, like all the routes established by Coldiron and company in the area) at Banks Lake, Washington—likely the hardest ice/mixed climb in the state. "The money of [Blackwell Falls]," according to Coldiron, "[are] the final four pitches: three consecutive WI5 pitches followed by a well-protected pitch of very steep M4 stemming out over the abyss"—an overhanging chimney with nearly 1000 feet of air beneath. "What looked like scary, hard climbing turned out to be rather safe and fun," Coldiron says. Both climbers agreed the route was "fat, fun, well-protected."

There is little documented history of winter climbing in the Cabinet Mountains, but summertime documented ascents date back to the 1940s. The climber, writer and German expat Hans Moldenhauer was perhaps the first to publicize the range. "These peaks," he wrote for an American Alpine Journal article in 1943, "are not spectacular in height or size, but they hold all my mountaineer's heart wishes for: from snow and ice to rock face, talus slope, and ridge—the wilderness of forests, and brisk air above the timberline; lakes, alpine meadows, solitude. And all this only 150 miles from home [Spokane], easy to reach over a weekend." Perhaps the most noteworthy prior ascent in the Cabinets was John Roskelley and Brad Weller's 1981 ascent of St. Paul Peak's East Face. According to Roskelley, their route "consisted of 10 pitches of rock... superb face... and possibly the best climbing in the Cabinets."

Christian Thompson follows Coldiron's lead, P5, on Blackwell Falls. [Photo] Scott Coldiron

It was Jess Roskelley—John's son, "an accomplished alpinist, much more than I am," says Coldiron, and Craig Pope's accomplice in freeing Chuck Norris and the Mortal just days after Coldiron helped open the line—who first brought the Cabinet Mountains to Coldiron's attention. For Coldiron, a Spokane resident just as Moldenhauer had been, it was a no-brainer to investigate the winter potential of the nearby range. Over the past two seasons, he and a handful of other Spokane climbers (including Jeff Zickler and Joe Lind) have begun to develop its ice climbing, establishing a handful of "high-quality four- to five-pitch lines" one drainage over from Blackwell Falls. Thompson, meanwhile, had established numerous summertime first ascents in the Cabinet and Selkirk mountains prior to this trip. Coldiron suggests that Blackwell Falls may be the best line he's seen in the area so far, but was quick to add that the Cabinets still boast plenty of potential. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to future ascentionists, says Coldiron, is a "burly six- to ten-mile ski approach, depending on the condition of the road."

Ben Erdmann and Jonah Job at the top of Pitch 1, Unprotected Four-Play (AI4+ M6 R, 2,000'), established March 7. [Photo] Scott Coldiron

On March 7, nearly two weeks after completing Blackwell Falls, Coldiron returned to the Cabinets to climb a new line up the northeast face of A Peak. "In winter, no one I know has tried the hard faces in the Cabinets," he says. Coldiron teamed up with Jonah Job, Benjamin Erdmann and Beau Carrillo. The four climbers separated into two independent rope teams, climbing parallel lines until reaching the final, and crux, pitch, led by Coldiron and followed by all three climbers. They named their route Unprotected Four-Play (AI4+ M6 R, 2,000') "because God knows the climbing world needs another bad-pun route name."

Coldiron describes Four-Play as: "Hero sticks in neve and bomber alpine ice, punctuated by scary runouts and thin vertical ice... perhaps a moment of panic scratching through sugar snow over featureless rock." The climb protects with beaks and blades, nuts, Tricams and cams, and in no spots was the ice thick enough to build a V-thread anchor. "We used a bit of everything. I never tied off so many ice screws in my life," says Coldiron, adding that twice he had to tie off a stubby, because it was the only gear he could find. "The Cabinets tend to take a lot of knifeblades, but this route took less than other routes I've done in the area. We had a lot of runouts," he says.

Continues Coldiron, "On the crux, at the thin ice at the end, I didn't trust my screws; they were all shit. One pulled out by hand. I'm usually comfortable on scary ice leads, but here I was placing everything I could." At one point, the climbers even had to simulclimb with no gear between them. The two teams climbed independently until the final pitch. It was here that the three climbers followed Coldiron's lead.

Jonah Job on Four-Play's P4. [Photo] Scott Coldiron

The runouts and poor pro aside, what makes this route stand out to Coldiron is the fun he had with his friends. At one point they met up on a large ledge midway, brewed soup and told jokes. "It was the best belay cave I've [visited]," says Coldiron.

Four-Play doesn't top out the formation—it finishes 200 feet below the summit, where the ice ends. From here, the team walked down.

Four-Play's final, and crux, pitch. "I'm usually comfortable on scary ice leads, but here I was placing everything I could. [It's a] good climb—just sketchy because of the pro," says Coldiron. "I didn't trust my screws... One pulled out by hand." [Photo] Ben Erdmann

Sources: Scott Coldiron, alpinist.com, americanalpineclub.org

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