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Climbing in the Montana Desert



By Tom Kingsbury
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The smell of burning sage was strong. Mixed with long-dead juniper, the branches snapped and popped in my fire, smoking and melting a ring in the light snow. In the distance, the Tobacco Root Mountains peeked out beneath a shroud of clouds. I warmed my hands a moment longer, then hopped to the bouldering pad, trying to keep my climbing shoes dry from the moist, mid-winter ground.

I looked up at the boulder problem I’d been trying for the past hour, and visualized the sequence of moves. I pulled onto the starting holds, then reached to the tops of two small black cobble features, crimping my fingers around them. I cranked up, locked my grip there, then quickly hiked my feet up to the first good foot hold.

Like many boulders here, the features on this problem were few and far between. Often, there are barely enough to climb the boulder. I stretched right and palmed the last feature on the upper slab. A couple of confident friction moves off the cobbles, and I was at the top. From there, I could see another cluster of boulders, just a few moments walk away… waiting in the sun.

Bouldering during the winter (or even spring) in Montana may seem far-fetched or strange, but for a growing group of enthusiasts, basking in the winter sun and climbing on warm granite is a reprieve from the winter doldrums.

The high mountain desert of the Pipestone/Homestake Pass area is an hour’s drive west of Bozeman. Part of the Boulder Batholith, a granite area 75 miles long by about 25 miles wide, the low elevations on the east side are protected from precipitation by a storm shadow for the bulk of the winter. Moisture from the west hits Butte and the Continental Divide and pushes north into the Elkhorn Mountains, or south into the Highlands and Tobacco Roots. Some days you can boulder in the sun and watch the storms in the distance.

I became entranced with the Boulder Batholith in 2002, when I did some of my very first rock climbs there. I was taken by the immense amount of stone and the quiet forests, and began exploring areas frequented by few. A couple years later, I started climbing at Whiskey Gulch, south of I-90. Without a guidebook, prior knowledge, or a bouldering pad, I walked among the rocks, fully immersed in the bounty of beautiful boulders. Visions of the difficult movements appeared in my mind as I attempted to pantomime the short but difficult climbs and studied their chalked holds.

Cresting the eastern ridges one January morning, I looked north toward the Spire and Pipestone rocks, and the other scattered domes of the Batholith. I knew I needed to check out other dry winter areas, and began what has become an obsession with exploring, mapping and climbing in the Batholith.

Although Butte Tech students have climbed at one of these low elevation areas, known as ‘the Desert’, since the late 1970s (or perhaps earlier), they recorded little of their activities, and details and specifics of climbs are scarce. Located just off I-90’s Pipestone exit, the Desert is just 2.2 miles up Delmoe Lake Road, immediately after the old Northern Pacific rail-line.

With easy access and dry winter conditions, it’s a prime spot for cold-season climbing in Montana. Today, the Desert has seen a revival. It has over 125 established problems of all difficulties, a new guidebook, and regular weekend visitors.

Beyond the main Desert, an exploratory spirit has reemerged in the Boulder Batholith. There are now more than 40 established areas throughout the Homestake Pass/Pipestone area, with upwards of 1200 boulder problems. Many of them are just a stone’s throw off a road. Guidebooks and further information are found at

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