On a late Saturday evening in the beginning of September, Michelle Felix, Dwayne Parton, and I set out for a large Bitterrot objective: the North Face of North Trapper peak.
We left town around 6:30, hoping to drink a few seltzers and sight in our hunting rifles before we went to bed. But, we arrived late to the Trapper Creek trailhead and only had time to make some dinner, pack our gear in bags, and promptly go to bed.
We woke up Sunday morning at 4 a.m., long before the sun rose. We quickly made coffee and ate some breakfast, hoping not to lose much time as our objective would have taken many hours to complete. We imagined a solid 16 hours of moving, on trail, off trail, on rock.
So, fed and full of caffeine, Dwayne, Michelle and I started walking down the winding trail of South Trapper Creek, bags full of cams, food, and 2 liters of water each, and one light layer and a rain layer for each of us, figuring that in the late summer, with a forecasted temperature of 80 degrees in the nearest town of Darby, MT, this would be more than sufficient for a fast day in the alpine.
We wound down South Trapper Creek trail, a winding and generally unmaintained trail with large patches of deadfall and a faint path pushing through overgrown brambles. With no moonlight to illuminate our surroundings, it felt like we were blocked in by thick black walls, our headlamps bulldozing their way through the night to show us the way.
After losing the trail a number of times, right around sun-up we found our scree field and started walking to the start of our climb.
It took us 4.5 hours with roughly three miles of trail, one mile of bushwhacking, about half a mile of scree hopping, and roughly 3,600 feet of elevation gain to get to the start.
After getting to the beginning, Michelle, Dwayne and I debated how we wanted to start the climb. There were so many variations, each one splitter and with its own taste of adventure.
“If I delayed any longer we would've be in a dangerous position…”
I stood at the face of the rib, staring up a beautiful low angle slab while Dwayne and Michelle looked at a series of arching cracks further in one of the gullies. Majority won the day, especially after Michelle soloed up one of the crack systems and pronounced it "good climbing."
I tied in, Dwayne put me on belay and I started up. The first 100 feet felt great, and i only placed 2 pieces of gear. But my fingers quickly lost all sensation on the cold alpine rock and i came to my limit. I didn't put rock shoes on, instead opting for my approach shoes and the spot I stopped had a committing move roughly 10 feet above my last piece of gear.
After an hour-long inner struggle, I opted for Michelle to lower me a rope and finish the pitch on top rope. So much time was wasted that if I delayed any longer, we would've be in a dangerous position.
After arriving at the belay, we quickly brought up Dwayne and Michelle blasted off on the next pitch.
We continued this system for most of the day, with me only leading one pitch and Michelle the rest of the climb. Rockfall was plentiful is some places, with one piece the size of a head of cabbage and about 30 times its mass, fell directly at me. I bounced back and forth on a small ledge, unsure about where it would hit me exactly, anticipating the worst and trying to prevent Dwayne from getting hit. The rock ricocheted off some sand above me, slowing its pace, which allowed me to palm the block away from both Dwayne and me. My hand throbbed, but I was happy to be intact.
Then, with small struggles abound, we hit the final pitches of the route. The description says to go through a chimney with good rock, but we only found one full of dust and death blocks. But it matched the photos, so we said there must have been rock fall fairly recently, and Michelle continued up, fighting heroically through dirt and loose rock. We had no other choice, though, because we had committed to the path and to turn around would have sent us back down the route and leaving behind expensive gear and taking hours. So it was up we went.
Michelle fought through the dirt for hours, taking her time to be safe and trying her hardest to not kick down dirt and blocks on our heads. Though her efforts were grand, Dwayne and I managed to get some dust in our eyes, a small price to pay to not have to be in Michelle’s dusty shoes.
After fighting through the dirt, we came to the last pitch, and it matched the description and photos! We were on the right route and excited. We could feel the ending.
