Granite Peak, Montana, 2006Granite Peak Trip Report: “Third Time’s the Charm!”
First a bit of background:
After having been to the top of a state or two with my parents as a youth, in the early 70s I stumbled across the Frank Ashley booklet concerning highpoints. I believe this was the first guide of any kind and I think it was published in 1971. By the mid 1980s, I had been to about half of the highpoints, usually just going to them when I happened to be in the general vicinity anyway. In 1983 an old friend from Seattle, Bruce York, convinced me to join him on a scheduled McKinley climb. After that successful journey, Bruce and I kind of embarked upon a friendly rivalry to see who could complete all 50 first. Coming from way behind, he managed to catch up via some crazy exploits involving rental cars associated with business meetings in various parts of the country. Meanwhile, I was getting to most of my remaining half by convincing my family to make certain detours from cross-county drives we would do to visit family. As of a few years ago, both Bruce and I had three peaks left each, he needing Utah and me needing California, and both of us needing Wyoming and Montana. We did Gannett together, feeling lucky to get up and down that one in one piece. He knocked off Utah in short order while it took me a couple of tries to get Whitney under my belt, due in part to altitude issues and due in part to generally being in lousy shape compared to the good old days.
So that left Granite, and I should emphasize that while it is a rewarding peak to end on, it is not the best planning to wait until you are 50 to do it. Our first “attempt” in 2003 didn’t even get to the trailhead. The transmission in my car blew up just before leaving town up here in Canada, so I had to bail out of a planned trip. I wished Bruce and his other climbing partner the best of luck, but they in the end decided not to go try it (yet another story there!). In 2004, another joint trip was planned, but Bruce had to bail (or “crump” as some of us call it) due to starting a new job. I was ready to call it off too, but the third team member already had a plane ticket to Billings and convinced me and my son to join him for the attempt in mid-August. We went up the switchbacks route to the Froze-To-Death Plateau and made it to the 12000’ high camp in crappy weather. That night our tent was almost destroyed in a windstorm, and although we did start on a summit attempt the next day, it was soon obvious that it was not to be.
That brings us to August, 2005. This time it is just Bruce and I on an attempt. The trip started out poorly in that we had to kill 3 days around Yellowstone waiting for some really bad Beartooth weather to clear out of the area before we could even hike in to Mystic Lake. Although we are old and close friends, we spent a good portion of the trip bickering about routes and strategies and in the end never really got on the same wavelength. He proposed a surgical no-camp strike over one 24 hour period. I knew my body, and likely his too, was not up to that, so we “compromised” on a one-camp option via the Avalanche Lake route. We did indeed make it to the lower (North) end of the lake the first day but I am not a fan of that route (more on that later). Starting around 6 the next morning (which, as it turns out is probably a couple of hours too late), we “made our way” (that’s the nicest words I can think of to describe that $&^#&*% section around the lake) and began the climb to the 11,500’ pass. We struggled up to just below the snowbridge (which wasn’t there anyway), arriving by about 11:00 in great weather. At this point we, especially me, were moving very slowly and the tough call was made to turn back despite the good weather since we felt there was not sufficient time or energy to safely complete the peak. We hiked out via the Froze-To-Death route and made it all the way back to the trailhead around 10pm. I cannot begin to describe how bad I felt after that lengthy day. Bruce vowed to come back the next year with a guide and a porter, while my vow was to come back with ample time to do the trip in a less rushed fashion.
So, now the real trip report for this year. My best move was to get in touch with a local climber friend in January and nail him down as interested in trying the peak. Signing up someone with much better climbing skills than me was the “First Good Thing #1” of the year. Due to other summer scheduling commitments, the only time window available to us was the last week in June. At first this seemed like a bad move, since the expectation was for lots of snow remaining along the whole route. Indeed, I was not at all optimistic about the timing but was willing to give it a shot since no other options were available for me in 2006. Bruce was invited but decided to stick with his mid-August-with-guide plan, and at that point I couldn’t blame him.
As the time neared, another experienced climber joined our group and, lo and behold, the weather report was actually looking good! Could it be that the Beartooth gods would be with us this time around?
On Friday, June 23, we did the 12-hour drive from BC down to the trailhead, all in glorious weather, which made me nervous since I pessimistically figured it couldn’t last until our first possible summit day of Monday. Anyway, we started in around noon on Saturday. Our original intention was to go only to Mystic Lake (~7600’), but as it was only 2pm when we got there and as the weather was still perfect, we decided to head up to the plateau area. Before driving down, I had contacted the local ranger station and was told the snow level was around 9000’ so we figured there would be plenty of rivulets at the 10,000’ level from which to get water. As it turned out, there wasn’t much more snow up high than I remember from my two August trips across FTD, so it was essentially bone dry around the first part of the plateau. We camped at a beautiful site around 10,000’ and had to melt snow from the only tiny snowpatch we could find, but it did the job.
