“Rock!” Oh no, I just knocked a grapefruit-sized chunk of granite down towards two of my teammates. My knee was blocking it from view and I kicked it. There was only enough time for Boston Will to turn his back before the boulder smashed into his lower shoulder blade. I had broken my own rules.
One, there was too much distance between me as the lead and the three other climbing team members below. And two, I should have made them clear the fall line before I moved.
The space between us was due to me trying to route find. On the side of Granite Peak, at 12,000 feet, there is no trail. We were nearing the top of the “SW Ramp” and had hit an impossible pass. Big wall we couldn’t get around or over. I started backtracking, looking for the little gap on the climber’s left going down that would lead us out of the Ramp and around the obstacle.
Picture a steep mountain face. Then draw a diagonal line from the top right corner to the bottom left. That line is the SW Ramp, a skinny little section that’s like a Pringles tube, cross cut, that you can climb up. If a rock falls from the top, it will continue down the tube and there’s no way you can avoid it.
Will screamed upon impact.
“Damn, dude, so sorry; I didn’t see it! You good?” Will didn’t respond but David, who was two-feet away and could have been the one that was struck, gave me a shame and disappointment glare. In my defense, it was my first mistake, albeit a huge one.
I descended back level with them, but on the opposite side of the shoot, climbed up and found the way out. The exposure was huge. I wrapped around the wall, not looking at the death drop-off to my right. I found the way out, but why was I even doing this?
Three months earlier I was on Facebook reading about all the people talking about doing Granite Peak, the highpoint of Montana, around the time of the Highpointers Convention.
(A quick statement about highpointers. Half have no real connection to mountains or nature. They are on a scavenger hunt without any background in backpacking, climbing or hiking. The other half have been hiking and climbing and camping forever, and saw highpointing as an extension of that.)
I was getting jealous that so many people were going to have one of the top- five hardest state highpoints completed and I wasn’t. Started really studying the route. Could I do it? Didn’t want to hire a guide and might have to go solo. OK, I could climb it with the right conditioning (close to 30 miles roundtrip at high elevation) and a bit more work in the rock climbing gym. Could I afford it?
Starting looking at flights. 500 bucks, eff that, no way, I couldn’t pay that. I went home and cried to my wife Megan. She told me to stop being such a baby, and that for Father’s Day and my birthday in August she would get the ticket. I love my cellmate.
Once the flight was booked, it had to be done. Find a rental car, hotel for one night, and all the logistical planning. From Bozeman, Montana, to the wilderness area where you can park your car. It’s up some crazy mountain road that’s hard to navigate. Would I need 4-wheel drive? Memorize the road, the turns.
What’s the weather, will I need crampons and an ice axe? What about climbing gear? How cold?
For the next three months leading up to the trip it was all planning. Running three times a week, rock climbing in the gym a couple times, diet, almost no drinking (the worst part of training) and studying topos and maps. It would be the first time I hiked off trail and would have to do the navigating completely by myself.
The trip almost didn’t happen. My alarm was set wrong and just before I fell asleep my wife Megan said, “Check your alarm again,” and it saved me! Woke up at 3:30 a.m., on time.
Drove an hour to the Cleveland airport. Parked car, shuttled to terminal. (Tons of Cavs championship gear!) Checked bag (it weighed 49 pounds and the limit was 50!) and flight to Chicago. Two-hour layover because I wanted to save $70 when choosing flights. Boarded at Chicago to fly to Montana and sat on the runway for an hour. Had to de-board because of an air conditioning unit malfunction. New flight two-hours later. The more the passengers became upset, the calmer I remained. Ohio to Montana in a day? Used to take months and half your party would die of malaria and fucking cholera and shit. Relax. Flights get delayed and canceled. Walk next time.
Arrived in Bozeman, Montana, around 4 p.m. Rental car line, walking to car with 50-pound stuff sack over my shoulder. Drove to Bob’s Outdoor Store to get bear spray and fuel for my stove. Can’t fly with either.
