By Maggie Slepian EBS CONTRIBUTOR
The season for roping up and pulling hard is upon us, and southwest Montana is home to some truly stellar rock climbing. There is perhaps no local climbing area with a wider variety of routes and styles than the Gallatin Canyon.
“The Canyon,” as it’s called, has two main climbing areas: Storm Castle Creek and the granite gneiss area near 35 MPH Bridge. This granite gneiss area is what most people think of when they reference climbing in the Canyon.
Storm Castle Creek is a limestone sport area on the east side of Gallatin Canyon, featuring a range of sport climbs—with bolts for clipping drilled in the rock—from 5.10 to stiff 5.13s. This area is home to Scorched Earth, a south-facing wall that can be climbed throughout the winter and The Cave, which hosts a collection of steep, challenging routes. Several miles south of Storm Castle Creek lie the classic Canyon formations, including Gallatin Tower, Skyline Buttress and the Waltz Formation. This area features some of the most time-honored multi-pitch lines around southwest Montana.
Routes at these crags range in difficulty from 500 feet of 5.6 trad—or traditional climbing, where the climber places their own gear without fixed bolts—to pumpy, sustained 5.12 sport climbs. Both locations will appeal to a variety of climbers. Storm Castle Creek has primarily single-pitch sport routes, while the granite area is about 50 percent trad with classic multi-pitch climbs, plus select mixed and bolted routes.
Keep in mind that new climbers should never attempt any of these routes without experienced partners. Adequate gear, practice and safety knowledge are imperative for attempting any outdoor climbing, from single-pitch sport routes to multi-pitch classics.
1) Skyline Arête: Skyline Buttress
Skyline Arête is the longest route in Gallatin Canyon. This classic five-pitch, 5.6 trad route has stellar canyon views, safe and comfortable belay ledges, and is appropriate for newer climbers if they have an experienced person to follow. While the climbing is relatively easy, the route is full trad, which means there are no bolted anchors after the first set. This can make for tricky anchor building and route finding. It has a variety of interesting features like chimneys, and a narrow “hole”—often referred to as the birth canal—toward the top of the second pitch. There are plenty of variations to make this route more challenging, and the walk-off descent is fairly straightforward as long as you follow the newer trail off the south side.
2) Spare Rib: North of Skyline Buttress
Amp up the exposure for this two-pitch, 5.8 trad route on a standalone gneiss tower. The climb can be found north of Skyline Buttress up a fairly steep climber’s trail. The first pitch is rated 5.6, ascends a 2-foot-wide crack, and finishes on a comfortable ledge with chains. The second pitch feels exposed for 5.8, following a double line of cracks through two short overhangs. Gear placement is stellar, and the movement feels natural. The descent is a simple walk off.
3) Pretty Polly: Scorched Earth
This short, bolted 5.10d is a classic warm up at Scorched Earth. It has intuitive movement, following featured cracks before a fun, extended move to a nice ledge. The rock around here can feel polished, so don’t hit it in the heat of the day.
4) The Standard Route: Gallatin Tower
Corners, cracks and a chimney, this route is a must-do for locals and visitors alike. The first pitch starts with stair-step blocks, then moves right to a short, friendly, left-facing corner to gain the huge bolted belay ledge. The second pitch moves through a series of cracks along the corner with techy, engaging movement. There are two options for finishing this route. Climbers can scramble through a chimney for an easy 5.7, or hit the direct finish that goes at a challenging 5.9 through an overhang, ending on easy terrain after the hand-jam/roof-pull move.
5) The Waltz: The Waltz Formation
The Waltz is a four-pitch 5.8 trad route that climbs three distinct “steps” with massive belay ledges, bolted anchors and epic views. The first three pitches are cruiser 5.6 climbing on large blocks, and you can walk off the first pitch if desired. The second pitch has quality climbing on a fun crack, followed by a short third pitch. The fourth pitch is a little spicier and harder to protect thanks to the face-climbing moves. Some people opt out of this pitch. Climbers can walk off from the top, or choose to stop short of the top and rappel from the anchors of any of the lower pitches.
Maggie Slepian is a fulltime writer and editor based in Bozeman. She spends her non-working hours climbing, backpacking and mountain biking.