So, at 7:30 p.m. Michelle started what we thought was the last pitch of the climb.Dwayne and I quietly sat at what we thought to be the final belay, shivering and hoping Michelle would be able to reach the top before sun down.
I watched Michelle work her way through the crux pitch, moving expertly but with caution, the fear of last pitches loose rock still fresh in her mind. In the first 30 feet, Michelle stopped and turned to me and asked, "are you guys in a safe spot? I'm at a huge death block." She shook a big flake, making its hollow sound ring out so we could hear.
I looked at Dwayne moved under a small roof and into a small cave, far from the lip and definitely in a safe spot and gave her the go ahead after getting a nod from Dwayne. "It's a huge spear!" Michelle called out. "Okay, one, two, three... ROOOCK!"
We watched a guillotine-esque rock fly by, listening to it crash a thousand feet beneath us and listened to it bring down small chunks of rock with it.
"It just keeps going," Dwayne said as he smiled, taking little joys out of the current cold misery we were in. I stepped back to a spot where I could watch Michelle and feed info to Dwayne as he fed her rope.
Michelle stopped for just a moment at the crux, a small but bomb proof crack with little to not feet and some mandatory stemming in a left leaning crack, starting at small fingers leading the big hands, or fists for Michelle, then back to huge jugs and fun and interesting granite, much the same color as the mud we grovelled through in the chimney.
She moved out of my sight, and the sunset moved into my mind. Anxiety and stress replaced fatigue; I started thinking about what we were going to have to do to get off the mountain in the dark. "So, the walk off is described as a fourth-class scramble," I said to Dwayne. "But there is supposed to be a third-class walk off. But, it would add at least another 10 miles to our walk off. I think we should do the hike instead of the scramble, I just don't feel comfortable with fourth-class in the dark. What do you think?"
"Yeah, I don't want to scramble off in the dark either," Dwayne said. "Let's take the long route. Maybe I can find someone to pick us up."
"Sounds good," I said.
Back to silence. We waited patiently, watching the sun crawl closer to the horizon. Our legs began to shake with cold. We listened to Michelle climb higher, out of sight but hearing her occasional grunt and her gear clink lightly against the hard, cold granite. The cheery sound seemed out of place.
I shivered. “Were we even going to be able to walk out?” I thought, keeping my ideas silent. “I really don't want to shiver bivy.” 45 minutes passed, Michelle still slowly working her way up. I looked down at the rope and saw only 50 feet remaining. I called out to Michelle, “Michelle! You have 50 feet left!”
“Okay!” she replied. the rope drag is horrendous anyway!”
Another 15 minutes passed and then our ropes started moving up faster, a clear indication she found her belay. I looked at Dwane and said,”you go first.”
He nodded. “Up on pink!” Dwayne yelled, indicating Michelle to start pulling up the pink rope he was attached to. Dwayne started climbing, his large orange pack sticking out through the twilight. The sun dipped below the horizon just five minutes prior, making our headlamps a necessary tool. “This is hard,” Dwayne said, exhausted and dragging. I could see each move was sapping exponentially more energy than the last. “I've never done anything like this.”
Despite his fatigue, Dwayne moved through the moves, looking smooth and collected. Then he came to the roof crux and his demeanor changed.
His legs started shaking as he pulled on gear. His grunts got louder and eventually turned to shouts. He began flailing, falling and spinning against the rock, his large pack scraping the clean granite. I could see how hard it was for him to put himself in such a tight corner with such a large pack and his large legs. “Dwayne, you gotta calm down,” I said, nervously hoping he would just take a break and breathe. “Otherwise this is going to be a lot harder. Just breathe.”
“I know,” he replied. “I've just never done anything like this before. I'm going to take a break."
“My rope didn't move.
I shouted again, “Michelle! Up on RAINBOW!”
“I know!” she shouted back, frustration peaking in her voice.”
