For anyone contemplating a state highpoint project, Granite Peak is one
of the toughest and most elusive summits to be reckoned with. The
fickle weather, the infamous snow bridge and the tricky route-finding
in the upper cliffs have turned back many summit attempts. Somehow our
expedition went off without a hitch.
Our plan went through an interesting metamorphosis. For several months Jim
Richards and I couldn't get any additional participants to commit themselves.
But by the time the group assembled in Red Lodge, Montana on Sunday, August
22nd 1999, we had grown to a group of nine. I wondered if this size group
might be too unweildy. As it turned out we had a very fit and compatible
crew who all hit it off famously right from the start.
Jim and I flew into Cody, Wyoming on August 19 and drove to Borah
Peak in Idaho that evening. We made an unsuccessful attempt to climb Borah
on the 20th and then set out for Red Lodge, Montana passing through
Yellowstone National Park and camping for the night just outside the
park in the Shoshone National Forest.
On the 21st we finished the drive to Red Lodge via the very scenic
Beartooth Highway. We checked into a local motel and began to organize our
gear. At the appointed time we headed to downtown Red Lodge to rendezvous
with the rest of the group. There we met up with Steve Tricarico and his
friend Lee Duensing, Vince Lee and son Chris, Jack Pugh and son Whitney,
and Mike Laabs.
After a get-acquainted session at a local brew-pub we split up to do some
last minute shopping. Then we headed to the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe,
Montana for our kick-off dinner. On the drive to Roscoe we got our first
glimpse of a distant Granite Peak. (Actually the mountain is supposedly
visible from the Beartooth Highway. If so, Jim and I couldn't pick it out.)
7.0 miles, start 6,500', end 10,200', gain 3,900', loss 200'
The next morning we gathered again, this time at the West Rosebud Creek Trailhead.
After quizzing some of the returning hikers we made a last minute decision
to leave the crampons in the vehicles. All but two left ice axes behind
also. (We did not end up needing them.)
We hit the trail shortly after 9:00 a.m. The trailhead is located at the
Mystic Lake powerhouse. Following the trail upstream along West Rosebud
Creek the flowline for the powerhouse is frequently visible high above
on the righthand wall of the canyon. The trail climbs gradually up the
lefthand side of the canyon. Laboring along trying to get acclimated to
our 60-pound packs we hoped that when we got even with the height of
the the flowline we would reach the lake. Instead the trail keeps climbing
up over a ridge that is part of the rock formation that blocks the
canyon and creates the lake. We crossed the ridge and grudgingly gave back
maybe a couple hundred feet or so as we decended down to the lake.
As short ways up the lefthand shore of the lake we took a break on a gravel
beach. After conferring with more returning
climbers we quickly reversed a decision that had been months in the
making. Instead of making our approach up the Huckleberry Trail we
would brave the ominous Froze-To-Death Plateau. I wasn't in on the
discussion with the other climbers but I hear they laughed out load at
our choice of route. It seems that the heavier than usual winter snows
had turned the Huckleberry Trail into a tangled thicket of downed trees.
That on top of the mega boulder-hopping we were already aware of.
So after a refreshing break in the balmy sunshine we briefly
followed the shore of Mystic Lake and then turned left onto the Phantom
Creek Trail and started up "the switchbacks from hell".
The trail lead us steeply up, up, up, from the
forested shores of Mystic Lake to the exposed alpine meadows atop
Froze-To-Death Plateau. At the point where the trail crests the
edge of the plateau someone has built a huge cairn. From that point
the uphill grade eases off a little.
The group had become divided in half coming up the switchbacks and the
lead pack continued too far up the trail. Once you get on top of the
plateau you need to take a right turn and follow the plateau toward
Granite but there is no obvious trail, just vague cairned routes.
The always-energetic Steve Tricarico managed to scout out the route
and shuttle back and forth between the two groups to get us
reunited and headed in the right direction.
By now we had done a full days work so we set up camp a convenient
distance from a spring and settled in for the evening. Shortly a herd
of mountain goats sauntered into the area. They had obviously seen
hikers before and nonchalantly went about their business paying us
4.6 miles, start 10,200', end 12,120', gain 1,920', loss 0'
Day 2 dawned as sunny and pleasant as the day before. After a leisurely
breakfast we broke camp and were on our way around 10:00 a.m.
Comparatively speaking this was a rather uneventful day. We started out
on top of the plateau and we ended the day on top of the plateau. The
scenery was outstanding, of course, but it didn't change dramatically
throughout the day. It was just a steady march from camp one to high camp.
After we had been trudging along for awhile somebody said, "Hey, I
thought plateaus were supposed to be flat.". Maybe so, but not this one.
