PROLOGUE: Seeking A Personal Highpointing MilestoneEntering this year (2009), I had reached 32 State Highpoints in less than 1-1/2 years. It had been a unexpectedly torrid pace, but certain circumstances, both personal and professional, as well as solid planning on my part, had presented fortuitous opportunities for successful highpointing trips. With only 18 State Highpoints, including several major ones, remaining on my ultimate "to do" list, I never planned to finish my quest anytime soon. As far as I was concerned, my main goal for 2009 was to reach "only" eight State Highpoints. Accomplishing this particular goal would put me at a solid personal milestone of 40 State Highpoints to end this year with, and I was determined to reach that goal.
I figured the first stage of finding eight State Highpoints to summit would be fairly straightforward. I had methodically left a group of six State Highpoints (South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia) in the lower Appalachians, to possibly summit each in one brief trip. As anticipated, I was able to summit all six of those State Highpoints on Memorial Day weekend.
That successful trip left me with multiple options for just two more locations to reach 40 State Highpoints. I still had a group of five (New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts) in the northeastern side of the country, but I wanted to do one trip for those during a future year. That left Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming as my other options. Alaska was definitely out for this year. So was Hawaii. Then, by luck, two choices came to the immediate forefront. During Spring of this year, I began having e-mail correspondence with another fellow highpointer named Jack, who lived in Pennsylvania. We ended up finding each other by looking for partners for the "Southwest Couloir" route of Granite Peak, Montana's highpoint. During our early planning process, it was soon realized that both Jack and I had a similar interest for also summiting Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highpoint.
Timing and conditions presented a good opportunity in mid-July to first attempt Gannett Peak together. During that trip, I had a successful summit attempt while Jack turned around shortly before the summit ultimately due to a foot injury. He was not able to walk out of the backcountry on his own, which we initially thought was because of bad blisteers but what doctors soon determined was a double-whammy of having both staph infection and strep infection in his foot. Fortunately, no surgeries were required and medication helped eradicate the infections. Unfortunately, it created a lot of downtime for him and we questioned whether we would be able to attempt Granite Peak together in late August/early September. One month later, with his foot basically healed, Jack contacted me and we once again began organizing the logistics of the Montana trip. I had promised Jack, months prior, that we would attempt Granite Peak together, and I was determined to keep that promise. I think he was looking for a little redemption after having a failed summit attempt in Wyoming, while I was intrigued by the thought of possibly getting the both Wyoming and Montana highpoints accomplished the same year while at the same time reaching my 40th State Highpoint.
AUGUST 28th/29th: The Quest for #40 Begins...I began driving from Seattle towards Montana during pre-dawn hours on Friday, August 28. I unexpectedly was given that day off from work the day before, so I wanted to get an early start to the trip for some pre-Montana highpointing. I stopped in Kennewick to have an early breakfast with a friend who had just gotten off from work (i.e. he works a graveyard shift), and then drove east. I wanted to summit the three remaining county highpoints (Columbia, Garfield, Asotin counties) that I had not yet reached in the southeastern part of Washington, and I had all day to accomplish that goal. I successfully summited each of the county highpoints locations that day, but despite their close proximities to each other the three-county quest became a unexpected full day event for me.
I drove northeast to Lewiston, Idaho, and stopped at a Wal-Mart parking lot. After going inside the store and purchasing some snacks and drinks, I proceeded to take a nap in my car. Unfortunately, it was still over 90-Degrees outside after 9:00 PM, and still over 88-Degrees after 11:00 PM, making my naptime more restless than normal. With this "power nap" I gained enough energy to continue driving east towards Montana. In fact, I was wide awake for the remainder of the night, and continued driving until a brief stop at a rest area on the Montana border. There were several annoying contruction areas, and few animal crossings of multiple deer and one black bear, but otherwise the route was fairly uneventful and boring.
I reached Bozeman during mid-morning hours, and waited for Jack to arrive at the airport, which was before noon. We then drove south to Yellowstone National Park, stopping once to eat our last "real" meal before our backcountry trip, and arrived at the "Lady of the Lake" Trailhead by 5:00 PM. After double-checking our mountaineering equipment and changing our clothes, we were soon on our way.
We only hiked an estimated five miles that afternoon, first following the Lady of the Lake Trail and then turning east along the Sky Top Creek Trail, before stopping at 8:00 PM to setup camp at the intersection of Sky Top Creek and the creek flowing south from Lower Aero Lake. There was still some daylight as well as an apparent flat area on the other side of creek crossing. I wanted to utilize as much daylight as possible, using the "farther we go today, the less we need to go tomorrow" theory, but Jack wanted to stop because he believed we would not find a better campsite than the one at the creek junction. Rather than argue about it, I went along with his idea.
