Granite Peak Summit via Skytop Route

Granite Peak Summit via Skytop Route

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 45.16328°N / 109.808°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 20, 2019
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Summer

United States High Point:  Montana – Beartooth Range – Granite Peak - 12,799'

Dates:  August 20 - 21, 2019

Facebook Link:  Montana State High Point: Granite Peak

Microsoft Word Trip Report:

All of the details related to this trip can best be found in the linked Microsoft Word Trip Report.

Following is the overview:

After my trek into the Wind River Range of Wyoming (August 13-17, 2019) and summiting Gannett Peak (State high point 13,805'), I drove a few hundred miles north into the Beartooth Range of Montana.  This locale is just a bit north of Yellowstone National Park.  The weather window was open for an attempt to summit Granite Peak (12,799'), the high point of Montana.  This trip report is rather lengthy since (a) there is a lot to say regarding Granite Peak (b) I hope that this report can be useful to folks that have Granite on their High Points list.

Executive Summary -- If you plan to hike / summit Granite Peak:
1. Target the SW Ramp route for a summit bid.
2. Be the first person heading up the mountain.
3. Consider a ~36 hour trek + summit window.

My first attempt to summit Granite Peak took place July 20-21, 2019.  The weather was agreeable.  During that trip, I made the approach from Lady of the Lake TH up to Skytop Lakes ~12 miles and setup camp.  I did not make the summit for one major reason -- my pack weight was 50+ pounds ... and I hiked all the way to high camp and was completely spent on arriving.  The morning after camping, I did some recon, made some notes and hiked back out with lessons learned.

I used the following Trip Report as recorded by Steve Eckert / July 2012 as a component of my research and preparation for this trek / summit.  It includes details per the Southwest Ramp approach, GPS waypoints and lots of photos.  This trip report along with my report should offer sufficient information for a safe and solo-summit.

After a successful summit of Gannett Peak in Wyoming, I look at the weather window for Granite Peak in Montana.  Wouldn't it be grand if I could take in both of these challenging High Points on one trek?  The weather looks good.  I make the five hour drive North after making reservations in Cooke City for lodging prior to and after the trek along with a stop in Cody Wyoming for various supplies: another bear bell, more trail grub, plus chicken, spuds, noodle salads for dinner prior to the trek up to Skytop Lakes.  Lodging at the Alpine Motel in Cooke City... prep my gear and have a chicken + salad buffet.  As for supplemental calories, I pour four Ensures (1400 calories) into a one liter bottle and plan to also carry two pounds of grapes to eat on the trail.  Night weather shows lots of clouds in Cooke City.

The following day: early morning breakfast, I pack everything into the car and the weather is looking agreeable.  There is a two mile drive out of Cooke City to the signed Lulu Pass gravel road on the left.  Following my GPS markings, I drive ~2.5 miles on the potholed and steep gravel road to the Lady of the Lake parking area and trailhead.  Final pack check and I head out at 8:35am.  The pack is feeling really good -- I recently invested in some lightweight equipment:
* 3# tent instead of the old 5 pounder.
* 20oz sleeping bag (the old one was 3+ pounds).
* 3# Salewa Crow hike+climb boots (crampon compatible) instead of running shoes for my approach + 7# double-shell insulated Denali mountain boots (hauled up in the pack).

The Plan is to complete the trek to high camp, overnight, summit and return to the trailhead in 36 hours.

I decided to leave my cooking gear in the car as a means to lower the pack weight and opt for simplicity.  Trail grub included: salami, jerky, Clif bars, Ensure and fruit -- this option worked very well during the five-day Gannett trek.  Trail departure time is 8:35am and the weather is looking good.

I hike in the first mile and meet an old timer from the Seattle area, William, who has been hiking for nearly 50 years and has never had a problem with bears nor prepares for bear encounters.  Next, I encounter two young guys from Montana, Brandon and Jake.  They are also heading to Skytop and for the summit.  Brandon had summitted two years earlier with his 56 year old dad ... tells me about the fixed ropes in the Ramp ... good to know.

