Direct West Arete (5.7, 850′) – Crazy Mountains, MT

Starting on 8/21/17, we were fortunate enough to have an entire week off from work. It fell during the peak period of our training cycle, which was perfect! Including weekends, we had 9 days to climb as much as our bodies and minds could handle.

We decided to start with the Direct West Arete of the Incisor (10,250′) in the Crazy Mountains of Montana. This route has been on my list for a long time and over the past year, I’ve thought about it frequently. It is a really cool peak (just left of center in the top picture) that requires a bit of a hike to reach. The arete on its west side runs from ground to summit, and the Direct West Arete route climbs near this feature for almost the entire way, creating a logical line up an impressive swath of rock.

My original goal for this season was to do this route car-to-car in a day, something our training had definitely prepared us for. We were also looking for a cool place to watch the eclipse, however, and the weather forecast in the Crazies was clear for the 21st. So we would hike in, climb the route, then bivy so we could watch the eclipse the next day.

Waking up early Sunday, we made the long, bumpy drive out to Cottonwood Creek trail head. The hike to the lake was a bit of a slog, gaining 2,500′ in just over 5 miles. By the time we reached the lake, Sarah and I were both feeling the effects of the wildfire smoke. The air was hazy, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We dumped our bivy gear at an open space by the lake and resumed hiking up towards the Incisor.

Incisor on the left of the big notch, Dogtooth on the right.

Getting up the massive glacial moraine situated between the lake and the base of the formation took us 75 minutes, gaining another 1,000′ in just under a mile. We kicked steps up a soft snowfield until we hit shade and it turned to a sheet of ice. Back to the talus…

Pushing hard, but still happy.

We were both pretty tired by the time we reached the start of the technical climbing. I think the wildfire smoke was having a pretty big impact on us. My lungs were burning, I was nauseous, and it felt like I was having a bad allergic reaction (like my regular spring allergies). Sarah had similar symptoms, only worse. Her nose was plugged up, and at the time, we wondered if she was coming down with a cold.

A closeup of the Incisor, taken last fall. The picture doesn’t do a good job showing the scale of the peak.

Pressing on, we racked up and I set off on the first pitch. The climbing was fun: a finger crack in a corner with solid rock and mellow moves. After several short, ledgy steps, I reached a nice belay spot and built an anchor. Sarah followed up the pitch and we both commented how we were feeling better. The lesser exertion of climbing vs. hiking was allowing us to recover. Our training was paying off. 🙂

Sarah gave me the gear from the first pitch, and I took off again, wandering up the face on intermittent cracks, staying right of the main ridge crest. I built another belay and brought Sarah up.

At the ledge, she said she felt good enough to lead the next pitch, which was supposed to be a full rope length (200′) on finger cracks. I gave her the gear and she headed out, picking her way up a steep, wide crack filled with loose rocks. A few pebbles came down, one thwacking off my helmet. Once past this, she was out of sight. I continued feeding out rope. Finally, she yelled “Off belay,” and brought me up.

We estimated her pitch was only 140′, which would put us off the guidebook’s pitch count, but that was fine. I took the next lead: a rising traverse below the headwall . After 100′ of climbing, I found myself at the base of the headwall dihedral, on the ledge where the guidebook said I should be. We’d somehow climbed what the guidebook said should be 400′ in only 240′ of climbing. Maybe the guide is a little off…

I took the lead for the last two pitches since Sarah was still feeling pretty sick. They featured some of the best climbing on the route, up a dramatic steep corner, pulling through vertical sections on huge jugs. It all culminated in a tight chimney section that popped out on the summit. When Sarah joined me, we celebrated. It had been a long time coming, and since we’d been turned around by weather on a previous attempt, success was even sweeter.

All smiles on top.
Looking towards the east.

After carefully down climbing off the summit, we traversed the back side of the Incisor across 4th class slabs. Someone had left rap slings on a block at the Incisor/Dogtooth col, and we broke out the rope to make a short rappel down. Much quicker and easier than 5.4 down climbing.

The east face of the Incisor is a little more broken than the west.

We scrambled down the rest of the col, glissaded the snowfield, and slogged our way back through the moraine. When we reached camp, it felt good to quit moving. We’d been on the go for almost 11 hours.

