Granite Peak (Montana)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

After reviewing a few back issues of the Highpointers Club's quarterly newsletter it becomes apparent that many, if not most, of the Club list finishers consider the climb of Montana's Granite Peak to be the most daunting of all the 48 contiguous state highpoint ascents. Consider comments such as these: "How hard could it be (to complete the list)? Well, four trips to Montana to get up Granite taught me this project could be harder than I thought." "...two tries to get to the top (of Granite because of bad) weather (and) too much snow." "... the fact that we summited with no injuries on a peak as difficult as Granite made the trip all the more sweet." "However tough Denali was, Kim just got more completely exhausted summit day in Montana and worn down by bouldering and I, well, two years later I'm still having nightmares about the vertical rock above the snow bridge." "We climbed Granite with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and I felt it was the most difficult physical feat I had ever accomplished in my life." "Biggest Overall Challenge: Granite." You get the picture.

Actually, as I found out for myself last summer, Granite Peak is, indeed, a worthy climb.

Throw another log on the fire, sit back in your easy chair; let me tell you about my adventures.

My son, Steve, and I flew into Billings on Thursday, Aug. 7, where, although the afternoon was sunny and warm, we could see dark storm clouds hovering over the Beartooth Mountains, to the southwest, site of our prospective climb. Renting a car, we took off, via I-90 and State Routes 78 and 420, for Fishtail, MT, where, in that small crossroads town, we stopped for a so-so meal at the Cowboy Cafe.

After dinner, we headed off again for our evening's destination, Emerald Lake Campground, only to immediately get lost. (As it turned out, the road sign for State Route 425 was missing.) Returning to Fishtail, I entered the saloon side of the Cowboy and asked a pair of Bud-swilling locals for directions. The overweight, red-nosed due, decked out in Stetsons, boots and Levis, dissolved into hysteric laughter. They spent a minute or two slapping each other on their backs and guffawing heartily, until one them, almost falling off his bar stool, gasped, "You can't get there from here." Fortunately, the bartender, a comely young woman, overheard my question. She motioned me to a quiet end of the bar, gave the still snorting pair a death look, and provided me with proper instructions.

Later, as the last light faded from the western sky, we pulled into the campground where we found our Colorado companions, Charlie Winger, Dave Cooper & Gary Hoover, already retired following their long days drive from Denver. Next morning, Friday, we broke camp and drove a couple of miles up West Rosebud Creek to the Sliver Lake trailhead (6,558'), where, at 8:30 a.m., we hoisted our packs and started up the pleasant, aspen lined trail. Although the morning had dawned sunny, we could see puffy white clouds already beginning to billow up over the mountains to the south.

After a brisk two mile hike, we arrived at the dam forming Mystic Lake (7,250'), keystone of a large hydroelectric project dating back to 1926. Continuing along the pine-forested south side of the lake for another half mile or so, we then turned SE on the Phantom Creek Trail, upon which we switchbacked three miles up to Froze to Death Plateau, the flat-topped ridge between East & West Rosebud Creeks. At this above timber line juncture (10,140) we turned right (SW), heading up the trailless, boulder-strewn plateau, relying on a line of large cairns as our guide. By this time, 2 p.m., the scattered cumulus of the morning had consolidated into a sky covering dark gray carpet, and at 4 p.m., continuing ever upward, it began to sprinkle. In a small depression at the 11,000' level, about a mile shy of the base of Tempest Mountain, our intended destination for the evening, we hastily set up our camp atop the flattest boulders we could find. Then the rain started coming down--as we used to say in my boyhood hometown-in Torrance.

I have to confess I was tired by this time. Ten miles and 4,500' of gain with a full pack had taken their toll. The realization that I wasn't quite as fit as I thought was discouraging. On the other hand, with the storm raging outside, one of my life's most pleasant moments occurred as I slipped into my trusty Marmot Mountain bag, and, except for one pee break, stayed concooned there for the next twelve hours.

4:30 a.m. Saturday morning finally arrived, however. We left our camp in the pitch dark and proceeded up the plateau, arriving at the base of Tempest Mountain just as the first rays of the new day peered over the horizon. It was then, to our great delight, that we were treated to the view of a herd of Rocky Mountain Goats, backlighted in the horizontal sunbeams. Although the handsome animals weren't exactly shy, neither did they allow us to get close enough to take any good photos.

Continuing on, we dropped into a saddle southwest of Tempest Mountain and then began our climb of Granite Peak, keeping to the user friendly south side of the east ridge. Although the day had broken dear, affording us good prospects of Granite (see photo, courtesy Charlie Winger), clouds now began to pour over from the west, occluding our view of the summit. Arriving at the infamous snow bridge about 9 am, we found it to be at least 10' wide, presenting no problem at all in crossing. It didn't come close-as suggested in several guide books-to requiring ropes, crampons and/or ice axes. Beyond the snow bridge the route turned steeper and more complex. To be honest, because the extremely competent Coloradans were leading, and because the clouds were hiding the route, our ascent, though zigzagged, seemed neither dangerous nor difficult to me. In fact, upon reaching the 12,799' summit about 10:30 a.m., I wondered why we had spent so much energy hauling ropes up the route.

On our way down, however, we did put the ropes to good use, uncoiling them for two time-saving rappels. Also, while on descent, we met an ascending roped-up party, who seemed incredulous that we weren't likewise. In my judgment, the final 500' of gain is primarily class 3, with a couple of class 4 moves thrown in for good measure.

We continued back to our campsite on Froze to Death Plateau, where, as we packed to leave, a new onslaught of clouds began to drift up out of the valley. Our expedition, which had gone swimmingly up to this point, now took an odd turn (Or, more precisely, odd turns) for the worse. As the pea soup fog settled down over the plateau, obscuring our view of the guiding calms, we thought, "Hey, no problem." After all, we possessed maps, compasses, and, between the five of us, an untold wealth of route-finding experience. Unfortunately, however, we soon found ourselves wandering from one side of the plateau to the other, following what could only hospitably be called the "scenic route." At one point, I swear, we started back uphill again. I'm confident that we managed to double the "as the crow flies" distance before reaching the Phantom Creek Trail at long last.

After 16 hours of exertion, we arrived back at our cars between 8:30 and 9 p.m. The Colorado contingent was content to retire to the Emerald Lake Campground, but Steve and I decided to drive on to Columbus, where we intended to enjoy the comforts of a hot shower and clean sheets at a plush motel.

Ha! Fat Chance! As it turned out the Montana State Fair was in progress in BillinRs, and there were, literally, no motel rooms available within a 50 mile radius of that city. Not knowing that and not willing to give up our dream of showers and sheets, we drove ever further westward along I-10, unsuccessfully seeking accommodations in Reed Point, Greycliff and Big Timber.

The bottom line is that we spent the rainy night sleeping in our car at an Interstate rest stop. Next morning, Sunday, found us back in Columbus, hosing down in a truck stop rent-a-shower Since our flight didn't leave until 4 p.m., we drove to Red Lodge for a hearty breakfast at the Red Lodge Cafe, then back to Billings, where, taking the "If you can't beat 'em, join'em" philosophy, we enjoyed a somewhat hasty tour of the fair.

A further indication of Granite Peak's difficulty lies in its climbing history. Although attempts were made on its summit in 1889, 1910, 1914 and 1922, it wasn't until August 29, 1923 that Elers Koch and two others finally arrived on the top. This relatively late ascent gives Granite Peak the distinction of being the last of the fifty state highpoints to be conquered.

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