I move on, hiking rather quickly and steadily as I oft do.  Over the streams which are much lower than back in July ... no need to even swap into the water shoes as the Salewa Crow GTX boots are working great.  The pack gets lighter as the two pounds of grapes and liter of Ensure are being enjoyed.

I keep moving ... up past Lone Elk Lake, Rough Lake and continue to follow the GPS waypoints (from the July 2012 trip report, link above).  Over the pass and up to Skytop lakes... so much snow has melted in the past four weeks.  Instead of going over the sloped snowfields that drop down into the lakes, the snow is gone ... I am now hiking over ample large rocks, slowly and carefully.  Make the crossing over large flat rocks that separate the two largest and northernmost Skytop lakes... and now I find the GPS waypoint for High Camp and there is a nice flat green area... the pack is dropped at 4:04pm... lots of daylight left in the day.

I see a helicopter ... flying around Granite Peak for nearly an hour.  On one pass, I see it has a cable and a parcel being carried off the mountain -- scientific instruments?  I learn the story the following day: A climber had fallen and was seriously injured - being helivaced off the mountain.

I put up my tent and have lots of light in the day ... so I walk toward the base of the mountain ... slow going, lots of large rocks... get rather close - I am able to get a visual on where the route is, take some pictures as the shadows advance across the Skytop basin.  The weather continues to look good... back to camp, get my pack ready .. enjoy a dinner of chicken parts and jerky.  The weather remains relatively calm.  Sleep a good six hours.

Awake and out the door by 4:45am.  The sky is lit up with stars and there is no moon casting light.  I am the only headlamp out there... another solo summit.  It takes a good 1.25 hours to get to the base of the mountain ... by 6am, there is a lot of sunlight in the sky but none has yet reached the basin.  The route ahead is clear.  The first part of the climb consists of moving slowly up a steep rock pile for about 500 feet.  Turn left on seeing some cairns and what looks like a possible use-trail and continue toward the northwest while gaining a bit of elevation.  Pass over about a hundred feet of snow as the use-trail and cairns become more obvious.  I get to the waypoint that shows the location of the SW Ramp ... and there is a tall cairn pile ... do not continue on to the SW Couloir.

Looking up the Ramp, it appears to be a steep rocky gully where the snow starts about 100+ feet up.  Climbing with hands and feet while the ice axe and poles are stashed.  Get up to the snow ... crampons on, ice axe and a pole are out.  The snow is striated with ice, stay in the snow portion of the gully where the ice axe offers 60-100 pounds of purchase.  Front kicking with crampons.  One careful step at a time.  Arrive at the first rope - it is about 40 feet long and has interspersed knots... effective means to move up the rocky slope.  Back on the snow and striated ice.  Repeat the four-pointing process with crampons, axe and pole.  Get to the next rope, located along the left side of the couloir.  It is ~50 feet, no knots, good quality rope -- stash the axe and pole, move up the slope.  Still another couple hundred feet of snow and ice remain after the rope, slow advance making sure every kick and pick takes a good bite.

While stopping for a short rest, I look down the steep snow and ice chute that I have been climbing and see two figures moving at the base of The Ramp.  They must be about 500 feet away.  Just then, a dinner-plate sized portion of ice dislodges from above me and starts rolling ... I shout "Ice Falling" -- they look up and see me -- then they vanish.  From the looks of it, that ice-disc made it down to the base of The Ramp.

