Wind-whipped snow making it, at points, difficult to breathe. Much less see. Known as spindrift, it infiltrates every inch of clothing. Soaked and shivering, Scott Coldiron and Matt Cornell huddled beneath a rock jammed in a gully thousands of feet off the ground and miles from the nearest road.
It’s 2 a.m. on Nov. 14 and the two want nothing to do with this godforsaken route again. They’d delicately pulled themselves up frozen rocks, gaining purchase with crampons and ice tools, for nearly 24 hours in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana. A storm was moving their way. A sharp corner had shredded the outer sheath of one of their ropes.
“It was the first time I was really worried about our ability to get off a mountain safely,” the 51-year-old Coldiron said.
The route, a menacing gully (known as a couloir) that climbs 2,600 feet from Granite Lake to A Peak, has enticed climbers for generations. Coldiron, who’s been developing ice climbing routes in the area for the past five years, has eyed the line numerous times.
In mid-November, Coldiron and Cornell, a seminomadic climber who spends his winters in Bozeman, teamed up to try the line.
It wasn’t in the cards; 200 feet from the top, the two men turned back.
“It was a good decision to turn around,” Coldiron said. “We both thought it was a good decision, but it was a really tough one to make.”
As they started to come down the mountain, a process called rappelling, their ropes got stuck twice. That’s also when a serrated rock edge cut the rope’s sheath. Known as a core shot, it’s the kind of damage that’s not necessarily deadly, but it can be.
Exhausted, mentally wrecked and soaked to the bone, they decided to spend the night under the giant rock.
“We both sat in that bivouac spot and said ‘We will never come back to this mountain,’ ” Coldiron said.
The Cabinet Mountain Wilderness is one of the most remote and rugged areas in the lower 48. Established by Congress in 1964, the 93,272-acre area is not easily accessed. Most trails are 5 miles or less and terminate in subalpine basins. The high country is rocky and rugged.
Studies have found that the area’s water is among the purest in the lower 48, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Grizzlies, lynx, cougars and wolves all roam there.
People do not.
Because of the remoteness of the range, the Cabinets (named so because French explorers thought the rock formations along the Clark Fork river looked like boxes or cabinets) are not a popular or well-known climbing destination, especially in winter.
“Montana is a funny place,” said professional climber Jess Roskelley, one of Coldiron’s climbing partners. “You would think you were in another country, for sure. How far back you feel. It can be more remote than most places.”
Spokane musicologist, author and climber Hans Moldenhauer spoke highly of the range. In a 1943 American Alpine Journal article he wrote, “These peaks 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.”
Despite these objective challenges, the Cabinets have a history of bold climbs.
In late August 1963, Dean Millsap, Dan Doody and William Echo climbed A Peak via a route near the one Coldiron and Cornell attempted.
More recently, John Roskelley and Brad Weller established new routes in the 1980s.
But in the past decade, the most persistent and consistent climber and booster of the area has been Coldiron. A Spokane firefighter, he’s spent significant chunks of his winter deep in the backcountry establishing ice and mixed lines near Granite Lake.
“Even with my experience, I get intimidated going in there,” Roskelley said. “He’s really just a hard charger.”
Back on the wall, Coldiron and Cornell spent a cold night eating Ramen and chocolate. Not anticipating spending a night out, the duo hadn’t brought a sleeping bag or tent.
The next day they finished descending, barely missing an avalanche, and hiked back to their base camp on the shores of Granite Lake. One 6-mile hike and a 2 1/2-hour drive later they arrived back in Spokane. Coldiron had to work. Cornell had to get back to Bozeman and prepare for a trip to Patagonia.
As a firefighter, Coldiron lives his life in spurts of adrenaline. A 48-hour shift might pass relatively uneventfully, or it could be spent fighting a huge fire.
This particular shift was an eventful one.
“During that time we had a huge fire on the South Hill,” he said. “It was a fire that was burning the bands off peoples’ helmets. And melting visors.”
He worked nearly nonstop. But as the fire raged, the weather cleared and a climbing “window” opened back in the Cabinets. So he called Roskelley. Want to climb?
Roskelley doesn’t have the best relationship with the Cabinets. On one trip several years ago, he was nearly crushed by a tree. Once an avalanche wiped out their base camp. And then there was the time torrential rain made the numerous stream crossings on the approach to Granite Lake, usually a tame affair, a risky proposition.
“It seems to be a nightmare every time I go up there,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
When Coldiron called, he hesitated. He’d just returned from the East Coast where he’d been showing pictures and talking about an August climbing trip in Pakistan. He’d been on the road nonstop over the past months – to Telluride and Puerto Rico, among other places – plus, he didn’t feel great.
But climbing is his job and passion, and Coldiron is a good friend. He agreed to come.