Upward we continued, trying to stay generally to our right. We'd heard
this was the way to avoid the worst of the plentiful boulder fields.
This proved to be generally true. When there were cairns it was usually
best to follow them since they normally steered us between the worst of
the boulder fields, but there are multiple sets of cairns so you
can't put too much faith in them.
Once you get near Tempest Mountain there is nothing but boulders under
foot. Potential camping spots are few. We managed to cram our tents into
four rock windbreaks about a mile from Granite Peak. We had passed another
group of windbreaks that were about half a mile further from the peak.
There are also one or two tent sites located on the saddle between Tempest
Mountain and Granite Peak. If your objective is Granite Peak there is
no reason to force the issue and camp that near the summit. There is no
water, the area is very vulnerable to the elements, and it doesn't get
you significantly closer to the summit.
We reached high camp around 2;30 P.M. Our mountain goat friends had
followed us to high camp, at least it looked like it could have been the
I was feeling the altitude a little at camp and Jim took care of the
cooking chores while I rested. It was that same slightly nauseous feeling
I've had before. It didn't bother me till we stopped for the day. I
didn't lose my appetite and within a couple of hours I felt better. By the
next day the feeling had totally passed.
High camp had an in-your-face view of Granite. As close as it was it still
looked daunting, partly because we were looking at the north side which is
straight up and thankfully not the side we would climb.
2.2 miles, start 12,120', end 12,120', gain 1,359', loss 1,359'
We were so close to the summit there was no need for an alpine start. We
arose to a beautiful sunrise and started for the summit at 7:00 a.m.
The first leg of the journey took us to the saddle between Granite and
Tempest Mountains. To get there we traversed across a steep boulder jumble
with Tempest Mountain above us and Storm Lakes below us. The grand scale
of things was already starting to give me feelings of vertigo. No time like
the present, I thought, to practice my vertigo defense. Concentrating
only on what I was doing and my immediate surroundings I initially had
trouble keeping my peripheral vision from straying. By the time we reached
the saddle I had control of the situation. Three words of advice:
Don't look down!
Crossing the saddle we began scrambling up the east ridge of Granite Peak,
a huge, steep boulder pile. Partway up this slope the altitude got the best
of Lee, and Jack's knees began giving him trouble. They decided to wait
there while the rest of us continued.
Sometimes the crux of the route is the snow bridge. We had been advised
that it had completely melted away. That was just fine by me. At the top
of the boulder scramble we
dropped back down the other side to a small saddle where the snow bridge
is usually found. Beyond this point the route again heads up and begins to get
The first spot with any fright factor was some sloping narrow ledges with
loose gravel just beyond the snow bridge. Someone spied a better route
on the way up and we were able to bypass this nasty spot altogether on
the way down. Beyond that point you move off the east ridge and work your
way around onto the south side of the mountain. The route then becomes a
series of ledges connected by chimneys.
Vince was our lead climber. He scouted out the
route while the rest of us negotiated the chimneys. We staggered the
group so that the less experienced climbers, namely Whitney and me, were
sandwiched between the others. Chris and Mike were assigned sweep duties
most of the time and their moral support was much appreciated.
Since climbing helmets are really only needed on the top few hundred feet
of this climb we elected not to carry them on the trip. Instead we
employed what Vince called the "Head-to-Butt" climbing method. Basically
each man just stays so close to the guy in front that a rock dislodged
would not have time to pick up any speed before hitting the man below.
There was a fair amount of loose rock around in places but by exercising
due care no rocks fell.
The climbing was not especially difficult. I'm not a rock climber but
after reading a description of the Yosemite System I'd guess you could
call it 5.0 in a couple of spots but mostly class 3 and 4. The chimneys
were sometimes nearly vertical but normally
there were cracks or chock stones to use as handholds or footholds.
Occasionally there were spots where a pressure hold or a wedge move
came in handy. It was all very similar to climbing I've done for
years in caves with two major exceptions. First, no mud. Second, you
could plainly see how far you could fall, that is if you didn't heed
my advice: "Don't look down!".
We brought ropes and climbing hardware but used it sparingly.
There was one vertical chimney much like the others except
that the top was slightly overhung. We rigged a belay here both on the
way up and on the way down. We had geared up in such a
way that we could split into two summit teams. However, things went so
smoothly that we all stuck together all the way to the top.
In my mind one particular place stood out as the most frightening
move we had to make. There was a horizontal
ledge we needed to follow from west to east, but near the middle a bedrock
protrusion interrupted the ledge. To get to the other side of the
protrusion you had to hug the protruding rock and step on a flake of
rock about half as wide as your shoe. To make matters worse the ledge
on the other side was angled downslope. All that was required was a little
finesse, but the exposure was extreme. We did this unprotected on
on the way up, but rigged a safety on the way down.