Checking my GPS .. close to the waypoint for turning left ... I see some cairns, turning onto the steep broken rock … there is a lot of loose rock here.  Arrive at the overlook that views down the gash located on the southeast-side of the mountain.  Get onto the "trail" for the 200 feet that turns to the NW, very steep, the cairns are helpful.  Stash the axe and pole, slow-steady going... then I can see the crest of the mountain.  Top out at the end of the 200 foot segment and look toward the East.  Another 150 feet to go, it is narrow along areas of the crest-line -- not so much a knife-edge ridge, just a little bit up and over going from one relative maxima to the other … finally arriving at the summit as a couple of registers are parked in rocky nooks.  Just past the registers is the summit and the easily recognizable "table-top rock."  The weather remains sunny and stable.

From the summit, I can look down and see all of the Skytop lakes; with better vision, I could likely see the dot of my tent located 150 feet from the closer of the pair of large Skytop lakes in the upper-basin.  I take photos and a pano video plus take in some water and calories.  It will be a long and slow descent.  I can see the Froze-to-Death Plateau from which the traditional approach crosses.  Begin heading down, cliff out at one point and see a short rope about 60 feet away and 30 feet lower -- the same rope that I tried to use for ascent... return to a known-point, then I go down to that rope -- and use it to descend.  Then I get on the snow chute and one step at a time... get to the blue rope, down the rope ... get to the knotted rope, down the rope.  Get to the base of the Ramp, then make my way across the use-path that is now clear in the direct sunlight.  It looks like I can take a shortcut down an alternate slope, but no -- stay on the prescribed known course.  Unlike Gannett Peak in Wyoming, there are no crevasses or snow bridges to deal with here.  I get to the steep rocky slope and head down it very carefully, working to move as little sand or rock as possible.  Many of the larger rocks are kept in place by smaller rocks and sand.  I cannot see the two climbers that I had spotted from on high while looking down the snow chute.

From the base of the rocky slope, I partake in rock hopping and scrambling for much of the 1.25 miles back to basecamp.  The clouds are now forming in ways that indicate potential rain -- this agrees with the forecast.  I get to my tent-site and take everything down and pack it up for departure prior to the rain.

Get back on course to head around the Skytop lakes, take a few photos.  I get about 1.5 miles into the return trip and encounter a couple guys from Montana that are hiking and camping prior to returning to university in the Fall.  I describe the Summit Trek, it begins raining -- rain gear on, cover the pack, keep on moving.  The rain stops after ~45 minutes.

I meet up with the two other Montana hikers / climbers that I had first met on Day 1 - Brandon and Jake.  I notice that they are carrying 45's with chest holsters... this is their bear protection solution.  I make a mental note.  God how I love Montana.  I describe my summit gig -- they explain that they were an hour behind me ... and were the two climbers that I saw 500' below while going up the Ramp.  They heard me holler "Ice Falling" but did not attempt a summit since they did not bring ice axes.  They also explain that the helicopter, on the prior day, was there to rescue a climber that had fallen while going up The Ramp ... some of the climber's gear was left behind.  They asked if I had seen all the blood... no... I must have missed that part.  I find that a significant number of trip reports from Granite Peak are punctuated by disaster.  This includes the Key Trip report that I found on related to the SW Ramp approach per July 2012.  We continue along on our way back to the Trailhead... I am moving quickly and consistently.  A rather unremarkable return to the trailhead -- getting to my car at ~8:15pm, just about after sunset ... I drive in the remaining twilight to Cooke City and get checked into the Soda Butte Lodge ... the restaurant is only open for another 25 minutes... quick hot shower, then I find a chair in the restaurant for a huge root-beer float plus the traditional burger + fries.  The feeling of accomplishment slowly settles in ... lessons learned on Granite from the first trip in July were implemented on Trek Version 2.  Granite Peak was # 50 and a close to the United States - High Points adventure.

If you already have plans to run a marathon in every state or visit every state capitol, consider adding a visit / hike / climb to the state high point.  After tagging a few high points, you may get a little crazy and buy a map and start affixing different colored stars to indicate your progress.  Here are a few resources:

Highpointers Club:
Peakbagger US High Points + DC:
Sortable spreadsheet of US High Points:


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