Sunset in the Crazies.

The next day, we felt pretty tired. Scrambling up a ridge above the lake, we found a ledge that gave an excellent vantage of the eclipse. After it finished, we made the long hike back to the car. Our week of alpine climbing had just begun.

Our eclipse viewing ledge.
Heading back to the lake, during the tail end of the eclipse.

I’ll be writing a trip report for our next objective (the Upper Doublet, Beartooths), sometime soon.


Detailed Route Beta:


The Direct West Arete of the Incisor is a fun alpine rock climb that offers consistent difficulty on mostly solid rock. We found the route to be slightly shorter than the Select Alpine Climbs to Montana book would suggest (~850′ rather than 1,000′). There are many ledges on this climb, making it possible to split or join pitches however you see fit. Several variations are possible up the face, all of which are likely similar difficulty. I’ll describe the route we did, which may or may not match the guide book.

From the rounded toe of the main west arete of the Incisor, head slightly uphill to the left. The climb begins at the first corner with a finger crack in the back (starting about 10′ off the ground).

From the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead (GPS: 46.014250, -110.420559), hike past the gate and along the double track, crossing a car bridge. Further up, cross a stream (difficult in high runoff). Eventually, the road becomes a single track trail and switchbacks up a steep hillside. Next, it drops down and crosses Cottonwood Creek before winding up another hillside (look upstream if you can’t find the trail after crossing). The trail continues up through the canyon, through trees, and across Cottonwood Creek once again. A final steep section deposits you out at Cottonwood Lake. The Incisor and Dogtooth will be visible up canyon.

(Download a GPS track of the approach to the lake.)

There are several bivy sites at the lake, but please, do your best to be low impact as this area gets trashed.

From the lake, you can head up the moraine on either the north or south sides. We’ve done both ways, and I think the most efficient is to go on the mid-north end (following the lake shore till past the trees then straight up) and follow troughs through the moraine. It is steeper initially, but makes for less talus traversing (heading up on the far north end) and extra gain/loss (heading up on the south end).

Approach through the moraine.

From the car to the base of the climb took us 4:00, was about 6 miles (5.2 to lake, 0.8 to Incisor), and had ~3,500′ of gain.

We brought doubles from #3-0.75 C4’s, and overlapping sets of smaller cams (.5-.3 C4’s, 3-2 Mastercams, 2-00 C3’s). We also brought a #4 C4, and found it useful, although not strictly required. A set of nuts (including DMM alloy offsets), some quickdraws, and 10 shoulder length slings rounded out the rack. We never placed any nuts.


P1:  Climb the corner finger crack, pulling a few steep moves with good feet. Move up through broken terrain and ledges above, belaying at a good stance. (5.7, 150′)

P2:  Continue through broken terrain, linking intermittent cracks. We followed the path of least resistance for the next few pitches, which generally kept us about 20-40′ right of the ridge crest. Belay at a good ledge below a steeper, whiteish crack. (5.6, 150′)

P3: Go up the white crack, pulling a move of 5.7. Beware of knocking rocks on your belayer. Continue up through more intermittent cracks. Belay at a good stance. (5.7, 140′)

P4: From the belay, traverse up and right avoiding the main headwall. Belay below the massive corner system. (5.7, 100′)

P5: Head up and slightly right, pulling a few steep sections on jugs with good gear. Belay at a good ledge as the huge corner system becomes a massive chimney. (5.7, 150′)

P6: Continue up the chimney, climbing on large, blocky terrain. Eventually, it funnels down to a few options to exit on to the summit. We chose to go through the right hand option, which ended up being a bit of a squeeze with a backpack on, but was a lot of fun. (5.7, 160′)

From base to summit took us 3:50.

From the summit, scramble towards the col (climbers right) between the Incisor and the Dogtooth, dropping down to the southeast when it becomes possible. Continue traversing across broken terrain on the east face, making an occasional 4th class move. Once you reach the col, a block can be slung to make a short rappel down low 5th class terrain to reach the scree below. Scramble down the col and back through the talus. From summit to lake took us a little over 2 hours.

(Disclaimer: If you decide to use this beta, you take all responsibility. I’ve done my best to write this from memory, but I may have made mistakes. It is your job to exercise good judgment and not just follow blindly… 🙂

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