Climbing, teaching on the Crow Reservation, and the Beartooth Mountains: a conversation with Loren Rausch.

Climbing, teaching on the Crow Reservation, and the Beartooth Mountains: a conversation with Loren Rausch.

Loren Rausch made a name for himself climbing in the Mountains of South Central Montana. He and Rusty Willis made the first successful winter ascent of the Bear’s Tooth Spire in March 2010. Loren has many notable first ascents in the Red Lodge area and has a reputation for embarking on difficult, unclimbed lines, often with considerable risk for loose, hazardous rock. In addition to a love of climbing, he is a passionate high school science teacher on the Crow Reservation. He lives in Red Lodge, Montana.

The Bear's Tooth Spire. Photo: Rusty Willis

Loren leading on the first successful winter ascent of the Bear's Tooth Spire. Photo: Rusty Willis                     

Loren at the top of the Bear's Tooth Spire. Photo: Rusty Willis 

Loren Rausch grew up outside of Shepherd, Montana on what he describes as a “funny farm,” where miniature ponies and emus were part of the array of livestock. “My parents ranched all over Wyoming and parts of Montana; somehow they decided Shepherd was the place for them.” While growing up, Loren experienced the outdoors on remote fishing trips with his father in Canada and in the mountains of Montana. No one else in Loren’s immediate family climbs, but a memorable childhood trip over the Beartooth Highway with his first view of the Bear’s Tooth Spire ignited the compulsion to climb in him.

While in high school, Loren and a friend taught themselves how to rock climb on the sandstone Rims outside of Billings, Montana with no professional guidance. “We survived the learning curve,” Loren says with a smile as he recalls belaying his partner up the climb “Prime Rib” with the rope running around a tree at the top as an anchor and the belay device clipped into his gear loop. He completed his first year of college in Billings with the intent of pursuing a degree in education. Several science courses that first year deeply interested him and ultimately prompted a move to Bozeman where he continued his education at Montana State University (MSU), earning degrees in both biology and secondary education.

“The climbing was fantastic around Bozeman, and it was easy to find people to climb with,” Loren states. Post-graduation he made a living working at the local climbing gym as well as at Northern Lights Trading Company, an outdoor store that has since closed. Many memorable days in the mountains include the ascent of The Dog’s Tooth, a 900’ cliff hidden at high elevation in the Crazy Mountains, northeast of Livingston, Montana. Loren describes the climbing that day as thrilling, when not completely terrifying, with an abundance of loose rock encountered as they made upward progress. The last pitch was not only over-hung but comprised of little more than desk-sized rocks wedged together. As with many of the long alpine routes in the Crazy as well as the Beartooth Mountains, the approach required work. Loren and his partner, Scott Salzer, started out riding mountain bikes up an old logging road until it dead-ended where they then started hiking in. As Loren wraps up the tale of The Dog’s Tooth, he again refers to the mountain biking portion of the approach. His face lights up and it’s apparent how much of a kick he gets out of a long day in the mountains: “It was dark and we got on our mountain bikes with only the small beam of light from the headlamps. There’s a portion of the road that curves sharply and then immediately crosses a creek. We just came hauling down the road and launched through that creek,” he says laughing.

The Dog's Tooth, Crazy Mountains, Montana. Photo: Loren Rausch

Scott Salzer on the Dog's Tooth. Photo: Loren Rausch

Loren has also had the opportunity to climb in locations outside of Montana. Asked about his first trip to Alaska, he talks about the vastness of the mountains, the snow and ice, and how on his first trip neither he nor his partner, Kevin Volkening, had much experience with glacial travel. Loren and Kevin had hopes of climbing the Ham & Eggs Couloir to the top of the Moose’s Tooth in Denali National Park. They started at a considerably lower elevation than most climbers, who often get dropped by plane higher up on the glacier. Just getting to the typical starting point of the Moose’s Tooth took hours to reach as they picked their way through the ice falls. They anticipated moving much faster and had opted to not carry sleeping bags. The first night out they simply dug shallow snow caves where they hunkered in a sitting position and tried to sleep. The next day in the couloir the climbing was difficult and the ice was not in good condition. They were aiding up on ice tools when the Alaskan version of night (this was summer) descended on them again. “We were beat and didn’t want to spend another night in the same circumstances without sleeping bags,” Loren explains. They made their retreat with sleep-deprived brains starting to play tricks on them, scanning the skies for bush planes but in vain. In total, Loren and Kevin’s attempt lasted over 50 hours. Loren came back to Alaska the following year and climbed the Moose’s Tooth in more accommodating ice conditions in just under 10 hours.

The Moose's Tooth, Denali National Park. Photo: Loren Rausch

Loren leading through the ice falls below the Moose's Tooth. Photo: Kevin Volkening

Kevin and Loren hunkered down for the night on the Moose's Tooth. Photo: Loren Rausch

Loren and Kevin bailing off the Moose's Tooth. Photo: Kevin Volkening

Loren leading on the Moose's Tooth the following year (2nd attempt). Photo: Kevin Volkening

Success! Loren on the summit ridge of the Moose's Tooth. Photo: Kevin Volkening

Loren also had the chance to travel to Nepal with another local Red Lodge resident, Pete Shelly, shortly after his graduation. Pete and Loren summited Island Peak (elevation 20,305 feet), the most popular of Nepal’s trekking peaks. While discussing his trip in Nepal it is clear that Loren was struck as much by the culture he encountered as he was by the mountains. Nepal left a mark on Loren and he hopes to return and climb other objectives.

