On Independence Day, Sarah and I decided to try Sacred Hunting Grounds, a climb up the Red Cloud wall of the Bridger Mountains. It’s close to home, allowing a fairly casual day trip. On the drive out, we were in lots holiday traffic, and we wondered if there would be any parking left at the trail head. When we arrived at Lower South Fork Brackett Creek Trailhead, however, we found it empty. Have to love Montana! 🙂
The day was already hot when we started hiking. We covered the 2.5 miles with 1700′ of gain to the base of the climb in about 2:15, mainly due to steep, loose scree guarding the last 1/4 mile of the approach. The rest of the hike is very mellow and pleasant. (I’ve included detailed approach directions below.)
When we finally reached the climb, Sarah and I debated whether we should go for it or not. We had started late and it was already 1PM. Once we did the climb and the hundreds of feet of loose scree the descent was supposed to require, we would be pushing into the evening. While this, in and of itself, isn’t the worst thing, it wasn’t what we had originally planned. It made us reevaluate. Sarah’s knees were also acting up, one from a chronic condition, the other still recovering from a slight injury during the Bangtail Divide 38K Race.
We have an agreement when we go on alpine or multi-pitch climbs: If one of us doesn’t feel things are “right,” that person can call off the climb. It can be for any reason, at any time (assuming retreat is possible). The other person is not allowed to be resentful.
Neither of us invokes this agreement often, and only when we really have to. It keeps us safe (sometimes mentally, sometimes physically), and helps us not feel trapped. I also think it makes our partnership better, and since we’ve both had to do it before, we are empathetic of how the other person feels. Some days, things just aren’t right, for whatever reason, and you need a killswitch to deal with that.
As I looked up at Sacred Hunting Grounds, something felt off. All the prior factors conspired to elevate my stress level and make me not want to go climbing. Sarah and I talked for awhile, and she said she was willing to go up or head back to the car. It was my choice. In the past, my inclination would have been just to call it off, but I’ve been trying to push myself more lately, so I decided to try. The bottom of the first pitch didn’t look very well protected and the rock quality appeared questionable.
“I’ll give it a shot,” I told Sarah, “and if I don’t like it, I can just down climb. Who knows, maybe it is better than it looks.” She agreed. As I racked up, I kept wondering if I was making a bad decision. Don’t know until you go, I thought.
I place a lot of trust in my skills, especially in my down climbing ability. It is something I’ve invested a lot of time training, believing it can get me out of dangerous situations or prevent me from going there in the first place. This time, I told myself, you may have to utilize that skill.
When I started up the route, it quickly became apparent that I was right to be nervous. Sacred Hunting Grounds is a traditionally protected route, meaning you place all your own gear. And it’s limestone, which, for me at least, makes judging the quality of the protection more difficult than either granite, sandstone, or their variants. I’ve climbed a few limestone trad routes, but I don’t feel I have reliable experience. I’ve never fallen on gear in limestone, for example, which I think degrades my confidence.
I climbed my way higher up the route, placing a few solid(?) pieces. I pulled a hard move over a small bulge, and then scraped out a dirty, wavy crack so I could place a small cam. Each piece and move upward, I contemplated if I should continue. The route seemed well protected so far, and I was getting decent gear every body length or so. Some of the rock quality was questionable, however, and I’d already intentionally kicked off a few loose blocks. Thankfully, Sarah was belaying well out of the line of fire.
I spouted a running commentary about the rock, the gear, and my mental state as I went. Sarah encouraged me, to continue if I wanted, or to back off if I didn’t. I always appreciate her confidence in my decision making in these situations. It inspires solidity in my head space.
Looking above me, I couldn’t see any more gear placements for quite some time. The few cracks and other weaknesses that might accept gear didn’t look confidence inspiring. Might be something out of sight. This has happened on many occasions, so I began climbing above the small cam in the mungy crack.
The moves were difficult, not fall zone, red line difficult, but rather thoughtful and insecure. Some of the holds I had to pull on didn’t seem completely solid either.
When the last piece of gear was below my feet, I made another reevaluation. Opportunities for solid gear still appeared scarce, and the climbing itself looked like it was about to get harder. A thousand calculations went through my mind as I contemplated. I had told myself I would give the route a try, and I had. None of the earlier reasons not to continue had gone away: it was still late in the day, Sarah’s knees were still hurting, the route was a little loose, the gear a little sparse, and climbing a bit scary. I decided to come down.
