Cowboy Poetry

A new line on the north face of Mount Breitenbach in the Lost River Range

Words and photos by guide Marc Hanselman

The north face of Mount Breitenbach

Twenty-one years ago I camped beneath this face on a six-day solo backpacking trip through the Lost River Range. Of course, I wanted to stand on the summit but it seemed so far beyond my skill set that climbing the North Face of Breitenbach was really an abstraction. Fast forward to 2010 when I began my Alpine Guides track with the American Mountain Guides Association and I began to learn how to safely and efficiently climb these sort of objectives. I then to realized that conditions are everything for these ephemeral alpine routes in the high desert of Idaho. Now, in my mid-40s, with a family and obligations, I don’t have the “free time” that I had in my 20s. But I do have the skills, experience, patience, and dare I say wisdom that age brings. So when the stars align, conditions are right, the forecast looks promising, it’s time to pardon myself from the day to day duties and try and make it happen. Always up for an adventure, Paddy McIlvoy (co-owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum) and I made an after-work approach Saturday night. We got to the base at last light, with just enough visibility to study lines, make a plan and bivi for the night. The only completed route on the face was the Grand Chockstone Couloir, which climbs ramps, gullies, cliff bands and a chockstone couloir to just east (looker’s left) of the summit. We decided to try a new line that climbs the most obvious couloir towards the lower east summit of the peak. After 13 hours from camp to camp I proud to say we climbed what we believe to be a new route up this obscure but iconic north face.

At 12,140’ Mount Breitenbach it is the 5th highest peak in Idaho. Cowboy Poetry (IV 5.7R AI2 snow 50 degrees) follows the red line up the North Face. The first crux is where the main couloir jogs left. We found a mix of choss, thin ice, snow and thankful solid rock for a few dry tool moves. The next several pitches were some of the most scenic and classy alpine pitches on snow I’ve ever encountered. These led to a steep headwall above but I managed to sniff out a ledge that traversed left and ended in a 60’ runout 5.7 climb up a blunt arete – lots of exposure, minimal gear. Thankfully we brought rock shoes! The rock pitch ended on a chossy ledge below the giant headwall and disconnected from the summit couloir. The blue arrow is a 40’ rappel we had to do to connect into the final hanging couloir. We had 3 more pitches of steep snow to the summit. Initially, we soloed the bottom 1000’ couloir to the jog left. After that, we did 8 pitches in total to the top of the east summit. We found the descent not as straightforward as others have reported… faced with steep snow that pinched into melting ice dribbles through cliff bands, we opted to do 2 rappels rather than risk down climbing. We returned to camp 13 hours after starting before sunrise.

Up and at ‘em! With our after work approach Saturday night, we didn’t get to bed until 11. We set the alarm for 4am, slammed some coffee and a bite and were off. The snow was firm, the sky was overcast and the temps were cool… things were lining up!

Scenic and classy. As I mentioned before, the middle pitches on Cowboy Poetry were some of the best pitches on snow I’ve ever climbed. We had perfect conditions and the position and exposure were fantastic. Here Paddy follows with a grin, although the next step looked a bit intimidating…

What’s next? After struggling to find protection, I climbed through a section of rotten rock and frozen turf. Initially, I didn’t have much besides a small cam and a tied off stubby ice screw. But once I found a good #.5 placement I felt I could actually commit. Several dry tool moves on solid rock around a bulge of loose stuff would free Paddy from the pelting of loose rocks below and get us steps closer to what, we weren’t sure. Here Paddy has pulled the through the first crux on the route. On the next pitch, we found an old rap anchor… This brought a flood of emotions for me: yes this line has definitely been attempted. Seems like they didn’t complete it. Why did they bail? What’s above that we don’t know about? There’s only one way to find out…

Warning… Anchor pic! Aren’t alpine anchors in chossy limestone fun?!! I placed a lot of pins at the anchors on Cowboy Poetry, mostly knifeblades. Banging pins into fractured limestone is a little different then granite…you certainly don’t want to oversize or overdrive the piton, or you’ll be left with nothing!

Pulling the rope after our rappel truly meant that getting off the mountain was to climb up and over. Once in the summit couloir all we had left was to climb 600’ of steep snow. I felt a huge sense of relief and excitement, confident there weren’t any more technical cruxes to be encountered. The sun started to peek through and we had a couple sluffs go charging by, but we stuck to the margins and we’re out of the line of fire. Three rope stretching pitches brought us to the top of the east summit of Mount Breitenbach. Now all we had to do was get down! I had climbed the E/NE Ridge several years before in summer with a client and recalled it being more involved than descriptions led on. I was hoping the snow might make things a bit more straightforward… wishful thinking! We found steep snow above cliff bands with detached ice running through the rocks. The decision was pretty clear, we weren’t going to downclimb that! I built a pin and cam anchor (sacrifice!) and we rapped through the cliffs.


We did one more rappel using the Beal escaper off a deadman and we were back to “scrambling” on the ridge. I quote scrambling because even then there is a 20’ 5th class mandatory down climb. At last the difficulties were over and Paddy and I enjoyed a 1000’ glissade into the valley below. The sun had popped and the late afternoon light on the face was stunning. Our timing was perfect. Feelings of elation and tired satisfaction were mixed with fear and concern – I had texted my wife from the summit and she called back with the terrible news of her mother having a medical emergency. Now it was time to get out of the mountains and be there for my family!