One could safely call Coldiron, Cornell and Roskelley risk-takers. As alpine rock and ice climbers, they regularly expose themselves to a litany of dangers, including avalanches, rock fall and hypothermia.
Even within the relatively risk-friendly world of climbing, alpinists are known as a particularly daring bunch. These risks aren’t taken without thought.
As the science journalist Kayt Sukel documents in her book “The Art of Risk,” the best risk takers are well-prepared.
But something funny happens when Coldiron and Roskelley climb together. Both are easygoing. Both have been climbing for decades and are fundamentally comfortable in the mountains.
“We totally went against all the rules,” Roskelley said. “We stopped in Libby and ate McDonald’s. Stuff I don’t do, ever.”
They’d planned to leave Spokane at noon. They didn’t leave until 3 p.m. on Nov. 18. They got into camp at 10 p.m. after a “mellow” 6-mile approach.
They slept in the next morning, by alpinist standards, leaving the tent at 7 a.m.
“We’re always out of the tent later than we should be,” Roskelley said. “That’s how Scott and I roll.”
“I was kind of beat,” Coldiron said. “And Jess was actually getting sick. So we were a little bit slower.”
By 10 a.m., the duo had reached the base of the route after some bushwhacking.
The first 1,500 feet were “basically scrambling,” Roskelley said. Then the hard climbing started.
But Roskelley wasn’t feeling great.
“On the way up, I was like, ‘God, I don’t feel very good,’ ” he said.
Coldiron isn’t comfortable talking about his climbing exploits. Often in the course of a conversation, he’ll say something about the relative difficulty of a climb, only to downplay it a few minutes later.
It’s an ethic of old-school climbing. Don’t talk unnecessarily about your adventures. Don’t make them sound harder than they were. If anything, underplay it.
In the social-media infused world of today, that’s hard to do. Professional climbers such as Roskelley make a living talking about their exploits. It’s always been that way, to some extent. Roskelley’s father, John Roskelley, was one of his generation’s most famous and successful climbers. He made a living establishing difficult climbs around the world and writing books and speaking about his adventures.
But the internet, and social media in particular, have only increased the pressure on climbers to promote themselves.
As a North Face athlete, Roskelley can’t be photographed wearing any other brands. He’s expected to promote himself and the company on his social media accounts. Much of his time in the past months has been focused on promoting climbs and the brand.
It’s his dream to climb professionally, and he loves his job.
But it’s different for Coldiron. He’s not sponsored. He’s not expected to travel the world, climbing and speaking in famous places. Instead, he has quietly spent a half-decade exploring a blue-collar backwater.
Libby, the nearest town on the northern end of the Cabinet range, is a hardscrabble place, defined by decades of hard mining and logging. Nothing is gained easily. There is no roadside access and no motel to spend a cold night.
“I’m always surprised people don’t go in there (to the Cabinets),” Roskelley said. “But then I’m not.”
The crux pitches of the route (climber parlance for the hardest part) came near the top and consisted of several rocks jammed on top of each other in the gully. Some of the rocks were loose, although many had frozen in place. It grew steep, nearly overhanging. It’s climbing that requires careful movements. Locking an ice tool into a small crack, for instance. Finding a small, rocky bump for a crampon point. Putting weight on that one point, stepping up, while simultaneously pulling down.
With the sun retreating, Roskelley and Coldiron decided to save that section for the morning. They spent the night in the same cave that Coldiron and Cornell had shivered in days before. But this time, they had a tent and one sleeping bag. The two ate Oreos and slept well. In the morning, they drank coffee before heading out again.
Coldiron led up and out. He climbed through the section Cornell had to turn back on days before.
“I couldn’t believe Matt was trying to climb it in the dark,” Coldiron said. “He just couldn’t get over the top because he was getting pounded by spindrift.”
From there, the climbing eased up. On the afternoon of Nov. 20, the two topped out roughly 4,000 feet above Granite Lake. They named the new route the Canmore Wedding Party.
Establishing a first ascent on a new, challenging route is a coveted accomplishment.
The news of Roskelley and Coldiron’s success brought mixed emotions for Cornell. He’d encouraged Coldiron to climb it with Roskelley, yet for someone as driven as Cornell, not bagging the climb stings.
“I was a little heartbroken, (but) I’m really stoked they got up it,” he said.
Cornell is already thinking about his next trip to the Cabinets. There are plenty of unclimbed lines he’d like to attempt.
After spending another night out, Roskelley and Coldiron made it safely back to Spokane. Over a 10-day stretch, Coldiron spent eight days climbing and two fighting a fire.
“That was really tough thing to do to my body,” he said. “Probably not even advisable, if I had thought it out.”
Yet just days after returning from his successful climb with Roskelley, he was back in the Cabinets climbing some “easy ice.”
“Selective memory,” Coldiron said. “It’s a very good tool for alpinists.”
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