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Trail Data

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.)

DAY 1: 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 no mind.

DAY 2: 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 same herd.

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.

DAY 3: 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 dicey.

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.

DAY 4: 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 from hell".

DAY 5: 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.