Grizzly bears were my number-one fear heading into this trip, more than flying, driving, rockfall, slipping and mountain lions. I watched tons of videos on bear attacks, how to survive them and everything in between. I’m a grizz expert now. How do you stay safe? Be loud; if you sneak up on a bear they will attack. Two, keep a CLEAN camp. No food in the tent or around the area. Eat, cook and store food away from camp. Three, don’t run or they will chase. Four, if you find yourself between a sow and cubs, you are fucked. She will attack. Take bear spray out and discharge when she is 30-feet away. Aim low as it will rise and you don’t want to overshoot. Five, if a bear is stalking you or attacks your tent, it is there to eat you, and you must fight back. If it is just startled, play dead. Six, if the bear is attacking you, leave your pack on as it creates a barrier between its claws and your spine. Roll onto your stomach. The bear will try to roll you over. You have a split second, when it tries to roll you, to stab it in the face and get away.
After procuring the bear mace and fuel, I went to the Lucky 7 Motel in downtown Bozeman to pick up climbing team member Will. He was a 31-year-old kid from Boston and he contacted me about a ride to the “trailhead” on Facebook. Shaved head, medium build and fairly thick frame from all the Spartan races and cross-fit.
Three minutes into the drive, he said, “I had time to kill since your flight was delayed, so I went to this coffee house and talked to this smokin’ hot girl. Got ‘er num-bah.”
I was going to say something like, wait, you’re Will from Boston, talking about getting her “num-bah,” and I’m not supposed to make a Good Will Hunting “how do you like dem apples” joke? Too early, I thought. He’ll see the depths of my depravity soon enough.
We headed east on I-90, with its 80-mph speed limit, for 40 miles and then due south on 89 for another 40 minutes to the Wyoming/Montana state line, that also served as the entrance to Yellowstone National Park (more or less, no Internet truthers!). This was actually the quickest way to Cooke City, Montana, the town closest the trailhead, so it was a pretty scenic commute.
Extremely wide rivers, endless slabs of granite spilling into them, rafters, horseback riders and gnarly evergreens. After continuing south into the Park for 30 minutes we headed east again at the Mammoth Springs area of Yellowstone, as female full-grown elk ran across the road. Cruising along the north rim of the Park. Bison. Now that’s one amazing animal. Glad we almost extincted-it. Saw elk and antelope, too.
“You’re married, right?” Will asked between clicking photos of the bison, leaning out the window of my Toyota Corolla.
“Yeah, my cellmate is pretty cool.”
“Cellmate, ha, that’s funny. I was in a serious relationship for a while. Vermont girl, actually. We did the long distance relationship thing and one day, she’s like, ‘I’m moving to Boston.’ Thought she was moving there for me, right? Small town girl, from Vermont, gonna move to the city and not change? Ya, right. She’d been there for a month and did a complete change. That girl, you wouldn’t know her now. Broke up with me. Took it pretty hard,” Will said.
“Heartbreak sucks, but at least you found out who she really was sooner than later, man, I mean—”
“Holy shit look at that bison. Everyone always says, ‘buffalo,’ but they are wrong. We don’t have buffalo in America.”
“Only the shitty football team,” I said.
Boston Will and I got along really well and three hours of driving later put us back north into Montana and we arrived in Cooke City and met up with the two other members of the climb team, Minnesota David and San Jose Ryan.
Originally, I had planned on going completely alone. But a week before the trip, the fear of camping solo with the grizzly bears finally got to me. So I put a post on FB about wanting to camp within a mile of other climbers that were on the route. Minnesota David, Boston Will and San Jose Ryan had already agreed to be a team, but were happy to add another “experienced” member considering the route was so insane from start to finish.
I still packed as if I was going alone, not wanting to be dependent on them for shared tent, stove, food or most importantly, navigation. I just needed other humans so that Grizzlies wouldn’t eat me. “I’m sure I’m faster than at least one of you,” I joked on the message board before we left.
The Soda Butte Lodge was our dinner spot in Cooke City. The old mining town looked the same as it did when the gold-seekers settled it 200 years ago. I ordered a flat bread pizza so I could pack in a few slices the next day.
We agreed to meet at the trail at 7:45 a.m. and be ready to hike at 8. We were all supposed to go over gear in Will’s hotel room at the Soda Butte Lodge after dinner. I could tell by the packing and general disorganization in Will’s room that this would be the biggest backpacking trip Minnesota David (a self-described “half-ginger” of medium height and very short blonde to rust hair) and Boston Will had yet to do. San Jose Ryan (of tall and skinny climber’s build) seemed to be in control, and based on his resume (slightly better than mine, damn you Ryan, damn you!) of summiting Rainier, I didn’t have any trepidations concerning him.
