Bitterroots High Five Traverse

My single favorite way to spend a summertime day in the mountains in Montana.

The High Five traverse links up the five peaks — El Capitan, Lonesome Bachelor, & the West, Middle, & East Como Sisters — along the headwall of Little Rock Creek canyon in MT’s Bitterroot mountains. These peaks are some of the highest in the range, and the route takes a striking, intuitive ridgeline visible from the valley. It’s impossible for a mountain person to see the three symmetrical pyramids of the Como Sisters from the valley and not envision tracing the horizon line that connects them.

I remember when I was 16 or so, three high school friends (shout out to Ben, Dylan, & Andy) invited me to join them in linking up this traverse. I didn’t have the experience or skills, and my parents said no. In fairness, my friends probably didn’t have that much more of either than I did, but at any rate they went and had a rowdy 20+ hour mini epic on the route. They came back with stories of exposed climbing on the Lonesome Bachelor, midnight naps at the headwall, and nighttime rappelling down cliff bands hidden in the trees. I was intrigued and more than a little jealous.

I did two of the peaks years later on a hike with my dad, before we had to bail due to the third member of our group not being quite up to the full traverse, fitness-wise. A couple years after that, a friend and I hiked all the peaks minus the Lonesome Bachelor over a long day, like 14 hours-ish. And we were both absolutely smoked by the end of it. It wasn’t until 2012 when I started getting into trail running in college that I really began exploring the route as a mountain running adventure.

Over the first few years, I’d go up once a year or so and do the four non-technical peaks — El Capitan plus the three Como Sisters. I’d always heard the fifth peak, the Lonesome Bachelor, required some mandatory fifth-class climbing. So I just kept putting that one off, and each year I’d go up and do the traverse that I knew instead of taking the time to really scout out the Bachelor for myself. But each year I could do the route faster and faster, and my technical running and climbing skills were improving as well. In 2019 I finally took the time for a trip up there solely to scout the Bachelor, and lo and behold, as is so often the case, the climbing wasn’t near as bad as I’d feared. I found a fourth-class line up a sub-ridge and was finally confident to take a stab at linking the full five peak traverse.

This route lives in my mind as a special connection to home and a reminder of how far you can progress.

I love the variety of movement and emphasis the High Five route places on moving efficiently over rocky ridgelines and boulderfields — all things I tend to gravitate towards in mountain adventures. The route starts with four and a half miles of trail running alongside Little Rock creek, up to a lake of the same name. From there you follow a mostly-there social trail marked with cairns for another two miles up to the base of the headwall.

Middle Sister on right, East Sister in middle

You then punch up a steep scree gully to the ridge, and spend the next eight miles or so moving through jumbled boulder fields and jagged ridgelines to link the five peaks that make up the route’s name: El Capitan, the Lonesome Bachelor, and the three Como Sisters: West, Middle, and East. There is one section on the Bachelor that is a short but committing set of class four moves, but the rest of the route goes at class 3 or below with good route-finding.

My favorite part of the route is a ledge system on the way to the East Como Sister where you end up crawling on hands and knees between a few mountain mahogany trees and the rock wall, with cliffs above and below you. It feels like a secret tunnel, put there exclusively to make the route possible without technical climbing.

Some of the most fun / interesting ridgeline running of the route. Between West and Middle Sister.

After summiting the final Sister you descend about three thousand feet back into the Little Rock creek canyon to meet up with the trail again. This is the blue-collar penance you must pay for the earlier ridgeline glory, a bushwhacking adventure through huge boulders and thick brush with several cliff bands hidden in the forest thrown in for good measure.

Once you hit the trail and pick the leaves out of your ears and rocks out of your shoes it’s a three-mile sprint back to the trailhead. And just to make sure you’re well and truly worked over, the trail ends with about a 500-foot climb out of the canyon before you careen downhill the final couple minutes to the trailhead.

It’s my hope that more and more mountain runners in western MT will take on the challenge of this great route and it will continue to grow as a local testpiece!

Fun progression: 2016 on the left, 2020 on the right. Four years later, I did all five peaks faster than the 2016 time when I skipped the Bachelor and only summited four. Nice to have benchmarks validating your improvement.

Splits on the 2020 FKT
1h Little Rock Cr Lake
2h 47m El Cap
3h 32m Lonesome Bachelor
4h 33m W Como Sister
4h 52m Middle Sister
5h 25m E Sister
7h 24m Finish

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