On Saturday we leisurely traveled up and across the plateau to the 12,000” high camp just below Tempest, taking about 5 hours to do so. Again, the weather stayed perfect, shorts and t-shirt conditions the whole day. We were surprised to see two groups heading down, meaning that we were surprised to see anybody at all that time of year. I think they were locals taking advantage of the great weather, but am not sure. One group had summated on Friday and were now taking it slowly due to a knee injury of someone in the group. The second group passed our high camp around 7pm. They had been in the summit region all day, but had turned back just below the keyhole due to not being able to find a route through that section which worked for them. That was not good news for us, but at least they had left some new slings at a couple of belay spots that we could use the next day.
On summit day, I think we were on the trail by about 6am and easily made our way up to the snowbridge. We didn’t rope up but were glad to have ice axes and crampons to get up to and past the bridge section. From here on up we paid very close attention to the excellent route description provided by Alan Ellis on Summitpost. The X crack feature is well described and is a key part of the route. On “The Final 200 feet South” picture, the yellow line part and the red line part of his route description were bang on and straightforward to follow. The last part, the blue line traverse, confused us for quite awhile (well, about half an hour anyway), I think mainly due to the perspective of the photo. In the end, we climbed up to the notch above the end of the red line, up to where we could look way down on the other side. From here, we came back down a few feet and then traversed over from there. This involved one rather hairy upclimb but it seemed less exposed than the options available while following the first part of the blue line route on the photo. We did end up climbing up and over the big rock feature shown on the blue line about two thirds of the way across. From there it was an easy upclimb to the keyhole and then simple to the top. I’m pretty sure this blue line zone was where the group we had met earlier had spent so much time and eventually turned around without continuing to the top.
On top the weather remained absolutely glorious, in fact shorts and t-shirt weather with no wind and unlimited visibility.
On the down climb, using our one 60m rope, we rapped right from the keyhole to just below the big rock feature, then traversed over the way we came (i.e. almost to the notch above the red line) then rapped to the bottom of the red line zone. We probably could have downclimbed most of the rest of the route after this, but to be on the safe side we rigged up 3 or 4 more times. We finally arrived back at the high camp around 6 or 7, making it a 12 or 13 hour day, which is a long time to just get yourself a few hundred feet higher than where you started.
Day 4 dawned gorgeous yet again, meaning we were continuing what I took to be an almost unprecedented spell of fine weather for Granite Peak. We easily made our way back across FTD and down to the big cairn marking the turnoff from the switchbacks trail. About this time we noticed that clouds had rolled in behind us, and within a few minutes we could hear thunder and lightning back around the peak zone. This just confirmed our insane weather luck. We got a little wet on the hike out, but mostly we managed to stay just downhill of the badness than was closing into the lower valley very quickly. Even the dam area on Mystic Lake was on the edge of the storm by the time we got there. Things were AOK for us, however, since we were heading for a steak dinner at Fishtail….
One final anecdote. We had planned to get a cheap hotel in Bozeman, but for some reason they were all full, so we phoned up good ol’ Motel 6 and made a reservation for Butte, another 100 miles down the track, arriving near midnight. The clerk took one look at me and my 5 days of mountain tiredness, grizzle and smell and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you over 50?” Being almost 51 at that point, I admitted to the truth and what do you know, my first seniors discount!
So, now that the 50 state highpoint list is completed, it’s time to come up with something different. The US territories are tempting. They’re easy, exotic, and can be mixed with scuba diving and beach lounging!
And Bruce? Well, I’m happy to report that he stuck with his game plan and also was successful this year in August.
Summary of Granite Peak Tips:
Use the FTD option! I’ve crossed it 5 times now and have done the Avalanche Lake zone once. I’m totally convinced FTD is way easier, even once you include the extra climbing from the saddle.
The switchbacks are no big deal at all and the trail is excellent, much better than the trail portion of the Avalanche Lake approach route.
Late June can definitely be prime climbing season. I was amazed how little snow was on FTD this year during this time. Admittedly, 4 days of amazing weather was an unexpected gift from the mountain gods.
If you bring ice axe and crampons, the snow up from the saddle and the crossing of the snowbridge are no big deal. At least one person did the route without either of these items while we were on the mountain, but it seems needlessly risky to me. I’m a very risk-averse climber, but still felt no need to rope up for the snowbridge crossing.
You should have at least one person on your trip who is comfortable leading class 5 rock. In our case it wasn’t me, so I was sure glad to have Pete along. He cheerfully and patiently led and then belayed the other two of us through the trickiest parts.
The part just before the keyhole may not be the toughest climbing (the part below that probably is), but it is the trickiest route-finding. Based on our experience, higher turned out to be better, so that is my recommendation. Climb up to the notch, then come back down a few feet and head over on the traverse.
Allow enough time, both for the trip as a whole and especially for summit day.
Don’t get too depressed if it takes you more than one try.
Gary Clohan, Cranbrook, BC Canada