Loren’s interest in indigenous cultures is also apparent closer to home in his job teaching on the Crow Reservation in Pryor, Montana. “It’s sort of like entering another country,” Loren suggests. An hour commute from Red Lodge, Loren teaches science at Plenty Coups High School. Teaching at Plenty Coups is not your typical classroom environment, and Loren has found that hands-on teaching is the best method of combatting student absenteeism and sparking an interest in learning that he hopes will help carry his students through high school and possibly on to college. “It’s a rough place with high poverty,” Loren acknowledges. But Loren is drawn to the Crow culture with its emphasis on family and to some degree a less materialistic existence. “That’s changing though,” he notes, “our modern lifestyles are just so comfortable that it is hard to resist complete assimilation.” Nevertheless, traditional elements endure, making for unusual and sometimes humorous teaching experiences, such as a time when a student had been kicked out of school for the day. Loren recalls, “It was around noon, so close to lunchtime, and the expelled student showed up minutes later outside of the classroom window, on a pony riding bareback, with a sack of popcorn for his younger sister to eat. I thought, okay, I have to allow that.”

Loren belaying one of his students on an ice climbing field trip in the Beartooth Mountains, Montana. Photo: Austin Hart

Teaching at Plenty Coup has also given Loren more freedom than you might find in a traditional school setting. He has taken students out to sample water for microorganisms along with a unique climbing trip to a spiritual area the Crow reserved for vision quests. “The climbing was solid 5.8 to 5.9,” Loren says, astonished that hundreds of years ago people ventured to the top of these rocks for spiritual guidance with no modern climbing equipment. Loren took the initiative to obtain funding and helped build a climbing wall at the school. Crafting science lessons around climbing has led to much more than discussions on pulleys, newtons, or the biology behind the screaming barfies, by allowing Loren the opportunity to connect on a personal level with students. It has been a chance to build trust while he belays his students and a way for them to get to know him outside of the classroom while providing them with a constructive physical activity. “Basketball is the main sport, but basketball also has a lot of rules and that aspect of the game doesn’t work well for many kids. With a climbing wall there are no rules, and it’s a physical outlet that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Though Loren has had opportunities to teach elsewhere, he enjoys the challenges and rewards of teaching on the reservation, preferring its untamed nature much in the same way he is drawn to the undiscovered aspect of the Beartooths. While the Beartooth Mountains have been gaining in popularity in the climbing world, they still retain an old-school mystique from a generation when little route information was published and instead passed via word-of-mouth. “You can have really big adventures here,” Loren says with a grin, recalling a time when he and a partner went to the wrong set of rappelling anchors deep in the Clark’s Fork Canyon and rappelled “out to nowhere” requiring some bold climbing to get out.

Loren is torn about publishing more information, excited to share his knowledge with other climbers, yet not wanting to divulge all of the Beartooths’ secrets and see the crowds that can plague popular destinations elsewhere. Even with more users now, however, in Loren’s experience if a particular spot is occupied you can always look around and find someplace empty. And with numerous first ascents in the Beartooths under his belt, Loren continues to forge into uncharted territory. “Every time I go climbing I pick out three other things that I want to climb,” citing as an example his recent ascent of the north ridge of Mount Inabnit. The remote and seldom-climbed peak offered a majestic view of the Beartooth range, which only served as a vantage point to reconnoiter future goals, with the craggy protrusions of the surrounding landscape beckoning to be summited.

Bridget Belliveau climbing with Loren on Westminster Spire, Beartooth Mountains, Montana. Photo: Loren Rausch

Loren shares this pioneering yet humble spirit with his climbing heroes of the previous generation, such as Stan Price, who climbed with Alex Lowe and whose climbing feats in the South Fork of the Shoshone River area near Cody, Wyoming, have yet to be repeated, or local legend Chad Chadwick, one of the first ice-climbers in the area and title holder of many first ascents in the 70s including the Silver Pillar. Loren’s admiration is clear as he marvels at the thought of attempting the first ascent of the Silver Pillar with old ropes and homemade gear, and recounts with amusement Chadwick’s nonchalant telling of the exploit: “We knew it was going to be cold, so we brought sweaters and lemon drops.” Loren emphasizes “lemon drops” and laughs about the hilariousness of making sure to bring along lemon drops on such a challenging climb for that era. With the same unassuming nature, Loren speaks of his goals of climbing some mid-13s and bouldering V10s, ambitions he notes “that will require me to train” for the first time.

This new approach of “training” was also in part necessitated by an ACL tear in 2014 on a school skiing trip. After continuing to be active and discovering the limitations of the injured knee, he had surgery in 2015 and struggled through the slow recovery process. He credits the forced downtime with pushing him to pursue old and new interests that he wouldn’t have otherwise, including a foray into the science of sourdough bread making – subject of another creative lesson plan that involved harvesting wild yeast from Chokecherry berries with his students – as well as a rediscovery of his enjoyment of watercolor painting. While still on crutches, painting enabled him to maintain his connection with the outdoors, driving to a trailhead or beautiful location and sketching while leaning against the car. Recently given the all clear, he still wears a knee brace to ski or climb, and plans to continue with the painting even though he’ll ramp the climbing up again.

Despite having traveled and climbed abroad and all over the United States, this love for the mountains of South Central Montana is apparent. When asked if he had anything final he wanted to mention, Loren’s response was simple: “I guess only that we are just really lucky – lucky to live here. I have had the opportunity to climb throughout California, along the Front Range in Colorado, out east…, and every time I get back I think, this is the best, why did I ever leave?”

Loren leading on Middle Fin, Clark, WY. Photo: Rick Dvorak

Loren belaying on The Ramp, East Rosebud Canyon, Beartooth Mountains, Montana. Photo: Bridget Belliveau

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David Pettit

David Pettit

Loren, nice article!
You put a smile on my face and a song in my heart ❤️
Thank you ?
David Pettit

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