Just before leaving I asked San Jose Ryan and Minnesota David where they were staying.
“Probably just camp at the trailhead,” Ryan said.
Grizzlies were spotted two miles up the road at a campground they had to shut down. I didn’t want half of my team dead before we started.
“Well, you two can crash on my floor, I’m stayin' at the Alpine Motel across the street. I’m not worried about any cash,” I said.
“Oh, I definitely want to do that,” David said in his thick Minnesota accent, heavy on the vowels, Fargo-like.
“Would you have room for one of us to crash on your floor, too?” David asked Will.
After a pause, Will said, “Sure, if you wanna give me half for the room you can sleep on the floor. Fair is fair, right?”
I took David and Will took Ryan. (No money was ever exchanged although David did buy me an egg and cheese muffin and coffee on our way out of town the next morning.)
Crashed around midnight, 2 a.m. Ohio time, almost up for 24-straight hours of stress travel and would be up six-hours later to start the most grueling experience of my life (outside of marriage, har-har, jk, love you babe!)
Waking at 6 a.m., the last shower for days, and the last use of a good toilet. Never, ever, forget how blessed we are to have indoor plumbing. Got to the trailhead parking area but I knew there was a route that would save us a half-mile. Everyone packed into my white Corolla, and we drove up the unpaved, rocky, pot-holed-filled road. Five-to-six cars from trout fisherman and lake campers were also at the secret spot and I couldn’t find room. Tried to go around the cars like I had Gravedigger and got stuck. What an idiot. Nonsense and failure before we got started.
Luckily Will was able to source the problem, a large log on one side of the wheel, and a boulder on the other. I cleared the boulder, thought about not having full coverage on the rental, floored it, got out and parked.
The bad news was that Will left his gloves on the top of the car at our first stop and they had blown off. Gloves were a necessity. I had to do the drive all over again. Good news was that we found the gloves and were on the trail at 9 a.m.
We started around 8,000 feet, in a lush high-altitude zone, so you had grass and mosquitos and tall pines and lakes and wide rivers, but everything was sparse with big gaps in scenery.
For the first two miles, there was a pretty well-established path from the trout fisherman and horses. We followed that to Lady of the Lakes, a great spot to glare at the water and have the sun’s reflection do the same thing back.
From Lady of the Lakes, navigation now became paramount. I memorized the fuck out of this terrain. I know I have a big ego or whatever, but credit where credit is due. I was the pilot, and no one on the team will tell you differently.
“I don’t think we’re going the right way,” said the Minnesota accent of David.
“We are,” I said, not breaking stride.
“I want to stop and look at the map,” David said.
“Let’s keep moving; I guarantee we are on the right course,” I said.
“I guarantee we aren’t,” David said.
“Whoa, now, is that a Minnesota guarantee?”
“Hell yes it is,” David said.
“OK,” I said, “but we are keeping track. Every time someone is right or wrong.”
I was 6-0 by the end of the first day and the “Minnesota guarantee” became an ongoing joke. For four complete strangers, team morale and chemistry was pretty amazing the whole time and I thought we all got along really well.
After four miles of pretty easy hiking, we arrived at the tri-river crossing, where, as the name implies, three rivers ran together. I found the easy crossing, but the group preferred switching footgear and making it more difficult because they had not yet fully accepted my leadership. Ha. But for real.
Footwear was my only complaint about teammate Ryan, a California-born mountaineer with a French girlfriend that was close to equal to me in height at 6”1, but he had dark short hair to my grey sides fading into a brown-top mop.
Contemporary mountaineers love the mantra of “light and fast,” so instead of a heavier waterproof hiking shoe or boot, Ryan went with almost a running shoe. As a result, we had to be extra careful with river crossings and many times I wanted to take the shortest distance between two points, but we were unable because dude couldn’t get his feet wet.
But overall, Ryan was a badass. Stayed calm and cool the entire climb. Was well conditioned and using little bits of duct tape to mark our route so we could find the way back down near the summit was the stuff of fucking legend.