AUGUST 30th: From Sky Top To Granite BottomThe next morning, we crossed the creek junction and continued on the Sky Top Creek Trail. We passed by a large marsh area, then Lone Elk Lake, then Rough Lake, and then Sky Top Lakes. The ENTIRE Sky Top Lakes valley is rocky and desolate. Past trip reports we had read never fully emphasized just how much boulder-hopping and rock-traversing is required for the northern portion of the Sky Top Creek route. It took its toll on Jack's energy level more than mine, but it was still slow-going. While taking a brief lunch break near one of the northernmost of the Sky Top Lakes, we heard voices nearby. We looked around, but saw nobody. Persistent, I climbed atop a nearby boulder and could see two men heading south on the other side of the lake. I yelled to them and blew my whistle (loudly), but they did not bother to stop and look at us. We knew they could hear us, as the sounds of my voice and whistle were bouncing off the rocky slope next to them. We were hoping to get some up-to-date account of the Southwest Couloir, but alas that was not to be on this trip. Those were the ONLY people we had seen since we left the car, despite during a summer weekend, demonstrating to us just how unused this route really was.
At approximately 3:30 PM, while ascending a snowfield looming above a tarn southeast of Granite Peak, a thunderstorm started on a nearby ridge. I was most of the way up the snowfield, and wanted to walk a few minutes further to setup the tent on a natural flat area in the snow. Looking at the cloud locations, I figured we had enough time to do that. However, Jack was near the bottom of the snowfield and concerned that lightning might strike us if we did not setup camp immediately on the slope. I went along with his plan, despite the storm not being directly above us yet, and he had us setup the tent so quickly that we could not properly flatten-out the location on the slope. The tent was slanted on the slope, which made me a little uneasy (so I went outside the tent several times to build snow mounds/braces). Once the storm was above our impromptu camp, Jack tried reassuring me that the storm would pass through within 30 minutes. But then 30 minutes became an hour, which became nearly 3-1/2 hours. At 7:00 PM, with the storm at least temporarily passed, I convinced Jack to move the tent to the flat snow location I had seen atop the snowfield just a short distance away. We picked up the tent, still setup, and moved it. Then we made dinner, talked a little bit about the next day's climb, and fell asleep.
AUGUST 31st/SEPTEMBER 1st: A Stormy Outlook For #40...The next morning, we did not leave our high camp to begin the summit climb until 7:45 AM, much later than I had wanted. Despite being camped near the southwest base of Granite Peak, I had wanted to start the moment we had enough daylight to safely traverse the lower talus slopes. The weather initially looked perfect for our climb. I led the way, using my GPS, map, and common sense of the terrain, seeking out various cairns along the route. Ascending the boulders seemed slow-going, but not troublesome, for Jack, and I would find myself waiting for him for extended periods of time during the ascent to the Southwest Couloir. The couloir was hidden, and it was Jack who located the best entrance point for it. Our established agreement was that I would track and lead the route to the couloir (as I am better with logistics/general route planning), and then he would lead up the couloir (as he is better with determining safe scrambling routes).
Then, after 10:00 AM and only 550' elevation from the summit, I got a strong feeling that a bad storm was coming. Looking straight out from the couloir, the clouds did not look too troublesome but the old saying about "smelling a storm coming" was pressing on me. I had been fairly good at predicting storms for the past few months prior, so I wanted to trust my instincts. Jack initially doubted the prediction, but after one strong gust of cold wind struck him he agreed that although we both knew we could successfully climb to the summit it would not be any good if we could not get down. As we descended from the couloir, and then down around the lower southwest slopes of the mountain, we encountered a group of four men ascending the route. The leader asked, "How was the summit?"
"We turned around," I told him. "I think there is a bad storm coming soon, and I did not want us to get stuck in the couloir if it gets wet."
"Storm?" the leader questioned me as he looked up at the sky, shaking his head in disbelief. "There's no storm coming." He chuckled at me.
His hiking partners also chuckled when I told them why we turned around, and their group proceeded up the mountain. Let me add that they were each wearing tan colors, which virtually camouflaged them on the tan landscape, which would have made them extremely difficult to locate if problems arose.
Within 1-1/2 hours of beginning our unexpected descent, I arrived back at our high camp. I turned around and... could not see the mountain!!! Clouds were quickly swirling all around us. Jack and I agreed... it was time to go. Immediately. We tore down the tent, packed our backpacks, and began the descent. Because Jack was ready before I was, I asked him to begin descending the snowfield ahead of me. Shortly thereafter, I was ready to go. Just as I began my descent, I turned around and saw the four men quickly approaching me from the mountain. They told me how shocked they were that I had predicted the storm. The six of us all hiked south from Granite Peak along the Sky Top Lakes valley, trying to stay ahead of the storm system. Finally, near one of the southernmost of the Sky Top Lakes, the other group's campsite was located just as a major hailstorm began hitting us. We quickly setup our tent and decided to spend the night there.
The storm system alternated between hail, rain, and lightning for the rest of the night. The storm was still hitting us in the morning, with no end in sight, but a