IntroductionWhat can a reasonable person do in a 61-hour period of time? Let’s see, in 2 ½ days you can attend one half of a one-week conference, you can watch the moon rise or the sun set two times. You could probably host a small family reunion. Or you could opt for what Joe and I did: a drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, to a trailhead a stone’s throw from Cooke City, Montana; a hike into the Absoroka/Beartooth Wilderness; a long hike to the top of Montana’s tallest mountain; a hike out and another drive back to Salt Lake City. Let me tell you how it turned out, and then you can decide if you’d like to attempt it.
By the way, our definition of a laser strike means to get something over in a minimum amount of time. Success demands that the stars are in alignment, that the air is thick with karma, that Lady Luck accompanies you and that your willingness to undergo some personal discomfort remains strong. However, it does not mean that safety is compromised.
First Laser Beam: Getting to the Trailhead on Day OneThe journey began Thursday at 5 a.m. in a Salt Lake City suburb, a glimmer of dawn painting a blue-grey sky to our east. Thin cirrus clouds added shadowy shapes as we sped northward. Official sunrise was somewhere around 6:15; the weather forecast for Yellowstone Park and Cooke City was for isolated thunderstorms today, tomorrow and Saturday. Highs would creep into the mid-60s and lows would dip toward 40 degrees. To complicate the scenario, a cool front would drop slowly over the Rockies sometime on Friday. The temperatures were of secondary importance; the threat of thunderstorms took center stage.
Joe and I had done a fair amount of research on the proper care and feeding of Granite Peak. In addition, both of us had experience in the Wind River Range, the Utah Uintas and in the Rocky Mountain West, so afternoon thunderstorms and everything associated with them were all too familiar. Many things in life are totally predictable, but thunderstorms in rugged mountainous territory are anything but predictable. They are much like angry wild animals: you don’t know where they are going or what intensity they will display, but you know that they will take their toll one way or another before calming down.
Yet the word “isolated” was encouraging, and we had both set aside the three days of this week to give Granite Peak the old “college try.” We were seasoned enough to make decisions based on fact rather than emotion, and we would head up to the south central mountains of Montana to check things out.
Joe’s vintage Honda sports car purred along as we plied I-15 north, past Pocatello, through Idaho Falls to Highway 20, and north to West Yellowstone before entering the father of national parks, Yellowstone itself. Road construction was slightly irritating, but isn’t it always? A word of caution might be in order: check out possible construction delays and road closures if you are driving a long distance to the trailhead.
The driving time to West Yellowstone was five hours. We stopped to fill our gas tank and to purchase a Subway sandwich, then spent the better part of three hours navigating our way through the park. Several construction delays added at least 15 minutes to the trip, but heavy summer park traffic was the main culprit in slowing us down. We enjoyed seeing the bison herds in the Lamar Valley but didn’t enjoy seeing the cumulus buildups to our north and west. Yes, the weather forecast was materializing as described. We were keeping our fingers crossed as we slipped through the tiny hamlet of Silver Gate – blink and you might miss it – and kept moving through the slightly larger tourist mini-village of Cooke City.
Now it was time to keep eyes peeled for the Lulu Pass Road turnoff. Sure enough, a little less than 2 miles outside of Cooke City on Highway 212 was a large sign pointing left for Lulu Pass and the Goose Lake Jeep Trail. Hey, not bad! But, ouch, this road was anything but good for our little vehicle. According to descriptions we had read we should have had a better road at this point. Instead we had a deep-rutted stone-studded beast upon which we were yo-yoing in a futile attempt to save the undercarriage and tires.
Then, Bang! The sound was so loud and the scraping so distinct that an immediate cry of “Oh, no!” escaped our lips simultaneously. Joe quickly pulled over and got out to check for damage. His expression was impossible to misinterpret: we had or were losing something from underneath. A vehicular wardrobe malfunction. I swung out, took two steps to the back and saw that our muffler was no longer muffling but rather doing a fine imitation of a Christmas tree ornament, dangling crazily under the right rear fender.
