Ursus Horribilis, The Bear’s Face 1998

| June 18, 2018

In my recent slide scanning frenzy, I had a few from the 1998 first ascent of “Ursus Horribilis” in Montana which I did with Alex Lowe over three days.  Like most Alex adventurers, it was a wild ride and prior to going, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  The Bear’s Face is right outside of East Rosebud Creek and is about 1,200′ tall and either vertical or even slightly overhanging.  The face is nice clean granite and has lots of features to it.  As far as I know, this was the first line put up on the face and the climb came about mainly as Alex was living in Bozeman and knew of the face.

About a third or halfway up the route.  I think we started in the dihedral below.

As with much of the climbing I did with Alex, he led every pitch and I did my part by trying to keep the belays organized and running efficiently.  I learned early on that while climbing with Alex, even though I could lead some of the moderate pitches, he could do them three times faster, plus do all of the hauling and get started on the next pitch by the time I finished cleaning.  I really enjoyed climbing with him and if he didn’t mind leading, I was happy to provide support.  On top of that, he was an absolute fiend when it came to hard aid, which Ursas Horribilis (the technical name for the Grizzly Bear) had plenty of.  Like many good aid climbers, he’d set a piece, give it a solid bounce test, and if it held, he’d get right on it and go straight up to the top step of his aiders with no hesitation.

Alex in action.

As a memory of this route, I have a nice scar on the inside of my shin from when a big block came loose and grazed me.  The rock was overall pretty solid and required a bit of cleaning but not much.   I knew the block was loose and when I pushed it off with my foot, it turned sideways and the newly fractured edge sliced into my leg in slow motion.  It was on the first day of the climb, and was quite messy and painful for the rest of the ascent.

Even though the route is rated A4 5.10, perhaps the closest we came to dying was from nearly poisoning ourselves with iodine.  We got water from the nearby creek and treated it with some new style of iodine which looked and felt like BB’s.  In an effort to save weight, we  threw away the instructions, which we hadn’t read to begin with, plopped a few BB’s in the water and let it sit overnight.  We didn’t realize how strong it was until we opened the first bottle a few pitches up and the first sip made our gums burn.  Oh well, how bad can it be, right?  Between drinking that for three days and being generally dehydrated, by the time we got off the climb and back home, I felt like I had been kicked in the nuts by a mule.  I called Alex, who had the same symptoms to the point that he had even gone into the local Poison Control Center to see what was wrong.  We later found out that you were supposed to put one BB in a gallon of water for 15 minutes and then take it out – not five BB’s and leave them in for eight hours.  Perhaps the worst part was that it made the coffee almost undrinkable, and both of us loved our coffee.

Taking a sip of the poisoned water before cleaning a copper head.

Another humorous incident occurred about halfway up on a steep, overhanging pitch.  Alex had climbed out of sight and earshot, but I knew he must be getting close to the belay, so I started to organize the bag for hauling.  The belay was a classic rat’s nest of rope and the haul line had somehow gotten threaded through the anchors such that the bag wouldn’t haul.  I had untied the bag, when suddenly Alex started hauling really fast.  Knowing that it was going to be really hard to get the rope back on such an overhanging pitch, I was screaming “STOP!  STOP!  STOP!” but Alex couldn’t hear and he just yanked even harder.  I was holding on to the rope with both hands, but he was hauling so hard (plus had the haul set up with a mechanical advantage) that it lifted me off the belay anchors and totally stretched me out.  Finally, I couldn’t hold on any longer and let go, which caused me to take a short fall back onto the anchors and the haul line went flying up and out of sight.  It was not good.  About ten minutes later, Alex rappelled down and saw what had happened, but it still took us quite a bit of time to get everything all straightened out and set up again.

I don’t remember much about the rack, except that we did a lot of thin nailing (knifeblades, heads, Peckers, etc..).  There are probably 5 – 15 rivets on the route, which are 5/16″ machine bolts pounded into 1/4″ holes which need to be cinched with rivet cable loops.  I also don’t remember much about the belay anchors, except that they all held, so the must have been good.  I think a couple of them were bolted, but most were pins or cams/nuts.

Alex had had some injury that made his leg swell, so he had to wear an embolism sock.  This might slow some people down or at least make them think twice about committing to a hard aid line, but not Alex.  He didn’t even mention it until we topped out here.

Packing up for the walk back down.

While we were climbing, this ski line came more and more into view the higher we got.  We vowed to come back and ski it, and named it “Project X” in the meantime.  I came back a few years later with Hans, Mark and Kris (?) and not only did we ski it, but found there are lots more just like it out there.

This route was done 20 years ago and I haven’t heard of a second ascent, but I hope somebody has done it, or soon will as it’s a great line on a beautiful face in a gorgeous setting.

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Category: Trip Reports

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber and Mountain Unicycle rider. He and Polly Samuels McLean are the parents of two very loud little girls.

Comments (1)

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  1. Josh says:

    Andrew, thanks so much for your stories about Alex. I grew up near the East Rosebud and, although I never met Alex, he was a bit of a legend in the community and I suspect I saw him out climbing a few times in the late 80’s/90’s since there weren’t a lot of people ice climbing in that area (or the US) in the 80’s.

    It’s also nice to hear that even world class athletes aren’t immune to the occasional self-induced sufferfest (“but I thought you were going to bring the matches…”). It sounds like Alex was world class at making even the suffering fun though. Thanks again.

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