Climbing trip to Granite Peak, Montana
such opportunity arose for me in September 2003, when a group of friends
planned their annual mountain climbing trip. This time their goal was
driving 10 hours across
We got up, heated some water for breakfast, broke down the tents and sorted our gear for the next three days. We weren’t in a hurry, as we would use Day 1 as an approach day with about 3500 ft vertical gain and some 12 miles of at times tedious terrain to cover. The weather was over-cast, but the red morning clouds and high winds already signaled that this would not be a sunny day. It was around when we left at the trail head.
first leg was
From left to right: Linda, Larry, Brian, Tom and Matt. We carried on and stayed relatively dry, due to only slight rain. So far, so good. We hardly saw the lake, and only our own shore. With the low-hanging clouds covering everything in mist, this place certainly deserved the name “mystic lake”. During a brief rest stop along the lake I climbed a boulder just for fun posing for a picture.
was more boulder hopping to be had between mystic and princess lake another
hour or so up the forrested mountaineer trail. I slipped on one of those rocks
and fell flat on my face, my 40 pound backpack pushing my nose in the dirt –
eat this! This felt awkward, somewhat embarrasing even – I hadn’t fallen like
this in many many years. But what I didn’t know at the time was that 24 hours
later this would cause considerable pain due to bruising a rib. Each deep
breath caused a slight pinching pain in the right rib-cage – and you need to
take a lot of deep breaths to get up a mountain like
After about 3.5 hours we realized that we were now getting into more serious weather conditions: The precipitation turned into wet snow, which started to stick on the ground due to us getting higher and the air mass approaching from the North getting colder. I was reminded of the saying that there is no bad weather, just bad gear. Right!
Shortly thereafter we stopped for lunch – or better some snacks eaten while huddling under some trees, avoiding the worst of continuous snow fall and wind. This was to be the rule for the next 48 hours: Whenever we stopped, inevitably our bodies would stop generating heat and cool off to an uncomfortable point where we either had to start moving again or retire into the tent and our sleeping bags.
Another interesting aspect was the fact that we now left the end of the marked and well-worn trail. In essence, we had to bush-whack our way through the wilderness until above the tree-line and then find our path through fields of scree and later boulders. At one point, our guide Tom – who had been to this area several times before – showed us the way across a little stream. As the logs across the stream were too slippery to balance across, we straddled the creek as best we could. Only one or two boots got really wet here.
As the hours went by, and we protruded deeper and higher into the wild, slowly a certain feeling of remoteness set in. We didn’t like the weather, but we all accepted the challenge of it and hoped for things to improve.
We only stopped briefly at princess lake. We wanted to stay warm, so we decided to keep moving. We climbed higher still towards our goal for the day near avalanche lake. On the next pitch we saw a big white mountain goat within maybe 200 yards crossing the slope above our heads. I had never seen this animal in the wild before.
to this point, the wind was only moderate and as long as you kept moving, it
really wasn’t too bad with the cold. Shortly after taking this picture at , we reached a more exposed
ledge and the wind kicked up strongly. As I had not yet stopped to put on
either wind-breaking jacket or pants, I was more exposed to the cold wind. The
wet snow was sticking to my legs and formed a coating layer of ice. I hadn’t
even put on gloves yet. I almost slipped one time, my bare hands scraped across
the icy rock surface to regain balance. Within minutes, I was chilled to the
bones. I needed to put on more clothing, and I needed to do it immediately.
Huddling behind / underneath a big boulder I found a slight break in the wind
to get my jacket and over-pants out of the back-pack. In an awkward position I
pulled the ice coating off my skin and fumbled to get the pants over my boots.
At that time, I was oblivious to the fact that all this took place maybe 200
yards from our camp-site! But I would have had to get dressed anyway, since
there the wind was blowing just as hard. Thankfully Matt had stayed with me
during this huddle-&-fumble episode. It just showed me that when you get
cold to the core, your attention gets focused singularly on how to get warm and
tunes out anything else – a form of “tunnel vision”. A feeling I had had in
similar form on
Setting up our tents amidst a field of boulders felt like building a shelter or life raft in the storm.
It was just . We had filtered some water, boiled it and took the hot bottles with us into the tent and inside the sleeping bag. All of a sudden, the simple pleasures like hot fluids or warmth of the down bags become the main drivers of all your planning and actions. For now, we just crawled inside the tents and tried to warm up. Hoping against hope that the weather would somehow turn around on time and improve dramatically.
2 hours later in a short break of the snowfall, there was a wonderful winter scenery unfolding around our tents.
even 100 yards in any direction was a time-consuming undertaking, the slippery
and snowy boulders made it treacherous to move around. However, the views
within a few hundred yards of the camp-site were stunning. Looking back down to
princess lake we got a better feel for our remote location. Whenever the
the first time we saw
We spent the rest of the day cooking and eating, somewhat optimistic due to the timely break in the nasty weather. It was still cold, but the occasional ray of sunshine would boost our confidence that somehow we could get up this mountain the next day, despite the unusually bad conditions.