I saw this as my opportunity to start climbing, hoping we could cut our time down and get to the summit faster. Dwayne was at the crux, giving me about 30 feet of space beneath him, more than enough to keep my distance and keep pressure off him. “Up on rainbow!” I shouted to Michelle.
My rope didn't move.
I shouted again, “Michelle! Up on RAINBOW!”
“I know!” she shouted back, frustration peaking in her voice.
I paused, deciding not to try again. I didn't want to escalate the situation. I knew we were all at our wits’ end, exhausted and fearing the dark and what was to come next. “Up on pink!” Dwayne shouted.
Both our ropes moved up.
Dwayne started pulling hard on gear and moved through the roof and out of my sight. I kept moving through the moves and started having fun. The jams were great and the moves fun through the slightly closed corner. I reminded myself that if the moves get hard, don't be ashamed to pull on gear. It was about time now, not style.
I kept moving, my pace picking up as I enjoyed each move more than the last. It felt good to just move. I kept looking over my shoulder into the black, knowing the 1,200 feet of space existed just out of reach but ever present. It felt good, despite my exhaustion.
I moved through the crux with a combination of climbing and pulling on gear. The dark kept pressing down and I did my best to keep moving.
The climbing was fun as it transitioned from crack to big holds on a face. I moved faster, up and up into the black. I noticed how the rope disappeared past my headlamps glow. It felt eerie, making the unknown seem heavier.
I shook the thought from my mind, trying to replace negative thoughts with positives. I felt that staying positive was the way to get through this experience safely.
I pulled around a corner into another wide chimney. I followed Michelle's gear up and past this slot to another. Michelle and Dwayne greeted me from behind a big block, out of sight but close enough to feel their excitement.
I looked up to the block and saw overhanging moves up and left to a piece of gear. The easier moves were right but I needed to retrieve her stopper.
I sighed and said some sarcastic thanks to Michelle, knowing full well that she made the moves that she needed but I felt frustrated at the energy I had to expend to retrieve it.
I pulled up and found big holds, moved past the gear and stopped at a good position. I turned to the piece, asked for slack, and started yanking at the stopper. “Get, the, fuck, out, you, stupid, piece, of, shit!” I screamed. My anger and fear started to get the best of me. The positive thoughts I tried to cultivate were pushed out when I pulled the block. Anger filled their void and I realized what I had just done.
I stopped, took a breath and rested my head on the rock. “You guys just saw a side of me I don't like people to see,” I said. “I'm sorry.”
Michelle and Dwayne laughed, letting me know that those emotions I felt were heavy on them as well. We all shared a moment.
“Don’t worry about that nut,” Michelle said. “That nut is the last thing on my mind. You can leave that. I don't need it. We got Cole's nut, anyway, so just leave it.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled up to the belay. Dwayne was turned away, sloping over and talking to us with his back turned.
I asked them about whether they talked about the walk off. They said they had and that they made a decision. “What's that?” I asked.
“We're going to bivy on top,” Michelle replied.
My gut sank. I felt that option was going to be put out there and the idea of shivering the night away didn't make me feel great.
But majority rules and they truly did make the safest decision.
So, with the decision made, Michelle remade our belay and shot off on the next pitch. Dwayne belayed her, throwing rope through his device as Michelle ran up into the black. “I hope this means this pitch is easy,” Dwayne said, laughing a bit through the fear.
After a long pause in the rope, Dwayne’s rope started moving quicker, an indication Michelle reached the belay. We shouted but heard no response.
After Dwayne's rope went taught, mine started shooting into the dark at the same pace as his. Most definitely and indication she reached the belay.
I looked at Dwayne and asked if he wanted to go first and he said yes.
Two minutes after he started, I started moving up also. I caught up to him and we traversed right on a small ledge with pure black on our right, the face that dropped northwest into a cirque 1,000 feet below.
We moved around the corner and Michelle was waiting for us on top of a ledge, 10 feet up. Dwayne finished the pitch and I followed. We made it to the summit.
Our time on the mountain wasn't close to over.