Thunderheads were continuing to build as Joe labored to free the muffler from one remaining support point. That task complete, we decided to hide the still hot piece of metal about 30 feet from the road behind a fallen log where we would retrieve it on our way out. There was literally nothing else we could do since our small trunk was filled to capacity with our packs. Was this an omen of things to come? No, for I noticed that a couple of the thunderstorm formations had already dissipated without coming to full maturity. That was the omen we wanted.
Pausing at several of the more ill-defined spur roads and deciding to proceed generally straight ahead we crossed a bridge and climbed a few hundred yards before coming to a spot where this poor excuse for a road forked and where a very sharp switchback led into the forest. Here was a sign and we parked. According to the SummitPost description this parking spot was actually ½ mile from the trailhead, but this was as far as we were going to go with our non-4-wheel high clearance coupe. Having lost one important appendage we were not in the mood to tempt fate a second time. GPS position: N45 degrees 03.112 W109 degrees 54.903
Hiking to Lower Aero Lake - more of Day OneThe end result of all of this was our leaving the car, heavy packs on our backs, at 2:10 p.m., nine hours after we had backed out of my driveway. The elevation here, according to my aged Garmin Venture GPS, was 8,820’. We traded guarded glances as we heard and felt the muffled rumbling of distant thunder. There were still patches of blue sky here and there, and our spirits were buoyed by the fact that we were truly underway, really on a trail, and we had many hours of daylight in which to reach our camping goal, Lower Aero Lake.
We noted the rusted and dilapidated remains of a mill below and to the right; we bushwhacked around a small building because the road was a 30-foot long puddle of muddy water at least a foot deep, regained the road/trail and soon came to a sign pointing to Lady of the Lake.
The trail follows the west edge of this scenic lake and then makes an abrupt turn to the west near the lake’s northern extremity. Very soon there is an unmistakable trail split marked with a large, carefully stacked cairn. Taking the right spur is the correct decision if you intend on reaching Lower Aero Lake. Should you go left, I have no idea where you might end up. Somewhere in the Gallatin National Forest, perhaps? It had taken us exactly one hour to reach this trail junction, so we took a brief break and noted that the convective activity was petering out, a relief to us both.
We broke out of the forest for a pleasant stroll along the east side of a broad meadow and soon heard the clear sound of tumbling creek waters. Yup, the intersection of Zimmer Creek and the Broadwater River. Where to cross? We already knew that we were not electing to go east and then north to Rough Lake but rather north along the east side of Zimmer Creek. We spotted the continuation of our trail on the other side. But how to get over the river was our main concern. We elected to cross a small tributary flowing into the junction from the west by hopping on exposed rocks. We then found a precarious but usable chain of fallen trees leading to a diving board-like jump across the final few feet of water. Once across we merely slogged over 30 yards of mild bog and regained the trail leading north.
Wildflowers, tall grasses and occasional short boulder fields made the hike along Zimmer Creek interesting and scenic. The trail was often faint, and at times it was difficult to intelligently guess where it might be. But we adopted a motto: just parallel the creek and the trail would eventually re-appear. It worked. Mosquitoes also added a touch of wilderness to the experience; drat, we were hoping that we wouldn’t have to deal with those vicious little insects. Well, you can’t have everything.
At 4:30 we reached another junction in an open area just beyond a camping site. A trail led to the east and appeared to be the one referred to by someone on SummitPost as “heartbreak hill.” Joe checked his GPS waypoint and confirmed the position. And, get this: our elevation was a whopping 50’ higher than when we had started nearly 2 ½ hours ago! This was no ordinary hike, no siree.
