Climbing trip to Granite Peak, Montana

North Dakota in general and Fargo in particular is a very flat place. There are no mountains worth mentioning within several hundred miles. If you live in Fargo and want to see or set foot on real mountains, you have to drive the extra mile(s) to get there.

One such opportunity arose for me in September 2003, when a group of friends planned their annual mountain climbing trip. This time their goal was Granite Peak, highest point of Montana at 12800 ft (3840 m). Of all the 50 United States, Montana’s highest point was the last to be climbed and is still to this day the least frequently climbed highest point with only about 100 people standing on its summit each year. Granite Peak is located near Yellowstone National Park, just North of the border between Wyoming and Montana. This peak is quite remote, the approach features some strenuous “boulder hopping”, and its summit ridge offers some 1200 vertical feet of moderately difficult ridge climbing at high altitude. Sounded like an attractive mix for the six friends who drove the 700 miles (1100 km) from Fargo on Thursday, September 10.

After driving 10 hours across North Dakota and Montana straight West from Fargo to Billings, we had finally arrived at the trail-head South of Absarokee near Red Lodge, Montana. One car with three friends (Linda, Brian, Matt) had started Thursday morning and arrived hours ahead of us. The other car (Larry, Tom and I) could only leave around noon and hence arrived after dark at 10:30pm. There was nothing else to do than to set up the tents on the Emerald Lakes campground and go to sleep. We were still hoping that the weather for the next three days would turn out a little brighter than the mixed weather report had stated. That optimism gave way to cold realism 24 hours later…

Friday, September 12, 2003

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 9:15am when we left at the trail head.

Our first leg was Mystic Lake - about 1.5 hours to reach followed by another hour along to the far end of the lake. After 1 hour it started to rain slightly. We got our rain gear out and braced for the wet and wild.

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.

There 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 Granite Peak.

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.

Up 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 3:00pm, 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 Mt. Rainier in August 1999, when I had to dress more warmly on a slope exposed to strong winds and felt near claustrophobic since I couldn’t escape the numbing cold…

Setting up our tents amidst a field of boulders felt like building a shelter or life raft in the storm.

It was just 4:00pm. 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.

Walking 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 sun poked through the clouds, a scenery of serene beauty unfolded before our eyes.

For the first time we saw Granite Peak just barely free of clouds (top left in following picture).

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.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

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…

So 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 Avalanche Lake and followed its shores to the far end.

We 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 Argentina in 1992, where we climbed a near 20.000 ft (6000m) peak after 10 days of acclimatization.

Back to Granite Peak. After about 3 hours of scrambling up over loose rock with snow and remnants of Granite glacier, we reached the so caled Bivouac Saddle. At 11.500 ft this saddle marks the lowest point on the ridge between Mt. Tempest to the East and Granite Peak to the West. Looking North down to Avalanche Lake we realized that the weather was indeed clearing up with a mix of sun and clouds painting beautiful colors in the otherwise black-&-white scenery.

As the smile on Brian’s face indicates, the view to the South towards Yellowstone NP was equally spectacular.

From the saddle we could see the route to the summit of Granite Peak, which seemed fairly close: It is another 1.300 ft vertical climb. We deliberated what to do. Should we press on for the summit?

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!

We got down quickly with no problems. At Avalanche Lake we drank and picked up the water filter and cooking stove we had left behind. Brian and I decided to try a different route across the boulder field. Instead of following the lake shore and then crossing a booulder field, we climbed up maybe 500 ft and cut diagonally across the boulder field, circumventing the largest of them on the high side of the slope. This was among the most fun parts of the climb. The rock was mostly dry now due to the sun and rising temperatures; the route was somewhat challenging, but not unnervingly difficult or dangerous. It was pure joy experiencing how flexible a human body can move across incredibly rugged terrain. There is no 4 wheel drive or robot for that matter which could negotiate such boulders. Yet humans or even better, the four-legged critters like the mountain goats can get across these obstacles easily!

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.

I 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 down to Mystic Lake again. Here in the flat sections of the forest near the lake shore we decided to set up camp. Since there was hardly anything else to do, we focused again on eating and drinking. Tom had done a wonderful job preparing lots of good food, and us being hungry from the long day of climbing made it all taste even better. In addition, we built a small camp-fire to keep us warm and help to dry out the damp cloth.

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.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

The next day dawned to a crystal-clear sky and brought spectacular colors along the shores of Mystic Lake. We all took many postcard motive pictures of the natural beauty surrounding us here.

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.

We packed our gear one last time and started hiking out towards the trail head. We rested at the other end of the lake, the sun finally creating the warm sensation on our skin we had been craving for 48 hours. To hike out we needed to climb a short way up where a small dam had been built to create Mystic Lake and generate small amounts of hydro-electricity.

Looking back West over Mystic Lake was a bit like saying Good-bye to a new found friend. It is quite possible I will never come back to this place. Others may come back, or maybe not (One group member stated: “I’m not coming back - I have had it with this mountain; the weather is just too fickle!”). In any case, the memory of this trip and the privilege of having seen the serene beauty of this place will stay with us for a long time…

On 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 Granite Peak in the distance, given away by the wind cloud forming over the highest point of the mountain range.

We cotinued to Billings, where we stopped for a late lunch. While we had all lusted for a good restaurant visit after the trip, somewhat surprisingly most of us didn’t feel real hungry. We had just eaten too many power bars, Gorp (nut-chocolate-dry-fruit-mix), cereal, wild rice and other delicacies.

This 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 Yellowstone River through Montana, then straight across North Dakota. Aside from the back left tire on my car rapidely nearing its end of life and us loosing 1.5 hours to get it replaced at a Wal-Mart store in Miles City, the drive home was uneventful. We kept each other awake with stories of previous car witnessed accidents, winter storms, fire disasters or other noteworthy events. It was quite late when I got home. I usually don’t shower at 3:00am in the morning. But after 4 days without shower, feeling hot water rinse off the sweat of the last couple of days almost felt too good to be true…