We pushed and pulled every inch of ourselves against each other, trying to conserve as much heat as we could. The shivers never left us.
We got to work moving rocks to sleep on. Dwayne and Michelle did most of the work adjusting rocks to make the bed we were going to sleep on. I sat and stared, slowly untying myself and pulling the ropes to our spot. I moved a few rocks into place, but used my time to adjust bags and ropes.
With all our gear settled, we sat on our tiny bed, a bumpy spot about 4 feet wide where our shoulders and heads would go and slightly wider at our feet.
Our shoulders went between two rocks that slanted down and in toward us, give our spot a tight feel and preventing us from going anywhere.
We quickly ate a little food to give us something to burn while we shivered through the night then layed down. Dwayne on the right, me on the left, and Michelle sandwiched between us.
We pushed and pulled every inch of ourselves against each other, trying to conserve as much heat as we could. The shivers never left us.
Every hour someone would speak up and ask, “Time to switch?” Then we all rotated to the other shoulder, giving our muscles on both sides of our bodies time to rest.
After each switch, we would begin to violently shiver. Our warmth was sustained on the sides that touched the rock and the person next to us, so every turn lost an enormous amount of heat, throwing our equilibrium off for a few minutes. We began to joke about our shivers each time we switched, dreading the oncoming cold but trying our best to stay positive. The whole experience, miserable as it was, slowly became a joke. Our anxiety, fear, and anger was replaced with delirium or maybe it was genuine happiness.
Whatever the case, everyone stayed strong. There was never a moment of sadness, regret, or a blow up of frustration. Through the shiver bivy, we persevered, laughing away the agony.
There were many moments throughout the night that I peered up at the stars above us. We were surrounded by jagged peaks and rocky ridgelines; the wind was soft and the air smelled of granite, lichen, and pine. I watched the Milky Way turn from its east/west trajectory to a north/south one every time I woke up to a new onset of shivers.
I took notice of the black outlines of peaks and took in their massiveness, appreciating them as a whole and not just a series of granite ridges, spines, and boulders. I breathed in the alpine air, appreciating my time there on the summit despite the frigid temps. I pushed the thoughts of my warm bed and hot coffee away, instead bringing my head to the place I was. I felt the warmth of Michelle against my back and heard Dwayne's shivering breath. I felt the lady bugs crawl over me, searching for food and each other. I felt the rock poke my arms and appreciated my life.
I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
We woke up at 6:20 to the light growing ever brighter. We decided that it was time to get up and move our rickety joints and try to get going.
We packed our gear, ate some food, took a pee and started across the thin ridgeline of North Trapper Peak down to the descent gully.
The rock was loose in many places and snow filled the down climb. We found an obvious path through, allowing one person to go at a time in the beginning to avoid serious injury from rocks we kicked down.
The descent was long and arduous. Our bodies sagged from fatigue and our minds were worn. Each step down felt agonizing. Food didn't taste good and we had been long without water. But we kept trudging down, through thousands of feet of loose boulders and rock, rappelling over large slabs of water-polished granite. We traversed loose dirt, stepped over thick downed trees and pushed our way through brambles and brush, down, down, down to our trail.
5,000 feet of hiking down and 7 hours later, we arrived back at our car, exhausted and barely able to walk another step.
I brought up the rear, trailing behind the speedy ones roughly 10 minutes. I was in my head most of the trail hike, repeating song lyrics and begging the world to let the trailhead be just around the next bend. It was the longest 2.5 miles I have ever walked.
But the day ended well, with a single beer and a huge burger. Our attitudes quickly turned around and the conversation picked up as we drove a long 45 miles back to Missoula.
By the end, Dwayne, Michelle and I all had smiles and realized we just had an experience together. And with their camaraderie, their shared warmth and shared pain, I remember this time somewhat fondly.
Those stars burn bright in my minds eye and the feeling of friends sits deep in my chest. I look forward to my next adventure.