After the three-rivers crossing, you walk a couple of miles through what is known as the Sky Top Drainage, where all the rivers and lakes flood a giant flat plane. Mountain flowers and the amazing sound of hard water flowing aggressively over rock.
At the end of the Drainage, it was finally time to start cutting into elevation. With 30-pound packs, it’s hard work, especially because you simply can’t get enough oxygen to flow to your muscles. Crisscrossing up the hard ground and small rocks until we made it Lone Elk Lake.
I lead the team to the left side of the lake, then around the right side of Rough Lake, going ever-up. I was actually thinking to myself, man, I’m pretty sure about this, but not sure. And every time it worked out. It seemed like I had done the trip tens of times and I never shared my insecurities with the group.
After Rough Lake it was another big ascent to get to the Sky Top Lakes area. I was outvoted on a shortcut but we made it to the second lake in the chain after 10.5 miles and close to nine hours of heavy pack hiking.
“I’m not going any further,” I told the group. The “where to camp” debate started on the FB message boards before we started. Ryan wanted to go to Sky Camp, the highest camp that would put us at the base of the mountain for summit day. That’s a great plan if packs didn’t weigh anything. Think of it like this: you can hike with your heavy pack to Sky Camp at get up at 6 a.m. and be right there ready to make your summit push. I can camp three miles earlier, get up at 4 a.m., and meet you at the same spot at 6 a.m. having carried less weight and able to move faster out of the backcountry, sooner. It’s just preference per climber, but for me, it was an experience thing.
My regular climbing partner and cousin Dusty and I hiked-in 3 miles for Mt. Marcy in the winter and camped in -14F. There was no need for a base camp—just leave earlier. On Mt. Whitney, I hiked all the way up to the high camp, around 6 miles and 12,000 feet, and was mad for doing so. Met a guy that left at 1a.m. from the portal and he took his time and was physically fine, because he didn’t have a giant pack. I left at 4am from base camp and we were at the same spot below the 97 Switchbacks.
Once everyone was OK with stopping at that lake, there was another “conversation” as to exactly where to camp. Minnesota David had his heart set on a spot right next to the other climbers’ tents. I thought space would be a good idea. Really, he was just gassed and didn’t want to move rocks and clear a new area. That’s understandable, but on a giant mountain you have to give room.
I had an amazing view of the Lake, black spires and the granite mountains all around us. Where the one lake drained into another there was a pretty fast-flowing river. That’s where you want to get your water, even if you are purifying.
Will opted for the standing water of the lake. I packed in an empty 3-liter plastic jug and filled it up and purified it. I learned from Whitney it sucks to retrieve water every 20 minutes and you have to dramatically pound water when you get to basecamp anyway.
One, you have lost a lot of liquid over the 10.5 mile hike and need to replenish. Two, and more importantly, you have to continue to acclimate. The best way to adapt to over 10,000 feet is by drinking a ton of water. The more you drink, the more white blood cells are transported to areas of need in your body.
Will had taken altitude medicine the day before in an attempt to get ahead of any sickness and was debating taking more now, asking if anyone else wanted some.
“Don’t think it will do any good for me now,” San Jose Ryan started, “that medicine is designed to open your lungs and help you breathe deeper. But all you have to do is inhale deeper. It’s really for sleeping, so you continue to take deep breaths. So just do that until you sleep and you should be fine,” Ryan concluded through Rainier wisdom.
After water I fired up my pocket rocket stove, which is weird to cook with a dildo, but whatever. Then dumping the boiling water into a pouch of dehydrated three-cheese lasagna. But my water didn’t really boil, and I didn’t let it stand long enough so it was crunchy. I then boiled water for everyone else. Had to tell Will twice to remove the dehydration packet so he didn’t die.
Mid-meal, four climbers appeared to be rounding the lake in front of us, returning from Granite. They owned the three tents that were set up in the area.
“Do you go for Granite?” I asked, close enough to them now to see the pure exhaustion on their faces.
“We did, the bearded man in the green puffy coat and un-lit headlamp said, “but we had to help get that climber down.”
“What happened? What climber?” I asked nervously.
