by Geoff Heath

When you take the road from Virginia City over the Gravelly Range to Ennis and you stop to admire the view of the Madison Valley and the mountains beyond, a climbers eye cannot help but be drawn to the north face of the Sphinx. The face is broad, bowl shaped, horizontally banded, and very steep and compact at the top. If you happen to be scoping this face in early winter, you may notice a line of snow and ice splitting the top center of the wall.

For five years, I hiked up a 2,000′ ridge in the Gallatin Canyon almost daily. From the top of this ridge is a splendid view of the north face of the Sphinx. Climbing it was often in my mind. I knew Alex and Jenny Lowe had climbed it via a very rugged route some years back and that access and conditions would most likely dictate an early season attempt.

November after November rolled by and I never quite got it together to try the face. However, I also never heard of anyone else going for it. For me, this might well be the case if it weren’t for my friend Dougal McCarty. Dougal is a man of large appetites, not the least of which is for adventurous ice climbs and this face had attracted his attention and focus in a big way.

Dougal called on Thursday evening just as I was getting back from a week of working away from home. My family was wanting attention and I was looking forward to a weekend of decompressing and enjoying there company. I declined his invitation to climb the face. Dougal was pretty put off by this and didn’t hang out to chitchat. Knowing Dougal though I was quite sure he would have little trouble rounding up someone to go up with him.

By Saturday afternoon, I was getting a bit restless and started to feel as though I had missed out on a big opportunity. I was surprised to get a call from Dougal that evening. It turned out that he had arranged to climb that day with another friend but this person had backed out at the last minute so he was asking me to reconsider for Sunday. The climb was on! He also had news of a couple of locals that had climbed it that very day. They described it as a worthwhile adventure.

Dougal picked me up at my house a little before 3 A.M. By 4:30, we were on the trail. As we trudged uphill, the snow slowly got deeper and when we reached the Helmet/Sphinx saddle, it was cold and wintery. We made our way along the base of the face until we spotted tracks leading up to the rock band. It had been windy during the night and this was practically the only sign we ever saw of the previous day’s ascent until we reached the summit snowfield. Way above us and off to the left we spotted a narrow dagger of ice on the headwall. With this as our beacon, we began wending our way up.

Most of our climb involved short pitches of rock followed by traverses along steep snow bands to the easiest looking way through the next rock barrier. The snow was loose powder, difficult for getting around in. I recall that making transitions from steep rock onto the powder-covered ledges was not always easy. Having climbed on other mountains with the same-banded appearance, I had feared this climb too would be a choss pull. The big surprise was that the rock turned out to be of fairly good quality conglomerate.

By early afternoon, we reached the ice. Dougal drove a piton and set up a belay. At this point most of the wall is below and the bowl shape of the face enhances a spectacular situation. Above, the ice was steep and thin, later we heard that one of the climbers from the day before had broken a pick here. We climbers two long pitches to a narrow cleft, which led to the summit snowfield. We were borne out of the shadows and into the light of a dazzling afternoon. Far off to the north I could make out the top of that Gallatin Canyon ridge from were I had so often studied the wall we had just climbed. We were interested to note fresh Elk tracks near the summit. We dawdled just a little to eat and laugh; we reached the car at 4:30 and thus ended a fine day of mountaineering.


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