From here the trail was a series of switchbacks leading up a very steep gully. After 30 minutes of steady grinding, making an occasional detour from the trail to get around deadfall, we crested out and gazed at the southwest shore of Lower Aero Lake. We walked toward the water, large boulders creating natural hazards, and scouted out the terrain for a good camping site. Grassy, level spots were few and far between, so when we found one which was “okay” we decided that would have to do, and we called it good. It was 5:30. Our “day” was already passing the 12-hour point, and the skies were a mix of fast-moving cumulus clouds accented by the dark-gray remnants of dying thunderstorms. Light breezes ruffled the lake’s surface waters and gentle waves shimmered in the slanting rays of the early evening sun.
We had decided to pay extra for expansive rooms in our outdoors motel. That means that each of us had lugged in a two-person tent. These mountains are notorious for storms, and we figured that having room inside our respective tents to keep gear dry was well worth the extra weight we would be forced to carry. So, here we were at N45º06.360’ W109º51.996’ (10,054’), getting ready for a re-constituted freeze-dried delicacy masquerading as dinner and looking forward to bagging a state highpoint the following day, Mother Nature permitting.
Finding Our Way to the Summit of Granite Peak and Back - Day TwoThe alarm went off at precisely 5:10 a.m. Daylight yet? Nope, but I knew it was coming. Official sunrise was something like 6:15, so we had figured that leaving camp at 5:30 would be doable; there would be just enough pre-dawn light to allow us to boulder-hop safely, using headlamps to – excuse the pun – highlight the way. The only fly in the ointment this morning was the foreboding look of the heavens. Clouds had gathered, it had sprinkled during the night, and the charcoal-smudged clouds obscuring the sky were gloomy, easily the kind which could quickly morph into mountain showers and thunderstorms. Well, we launched out at 5:37, unsure of how the weather would play out. We would eat breakfast on the fly.
Picking our way along the western shores of Lower Aero Lake was part route-finding, part self-preservation. Much of the time we could rock-hop along the shore close to the water, but often we had to climb up and over a rise because there was literally no shore upon which to walk. Dawn’s light quickly flooded over us and we stowed our headlamps after needing them for a scant 30 minutes. Our uneven pace, caused mostly by the undulating track we were making, was not something we were used to; normally Joe would take off in a blaze of afterburner and I would try to keep him in sight. Not today.
By 7:30 we were gazing up at the mess of boulders leading to the saddle above Upper Aero Lake. We tackled it and at the crest of this route we could see the massive challenge known as Granite Peak, two plus miles distant, towering over the serene Sky Top glacial basin below us. And, wow, did that basin floor look like it was a long ways down! Turned out it was nearly 500’ below us, so we had to sacrifice elevation and take our medicine. I led down, watching boulders and safe footing with one eye and keeping a wary eye out for the weather behind us. Yes, storm clouds were gathering, something which was expressly against our combined wills.
Once in the basin we headed on a straight line for the imposing “slab” nestled near the base of Granite’s lower west side. Here in the basin the wind began to pick up, first a breeze, then gusts, then biting bursts which would precipitate a small craft warning had we been near boating territory. This I attributed to “frontal passage.” Slowly gaining elevation we began to see several snowfields we would need to cross, we spotted one of the glaciers gracing the end of the basin and the dark foreboding “black diamond” blotch on the infamous slab became more and more evident, the spot which marked the beginning of the hidden southwest couloir.
All of a sudden Joe turned to me and said, “Do you think we should turn back?” I looked at him incredulously, gazed back and saw a literal curtain of showers bearing down upon us with menacing speed. Five seconds later the heavens were engulfing us with wind-driven graupel and buckshot-like snow grains, a nasty mixture of precipitation along with stinging microburst winds. I pointed to a large rock behind which I though we might obtain a modicum of shelter. Wrong! No shelter there. We would have to tough it out. In answer to Joe’s query I shouted, “No, I think we should wait it out. I think it will blow over!”
Joe must have thought I was loony, but I was serious. I had seen my share of weather in my career as an airline pilot, and my estimate was that anything which would buffet us today would not be long lasting but quite fleeting. Besides, I was a praying man and I had humbly asked to God to give us some kind of window in which to make the summit. Whether it was my supplication or my experience, I don’t know. But the squall passed as quickly as it had overtaken us, and we continued toward the slab.
