Perseverance on the Sphinx

Mark getting into the Lowe Route

Mark getting into the Lowe Route


Oh, alpine climbing. As with most things that are worth achieving in life, they often require a bit of hard work and perseverance. In this case, between a climbing partner and myself we collectively totaled over 60 miles of walking our ice tools around this fall in unsuccessful attempts to snag the Lowe Direct on the north face of Sphinx Mountain (10876’/3315m) here in the Northern Madison. And this doesn’t count last year’s attempts. Some could think that this was born of gross oversight or ill-preparedness but the main component of our story is timing. They say it is of the essence.
Myself on the upper traverse in October 2013

Myself on the upper traverse in October 2013


Fickle early season melt-freeze conditions that are precluded by a storm are the main part of this equation. Too much snow, and the approach becomes impassable due to loading. Too little, and the climbs don’t form. Climbers have been avalanched off of this face, so conditions are nothing to be taken lightly. The country is also prime elk hunting country and thick with grizzlies, which adds another twist to the five mile approach. On our last attempt, we finally saw a grizzly (running away from us below the north face) as opposed to just huge tracks on the trail. Better there than in the first mile or so of ‘bone-alley’, a narrow canyon corridor often adorned with fresh bones where a bear encounter would likely be less fun.
Bone Alley - Late Oct '13

Bone Alley – Late Oct ’13


This last weekend yielded a successful romp on the Lowe Route, with the Direct not being in. Although we gave it another look, the bottom pitches weren’t formed and we didn’t feel up to that sort of adventure climbing so we once again retreated from the base of the Sphinx’s north face. This time, though, the upper pitches looked to be mostly in and we rallied back to the Helmet/Sphinx saddle and up to the traverse into the upper routes. The Earl-Trimble had plentiful ice, with a party on it and everything but the dagger WI5 pitch of the Lowe was formed.
On route

On route


Despite not getting the classic pillar, by this time I was ok with it and happy to be finally swinging tools on some ice. We were two of over a dozen folks seen on the face that day and were lucky to have climbed, as at least one party was turned away. I can relate from waiting last year on that face while multiple parties queued up for perfect October conditions. A bit later and a bit thinner this year, but climbable all the same.
Topping out on the Lowe (p: McAlpine)

Topping out on the Lowe (p: McAlpine)


Mark approaching the Sphinx summit accompanied by lenticular

Mark approaching the Sphinx summit accompanied by lenticular


As I sit here with a lingering sense of accomplishment and an eye/ear towards the next, temperatures have dropped over 50 degrees F from a high of 62°, to one of single digits over the last few days. I just snuck in my first powder turns of the season and look forward to the coming of winter. Our amazing Montana autumn has finally come to an unofficial close and its now time to sharpen tools, wax skis, and pray for snow. Last season was one for the books; let us sneak in another…
Tetons (far) and S.Madison (near) from the top

Tetons (far) and S.Madison (near) from the top


Self-timer on the summit of the Sphinx. Happy climbers

Self-timer on the summit of the Sphinx. Happy climbers

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