This little adventure was hatched many months ago after the Granite Peak page came up for adoption. Realizing the importance of the peak, I adopted the page and brought it up to code. Since I hadn't climbed it, I spent the next several weeks attempting to give the peak away to a responsible maintainer/summiteer, but to no avail. As the season wore on, the idea began to form that I may actually go up to Montana and climb it. Why not? I had another week’s vacation, it was a challenging state highpoint, and I could try a couple of the Tetons while up there. Several other SP members expressed an interest, so we all made plans to attempt Granite over the Labor Day weekend. A month or so ago, Martin Cash, Fred, and I began to make serious plans to attempt Granite. I found a partner, Eric (hendere), then heard that Fred has injured his foot while in Europe. Martin invited his girlfriend, Mishell, so we now had a foursome to attempt the peak.
A 20 hour drive brought us to the campground near the West Rosebud trailhead. We had changed trailheads three times, depending on recent information. Paul Burkholder called me the day before our drive and advised us to take the West Rosebud/Phantom Creek approach. (Thanks a million, Paul!) The Phantom Creek approach has the 26 "switchbacks from hell" and we were not looking forward to this.
We agreed to meet Martin and Mishell at the trailhead at 8:00 AM. By 8:45 we began to wonder about them. We wrote a note, put it on my car and began to hike. We took about ten steps when they drove up. Apparently, they got lost on the way to the trailhead. The first part of the hike is about three miles to Mystic Lake. It is a pleasant hike through a canyon and gains about 1200 ft. At Mystic Lake, a nice beach offers a resting spot. About a quarter-mile past the lake, the trail forks and we took the Phantom Creek Trail #17 up the dreaded switchbacks. I must compliment the Forest Service for the outstanding condition of the Phantom Creek Trail. Although there are 26 switchbacks, they are very well planned and you gain altitude without hardly realizing it.
Upon reaching treeline, the switchbacks end and we were met by a large cairn. We rested at the cairn, then shortly left the trail to bushwhack up to the plateau. Two elk greeted us upon arrival at the plateau and we paused for photos. Froze-To-Death (FTD) Plateau is aptly named. It is a wild, open place, and I had never hiked on anything like it. A few cairns showed the way, but I also used a GPS unit with map overlays which helped with navigation. In low visibility or bad weather, the cairns would be impossible to follow and map reading would be difficult without landmarks. I highly recommend GPS for FTD in case of bad weather or poor visibility.
After a nine hour hike, we decided to camp near a large snowfield. I laid out my sleeping bag inside out on some rocks to air out from the previous night of camping. We made dinner and it got dark just as we finished all of our chores. We all decided on a 6:30 departure time for our summit day. When I picked up my bag before getting into the tent, I found it to be covered with dew. Mad.......I went to bed in a damp bag.
Up at 6:00 am. At 6:30 Eric and I were standing outside the tent looking for our climbing partners. A few minutes later, I hollered at Martin with no response. Later, we found out they were exhausted from driving all night with no sleep, and never heard us or the alarm. Anyway, by 6:45, we yelled again that we were leaving and we would meet them later. Eric and I hiked off towards Granite carrying one rope, a light rack, and day hike gear;
Our hike was uneventful and we could see other parties stirring in their campsites. We ended up a little right of where the trail starts towards the Granite/Tempest Saddle. While making your approach on the FTD near Tempest, avoid the temptation to head directly for Granite Peak. Instead, head for Tempest Mountain and find the large bivy shelters on the northwest side of the base Tempest. Here, we found the trail to the saddle and headed down. At the saddle, we considered our options, then headed up the east/west ridge directly above. The ridge is composed of boulders and requires class 3 scrambling. After 800 ft, we arrived at the top and made a scramble to the other side into a shallow gully. We met a climber on the way down who had backed off the face due to the exposure. Upon arrival at the ridge above the snow bridge, we drug out the photos from Don Jacob’s guidebook and reviewed our climb up to the notch. We noted features and began our traverse to the snow bridge. The chutes and chimneys below the notch can be confusing. Generally, stay left and follow a few cairns. A couple of class 4 moves brings you to the notch where you can view the face with the final 200 ft of rock climbing. By this time we had met several climbers on the way down. Each one had a different story on how difficult the final 200 ft was. Opinions varied from class 3 to 5.7 and all said the route could be confusing.
At the notch, we again drug out the photos and noted Jacob’s route. It was very helpful and the features stood out very well. A short traverse and scramble brought us to the first of the class 4 stuff. Eric did a hand jam and negotiated a six foot crack. I opted left and ended up doing a hand traverse over an airy 40 ft of exposure. Thrilling. We still did not see a need to rope up. Another party was ahead of us and having a little difficulty. A woman slightly above us was talking about how she was “not a rock climber” and how she “didn’t want to die”. We gave them some advice which seemed to help and they eventually negotiated the section. We arrived at the chimneys and noticed that the chimney advised by Jacobs appeared too difficult for an unroped ascent. Instead, we climbed between the chimneys and enjoyed class 4 moves over terrific exposure. On the traverse, a move around a flake over 50 foot of air got my attention, but it was great. The final sections were uneventful and we summited with three other people.
After pictures, we quickly began our descent realizing our long task before us. The climb down and hike back would be just as strenuous as the climb to the summit. Three raps and some down-climbing later, we arrived at the snowfield above the Tempest/Granite saddle where we stocked up on water. On the way down, we enjoyed dodging rocks that our fellow summiteers were kicking down on us. Where I come from, we yell “Rock!” when accidently kicking rocks down. I guess these folks didn’t come from the same place. Anywho......about half a dozen other climbers were also on their way down, some not having summited. Two young goats welcomed us at the saddle and we rested while thinking about our trudge up to FTD.
The trudge was not pleasant, but we arrived at FTD with renewed enthusiasm. This was the first time I had used any type of PowerGels and they seemed to really help. They will be in my pack from now on. A quick 1.5 hour hike back to camp went by quickly. During the hike back, we wondered about Martin and Mishell. Where were they? Why didn’t they join us? Why didn’t they respond when I called for them? I felt a little guilty about leaving without checking on them. All kinds of crazy things went through my head: Had they been abducted by aliens? Did bears get them? HAPE? Lovers quarrel? Who knows? We didn’t know if they would be there or not when we got back. But they were.
Surprised to see their tent, I approached slowly, not knowing if I was entering a crime scene or what. I yelled at Martin and a head appeared. He then told us the story of their exhaustion and it then all made sense.
It was almost dark. Thirteen hours tent to tent and we were tired. We went off to bed and planned on a 6:00 am wake-up for the hike out. The hike out was pleasant, uneventful, and relatively fast. We briefly discussed a skinny dip in Mystic Lake, but there were a zillion people around. We left the trailhead at 2:00 PM and headed off to the Tetons. That’s another story!
Martin and Mishell: It was great meeting you guys. Our conversations really passed the time on the hike up and hike out. I’m sorry you didn’t get to climb the peak. Like my experience on Mt. Moran, sometimes, it’s just not your day.
Eric: Thanks for coming with me and being a great partner. You made it look easy.
Granite Peak: Thanks for a safe climb and descent, and for great weather. You are a tough nut to crack and deserve respect.