Chris's Wal-Mart-variety gadget watch had provided entertainment for the
whole trip as he kept us informed of the temperature and the altitude.
On summit day in particular it was especially interesting to hear his
periodic updates. The altimeter was incredibly accurate. In the midst of
the cliffs you could not see the summit. I had no visual clue how close
we were most of the time. But when Chris announced something in the
neighborhood of 12,700+ feet, by golly, next thing you know, there it was
about a hundred feet above. A little more easy scrambling and there we were,
around noon just in time for lunch.
After a quick bite to eat and some photos on the large flat rock slab
that is a Granite Peak landmark, we headed down. Some parties rig rappels
to get off the cliffs. We elected to climb down. We followed the same
route back down but at one point Vince did take a slightly different
route -- one that required a move that Whitney and I balked at. Someone
shortly found a less exposed alternative and we were back underway.
Just before we got back to Lee and Jack a storm rolled in. Some of the
group reported hair raising experiences, literally. Needless to say we
were beating a hasty retreat at this point, trying to get off the
mountain as fast as possible without going so fast as to break a leg
on the rain-slickened rocks.
Soon the storm eased off and we arrived back in camp around 4:30 p.m.
Then more precipitation arrived in the form of eighth-inch diameter
hail pellets. But that was shortlived and soon we were
relaxing outside around the coffee pot. All except Steve, that is,
who was packing up for a quick trip all the way back to the trailhead.
His wife and son would be waiting for him there, alerted to his arrival
by...uhhhh...I hate to say it...cellphone. It wasn't mine, I swear!
Steve left camp around 5:15 and was back at the trailhead, cold beer
in hand, by a little before 10:00.
8.1 miles, start 12,120', end 7,720', gain 0', loss 4,400'
The prior evening was a little cooler and the wind, which had been steady
but not too strong the first night in high camp, picked up considerably.
The constant flapping of tent fabric continued all night and the next
morning it was a major annoyance while trying to break camp. Jack summed
it up best when he said, "This wind can bite my ass!".
All but Jim and I aimed to get back to the trailhead this evening and
headed out by around 7:30 a.m. We
took our time while the rest set out across the plateau, except for Lee
who was running a little behind the others. At this point Lee had a
temporary lapse in judgement and pulled all his tent stakes without
keeping a constant grip on the tent. Suddenly a gust picked up the tent
and it went bounding end-over-end across the plateau like a huge balloon.
It was a comical sight until you realized, hey, that's $300 worth of gear
and it shows no signs of stopping.
Lee tried to give chase but it was impossible to run across the boulders.
Jim and I convinced him to walk after it a ways in case it got jammed in
between some boulders. He came back empty handed but philosphical, "Oh
well, that's seven pounds I won't have to carry back to the trailhead.".
Jim and I set out shortly after Lee and had a leisurely day making our
way back to Mystic Lake where we set up camp. I dangled my feet in the
cold water. They had taken a real beating coming down the the "switchbacks
3.5 miles, start 7,720', end 6,500', gain 200', loss 1,420'
The final day was an easy jaunt back to the trailhead. We spent a while
checking out the power plant before hitting the road at the end of a
very enjoyable highpoint trip. We celebrated our successful outing with
buffalo steak at the Erma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming.
We didn't have to use any of our bad weather days. That gave Jim and I a
day-and-a-half to kill before our flight back east. We spent the full day
at Yellowstone National Park and the half day at the Buffalo Bill Cody
museum in Cody.
In closing, I'd like to make a couple of observations for anyone who may
read this in preparation for their own Granite trip.
First, I'd like to emphasize that this is not a peak to be taken lightly.
If you are an experienced climber, you will have no trouble. If, however,
you are a state highpointer and budding mountaineer who has successfully
completed states like Utah or California you need to realize this peak
is not even in the same league. The climbing is not highly technical but
the exposure is potentially deadly in many places. Be sure you know
what you're doing or go with someone who does.
Second, if you have read other trip reports seeking information about
Granite Peak you may have read some of the same
horror stories I did about Froze-To-Death Plateau. As it turned out the
weather was nearly perfect. While I don't doubt the accuracy of the
stories I had read, I can attest to the fact that the weather is not
absolutely horrible 100% of the the time. Pea-soup fog, golf-ball-size
hail and 80-mph winds make for great campfire hero tales, while stories
of sunshine and 60 degree temperatures probably are not as apt to be
retold. In short, don't let the horror stories worry you too much.
Froze-To-Death Plateau is probably your best approach, but be prepared
for the worst.