For 12 hours we lay in the sleeping bags of our tents. Few of us got any real sleep, we mostly just lay there contemplating the situation, hoping for the weather and conditions to improve, trying to remember what exactly we were doing up here and why we had come to such an inhospitable environment. Up at this altitude of close to 10.000 ft we also had a higher rest heart rate to compensate for the diminuished amount of oxygen your body gets in the lower pressured air.
We got up and checked the weather. Better than the snow-storm last night, but still not good. And while the weather was forecast to improve, even the best weather would not improve the fairly poor conditions on time for our ascent…
we crossed the worst part of the boulder field, often scrambling across gaps
between car-sized boulders on all four. I certainly did not want to repeat the
fall-on-your-face move from the day before. Everybody was extra careful, since
we didn’t dare imagine how difficult it would be to get an injured body across
the boudlers out to safety. In less than 1 hour we reached
filtered water from the end of the lake as a precaution, even though I doubt
that drinking this clean water up here would make anyone sick. We then
discussed several variations of our approach route, as there was no marked path
and certainly no tracks in the fresh snow. In fact, we didn’t see any soul for
48 hours on this trip, which added to the feeling of being in a remote place.
After all, this is a somewhat remote wilderness to begin with. Then we left on
a weekday with pretty bad weather. Not too many people would consider doing
this… From my own hiking experience, mostly in the European alps, I am more
used to meeting docens if not hundreds of other climbers throughout a climbing
day. On the plus side, you usually have huts with food and over-night shelter.
But you don’t get away from it all like you do here, either. The only
comparable place I have hiked in was in
As the smile on Brian’s face indicates, the view to the South towards Yellowstone NP was equally spectacular.
the saddle we could see the route to the summit of
But there were several factors weighing against us proceeding: The moderate technical climb, compounded with the poor, fresh snow conditions would make for slow going. It was already late in the day (1:00pm), which meant only about 7 more hours of daylight, and larger groups always move slower when roping up than 1 or 2 climbers. Then most of us had onset of altitude fatigue, which didn’t exactly increase our confidence all around. So we decided to not attempt the summit and turn around at the saddle.
Looking back, this was somewhat disappointing, but at the time we were too busy with more important things: Staying warm in the still sub-freezing temperatures and wind. Getting back down safely the loose rocks with snow and occasional ice underneath. Not accidentally throwing loose rocks onto your fellow climbers underneath. And occasionally taking a rest or a picture of the impressive North Face of Granite Peak with remnants of a steep glacier. We just had experienced an unusually cold spell usually not occurring until later in October, past the typical climbing season. In the valley below, the temperature went from the nineties (30C) down to the twenties (-5C) from the last weekend to this one! I remember I rode my bike last Sunday in the 92 F summer heat, and here we were camping in 20 F winter cold!
got down quickly with no problems. At
For a moment I thought about the challenge of building robots and writing the software for them which would be able to climb across such rugged terrain. This boulder field up here would seem like the ultimate test grounds for those robots…
Brian and I got to the camp site ˝ hour ahead of the other four members o the group. Eventually all pulled into camp. We ate and drank, but unfortunately it was still not warm enough to stay comfortable. You had to keep moving, huddling around the stove and eat hot soup or drink hot fluid to stay warm. We decided to break down camp and move either out all the way or at least further down for the second night on the mountain.
Fully loaded we left the camp site, which took on a slightly more hospitable look & feel now that most of the fresh snow had melted. After the 30 hours or so in the higher elevation above the treeline, it felt good seeing trees again and just follow a good path trotting down the mountain.
was tired. My ribs were hurting when breathing deeply, my feet were aching, and
the 40 pound backpack seemed to get heavier each time I had to pick it back up
after we stopped.Slowly daylight began to fade. Almost 12 hours after we had
left camp in the morning and moved around in the granite blocks world, we got
Scavenging lots of little branches the size of a pencil to a walking stick, we lit up the fire so it would give up enough heat and also burn down the few bigger logs we had found laying around.
This was definitely another high-light of the trip, as it gave us time to just sit and enjoy precious heat and share the impressions of the day. When looking up through the trees we could see the stars twinkling; just like the forecast had said, tomorrow would be a clear day! We filed into the comfort and warmth of our tents and sleeping bags and all had a good night’s sleep.
next day dawned to a crystal-clear sky and brought spectacular colors along the
I felt that this morning alone was worth the effort of this trip. A group of 5 deers came out and carefully crossed the stream at the lake’s end. We saw ducks flying overhead and occasional fish snapping at insects on the water surface.
packed our gear one last time and started hiking out towards the trail head. We
rested at the other end of the lake, the
back West over
the way back we first covered the 10 miles of gravel road, then the 20 miles to
Absarokee. Looking back we could see the top of
was the by far the sunniest and warmest spot of the entire trip, the only place
where you could sit in T-Shirt, shorts and sandals. We retraced our route on a
detailed map which Linda had bought. We then parted ways and drove home the 600+
miles of Interstate, first along the