By Chris Bangs Human Powered Mountaineers
Gale force winds threatened to topple my wife Justene and I as we rode our bicycles over Bozeman pass into Livingston. Our plan was to make a completely human-powered ascent of the spectacular Northeast Ridge on 11,206-foot Mount Cowen, the highest peak in the Absaroka Range.
Earlier that day, at home in Bozeman, we packed our bike trailers full of ropes, harnesses, climbing equipment and camping gear. This would be our first attempt at climbing Cowen, so we had a pregame checklist to make sure we had everything we would need for a five-day trip. Our trailers were loaded down with 60 pounds each.Once we reached Livingston and its notorious winds, the idea of riding toward Paradise Valley became unappealing. So instead of turning right at the highway junction, we rode into town for a break at the city park. Four hours later, with evening approaching, we didn’t have much choice. It was time to ride.
During our rest the wind had shifted, and we rode laughing and hollering down the highway, the wind at our backs.
On this 60-mile ride, Livingston was about halfway between our home and the trailhead up East Mill Creek Road. From there, a nine-mile hike leads to the base of the mountain at Elbow Lake. Cowen is one of the most famous mountains in southwest Montana; its sheer granite walls and snow-filled couloirs have a daunting reputation.
Hiking in, we were blown away by the rugged beauty of the wild and pristine landscape. We crossed crystal-clear streams, and I drank from springs without filtering the water. Songbirds followed us up switchbacks, the scent of elk filled the air, and bear scat littered the trail.
By the time we hit the lake, our senses were bubbling over. ‘Absaroka’ is the Native American word for ‘crow,’ and as we got deeper into the wilderness I imagined the connection to the land that these brave people once had. That connection is one of the things I’ve tried to create in my life by traveling and climbing under my own power. It’s my way of greeting the mountains on even terms and showing respect to this rugged wilderness.
Mount Cowen is no ordinary mountain, and simply reaching the base of the route is serious. With a complex series of subsidiary peaks built upon itself, the mountain is guarded by moats, dangerous boulder fields and hidden notches like secret pathways, all of which create a formidable defense to climbers trying to reach the summit.
From Elbow Lake, we started hiking at 5 a.m. Our approach took us north, almost completely around the mountain. Halfway there, we gained a ridgeline east of the peak, where we had to descend a section of the Icefield Couloir into a separate drainage. There, we down-climbed into a terrifying place – a moat between the icefield and the mountain.
After hours of scrambling around and sketching out, we made it to the base of the route. The Northeast Ridge rose 1,200 vertical feet above us like a magical pathway to the sky.
Within the first 200 feet, I made a wrong turn and got us off route. Two rope-lengths later, and after much cussing, a bruised ego (mine) and a bloody knee (Justene’s), we established ourselves on the ridge proper.
Going the wrong direction wasted a lot of time and tired us out mentally. Our wits were scrambled, but the thought of retracing our steps and climbing back through the moat seemed worse than continuing upward. Balancing on a small ledge, we discussed our options and decided to press on.
The next pitch was a blast. The rock was solid, and the movement of our bodies bending and pulling against the mountain filled us with new energy. A little higher up, the ridge narrowed to a sharp point where the only passage was a three–inch-wide ledge we had to tiptoe across.
Climbing behind me, Justene neared the ledge. I knew this section would be difficult for her, so I held the rope tight to safeguard her passage.
“You can do it,” I shouted. “It’s just one move. Step across to the ledge. I’ve got you.”
She yelled back to me, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying, and I couldn’t see her. It sounded like she was talking to someone else, but there was nobody else around.
It was just us and the mountain, or at least that’s what I thought.
A few minutes rolled by and she didn’t move. The rope was tight, Justene wasn’t moving and I was starting to get nervous.
Then the rope moved, and I pulled in the slack.
A barrage of joyous profanity filtered up through the sky. Something had happened, and as Justene got closer she yelled to me in excitement.
I couldn’t figure out what she was saying… something about a big white goat, but it didn’t make sense. We were near the summit, and it took thousands of feet of technical rock climbing to get here. There was no way a goat was up here. Right?
“Oh my God!” she said, as she joined me at the top of the pitch. She explained that as she was freaking out about the step-across move, she looked over to the other side of the ridge and there stood a big, white mountain goat staring at her from less than 10 yards away.
She said the goat looked her right in the eye and filled her with confidence and courage.
In that one moment, everything became clear. Even though we weren’t to the top yet, the idea of climbing this mountain made perfect sense to all of us – the goat included.
Climber and ski-mountaineer Chris Bangs has used bicycle transportation for more than 10 years to rack up an impressive list of solo ascents, including the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, The Hourglass Route on Mount Athabasca, and the East Face and the East Buttress of Mount Whitney. He and his wife Justene Sweet own Human-Powered Mountaineers Inc., a grassroots organization promoting a healthier environment.