We donned helmets, passed below the slab and beyond the section which was blackened with seepage stains. As we turned a corner to our right, we looked up and said to ourselves, “This must be the southwest couloir.” We could see its straight course leading up to a ridge 600’ or more above us. There were two swaths of snow choking the gully, each about 75-100’ in length. Caution was our watchword: it would be easy to knock rocks on the head of the second climber. Spotting several weathered runners, we both remarked that this couloir would be fantastic to climb if it were filled with consolidated snow.
As long as we stayed in the couloir the climbing was Class 3. Stray far from it to avoid ice or an obstacle and it became Class 4. Passing the small snow fields was not as easy as one might think. Most of the remaining snow was rock solid; it was impossible to kick a toe hold in it. We would have gladly given ten dollars for the use of an ice axe for only a few minutes. We didn’t have them, however, so we wedged ourselves between the sides of the couloir and the mud-caked edges of the icy snow, sometimes breaking off weaker sections of snow and lurching forward in the process. It was slow going, but it was the only way.
As we approached a more difficult arrangement of rocks blocking the couloir, it began to snow again. We hunkered down, expecting the squall to pass like the other one had. It did. Now the wind, however, was whooshing up the gully with a ferocity that reminded me of angry men seeking revenge on some hapless soul. We elected to cache our trekking poles here and we wedged ourselves up and over the granite table top, finding just enough one inch ledges on the west side to secure purchase with our boot soles.
Once past this cold obstacle the climbing steepened and then moderated. I began to sense that the tough part was over, that the summit was going to be ours. The wind continued to buffet us, an ugly repetitious onslaught.
What satisfaction! Joe plopped down on the topmost slab, hood covering his helmeted head and his back to the screeching wind. The bench mark, secured forever in the granite stone, was at his feet. We shook hands; Joe exclaimed, “I can’t believe we made it,” an obvious reference to the nasty games which the weather had already played with us. I was so happy I could have turned a cartwheel had I had the room and had the wind not been threatening to blow me off the east edge of the summit block.
Out of seemingly nowhere another climber appeared. He had come up the east route and was only too happy to touch the topmost rock and simply say, “I made it; the others are already on the way down. I’ve been here before. That’s all I need to do.” And he was gone as quickly as he had arrived.
After we had quickly taken a couple of pictures we agreed that getting down was of utmost importance. I glanced at what must have been a summit register, paper in a plastic bag tucked into a small crease under the summit slabs, but we were cold enough and wind-blown enough to forgo the luxury of signing our names. We quickly but carefully re-traced our steps down the summit ridge, descending to the top of the couloir, anxious to find at least some temporary shelter from the ripping winds.
Our little team had departed from the prized summit at five minutes after one o’clock. We remembered to retrieve our poles from their temporary home in the couloir, inched our way down the couloir and squeezed past the two areas where the lingering icy snow had made our approach so laborious. At 2:17 we were out of the couloir, below the familiar slab landmark and back in the teeth of the gale. The views of the sprawling Sky Top basin with its moraines and lakes was breathtaking, but we could not enjoy it more than a few seconds at a time; we had to get down and out of the wind (was that going to be possible?) and move along on our return to camp.
At 4:37 we had traipsed over one huge snowfield, skirted around several smaller lakes, hopped over thousands of boulders, and climbed back to the saddle where we had received our first view of Granite Peak 6 ½ hours earlier. There we wistfully took pictures of Granite, knowing that for this trip, it would be our last.
At 6:08 we caught our first close-up glimpse of Lower Aero Lake, and we were back in camp an hour and a half later. En route we found the famous “balanced rock” along the shores of Lower Aero Lake and we had to have a picture of that oddity.
As we crested a small ridge which overlooked our little camp site, our thoughts again turned to wondering about the status of our tents. When Joe’s tent came into view, he breathed a sigh of relief. I looked to the spot where I thought mine should have been resting; that spot was bare. There was no trace of anything ever having been there. My heart sank, and Joe dryly commented that my tent must be in the lake.
My thoughts began racing as we continued down the slope: what would I do? My big pack was in there, as was all of my stuff. How would I get out to the trailhead? But before panic could overtake me I took a step onto a mobile home sized boulder and saw my little green tent, securely in position exactly where I had left it fourteen hours earlier! So it hadn’t blown away; I had merely forgotten where it was in relation to Joe’s. I shouted for joy and declared that, truly, this day had been a complete success.
We unloaded our stuff, cooked our dinners – ravenous might be the apt adjective - and began mentally preparing for the hike out early the next morning. As the sun set, the wind at last began to ease up. The heavens were friendly and the lingering breezes created small armies of waves which busily lapped at the shoreline below.
The Hike Back to the Trailhead & the Drive Home - Day ThreeThe GPS alarm chirped at 5:15, I began packing up and was ready to go by 6:20. My tent rain fly was slightly damp from a brief nocturnal shower, but the grass around my tent was nearly dry to the touch. Just before we left, two mountain goats, apparently curious more than anything, clopped easily toward us on the large boulder which was immediately to the east of my tent site. They stopped about eight feet away, stared at us, then turned quietly to the west and began walking away. What the?
We left camp, heavy packs now somewhat lighter than during the march in. We soon found it unfortunate that we hadn’t marked a waypoint at the small saddle where we had topped out from Heartbreak Hill. As a result of that sin of omission we had to make a not-so-obvious choice between four different possible routes which would take us to the trail. We opted for the northernmost gully, and it turned out to be a wrong choice.
Bushwhacking with a heavy pack is work. Bushwhacking down a steep slope can be dicey. Combine heavy pack with steep slope and you have what we had. Nonetheless we persisted; we took turns leading and eventually made our way to a point where I smiled and exclaimed, “Joe, here’s the Heartbreak Hill trail!” We figured that the unplanned bushwhacking had cost us 30 minutes, but we were happy to be down and nearing Zimmer Creek. From there on out it would be a piece of cake.
We spoke briefly with an older gentleman who was camping near Zimmer Creek, his family sequestered in two large tents. He wore a faded lavender knit hat and sported the facial crevasses of a man wizened through years in the backcountry. His anecdote of a recent bear encounter brought our adrenal glands to the ready.
At 8 o’clock we came to the place where we had used a make-shift diving board to cross Zimmer Creek. But using that felled tree as a diving board in reverse was not going to work. So we did what anyone with an ounce of sense would do if in a hurry to get somewhere: we took the most direct route. It required us to take off our boots and socks. Man, was that water cold! Half way across the 20 feet of icy water my feet were numb. The smooth stones on the creek bottom were slipperier than oysters on the half shell! But the crossing went quickly.
The trail back from here was up and down multiplied many times over. The Lady of the Lake was a friendly sight, and we made excellent time. Arriving back at the car at 9:32, we realized it had taken us just over three hours to hike out. If only we had not had to bushwhack it would have been 2 ½. Oh, well.
Finding the stashed muffler where we had left it, we were happy to get off the rutted Lulu Pass Road and back to pavement. In Yellowstone Park, above Lamar Valley, a big grizzly bear lumbered past us on the right side of the road. I was able to take a close-up picture through the window, but we both were astounded to see tourists out of their vehicles, running behind the bear, their cameras and video cameras clutched in upraised hands. The return trip to my home took 8 hours and 12 minutes which included one stop for bananas in Ashton, Idaho, and a stop in Pocatello for fossil fuel.
The trip had been a “laser” strike. One day to drive to the trailhead from Salt Lake City and hike in, one day to the summit and back to camp, one day to hike out and motor back home. That’s the way we had planned it, and that’s the way it turned out. We were elated that, had this been a movie, we could have sighed and concluded that it had had a happy ending.