|Granite Mountain and its glorious East Ridge route|
Granite Mt: Third Summit of the G-3 Summit Conference
Derek drove us north into Yellowstone Park and then east out of the park. We followed a serpentine labyrinth of small Wyoming and Montanan roads. I wanted to get a hotel in Cody, Wyoming, but the entire town was booked due to great westward migration of Sturgess motorcyclists. We got a late dinner at a McDonald’s in Cody and met a cyclist there that was riding his bike from Alaska to Argentina. Right on!
We eventually got so tired that we pulled over on the side of a 2-lane, 70mph state highway and slept just a few feet from the roadway, using our car as a barrier. As we blew up our sleeping pads, at 11:30 p.m. on a desolate road, the first car by slows down and puts down their window. Uh oh, we think, we’re busted. Nope. The driver, an older guy, just asks if we’re okay. I say “Yes” and that we’re just so tired and trying to get some rest. He agrees that rest is good and drives on. A short while later another car comes by, this time going our direction and at 65 or 70 mph. They zip on by but a couple minutes later they double-back. It’s two women and they also ask if we’re okay. They stopped, turned around on the highway and went the opposite direction they wanted to go to make sure two strangers were okay. Montana is such a cool state…
|Our bivy the night before hiking into Granite Mountain - luxury!|
I slept until 5:30 a.m. It’s light out at that time. I packed my gear and rustled Derek. He packed his gear, hopped in the car and fell asleep again. I drove the remaining confusing miles to the Mystic Lake Trailhead, arriving there at 7:30 a.m. or so. I’d spend the next four hours, laying out our gear, packing it up, making breakfast, making lunches for two days, getting the rest of the food together, etc. while Derek slept. I knew we weren’t going to try the mountain in one day with such a late start, so I wasn’t in any hurry, but it eventually got pretty hot. Derek did become fully conscious by 10 a.m. or so, and we started up the hot trail at 11:45 a.m. - what my buddy Opie could call an alpine start.
While I was sitting in the parking lot waiting for Derek to reboot, I noticed a group with ropes and ice axes and went over to say hi. I figured they were headed for Granite Peak as well. Sure enough, they were. Jim and his three boys had been planning a 2-day approach, but weather concerns on Tuesday had him change to a 2-day roundtrip, like us. This was going to be Jim’s third try. He told me, “Most people don’t get this mountain on their first try.” He was a nice guy and wasn’t patronizing me. I told him that we hoped to piggyback on his “Third Time’s the Charm” attempt. These guys got started a couple hours before us, carrying much bigger packs. In fact, everyone we saw going for Granite carried packs about 50% larger than the ones Derek and I carried. Sure, we have skills that allow us to go lighter, but I honestly feel it is mostly due to laziness. I didn’t want to carry the gear up there.
|Derek at the top of the switchbacks and about ready to leave the trail and head up onto the Froze-to-Death Plateau.|
Another party of four climbers walked in. They had failed on an attempt on Granite. Why? They got lost on the Froze To Death Plateau and couldn’t find the mountain. A GPS is a very good tool for this mountain. I recommend it. They told us that there were lots of mountain goats up on the plateau. This turned out to be true.
I saw three separate parties carrying sidearms. The first was after I’d taken a photo of a team of three getting back from a couple of days in the wilderness. They were unloading their gear into the back of a pickup truck when I heard a series of “chik-chik” sounds. I turned to see one of these guys loading an automatic pistol. With the ubiquitous mass shooting stories in the news, my fecund imagination had him turning to the parking lot and picking off as many campers as possible. I wondered how I’d protect catatonic Derek. He wouldn’t be able to allude the shooter. He’s too big now for me to carry and dodge bullets. Then I realized he was unloading the gun and not loading it. It was still a bit unnerving.
Two others strapped sidearms on their waist before hiking up the trail. You don’t see this much in Colorado. I’ve never seen it before. I asked one guy if it was for bears and he said, “It’s just for whatever. We have bear spray too.” Hmmm, I wondered. If these guys are packing heat to protect themselves against bears, Derek and I are going to be vulnerable. We didn’t even have bear spray.
Granite is rated from 4th class to 5.7 depending upon who rates it and the route you take. I figured we’d find the best way and that Derek and I could safely climb up down at least low 5th class. We knew the “Snow Bridge” was small and had steps across it, so we didn’t bring an ice axe or crampons. We also didn’t carry a rope, harnesses, rappel devices, a rack or helmets. We did carry bratwurst, however. That’s my secret weapon: sausage. It used to be just Vienna Sausages but now that Charlie has leaked my secret I’ve had to up my game to Bratwurst. I’m safe revealing that here since hardly anyone reads my blog.