“A kid fell,” he said, “pretty bad. They had to life flight him off the mountain.”
“No shit?!?!” I said.
“He was trying to come down the Ramp but overshot it along the summit ridge. Instead of retracing his steps, he tried to cut back across the face and ended up falling into the Ramp. Fell like 20 feet, but then kept rolling down once he hit. The crazy—”
“Did he have REM?” David interrupted.
“The crazy thing was he was unconscious but it really seemed like he knew we were there.”
“Did he have rapid eye movement?” David asked again.
“One eye was closed and the other was just slightly opened, like he was barely looking at you, but he wasn’t,” the climber said.
“When did you leave for the summit, how long did it take you to get to the top from here?” Will asked.
“I don’t know,” the man continued, “we got up at 4 a.m., cooked oatmeal and left at 4:45 a.m. At the base by 6:45 a.m. Then started up the Ramp,” he said going back towards his tent after a miserable day and adding hours and hours by helping the fallen climber.
“Good job sticking to the climbers’ code guys, and get yourselves right mentally; don’t carry that accident back with you,” I said.
(Update 8/30/16: 19-year-old Thomas Craig Pfeifle died from injuries sustained during the fall. Condolences to his friends and family, and to the amazing climbers that helped him.)
When dinner was completed, Boston Will got out his .357 that he brought along for bear protection.
“Hey, you want to check out my gun?” he asked, pointing it right at me.
I quickly said yes and took it. My thumb slid the lock down and out spun the wheel. Before I gave it a turn I could tell it was empty. Thank God.
It was given back to Will and again it was waived in my direction.
“Don’t point that fucking gun at me, man,” I said.
“It’s not loaded, you know that, you just checked it.”
Ryan, who was observing the interaction from five-feet away, sitting on a rock said, “But isn’t that the idea, that you are supposed to act like it’s loaded all the time?”
“Yeah, suppose you’re right,” Will said.
Another debate about when to get up. To me it was pretty simple: with the rockfall, we needed to be the first team on the route. So I said 3:45 to be hiking by 4, arriving at the base at sunrise. Had I known it was going to take David and Will close to 45 minutes to be ready, it would have been 3:00 a.m.
My daypack was ready to go. One liter of water, water purifying tablets, PB&J (the altitude sucks all the moisture from the sandwich, so it’s like eating peanut butter chalk), couple Cliff bars, a power bar, shades, GoPro, GPS device and my watch that had a built-in barometer so if there was a crazy drop in pressure, we’d know to turn around.
Minnesota David was the only other one that brought a daypack. He had half-agreed to let Boston Will use it. But changed his mind. As a result, Will asked the other climbers that had help save the fallen climber if he could borrow a day pack; they obviously said no.
Just after dusk, I climbed into my little one-man tent. Two pounds so it’s thin fabric and not warm. I also decided to bring a 35-degree bag instead of the 15 because of the weight. “Light n Fast” blah, blah.
To bed I wore: thin synthetic long john bottoms, thin nylon pants, no socks because my feet sweated all day and had swamp foot and needed to dry out, long john top, thin fleece, thick fleece, windproof shell. Should have put on my winter hat and gloves. Climbed into my bag and froze all night. Thin blood from the humid Ohio summer.
Too excited and shivery to fall asleep. So hard to breathe. Conscious of the deep breaths but still feeling like getting air through a thin straw. Somehow 3:45 a.m. finally came.
Day 3: Summit Day
4:45 a.m., headlamps on, we started following the shoreline around the lake. The mountains didn’t fall gradually or equally into Sky Top, so you would have to climb up and over boulders and small little faces to continue to stay close to the water.
No trail and darkness and stars and it was SO FUN! Every step became a success. Eventually we cleared the four lakes and began the uphill hike to the base of Granite. Non-stop bolder hopping. Couldn’t move very fast. Dawn finally arrived when we were at the last water hole. Headlamp switched out for the GoPro.
The rocks were grey-black with green patches from dried vegetation. Looked like Ireland. We bolder-hopped up a steady grade until we hit an ice field. Took that until some large talus and back to hopping. Finally arriving at the bottom of Granite.
The approach to the Slab was steeper than it looked in the videos. Which meant it was only going to be worse in the Ramp.
