Off to Granite PeakThis is the story of how Chris (Morlow) and I stood on top of the state of Montana; it is also a tale of making mistakes, meeting a new friend, and how getting lucky in the mountains never hurts anyone. This climb pushed my limits mentally and physically, and I'll be frank: I'm glad it's over and in the bag!
I attempted Granite with three friends in September 2010 via Huckleberry Creek, and we failed due to a blizzard and the seemingly endless miles of boulders between our camp and the Tempest-Granite saddle. It was on my list again last year, but it didn't happen because of a lack of partners and good weekends. When I met Chris earlier this summer through SP, we decided that we would definitely do the SW Couloir route on Granite, as we're both into scrambling and not too much into technical climbing. We originally planned on doing it in mid-August and were planning on Fremont Peak for this week, but when Chris's friend Nathan wanted to make the trip with us, we swapped the climbs on the schedule because he had only Monday and Tuesday off.
About a week before the climb I texted Chris and asked if he was planning on bringing crampons in addition to an ice axe and helmet; it was a yes to the latter two, but we decided to leave the crampons at home. Yeah...DOH!
Monday, July 23We met on the Lulu Pass turnoff outside of Cooke City at 8:45 p.m. on Sunday night and drove the rough dirt road to the Lady of the Lake Trailhead; the road was better than previous trip reports had made it out to be, and I was surprised to see five cars already up there when we arrived.
Monday morning we got up at 6:00 and were on the trail by 7:00, passing Lady of the Lake and making it up into the Zimmer Creek drainage in good time. We missed one stream crossing but figured it out when the trail started heading back around and down. All of the stream crossings were rock hops, but crossing Zimmer Creek from the west to the east side to head up to Lower Aero Lake was a little trickier; we made it on some partially submerged wet rocks. The trail from there on up doesn't mess around, and brutally heads straight up. We passed four couples and their dogs who were on their way down, and then we had to figure out which side of the lake to go around. All we had to go on said that the north side was more direct but you had to deal with a stream crossing at the other end, while the south side was longer and featured a cool balanced rock.
We weren't in a hurry, so we picked the south side and quickly learned that it was up and down a lot with cliffs and ledges blocking easy passage everywhere. To top it off, we missed seeing the balanced rock!
On the way back we took the north side; cross the easy shallow water (about 30-40 yards wide) at the inlet of Lower Aero and the walk is a piece of cake; excepting a few boulders and snowbanks, there is a trail the whole way back to the drainage. Don't take the south side; it adds an hour or more to your trip. Seriously.
We reached the southern end of Upper Aero Lake about noon, having made the seven miles and 2500 feet of gain in five hours. We cooked Ramen and Mountain House, set up tents, and chilled out in the sun on some awesome ledges until the afternoon thunderstorms started rolling through about 2:00. The rest of the day was a steady stream of rain, hail, and thunder, and we retired to our sleeping bags around 7:00 or 8:00.
The Longest DayThe alarms went off at 4:45, but I didn't really wake up until I heard a noise just as I was finishing taking a dump; I spun around to see three adult mountain goats and a baby staring at me from about twenty feet away. Nothing like an audience for the whole toilet ritual! They watched us get ready and eat breakfast and seemed very used to humans.
We woke up Nathan, but he decided that he just wasn't up for the whole attempt-to-kill-yourself-on-a-mountain-and-then-hike-out-in-the-dark thing, so he stayed behind with my bear spray to guard the tents from the goats.
Chris and I were on our way at 5:30 and made good time to the saddle between the Spires and Peak 11379.
At this point I screwed up royally; Chris decided to glissade down the 200 feet to the Sky Top Lakes and I was worried about the snow being super hard and decided to traverse left and down and then meet him at the bottom. I ended up having to cross an icy snowfield, kicking steps very slowly and cussing at my stupidity while Chris was staring up at me from the lake below. Luckily, I only wasted like twenty minutes, and upon finally meeting at the bottom he was gracious enough to dryly point out that his way was probably faster.
The route from there to the Sky Top Glacier went very quickly, and I was surprised at how little boulder hopping was required as it was mostly grass. We waved at a solo hiker standing next to his tent and then went on our way; little did we know at that time that he would play a huge role in our day!
Somewhere around 8:00 or 8:30 we were standing beneath the huge SW face of Granite; after eating a bit and donning helmets we started up the boulders to a small couloir that gets you up under the black slab. Here we regretted not having crampons for the first time, as the snow was very icy and we had to scramble up some really loose crap to the right. I've been on a lot of loose stuff before, but this stuff was bad. We headed to the left edge of the slab, using a lot of energy slipping around in the scree. A word to anyone trying this route: get right up under the slab and don't stay out away from it, as there is a pretty good climber's trail next to it.
Finally we peered up the massive SW Couloir and were relieved to see that it wasn't full of snow.
The fun Class 3 moves started right away and we bypassed the first tricky obstacle on some slick and wet rock to the right. Peering over the edge of the slab, I noticed the solo hiker coming up quickly behind us wearing a red helmet.