The first 2.5 miles climbs up 1300 feet to a ridge above the dam-created Mystic Lake and then descends down to its shores. There was quite a bit of traffic along this trail as the lake is a beautiful destination and the creek below it is nice as well. At the three-mile mark we turned up Phantom Creek Trail #17 and its “24 Switchbacks from Hell”. I counted 28 and they were actually quite nice, despite climbing 2400 feet in three miles.
We caught and passed Jim and his boys after two hours of hiking. They were taking a break by the side of the trail. At 2 p.m. near the top of the trail, we took a break of our own to eat some lunch. We started moving again just as Jim’s group caught us. We wouldn’t see these guys again until 10 a.m. the next day. We left the trail just passed a huge, five-foot-tall cairn where the trail crests the great escarpment it had been climbing. We ventured off onto the trail-less tundra and talus of the Froze-To-Death Plateau. Despite the name, we brought our minimal sleeping bags. People get lost up here. It’s very difficult to route find, as everything looks the same and it is quite vast. We hiked for four more miles across this plateau, guided by the GPS maps I loaded onto my phone. The GPS app I used goes through battery power like Derek goes through a 20-piece Chicken McNuggets, but this time I brought my power brick and the correct cable. Even with these maps, I didn’t use them that much and relied mostly on dead reckoning, as it was broad daylight. Still, I made a slight mistake and went around the wrong side of one of the peaklets on the plateau. It probably didn’t add any distance or effort, but was different from the cairned route.
After five and a half hours, apparently our limit when doing an approach, we became fatigued. We had arrived on the slopes of Mt. Tempest, though a ways down from the shoulder descent, and found a nice, rock-ringed campsite. We decided this was high enough. We’d come ten miles and the entire distance to the peak was supposed to be just twelve miles. Just after we threw down the packs, we noticed a group of three a bit further at another campsite. We hiked over to them to see what was up.
These three had just returned from Granite, at 5:30 p.m. They didn’t start for the peak until 10:15 a.m. They apparently overslept. I’ll say. They were super friendly and told us they made the summit in just three hours. This was great encouragement for us in that we were not camping too low. This group took four hours to return from the peak. I figured we’d be faster, though they didn’t use ropes either. They finished packing up their packs and walked back to our campsite with us. They were going out tonight and knew they’d be hiking in the dark, but it didn’t seem to bother them. One of them had done the peak before and had through-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Right on!
The three climbers left us and Derek and I were alone in camp…but not for long. When the first goat approached us, we thought it was cool. He came out of nowhere and headed straight for us. I had peed a hundred feet away from camp and it didn’t take him long to find that spot and start licking up my purged salts. Then, we spotted four more making their way across the talus to us. Moments later we had nine goats around us, frequently walking straight at us to within a couple of feet. One that did this to me was a female with a young kid trailing close behind. In this instance, I had just peed a short distance away, specifically as a gift to the goats, but it walked right by it and up to me. I know how protective mothers are of their young so having her and her baby so close to me was a bit unnerving. All mountain goats, at maturity, have long, sharp, curved black horns. If this goat lowered its head and came at me, it could do considerable damage. At a distance of two feet, I’d have little time to protect myself. What could it want? I’d already peed for it. Was it expecting to be hand fed? I’d have probably tried such a thing if it would have appeased it, but I didn’t have any food to spare. The goat would stare right at you. I’d read that you aren’t supposed to lock eyes with a predator, like a wolf or a bear, as it will be perceived as a threat, but what about a goat? I didn’t want to back down. This was my home now, at least for the night. I picked up a rock to defend myself, but never needed it. Later that evening I went to pee and four goats surrounded me, all two feet away. They never acted aggressive toward me, except for the proximity and stare down, but they jousted with each other almost constantly. We could clearly see the hierarchy there, from the big male to the matriarchs, down to the teenagers and the babies.
After another thirty minutes another group of five goats approached. Our group turned to confront them. I thought we were going to see a goat rumble, but they meshed fine, with the usual displays of dominance that amounted to just running a few steps at the offending goat. So now we were surrounded by fourteen goats. When the sun went down we went into our tent, but the goats just closed in closer, roaming over our rock walls. I eventually gave a yell to shoo them away a bit. In the morning they were gone, but we’d see them again.
|Following Derek to the summit.|
We made the shoulder of Tempest in about 25 minutes and descended from 12,100 feet down to the saddle at 11,450 feet. We were finally on Granite Peak and ascending the East Ridge. We found another group of five goats at this saddle and they also came within a few feet of us. They will run from a human if they make sudden movements or move too quickly toward them, but they don’t seem to have much fear of humans and certainly an affinity for them.
We used my rotating leader strategy here on the climb, for the first time. We’d switch leaders every hundred vertical feet. Most of the initial going was 2nd and 3rd class and cairns marked the way pretty well, but there were still choices to be made and I wanted Derek to start making some of them. The real climbing started past the Snow Bridge, which consisted of seven steps on snow and was trivial. This section gets such attention in the route descriptions and I know it can be much more significant, but I had a hard time imagining how it could be much of a problem. The notch is just too narrow to ever be very many steps.
