Mt. Villard (12,337'), West Granite Peak, and Granite Peak (12,799') - August 2-4, 2013
The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness is located northeast of Yellowstone National Park, yet it remains infrequently visited and for the most part unheard of by your average hiker, backpacker, or peak-bagger. I first became familiar with the Beartooth Mountains last month during a random hiking trip with coworkers over the 4th of July. Prior to that, I was completely unaware of its existence. I had heard rumors of how Granite Peak, Montana's state highpoint, is a pretty amazing climb, yet for some reason I didn't realize it was located in this remote and beautiful wilderness area, in the heart of a mountain range that I only envisioned in my dreams. Many of the peaks, routes, and approaches in this range are infrequently visited or climbed, which was quite refreshing coming from Colorado, where a simple internet search will give you unlimited information about almost any peak in the state.
My friend Matt had just recently moved to Red Lodge, Montana, and had been climbing in the Beartooths on a regular basis, gathering information for a guidebook he is writing. I happened to be working near Cody, Wyoming the previous week, and we agreed to meet up for a climb that weekend. While at first I tried to convince Matt to head down to the Tetons and climb the Grand with me, he instead brought up the Beartooths, and how we could climb Granite Peak via the obscure traverse from West Granite, possibly including some other 12ers in the trip as well. Even though I knew little about the area and Granite Peak itself, I had heard great things, and decided it would be awesome to explore the Beartooths some more. Matt had already climbed Granite via the standard route, but he wanted to try it via the traverse from West Granite, which would give him a new route to add to the guidebook. So it was a win-win situation for both of us, and we were in for an awesome adventure.
On Friday, Matt and I met up in Red Lodge and we managed to squeeze in a short sport climb on some limestone just outside of town...unfortunately for us, Granite Peak has no limestone (hence the name "Granite" Peak), but it was still good to get some rope work in.
August 2nd, 2013
We took our time getting ready on Saturday morning, then headed out of town. The drive from Red Lodge to Cooke City over Beartooth Pass is quite possibly the most scenic drive over any pass in the lower 48. It ascends up a forested valley, switchbacks to treeline, then you drive for miles and miles over an alpine plateau with endless views of jagged peaks, steep valleys, and lots of gorgeous lakes in all directions. Unfortunately we had a 30-minute construction delay near the top of the pass, but weren't too concerned as we only had an 8-mile approach that day.
Our goal was to camp above Upper Aero Lake, which is a seldom used approach for Granite Peak. However, it made sense for our itinerary, and it was actually an easier approach than some of the others due to the fact that the "trailhead" is higher. We turned off Highway 212 about 1.5 miles before Cooke City and made our way up to the "trailhead", which consisted of a small parking area surrounded by old mining ruins. We shared this area with some jeepers, one of which had a 10-year old kid driving the rig. I definitely felt like I was in Montana! After crossing the creek by the old mining shack, we started up the trail towards Lady of the Lake at 11:15am.
The weather so far was perfect, and we made good time past Lady of the Lake and up Zimmer Creek. The approach was gorgeous as we passed through large meadows with lots of wildflowers, lodgepole/spruce/fir forests, and enormous whitepark pine trees near treeline. We passed a couple of unmarked trail junctions, but luckily Matt, being the Beartooth expert he is, led us up the right drainage to Lower Aero Lake, where we were greeted with one of the best alpine lake views I have ever seen. When we had looked at the map prior to the trip, I noticed how big Lower and Upper Aero Lakes appeared, however, seeing them in person was another story. They are HUGE lakes! We took a long break to soak in the views and do some fishing.
As I would come to learn during this trip, looks are very deceiving in the Beartooths. Everything appears closer than it actually is, and the rock always appears more stable than it actually is. Due to the first point, it took us a long time to hike around Lower Aero Lake, and possibly even longer to hike around Upper Aero Lake (although that could've been due to the strange swarms of gnats that populated the lake shore and liked to fly into our noses and mouths). Fortunately the views were out of this world, most of our elevation gain was done for the day, the weather was still perfect, and we were both in high spirits. A jagged set of spires (known as "The Spires") soared above Upper Aero Lake, and we were also greeted with views of Glacier Peak, Mt. Villard, Cairn Mountain, and Pilot Peak in the distance.
We set up camp on a grassy bench just above Upper Aero Lake near 10,300', below the saddle separating it and Rough Lake. By this point it was dinnertime, and we quickly set up camp so that we could feast. Unfortunately, the first night's dinner wouldn't work out so well for either of us. I realized that my freeze-dried dinner had expired in January of 2011 (lesson learned - don't buy packaged food from the Sierra Trading Post Outlet in Cody, WY. There is a reason it is on sale!), and since we had a big day ahead of us the following day, I didn't want to risk any food-related problems. Matt had brought some packaged cous-cous, though he soon realized he had bought the parmesan-flavored kind by accident, which apparently he finds disgusting. Luckily we both had some back-up food to eat instead.