I began reversing moves, staying focused. When I finally reached our exposed belay perch, I started beating myself up. Why didn’t you go for it? The climbing wasn’t even hard. You could have done it.
As we packed up and began the hike out, Sarah and I talked, and I started to feel better. Some days, the factors just aren’t right. When my stress level is too high, I can’t engage well with scary climbing. Some days, I’m really on point and can do hard moves above shaky gear without a second thought. Independence Day on Sacred Hunting Grounds wasn’t one of those times. None of the individual reasons were enough to back off, as we’ve dealt with those things before and had great days. This time, though, things weren’t right, and I listened to my gut and logic and deciding backing off was the best option.
It is very likely I could have done the moves without falling, and we would have gone up and been back to the car with plenty of time. But the reverse is also true. And even if I had made it up, there is something about doing climbs in a good style that really matters to Sarah and I. For me, style also means mental state. I don’t want to just scrape by. I want to be confident (at least most of the time) and solid when I’m climbing alpine routes. That doesn’t mean I don’t have fear, it just means I have a good dialog with it, that it enhances instead of degrading me.
Will we go back for Sacred Hunting Grounds or any of the other routes on Red Cloud Wall? I hope so. As I said earlier, limestone gear routes aren’t my strength, but that is something I would like to change. I don’t like limitations. I think the climb is well within our abilities, so hopefully we’ll get motivated to get on it again. It is definitely nice to have a climb of that length with such a short approach and drive time.
For now, I’m sure I’ll keep analyzing my decision making process. Being in the mountains requires constantly learning and evaluation. Often we learn more from our failures than our successes. Hopefully this is one of those times.
Technical details for approaching Red Cloud Wall:
We utilized Select Alpine Climbs to Montana for this route, which offers pitch by pitch beta for a few climbs on Red Cloud Wall. While I can’t outline information for the route, I can offer more detailed approach beta.
Red Cloud Wall is located in the drainage just north of Bridger Bowl Ski Area and south of Ross Pass, on the east side of the Bridger Mountains.
Heading north on MT-86, pass Bridger Bowl. Just before the road crosses Brackett Creek, you’ll reach an intersection with a brown sign pointing left for “L. FK. BRACKETT CR.” Turn left onto this dirt road. Drive for about 1.6 miles till you see a lot on the left. Park here, which is Lower South Fork Brackett Creek Trailhead (GPS: 45.845611, -110.902154). Take the signed trail at the back of the lot by the trailhead sign.
This goes through the woods a short distance before popping back up on a closed road. Follow this until a brown “Trail” sign points right, uphill, onto some single track. This section winds up through woods and meadows, giving great views of Bridger Bowl. Eventually, the trail will drop slightly into a drainage and you’ll come to a crossing of some bit of Brackett creek. Instead of crossing, however, turn to your right (west) and begin heading uphill through the vast meadow. There is an intermittent trail the rest of the way, which isn’t hard to find. Keep heading up along the right hand margin of the drainage, never getting too close or too far from the creek.
After about 90 minutes of total hiking, you’ll come to the bowl below Red Cloud Wall. Scout the approach to your intended climb from here, because once you drop down, you won’t be able to see it. We headed down, through a small break in the trees near the middle of the clearing, and then directly up the scree field to the right of a small rock tower. This provided fairly direct access, but the scree field is steep and loose. On the way back, we came down on the climbers far left, which, if you came up it, would offer a more gentle, but equally loose scree slope. There is an easy ledge to traverse over to the climb on this path once you get high enough, which is a plus. Unfortunately, going this way necessitates more scree traversing and bush whacking in the trees than the right hand approach.
Our total time was 2:15 to the base of the climb. That was at a leisurely, conversational pace, with probably 30-45 minutes of that getting up the scree field. Trekking poles would be extremely helpful, and we’ll bring them next time.
Distance: 2.5 miles with 1700′ of gain to reach the climb.
GPS Location for start of Sacred Hunting Grounds: (45°50’4.67″N, 110°56’9.94″W).
Download a GPS Track of the approach.