Once across that we started up a series of fifty-foot 4th class chimneys on really good rock. From here on up the climbing is interesting and engaging and involved. The route description we had was quite good and the route is littered with frequent rappel anchors to guide you along. Derek wanted to lead all this and my plan was for him to lead it anyway, as I wanted to act as a pseudo belay below him. I know this isn’t a real belay, but it still made sense to me. If he was going to fall and die, I wanted him to take me with him. If I was going to fall and die, I didn’t want to take him with me. But we never felt in danger here. We were solid. We were careful. We were attentive. And we thoroughly enjoyed the climbing and route finding problems presented to us. I felt the crux climbing might have been some low 5th class moves. That’s still within our comfort range, but I wondered how Jim and his three boys were going to do on such technical, complicated ground with four on a rope and not very experienced or fit. We made the summit two hours after leaving camp. Having experienced perfect weather almost all the time, the summit was windy and chilly. It was still before 8 a.m. and the sun was too weak in its battle against the wind. We signed the summit log, took photos, and started our descent.
We carefully reversed the complicated route back to the saddle. On one difficult stemming section I dislodged my iPhone from my armband and it fell! I knew it was going just a moment before and couldn’t let go with my hands or I’d fall too. It bounced a couple of times, but stopped just ten feet down and my giant, clunky Otterbox case did its job - the phone was unharmed. Thank you giant, ugly case.
We laboriously trudged back up to the Tempest shoulder via the marked route. I contemplated heading directly up the ridge to the summit of Tempest, but didn’t because I wasn’t sure Derek wanted to join me for another summit. That was silly. We turned upwards and walked up the relatively low angle talus slopes of Tempest. On the summit my GPS watch read 12,514 feet. The actual elevation is 12,470. Montana has 26 12ers and we’ve now climbed two - Tempest is the 8th highest. We could see quite a few others from the summit of Granite. If I lived in Montana, I’d definitely want to climb all of them. They are all located in the Beartooth Mountains.
We hiked back down to the shoulder and a bit below there we met Jim and his boys coming up. We speculated whether they’d be carrying their tents or not and when we saw the size of their packs assumed they had them. But they didn’t. Even when they go light for the summit, they go heavy.
Jim saw us descending from Tempest and asked, “Granite and Tempest both already?” Yes. “Wow, you guys are fast.” I agreed that we were, mainly so that they’d know not to expect the same result. I said, “We do this stuff all the time.” He asked, “How often?” “Weekly.”
He asked our advice on what their strategy should be. We recommended that they leave most of their gear at the saddle and go fast over and back. I hope they got back to their camp, which we never found on the way out. Jim had mentioned getting lost on the plateau, despite being up here before. He didn’t have a GPS. At this point it was only 10 a.m. so they had about ten hours of daylight remaining and that should have been sufficient.
We got back to our camp before 10:30 a.m. and immediately started to pack up. Within a few minutes the goats started to arrive and by the time we left at 10:50, we had nine goats around us. We bid our furry friends good bye and headed out. We reversed the Froze to Death Plateau in 100 minutes and were taking a lunch break at the trail when two women approached with massive packs, ropes and ice axes clearly visible. They took one look at us and our puny packs and asked, “Out for a day hike?” I said, “We climbed Granite today. We’re out for a two-day hike.” They didn’t seem impressed. They looked like they were out for a week with what they were carrying. Maybe they were putting up a new route on the North Face? Right on.
We pounded out another five miles and took a 30-minute break to soak our feet and legs in the icy creek. Derek loves this and can endure the cold with ease. Not me. I’d put my feet in for as long as I could stand the pain and then pull them out (About 20 seconds, but I did push for one 1-minute-long suffer fest).
We were driving out of the parking lot at 3:45 p.m. My original plan was to just drive a couple of hours to Billings and get a hotel for the night. We could order a pizza, watch a movie and relax. The next morning we’d drive the remaining eight hours home. But, in classic, hardman-Derek style, he slid behind the driver’s wheel and pounded out the entire drive home. I offered support mainly in the credit card arena, for fuel for our vehicle and ourselves. And I wrote this report. We got home at 1:10 a.m. It was hard to believe we’d climbed the highest mountain in Montana that same day (sort of).
The G-3 Summit conference turned out to be a huge success. We spent six days climbing or approaching these mountains. All six days had perfect weather. We covered 90 miles of hiking and about 22,000 vertical feet. I’d checked off a couple of mountains that had been on my list for a long time and I did it with my son. I’m incredibly blessed to be doing these adventures with Derek and I hope he feels the same way.