Scrambling After a Reminder: Climbing Mount Chisholm

People often go to the mountains because they need something—solitude, maybe, or adventure. For me, on that particular spring weekend, I needed a reminder.

That’s why I rolled out the topos and started looking for a mountain to climb. A few names instantly popped out at me. Montana’s Bloody Dick Peak was a compelling choice, but the route sounded painful. Washington’s Whiskey Dick Mountain received consideration, but I doubted it would offer the stiff challenge I was looking for. In the end, I knew it when I saw it—Mount Chisholm, a 10,000-ft peak near Bozeman that bore my name. If there was any place that could help me remember, that was it.

When I pulled up to the trailhead in Hyalite Canyon, I was faced with my first setback. I knew the road up Hyalite was temporarily closed to cars, but a Forest Service rep I’d spoken with had assured me it would be snow-covered. Instead, I was staring dumbly at black asphalt with a pair of skis on my shoulder. I felt like I had just walked into a Halloween party in full costume, only to discover everybody else wearing normal clothes. Bicyclists rode by, smug smiles pasted on their faces. I wondered what would happen to them if I stuck a ski in their spokes as they sped past. The visualization made me smile.

Photos of pancakes in skillet on top of wood burning stove.
Pancakes on the wood stove at Maxey Cabin. // Photo: Paul Chisholm

I was disappointed by the lack of snow, though not defeated. I had hoped to cover much of the approach on ski, but I could still walk it nearly as fast. 9 miles by boot and another 8 by snowshoe brought me to my campsite beside Heather Lake in the shadow of Mount Chisholm.

I went to bed, and a storm blew in. Wind shrieked down the canyon and blasted my shelter like a sledgehammer. Sleep was impossible. The deadman anchors keeping my tent from taking flight kept popping loose in the soft snow, and three times I scrambled through the darkness in my underwear to secure them. Ah, yes—the quiet serenity of a night in the mountains.

The wind died down by sunrise, and I managed to drag my pitiful form into the morning light. My body felt like I’d stumbled into the street after a night of heavy drinking and been plowed over by a runaway school bus. Did I really want to go through with this?

I was pretty sure I did. After all, the last year had been pretty rough. Following graduation, I’d applied to about a million jobs, though my resume always seemed to get forwarded to the “Bottomless Black Hole” folder every time I clicked the “Submit Application” button. After being told dozens of times I wasn’t good enough, I was sick of it. I was intent on proving those people wrong. And I was intent on reminding myself that the person I was could still do something hard.

I struck out for the mountain, and it wasn’t long before I was swapping my snowshoes for crampons and entering the couloir that led to the summit ridge. Ascending the couloir was fairly straightforward, though the soft snow made me nervous as the route steepened. Near the top, I reached a series of short, near-vertical rock bands. As my hands searched for holds, the crumbly volcanic rocks peeled off one by one like an old scab, sending debris crashing down below me. I was thankful I didn’t have a climbing partner, who would undoubtedly be catching face-fulls of rotten Gallatin boulders by now.

Improvisation was in order. I poked around with my axe until I found a pocket of sufficiently deep snow and drove the shaft in as far as I could, about 4 inches. I probed the rock with my foot, my cramponed boot skittering across the cliff face before finding a foothold of sufficient quality. Neither hold was great, but together they were enough to get me over the lip and onto the ridge.

Photo of the summit of Mount Chisholm.
The author climbed up the couloir on the right to the summit. // Photo: Paul Chisholm.

From there it was an easy scramble to the summit. I took a break to soak in the view, which extended from the snow-laden Gallatins to the sharp-toothed Absarokas, and from the green hayfields of the Gallatin Valley to the mosaic of sage and evergreen forest that is the Yellowstone Plateau.

My trip wasn’t over, but I’d surmounted the biggest hurdle. Preferring not to downclimb the couloir, I detoured across neighboring Overlook Peak and descended gentler slopes to the north. Returning to my campsite, I packed up and descended to Maxey Cabin, a Forest Service rental near Hyalite Reservoir.

After the trials of the high country, the cabin felt like Shangri-La, despite its lack of plumbing or electricity. I discovered a box of pancake mix in one of the cupboards and a pizza pan in another, so I cooked up some dry, crusty pancakes atop the woodstove. Then I washed them down with a can of refried beans that looked older than the Nixon administration. It all tasted delicious.

That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag reading an article from the March 2011 issue of Better Homes and Gardens, I knew I had gotten what I’d come for. Shadows from the dying fire flickered across the walls of the cabin, and I drifted to sleep.

[Feature photo: The author’s campsite beneath Mt. Chisholm. //Paul Chisholm]

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