After dinner I took a stroll around our camp to get some sunset pictures, and ended up checking out the saddle above Sky Top Lakes that we would hike up and over the following morning in the dark. Here I had my first view of Granite Peak and the traverse...needless to say it was a somewhat daunting perspective. The sunset that night was pretty amazing, and soon after it got dark we hit the hay, awaiting a 3:45am wake-up call the following morning that, as always, would come too soon.
August 3rd, 2013
After we got ready in the morning and lazily exited the tent, a loud scuffle startled Matt and I. We soon realized that a herd of mountain goats had made our campsite their home for the night, and were just as startled as we were to hear movement in the dark. At this point Matt expressed his immense hatred for mountain goats, claiming they were his least favorite animal (side note: It is a miracle that Matt and I were able to make this trip work, since mountain goats happen to be my FAVORITE animal). We made sure to "goat-proof" our campsite before leaving, and headed up to the saddle south of The Spires.
The talus hopping began right away; an early sign of things to come. We made it to the top of the saddle just as light began to appear to the East, and headed down towards Sky Top Lakes. There was a decent amount of snow on this side of the saddle, however, we were able to stay on rocks to the right all the way down. Just above the lake, we headed north and continued up the drainage towards Granite Peak. The sky got lighter, and we had endless photo opportunities as we passed the upper Sky Top Lakes higher in the drainage. There were a few other parties hiking up near us that were also attempting Granite, however, they were all doing the "standard" SW couloir route and we wouldn't see them the rest of the day.
The official "standard" route on Granite Peak goes up the East Ridge from the West Rosebud Drainage. However, in recent years, more and more people have been using the SW couloir, which some would say is easier because it is mostly class 3, while the east ridge has 4th and possibly 5th class terrain (some people use ropes, some don't, depending on comfort levels). This being said, the SW couloir has much looser rock than the east ridge, and also a longer approach. So pick your poison.
Our itinerary for the day consisted of climbing Mt. Villard first (a 12er that Matt still needed to climb for his guidebook) via the north ridge, hiking over to West Granite Peak, traversing to Granite Peak, and descending the SW couloir route. Despite our relatively early start, we would still be relying on good weather the entire day, as this whole plan took us much longer than anticipated. I suppose luck was on our side though, because we had mostly bluebird skies the entire day with only minimal winds.
We left the drainage and headed up to the saddle just north of Mt. Villard. There was a decent-sized snowfield here, but again it was avoidable; in fact we would not need ice axes the entire trip. From this saddle we were treated to incredible views of Glacier Peak's north face, as well as the West Rosebud valley in the clouds below. We left our packs here, anticipating a quick scramble up to the summit of Mt. Villard. I suppose we jinxed ourselves, because it took us 1.5 hours to reach the summit! The initial scramble up to the ridge crest was tedious talus hopping, followed by an exposed class 3 and 4 traverse south to the summit. We stayed on the ridge crest initially, then had to drop down and traverse below a tower. After that was more exposed scrambling on the ridge crest, followed by talus hopping up to the summit. Every rock had to be tested twice, and we knocked rocks down on a regular basis because of how loose everything was. Luckily we were the only ones on this route, and the only ones in the general area besides the people over on Granite Peak!
The views from the summit made the long traverse worthwhile, and at this point I concluded that the Beartooths are more amazing than all the places I have climbed in Colorado. As one person stated in the tiny summit register, "This place inspires silence and solitude." While I could've stayed on the summit all day admiring the views, we had to get on our way. The West Granite to Granite traverse was eerily whispering our names, and as Matt stated, "we have bigger fish to fry."
The ridge run and talus hop from Villard's summit back down to the saddle took much less time than on the way up, and we were soon on our way up towards West Granite. From the saddle, we traversed around to another saddle directly south of Storm Lakes, and then traversed through more loose and annoying talus to the summit of West Granite (a couple of class 3 moves were required on the ridge, but it was mostly class 2). We reached the summit at 11:30 am, and by this point we both knew we were way behind schedule. The traverse to Granite would take at least a few hours, and based on the highly daunting and intimidating view we received on West's summit, we knew it was not a good place to get caught in a thunderstorm. However, the weather was holding up perfectly, and we decided to go for it.
As far as route beta goes, there exists maybe a one sentence description of this traverse, and it had maybe been completed by only a handful of people according to the Beartooth experts that Matt knew from Red Lodge. We knew that there would likely be a rappel or two into a large, obvious notch, and that the climb up from the notch to Granite's summit was rated 5.7 by someone somewhere. All in all, we were mostly on our own for route-finding, which greatly added to the adventure, intimidation, and enjoyment factors.
The committing terrain began directly off the summit of West Granite. We descended down the ridge and were quickly forced to traverse right around a series of towers as we headed towards the notch. The terrain here was loose and somewhat exposed class 3 and 4, however, nothing too challenging that we had