I took a lot of care not to kick anything down om him, and by the time we reached the narrow ice-choked gully that was the crux of the route, he had caught up to us. We introduced ourselves to Justin, and I was surprised to learn that he is from Cody, which is only 30 minutes away from my home in Powell. Chris was trying to bypass the ice on rock to the right, but he couldn't find anything that he would comfortable downclimbing (which means I wouldn't even dream of it), and so we stood there staring at the snow and ice. The weather, which we'd been watching carefully all morning, was looking gloomy; a low dark band of clouds was hanging around menacingly, and we felt a few raindrops as we were deciding whether or not to abandon the attempt. A fall, slide, and bounce on the snow would have been bad, and as it was too hard and steep to self-arrest, multiple broken bones would have probably been the least of our worries!
Justin decided to give the gully a go with his crampons, and he kicked in steps as well as he could. The final move involved hooking the top of the ice with his ax and pulling himself up to a wet area from which he awkwardly had to scramble around and onto the next ledge. It was dicey-looking even with crampons, but Chris mustered up the guts to try it. I watched every move, and he slowly figured out a way up to where Justin was waiting. Adrenaline pumping like nuts, I inched my way up, stopping to chop a step on the edge of the ice for my left foot. My hands were wet and freezing fast, and I had to stop on my precarious perch and warm them up before I could pull up on the ax for the final move. It was the scariest thing I've ever climbed, and slings draped around rocks above confirmed that getting down wasn't going to be easy either.
The rest of the climb to the ridge was very loose, but before long we were onto more solid rock. Chris and Justin stayed left and made some Class 5 moves to gain the ridge. I knew I was supposed to stay right for the easiest climbing and went over to the obvious place where I thought I should go, looked over briefly, and decided that that couldn't be it. I wasted more time traversing back left and knew I wasn't helping the other guys out. I yelled at them to continue to the summit as I was looking up into thin wisps of fog moving quickly around the rocks above.
After searching unsuccessfully for something I felt comfortable climbing (and doing a little more cussing), I went back to the right for one more look. After going a little farther, the obvious Class 3 opened up and I followed the well-cairned route up the ridge. There was one tricky little spot that required climbing a little rock almost on the edge of the Abyss to the right and jumping a few feet to the left, but other than that the moves were fun and easy. Even better, the sun suddenly came out, and the clouds that had seemed scary just a few minutes before were dissipating and it promised to be perfect weather for at least several more hours. I finally stood on top of Montana at about 11:00, relieved and elated that half of this peak was climbed!
My favorite entry from the summit register read: "Absolutely awesome climb! Now how the hell do I get off this thing?" We all shared a laugh over that, took many pictures, and headed back down.
The descent down to the ice was uneventful, and then I stood in one place for fifteen minutes to avoid kicking rocks down on Justin and Chris as they inched their way down the tricky section.
Keeping the adrenaline under control by breathing deeply was all I could do, and before I knew it, I'd somehow survived the bad section.
The section of wet rock below and the final loose section to the saddle were tricky as well, but we soon found ourselves sitting where I'd stashed my hiking poles, eating and drinking with blue skies and a great mountain staring down at us. We connected snow fields in the Sky Top Basin and said goodbye and many, many thanks to Justin at his tent before starting up the boulder fields to the saddle.
About this time I started really feeling like crap; my pace going uphill slowed to a crawl, and I was having a hard time catching my breath even sitting and resting. I've never had altitude sickness, but I think I may have had a touch of it here, and when this combined with my usual summit-day lack of appetite and dehydration, I totally bonked. It seemed like it took forever to reach the saddle, and I was elated to finally start down to the lake. We hit camp at 4:30; I knew Chris and Nathan were headed out that night, and I waffled a lot between staying up there alone and going out in the morning. After cooking some oatmeal (Chris had Ramen) and drinking a lot of water at camp, I was feeling good enough to start, and the guys were kind enough to split up the weight of my tent into their packs - thank you!
After a fast walk along the north side of Lower Aero, we headed down to Zimmer Creek. I was still feeling pretty horrible, and an awesome cough, the mosquitoes, and a stop to change in and out of my stream crossing shoes at the water didn't help much. I was trying to force down the trail mix, but nothing sounded or tasted good at all. Luckily, a lot of the way out is flat, so I still made pretty good time back to Lady of the Lake. From there back to the car there is a lot of uphill, and while I knew Chris was pretty wiped, he wasn't having the same difficulties going uphill that I was. I honestly have never felt so rotten, and the never-ending scenery of a trail illuminated by a headlamp started playing tricks with my mind. We got to our vehicles at 11:00, and we somehow stayed awake long enough to drive home; me to Powell, and Chris and Nathan to Old Faithful. I got back into cell range and called my wife at 12:38 a.m., and she was more than a little surprised that I was headed home, which I reached at 1:30. After a shower I fell into bed at 2:15, 21.5 hours after getting up. I was even too exhausted to drink a beer, which I always do after getting home from a climb!
This was the hardest trip I've done; I'm still getting back into shape after an off year in 2011, and I think it would have been interesting to see how I would have done if I had been as fit as I was for my Gannett Peak in 2010. Regardless of my fat butt, we made it up and down somehow; in spite of my route-finding mistakes, we still managed because of our luck meeting another climber who had crampons and our luck with the weather on a peak that is renowned for its horrible storms. The SW Couloir is an awesome route, and I believe it will soon become the standard route on Granite. I figured a round-trip mileage of about 22 miles with ~5900 feet of gain on the ascent; it is definitely not 13-14 miles one way like the route page says!