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Locals Triumph on Bear’s Tooth in Winter

Bear’s Tooth, Beartooth Mountains, Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana, as viewed from the east. Bozeman climbers Rusty Willis and Loren Rausch summited the spire on March 16, possibly making the formation’s first calendar-winter ascent. To avoid avalanche-prone slopes, visible directly below the spire, the pair climbed an additional 10 pitches along the skyline ridge. [Photo] Rusty Willis

On March 16, Rusty Willis and Loren Rausch summited Bear’s Tooth (11,612′), the prominent spire that gives name to Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. The pair skied a total of 22 miles and climbed 15 pitches up to 5.8 and M5 in a 27-hour push–just days before the spring equinox–to complete what may be the spire’s first calendar-winter ascent.

No stranger to the peak in snowy conditions, Willis had tried to climb Bear’s Tooth in winter 14 times prior over the last decade with various partners. Making an attempt on the spire became a “yearly pilgrimage,” he said, that involved one or two nights camping and about 60 pounds of gear. In the past, Willis and his partners attempted the spire via snow slabs above Grasshopper Glacier, south of Bear’s Tooth. Though a popular fourth-class summer approach, the slabs present significant avalanche danger when covered in snow.

Willis, Rausch, and climbing partner Stan Price experienced this firsthand during a 2009 attempt when they were swept off the cliff by a slide. Price quickly arrested, but Willis and Rausch were carried more than 800 feet and deposited at the base of the climb. They walked away with minor injuries.

This winter, Willis and Rausch decided to go fast and light, reducing their pack weight by half. And three weeks before, they had scouted a new approach that would avoid the avalanche-prone slabs. On March 16, they approached from the southeast via Black Canyon to access what they believe to be an unclimbed buttress of Beartooth Mountain. Though this approach added 10 pitches up to M5 and seven hours of climbing, Willis said, it greatly reduced exposure to avalanche. Once they reached the base of Bear’s Tooth itself, Willis and Rausch climbed the established east ridge (5.8, 5 pitches). They reached the summit at 5:30 p.m., 16 hours after leaving the trailhead.

Willis on Pitch 13 during a winter ascent of Bear’s Tooth. [Photo] Loren Rausch

Bozeman climbing aficionado Joe Josephson told the Billings Gazette that the climb is “as difficult a winter ascent in the Beartooths as there is. It requires a combination of skill, luck and tenacity. The last time anyone had done anything like that was Alex Lowe, so it’s on a par with that.”

“I put 10 years of my life into trying to climb that spire in the winter,” Willis added. “And it finally allowed me to stand on top for a few moments, and that was good enough.”

According to the summit register and to the best knowledge of area climbers, the Bear’s Tooth had never seen a calendar-winter ascent.

Sources: Rusty Willis,