With the grade, it was the first time I had to use my hands. Shopped at two different outdoor stores but finally settled on my tight, rubber-bottomed gardening gloves from my garage. Perfect.
The old Snow Tongue had melted into two little patches. So instead of walking up it and avoiding the steep section, you now had to go around. I was advised online to go to the left, and that indeed was the correct way. Again I thought, shit, if getting around that was more than I wanted it to be, what lay ahead?
Past the Snow Tongue we finally reached the bottom of “The Slab.” It was a 200-foot-tall piece of slick granite, very distant and noticeable. Now it was time to get serious. Rockfall really began then.
Hugging tight to its base and wall, we hiked up along side The Slab until we reached the other end. A quick right turn and climb up a 10-foot section of wall entered you into “The Ramp” aka the rock fall death zone aka the Pringles tube filled with rocks.
Ryan took the initial lead and we stayed to the right, shouldering the wall, using our hands the whole time. Class three scrambling. The team stayed tight. I know I’ve been hard on the team, but when it mattered most, everyone was totally solid in The Ramp and on the summit and during the descent, the most dangerous part.
The first difficult move had ice below the rock in the Ramp, but had a red rope tied around a boulder at the top with little knots in it. Never trust a rope you didn’t place, they say. Seemed secure enough to us. They key is to use it just as a backup, not putting all your weight on it or securing your balance from it.
Ryan wanted to start his approach more to one side, so he tossed the rope over five feet. Bad. We could only see the first 10 feet of the rope before it disappeared behind the rock above. So he scraped the loose rock off the top when he dragged the rope across to reposition.
We heard it first then yelled, “Rock!” Luckily it missed us all. Scary even with our climbing helmets.
Ryan got out his ice axe and started up. It was still the early morning so the snow was hard and slick like lubricated concrete on a steep hill. With that grade, if you are going to use an ice axe, you’ll need solid footing. Only way to get that is with micros or crampons, which we didn’t have. Ryan had brought the axe close to 13 miles for this section, against, cough, cough, my advice, cough, and he just had to use it. After a couple of minutes he abandoned it as an aide and just climbed the rope. He is a man of conviction, I’ll give him that and a lot of my respect.
I sped up the line and we waited for Minnesota David and Boston Will, whose moves were fluid and clean, easily ascending.
More scrambling along the right side until we hit what is know as “The Crux,” the steepest part of the pitch. Again, a blue rope was placed and we took advantage. That was going to suck on the way down, regardless of the rope. It’s not like we had harnesses or our own rope or carabineers or a belay device. Wasn’t really needed, either.
Never-ending scrambling finally ended. We hit a wall—the end of the Ramp, the top of the Pringles can we’d been climbing through. A man on the mountain yesterday told me, if you get to the end, and you see a purple sling, then you’ve gone too far.
The purple sling was staring at me. I down climbed a bit and didn’t let Will and David clear the area and that’s when I kicked the rock down on Will at the start of this story.
I exited the Ramp and the exposure on the outside of the tube was pretty crazy. Climbing was less steep, as we were following a narrow yet gradual goat trail, but if you slipped it could be all over. Especially if you peaked too far over the edge of The Gash, a straight drop off to your right.
With all the rocks looking the same, Ryan brought a pinch of duct tape, the size of a roll of pennies, and marked as we went.
Eventually, there was a person on the summit 100-yards away that I could see. Sooooo close.
Summit Ridge to true summit. The rock formation that I had seen in others’ summit photos time and time again.
Probably my least enjoyable summit experience. So anxious about the down climb and rock fall. The views were amazing and so glad clouds didn’t rob me of my view like on Whitney.
Wind began to pick up. Team of four climbers with a female guide noticed and started down. She said, “How are there eight guys here and only one woman?”
“And you’re a better climber than all the guys here,” I said.
Down climbing sucked. The duct tape was a success. An older gentleman promised to remove them on his way down. Pleaded, actually, as we had already removed some.
Past the two roped moves and at the base of the Slab. Couple of jabroni climbers had caught us and were raining down some boulders. Missed Will and David, the last two down, somehow.
On the way back to base camp, Will rolled his ankle and was slow. David was gassed so they stayed together. Ryan and I went on ahead to use the facilities. Not fun.
