My Arch Nemesis
For me, Granite Peak in Montana has stood as my arch nemesis. The mountain that no matter what, for some reason, just did want my friends or I reaching her mysterious and rarely seen summit. She would throw ice, snow, wind, and lightning at us with such a fury that was unmatched by any other mountain I (or my friends) has ever set foot on. It was personal for us and it seemed for Granite Peak as well.
On June 25, after driving the dark and windy road up Lulu Pass Road, my friend Chuck and I finally arrived at our roadside campsite and joined the other 6 members of the team that would “join forces” and make our way up the lesser traveled Southwest Couloir Route . As we scrambled around in the dark and trying not to trip on the fallen burnt logs and rocks that littered the ground, we finally made camp and crawled into our tent to catch some sleep before our long journey ahead.
After waking the next morning, sorting gear, and getting a quick bite to eat we drove to the trail head father up the dirt road. Luckily, the road was in fair condition so my rented passenger car from Billings did not get stuck in one of the deep ruts and potholes that at times resembled the landscape of the moon. After arriving and posing for a ceremonial team photo at the Lulu Pass/Goose Lake Creek Trail sign, we started our long and soggy hike up the trail. Passing an old rusty dilapidated car that appeared to have been there since it was manufactured some years ago we continued passed an abandoned mining camp and crossed a small creek courtesy mother nature (a fallen log) and upward we went. The snow was very deep and trail finding was at times so hard only maps, GPS, and good old-fashioned guesswork navigated us through the trees. As we approached the Lady of the Lake, loons speckled the calm waters and moose tracks dotted the snow-covered trail.
Lower Aero Lake
After crossing Zimmer Creek, we peered upward at the “Heartbreak Hill”. After about an hour of slow climbing, post holing, and sliding backwards a few times, we crested the hill and peered at Lower Aero Lake which would become out camp for the night. Our ultimate goal was Upper Aero Lake, but give then amount of time it took given the snow conditions we settled for Lower. Finding a flat surface to camp was impossible so we stamped several flat areas for our tents near some rock outcroppings, pitched the tents, and started the long process of melting snow (boiling) for drinking water and to cook with and of course telling stories, sharing memories, and mountain experiences that we had all shared together.
Waking in the morning and after a quick breakfast, the team followed the trail north around the lake traversing at times steep snowfields and skating along the frozen lake. The southern route, given the time of year and snow conditions seemed much more difficult and we were unsure if we would be able to make the water crossing between Upper and Lower Aero Lake…so we played it safe. After a relatively easy hike, we reached a creek above the lake that was easily crossed after a small down climb of a rock structure and cornice.
Continuing on, we slowly made our way to Upper Aero Lake where we took what seemed to be the easier southern route (we went right). Up, down, and around hills and making several traverses of snowfields we reached a saddle that after a steep climb saw our first glimpse of Granite Peak . This view, to me, was much different than the East Rosebud Route/Phantom Creek Route we had taken in the past. From our distance you could see snow lining the steep Southwest Couloir and could clearly see route we would later take to the summit.
Weathering the Storm
After traversing down towards Sky Top Glacier to camp, the clouds turned a grayish huge and rain began to pour. Lightning shot down and thunder rang out so loudly the rocks we were walking on shook with a fury! As lightning struck around us we could see our shadows as if someone had illuminated us with a spot light. We all crouched down on our hands and knees and to set up our tents close to Sky Top Creek. With our clothes drenched with rain and shivering we all crawled into our tents and climbed into our sleeping bags to generate some sense of heat as not to become hypothermic. Periodically throughout the night I would wake to hear sleet falling on the roof of the tent. Given the fact that we had been weathered off Granite on other attempts, my friend Stu jokingly said the storm was Granite Peaks way of “letting us know” where we were!
As 5:30 am came on the morning of June 27th, my alarm clock rang in the new day. Unzipping the tent vents, I peered at Granite Peak as the morning sun shown brightly on the southwest face. I knew it was going to be a great day to climb! The atmosphere around the camp was buzzing with excitement and uncertainty. No one really knew if Granite Peak would allow us to finally reach her summit. As we geared up, 6 of us made our way past Sky Top Glacier and up to the first snow shoot and across the mountain to the Southwest Couloir. My first impression was “wow”. It was covered with snow and ice and seemed to go straight up for several hundred feet. We all knew it would be a lot of work, but the snow conditions were good and climbing conditions were great.
Summit at Last!
After a couple hours or intense climbing, we finally topped out on the Couloir and reached the boulders just below the summit. Scrambling upward passing over several exposed rocks, we walked near a large cornice and up onto the summit of Granite Peak . The summit was everything that I expected and more! I guess having to wait so long to reach her summit and why we were there made it that much more special. Our mission was the 2009 Cops on Top Summit for Heroes 50 state memorial expeditions. On that day (June 27th) teams from around the country were attempting state highpoints in honor of fallen law enforcement officers that have been killed in the line of duty. We were team MONTANA ! Climbing for the law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in the great state of Montana .
After taking picture and recording some video, we down climbed and glissaded for several hours towards Sky Top and back to camp where we spent the night and out the next day. Granite Peak was absolutely beautiful. The Southwest Couloir, known as the “bowling alley” by the locals for obvious reasons (rock falls) is a tough but very achievable route if you have the experience and mental and physical toughness.
Thank you to Larry V for adding this route and its description to Summitpost.com and to everyone that made additions. All the information came in handy and helped Team Montana reach its goal!
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