by Ron Brunckhorst

California Ice of the Beartooth Mountains is a “real” Montana waterfall climb that will leave a lasting impression on any ice climber who takes a glimpse of it.  The climb’s river of ice cascades from the edge of the 10,000 foot East Rosebud Plateau,  culminating in a 400′ leap into space before entering the depths of the East Rosebud Canyon 2,000′ below.  The impressionist falls, nestled amongst the chiseled towers and arêtes below the plateau’s rim, sparks the imagination and a since of adventure is born before the climb is began.  It was such an adventure on this particular day in December 1992 that Dwight Bishop and I had our heads down trying to make up some time trudging up the low angled, stepped ice of the creek that we hoped led to the waterfalls.  Neither one of us had been there before, and the visibility was less than a hundred yards at times making for a gloomy and repulsive day.

I had heard stories and even seen a couple photos of this legendary six-pitch waterfall that boosted of an immense headwall essentially one and half football fields stood on end.  We were however, concerned with the idea of being one gully off route, but the ice of the creek kept us groping upwards, wondering what lay around the next bend.  Finally, 1,500′ later, a hole opened in the cloud cover letting the sun come burning through.  For a brief moment the swirling mist sank below us revealing the stark beauty of a Titanic sized chunk of ice.  I wobbled and struggled to maintain my balance as I craned my neck back trying to get the true dimensions of the height, width, and steepness of the falls.  The pictures I had seen didn’t prepare me for what I was seeing.  However, Dwight didn’t seem daunted and after a brief moment, he lowered his head, charged full tilt for the ice, and soloed a WI3 bulge below the headwall as a warm up.  My confidence teetered like my balance and I opted to bypass the lower ice and save my strength for what looked like the most unforgiving wall of ice I had ever seen.  The crimp in my neck that morning remained all day while spindrift slither over and around us.  It was alpine indeed, and even though Dwight raced up the first pitch placing no gear at all, he too would be humbled later that afternoon.  We survived the climb and did it in a long 18-hour marathon from Bozeman, a three and a half hour drive away.  For a couple of years this experience lurked among the places that some day I’d return to, maybe by myself.  For me, soloing had always seemed like the purest form of climbing.  I prepared mentally by soloing some less committing new routes until I felt I was ready.  Now it was time to go back to California Ice.

My first two attempts at going back to this Titan ended on the notoriously slick and windy I-90 between Livingston and Big Timber.  The second try was memorable with a broken fan belt near Big Timber at 5:30 AM that lit the dash lights of the little Subaru like a Christmas tree.  At first, the attempts seemed like bad omens, and if it weren’t for the sheer determination and motivation that had initially been acquired from years of distance running in High School and College, it would have ended with car problems.  There were also great concerns from friends.  So now, four years later, I was headed back, confident that if I could get there, a “dream climb would follow”.  I hoped that the humbling experience felt four years earlier would be a guiding hand between balancing fear and confidence.

The January pre-dawn drive went well considering the last time, and I had three and a half hours to rethink the rational reasoning behind the solo.  I was wired and ready to fire up the trailhead of the East Rosebud, which was the jumping off point for the climb.  The approach gully rushed beneath my boots as I swallowed up 2,000 feet of firm snow.  As the crampons and ice tools came off the pack, my eyes floated high overhead realizing once again just how steep the first three pitches of the headwall were, 80 degrees with much steeper sections!  I have to admit that at this point I was so intimidated that the thought of going home became quite comfortable, but being slightly neurotic, I pushed myself through a thirty minute psyching-up session that led me to believe that I was just going up to check the ice out, I could always bail since I’d be dragging a rope behind me.  I did just that when I discovered that my right crampon was askew!  I just plain don’t believe in bad omens though and launched back up California Ice.

The ice was squeaky cold, brittle and scary.  Then there were dinner plates bigger than any I’d remembered before that sometimes left me with a hole to deep too be used for my tools!  The climbing was delicate yet forceful.  Miles of class 4 ice led me weaving through grooves, over big bulges and around pillars in a silent world of blue and green ice laced with sparkling crystals of the cold morning.  Eventually I reached the promise land – wet ice in the long yellow pee stains seeping from above the headwall.  Totally focused and only concerned about the next stick, I stemmed the vertical groove of the finial pitch of the headwall, WI 4+.  For the first time in an hour I felt physical pain as I hunched over my tools with flaming fingers.  Birds darted about concerned of my presence.  My senses seemed amplified.  After long moments warm blood pulsed freely to my fingers.  All that remained was fun rolling WI 2-3 weeping from the edge of the naked East Rosebud Plateau.  All too soon the sloping edge of the plateau was reached, and I knew that this experience was what I’d been looking for, but it was too early to celebrate.  Getting down was the ultimate goal.  Two-half rope rappels down a rib bordering the upper right side of the climb got me back to the top of the headwall and a right-angling ramp system lead to a short rappel depositing me into  the neighboring descent gully.  I was apprehensive about the snow in this gully, because Dwight and I had a close call there four years earlier when the slope settled, but it proved to be stable this time.  A quick glissade led back to the base of the falls then to the trail and car.  Thirteen hours after leaving Bozeman I was back trying to hold on to my dream day.  California Ice had been kind to me on its first solo.

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