Will and David arrived a half-hour later and got some rest in the tent. Ryan and I really wanted to pack up and move down at least two miles, less exposure and wind, bit warmer and be closer to the exit for tomorrow.
After a little reluctance, Will and David agreed to pack up and move.
“Just let me get a snack first,” Will said in the tent.
A few minutes passed and David said, “Wait, you are eating Salmon right now?!?”
“Yes,” Will said.
“The whole tent smells like salmon now you idiot,” David said.
“Oh my god, you’re right,” Will said.
“Do you have cougar snacks in there as well?” I asked from outside the tent.
We doused Will in hand sanitizer, packed up and headed down the mountain with me setting the pace and route. I knew spots to cut corners and even with Ryan’s river phobia, we chopped close to a mile off our original route.
“How far do you want to go tonight?” Ryan asked while walking, away from David and Will who were a bit behind us.
“Seriously, I’d go to the car tonight. Do 17 miles today, whatever, I just want to be done and out. I still have energy. Trained hard for this. Took two months off drinking. Hiked with weights in a backpack up and down the hills of Mohican. But wherever you all want to stop is fine. I’m not hiking out alone in Grizzly country at night.”
“I would go to the trailhead,” Ryan said.
“What do you mean, would go?” I asked.
“I want to hike out tonight. Car camp,” he said.
“See what the others say,” I said.
We waited for them to catch up.
“OK,” I said, “there are two options: either we go another mile, just south of Lone Elk Lake and camp, or hike all the way out tonight.”
“What? Hike out tonight, no way,” David said.
“I’d be down,” said Will.
“Down for what?” David asked him.
“Down to tough it out, even with my ankle, and get out tonight,” Will said.
“That’s not what you said, Adam, you said we were just going to hike down two miles and make a new camp.”
“That was the plan, but now it seems like three out of four of us want to hike out. And CAN hike out,” I said.
“No way, big mistake,” David said.
Nothing was concluded and after another half hour of down hiking we stopped for dinner. Ryan and I pulled out our rocket stoves and had water boiling within five minutes, everyone eating in 10.
I can’t tell you all what happened next. Some things, good or bad, that transpire on a climb, stay on the mountain and remain with the team.
Not too much longer after dinner I found an awesome place to camp. Bolder windbreak on both sides, wood for a fire, stones for a fire pit, close enough to a river for water and that amazing flowing-liquid sound.
Ryan and I set up on one side of the plateau, and the Salmon tent camped across the fire on the other. All food and scented items were removed from the area, including toothpaste and brushes.
Will and David were fast asleep and it was finally time to pour water on the fire and head to bed. Forgot to hang the food bag. I asked Ryan to help and we set off on a little hike away from camp. I almost had the bag good and secured when I heard a loud stick-cracking sound in the trees. It was dark and the headlamps only did so much. I reached for my bear mace. Fuck. I left it beside the tent. Not sure if I will ever equal that feeling of both vulnerability and stupidity.
We quickly returned to camp and the bag and the salmon tent were both still secure in the morning.
The seven-mile hike out after dawn was cake. Everyone was in good spirits and we made great time. Will took off his shirt and there wasn't a mark from the rock, thankfully; he's got some Wolverine healing in him. The tendon below the outside of my left ankle was pretty sore and I had to keep stuffing my sock down against it with my hiking pole to relieve the pain.
We all parted ways in Cooke City. Then started thinking about the intensity of the climb and I got pretty emotional. Not doing shit like that again. Too crazy.
The next day I was sippin’ whiskey on the flight from Bozeman back home, legs sore as hell, but content.
A grandmother of seven and I were chatting about the climb.
“It was crazy and fun and scary, and I just think, with having two young sons, I shouldn’t put myself in those situations until they are older, like in college.”
“Bullshit. You drove from Bozeman to Cooke City, right?” she asked.
Surprised by her aggressive approach, I said, “Yes.”
“Well, there have already been 121 traffic deaths on those mountain roads this year. Climbing Granite, sleeping in grizzly and cougar country, you know what the most dangerous thing you did this week was? Drive to the trailhead. You could die crossing the street tomorrow; live your life, son.”
Here's da video: