Bozeman to Mystic
5:00am brought the absolutely horrible sound of my cell phone alarm, cutting through the calm, comfort, and relaxation my much needed sleep.
"Are you leaving?", she asked as my movements cause her to awake.
"Yes" I replied pausing to consider if the tone in which she asked carried a hint of resentment. Undoubtedly, the answer was yes, regardless of a yes or no it wasn't going to change the fact I was leaving. With a quick kiss and a few last words of assurance I left.
The morning was calm, devoid of wind, clouds, or any sign anything but beautiful weather was firmly gripped on the greater Southwest Montana region. My partners were already awake and ready to go by the time I returned to my apartment from my second home. We were all groggy and confused as to why our passion wasn't for Cancun, Arizona, or anywhere but the frigid cold of the mountains. Unlike the majority of our peers who saught an alcohol driven illiad of sex, sun, and seduction, our spring break was driven by a far different motivation which landed us with the same set of consequences.
After fitting our respective lives, which were now contained in some 5,000 cubic inches, into the trunk space of a run down Grand Jeep Cherokee we hit the road. Dawn on I-90, much like dust on I-90, seems to come with a unavoidable sleep agent. Within minutes I returned to the calm, comfort and relaxation I had enjoyed hours earlier. As frustrating as it was beautiful, my blissful sleep was continually interrupted by the infinite array of variables which inevitably cause sleeping in a car to be near impossible for me. Despite these distractions time passed without incident and Columbus Montana was upon us. We made out last phone calls to girls, moms, and dads who loved us before our cell phones were rendered useless by a place which had no concern for the need to be constantly connected.
As the road turned to dirt we came across a very lost horse who was trying to figure out how to return to the pasture where it belonged. Perhaps, that is what this journey meant to us, a return to a place where we all felt we belonged or were at least supposed to be. As with the mental process of most young men, we believed we were the biggest bad asses around for attempting such an absurd idea as to climb Granite Peak during the winter. Thus, you can imagine our shock when the West Rosebud parking lot contained two other vehicles. One with another group of climbers who were sorting gear and preparing to head in. This was the first time we met Roy and Jeff.
The other pair of climbers set off a half hour or so earlier than we did, leaving the three of us to sort our gear and saddle up. In the foot steps of our fellow combatants, we set off past the small group of houses at West Rosebud and into the ensuing wild. This was our third trip into the Granite area in the winter (1 st attempt). The other two trips we departed under the cover of darkness on the approach. So the the addition of the area's natural beauty this time lessened the dull foot after foot hypnotism which is usually associated with the first leg of our journey. The aptly named "funnel" came with the same emotion as it always does. You feel like you are about to embark into a region which is not only beyond the control of man, but controls man.
Here we finally caught up with the two climbers from the parking lot. They introduced themselves as Roy and Jeff. We both danced around our motivations for the week, but finally confided in each other that we were both here to climb Granite Peak. It seemed like a logical idea to combine forces, and we swapped our ideas on the climb and logistics. We agreed to make the mouth of Huckleberry our destination for the evening and proceeded in that direction after a light lunch of the egg salad sandwiches purchased at the Absorkee IGA.
As before, Mystic Lake was locked in time by a layer of ice several feet thick. Massive disjointed pieces of ice surrounded the frozen lake level creating a maze of unseen cracks and gaps large enough to swallow our team. After a few less than happy moments we reached the lake, from here to the other side it was a collage of tense moments embedded within the joy of skinning across a perfectly flat surface. With the lake behind us we were only a few hundred yards from our previously agreed campsite. Locating the bridge over Huckleberry creek came with immense joy as we discovered the skin track Austin and I had set a few weeks prior was still usable. With all signs go, we made camp, feasted on Top Romen, and returned to the calm, comfort, and relaxation of sleep.
Mystic to Froze to Death
She was there, she had been there, and she always will be there; by the time we awoke the sun had already risen many hours earlier on the North face of Granite Peak. Casting an orange glow onto her frozen face as she sat watching the ages flow by like I might stand on the bank of a river and watch water rush past. However, because of our new found confidence, instilled by the discovery of our old skin track, we were in no hurry to depart from camp. We broke camp at our leisure, and began climbing the drainage around 10:30 am.
As we ascended we noticed several diverging skin tracks with corresponded ski tracks coming down. It looked as if someone else had utilized our skin track for a bit of backcountry fun through the tight glades surround Huckleberry Creek. By 12:30 pm that afternoon we reached the point at which Austin and I were forced to turn back several weeks earlier due to a binding malfunction. From here forward it would be all new terrain for everyone of us. Surprisingly enough, breaking trail proved to be much less work than anticipated (aside from the ocasional bushwhack). Several hours later we were free of the grips of sub-alpine and were sitting at the base of a thousand foot scree slope. Atop this massive pile, of once consolidated rock, was the yellow brick road (aptly named Froze to Death Plateau) endeding at the Emerald City of Granite, snow, and ice. Scarecrow, Tinman, Lion, Dorothee, and of course Toto began to climb.
We kept a good pace, but varying conditions (thigh deep snow to iced over gravel) caused us to progress slower than anyone of us would've liked to. Despite this minor setback the weather was unbeatable and the view was breathtaking. The several hours we spent ascending to the plateau made all of us feel alive and accomplished, and we understood why the frigid cold of the mountain (not Cancun or Arizona) was the place we'd live out our spring break adventure.
The plateau was a completely alien world compared to our previous night's camp. It was a strikingly simple arrangement of snow, rock, and extremely robust flora extending for miles. The landscape was dramatically parametrized by cliffs that seldom degraded to a scree slope (like the one we climbed). Nightfall was approaching fast and a small evening disturbance brought a chilled wind and light snow to our camp. We scrambled to organize our live in an uncaring environment completely unaffected or unaware of the change in weather. We cooked inside our tents that night and found rest in the confidence that we were well on our way to success.
Froze to Death to Tempest
Again, we awoke late, but again found little agitation in such a fact. Sadly, Roy had to return to the far off and strange land of civilization due to a previous medical issue. After exchange contact information we said goodbye to both Roy and Jeff and wished them our best.
Austin, Chris, and I progressed on with the goal of making Tempest mountain, leaving us within striking distance of the summit the following day. Additionally, Tempest only lay a few miles away and a shorter day would give some much needed time to prepare our bodies and minds for what tests summit day would bring.
I had assumed Froze to Death would retain enough snow so that I could like snow patches together and skin along. However, this land of perpetual wind obviously lacked the capacity to do so. I was therefore forced to carry my splitboard on my back as we trudged forth. Thankfully, only a few thousand yards from camp I was able to find a patch of snow with an area worthy to dawn my splitboard. From here on out, I would hop from snow patch to snow patch, destroying my edges over the rock which lay between. My partners on the other hand had snowshoes and had no problem. Regardless, I would rather drag those boards on my feet than hump them on my back.
We reached the bivouac shelters by mid-afternoon and made camp. The weather was impeccable, and we were kicking ourselves for not pushing harder earlier so that this might have been our summit day. The world was at complete peace with now wind, warm temperatures, and not a cloud in the sky. After spending most of the afternoon lounging about, scouting the route, and doing a bit more reading in our trusty guide (cosmo), evening was upon us. Chris had never planned to summit and was going to stay at this location with a radio. Austin and I were planning on departing sometime around 3:00am in order to be on the summit as early as possible. Thus, the minute it became dark enough to sleep, we did just that, or so we hoped to.
A Night Next to Tempest and A Morning to Remember
We said our respective farewells and headed off toward sleep. Gripped by exhaustion from the climb, the skin, school, work, and life in general; I slept. I slept so hard that when the sound of the tent lapping in the wind awoke me, I assumed it must be near time to leave. Only a half hour had past since I closed my eyes. Austin and Chris were already awake and I asked how long it had been blowing. They told me the wind had picked up only ten or so minutes earlier, but it was growing in strength. Within a half hour gusts were peaking between 40 and 60 mph. Camped only a hundred yards from the edge of the Tempest plateau, the wind broke over the lip and eddied as it hit our tent. Sustained winds whipped our tent from the east for a minute and then with the snap of a finger the wind would shift to the south, then from directly above, and then dead calm. This continued with increasing intensity until our first tent stay popped. Austin suited up into all the clothes he brought and ventured out to assess and repair the damage. He returned a half hour later with the tent anchored firmly and we all tried to ignore what this might mean for our summit attempt. An hour or so later the alarm signaling 3am sounded, it was still blowing. We hoped this might be an isolated nocturnal event like the night before, so we cooked a quick meal and headed out.
As we approached the edge of the Tempest Plateau we the roar of a jet engine became more pronounced, until it dawned on us that the wind was funneling up the Huckleberry Drainage and exiting vertically over the lip of the Tempest massif. If you've ever watched a mountaineering film in which the editors used the sound of a low horn coupled with a panoramic shot of a big mountain for dramatic effect, than you can imagine the sound Austin and I were walking toward. We found the trail down to the saddle and proceeded to follow it for as far as we could. Drift upon drift took us off trail before we'd stumble across what could logically pass for a trail before it was once again lost in a drift. The wind was not as bad as to be expected but when it did present itself in gusted with enough force to knock one of us tumbling down to Avalanche Lake, several thousand feet below. However, in the dark this presented little threat to either one of us because our world excluded Avalanche Lake or even the several thousand feet of tumble. Our world consisted of the warmth of our parkas around us and an infinitesimally small beam of light extending ten or so yards from our helmets. We'd pass a carin and you'd try to remember it's location, but the dark the carin would leave your frame of reference so quickly they were little to no use. Several times we encountered a shoot filled with snow. You'd look up and then down searching for a path around, but the snow seemed to extend upward or downward with no end. I'd cautiously venture out a few feet into the shoot, evaluating its stability as I proceeded, before I'd make a hasty crossing. Austin would follow and we continued on. Existing became extremely simple, you didn't talk, you did worry about your grades or the money, you just moved toward a destination which was reported on the map as being the highest point within some abstract boundary assigned by long dead men.
Our world was slowly expanding as it grew toward 5am. We had been unable to reach Chris thus far on the radio, but assumed it was due to a lack of line of sight. As our world became large enough to see the state of the weather around us, it became ever more apparent the summit was well out of the question. We reached the Tempest/Granite col at 6 am on the 11th of March, the closest Austin and I have made it to the summit. Our world now included most of the Beartooth plateau and the black sky above it. Not black with night but black with anger. Both Austin and I new this wasn't going to go, but neither of us wanted to be the one to say no. Finally we somehow agreed that we both thought we should turn back, but that we should head directly from the col to the summit of Tempest. After raising Chris on the radio to inform him of the change in our plans we said goodbye Granite and began to ascend toward Tempest. An hour or so of climbing later we reached the summit of Tempest, but did not stay long due to the obvious speed at which the storm was approaching.
We watched the land turn from dark to orange and then back to dark as the sun crested over the horizon somewhere around Billings. She stared at us and we stared right back, her face lite up like it had been doused in an orange paint of morning light. It was almost as if she felt sorry for us, like she really wanted us to touch the ridge, cross the snowbridge, and look down through the keyhole as we celebrated on the summit. Perhaps somehow if she could look beautiful enough for us we might return. But for some reason I lack the capacity to understand, her hidden desire to have a visitor was overrun by an even larger presence which I lack an even greater capacity to explain or understand. Looking her in the face we understood the lonely life she leads. As we gazed for miles in all directions in the morning light, it was unsettlingly clear how alone this mountain is. I sit franticly type away sitting in a comfortable chair at my computer, and she is alone. In the dark she is waiting quietly. Her north face swept by wind or perhaps being touched by a trace of snow. The summit, and snowbridge, and the bivouac sites, are all waiting. Waiting for the beauty for which she showed us to seep into our veins and consume our lives until we are forced to return. Thus, to her I promise, I solemnly swear, I will visit you again in the winter when you are cold and alone and I will stand atop your summit.