The Vertical Life

By Matt Sterbenz, FOW

Settling into my Super 8 in Kremmling, CO in January of this year, I received a call from Montana-based FOW Joey Weamer about a recent avalanche course he had completed with the Beartooth Powder Guides and that he was excited about getting a crew together for one of their 4-day mountaineering courses held in Cooke City in April. It's worth sharing that this time, Pep and I were traveling across early season continental snowpack in support of the evo Roost event series, still bushwhacking at trail heads to gain some shaded alpine terrain amidst a widespread persistent weak layer. Without hesitation, I committed and my calendar immediately felt more complete. After all, ropes weren’t a tool I typically relied on. This would be the ideal introduction to mountaineering, and a great way to visit Cooke for the first time. 

A friendly intro to the local terrain? Absaroka-Beartooth Range, MT. Skiers: Sam Hennessey and Zach Peterson // Photo: Matt Sterbenz (@mattsterbenz)

Gearing up for the trip was also part of the string of firsts this trip would deliver. I had a sport climbing harness, an ice axe that was left over from a glacier traverse, and some crampons. I reached out to FOW Harrison Brickman and he lent me the basics I needed to fully embrace what was to become my intro to The Vertical Life. 

Cooke is the self-proclaimed “Coolest small town in America” uniquely located on HWY 212 at the state line of Wyoming and Montana, just NE of the Yellowstone National Park entrance. In the winter, Cooke is the end of the road, leaving the pass snow covered and only accessible by snow machine. This sets up for a very intimate and quaint vibe. Upon arrival, we met BMG’s Sam Hennessey and Zach Peterson, and joined up with Montana natives Tyler “Shep” Miller and Shay Lee. The weather pattern was stable, and the snowpack was bomber. A destructive wind event had ripped through the area the week prior, setting up for firm wind press conditions, coupled with warming from high pressure. We knew we’d be hunting for couloirs in the high, shaded north aspects. 

With rising temps and lots of wind affected snow leftover from the week before, we spent most of our time seeking out sheltered northerly aspects. Absaroka-Beartooth Range, MT. Photo: Matt Sterbenz (@mattsterbenz) 

Each day we would double-out on snow machines to the wilderness boundary to begin our ascent. With the exception of the first day of orientation and rope course work, over three consecutive days we’d ski tour between 10-15km throughout wilderness terrain between 2500 and 3500m in elevation. The snow quality was mixed - often we’d travel through sastrugi to ridgetops and descend through chalk and loose dry. Our typical ski descent would hover around 40 degrees with ridge top entrances over 50 degrees, and often on rappel.

Shep lets 'er rip. Absaroka-Beartooth Range, MT. FOW: Tyler "Shep" Miller // Photo: Matt Sterbenz (@mattsterbenz)

Over these three days, I was surprised at how confident I became with rope assisted ski techniques. I was also surprised at how gripped I was at the top of some of the couloirs. I had to mentally remind myself that this was a natural progression, that uncertainty and discomfort are sensations that come with doing new things, and that I had done the work to become proficient enough to take this next step. Interesting how the mind can force doubt when physically, the best thing to do is just turn it off and let ‘er rip. 

- Matt Sterbenz, FOW