This summer has been filled with a lot adventures, but my trip to Montana and the hike to Granite Peak was a highlight that sits near the top of my list. The trip was meant to be a short weekend trip, and we left in the early afternoon on a Friday. The drive took longer than expected and we ended up arriving at the West Rosebud Lake trailhead around 2am.
My friend, Tyson and I had a plan to wake around 4am and do the peak in one long haul. However, with the very late arrival we slept til about 5:15am before finally setting out.
We made good time getting to Mystic Lake, and flew up the switchbacks to Froze to Death Plateau.
The walk across the plateau was difficult to navigate. I had read this before we began our hike, but didn’t understand how it could be hard to find your way across such a “simple” geographic formation… I was wrong. It’s tricky because it’s 7 or 8 miles and you can’t see your destination. There are cliffs to your right and rocky hills that block your line of sight to the left. The most direct route heads more west than south in the beginning, keeping the rocky hills to your left. You will eventually wrap around the rocky hilltops and head south until you reach Tempest Mountain.
We added at least 2 extra hours onto our trek across the plateau because we went over the rocky hills on the left and then cut west to the cliffs above Avalanche Lake. Finally, heading south, we reach Tempest Mountain. In the mean time, big thunder clouds had begun to stack on top of Granite Peak as it came into view and we approached it.
We only had a day pack with our rope and food. At the base of Tempest we ran into some hikers that had just returned from the summit. We bartered with them and they agreed to let us borrow their tent and one sleeping bag and pad for the night. I agreed to mail the gear to them when we returned home, and he was happy to have a light pack for his hike down.
The clouds were above us and the wind picked up. The guys who lent us their gear said lightning was striking all around them the day before, but that the weather cleared after a few hours.
So, we took a nap in the tent and hoped the weather would repeat itself for us. The rain and thunder came and passed and after about 2 hours the skies were partly cloudy. We thought it looked good enough to try for the summit.
It was about 330pm at this point as we dropped down the west slope of Tempest toward the saddle of Granite. We crossed over the saddle and began going up the steep scree slopes to the snow bridge.
We made good time and crossed the snow to the beginning of the class 3 scrambling. The first part was kind of sketchy because the rock wasn’t as solid as it was further up, so we started slow. The rappelling anchors that others had left behind were the markers we used for our route. There were about six class 4 chimneys that we scrambled up. We didn’t use the rope on the way up, but the couple of class 5 moves along the way made for some awkward moments over some fairly decent exposure.
If you haven’t done an exposed peak before, it might be a good idea because it will definitely prepare you for the last bit Granite. It wasn’t insanely exposed, there are ledges after each chimney, and the climbing is easy enough, but it does call for a mind-over-matter mentality that you only gain from experience.
Chute after chute we climbed and finally the end was is sight. We scrambled a bit more to the series of flat slabs of rock that made up Granite Peak’s summit. We looked around. The clouds were scattered casting strange shadows and beams of light across Montana’s Beartooth Mountain Range. Miles of granite peaks lay below us.
We ate our dinner on the peak. The sun was getting lower in the sky and we knew we were only halfway finished.
The rappelling began. With only one ATC we had to pass the gear up the rope to the 2nd person coming down. Again, using the anchors as guides, we made our way down each chimney we had come up. 6 rappels and some down-climbing later we were crossing the snow bridge and off the face of the beast just as the sun was setting.
As we dropped back down to the slope to the saddle, the daylight was disappearing. Once we reached the saddle it was dark.
The trail was much more difficult to find going up in the dark and eventually we were lost. We had originally used a large patch of snow as a landmark, but it had long since disappeared in the darkness. We moved up and across the west face of Tempest looking for any sign of familiarity.
It was approaching midnight now. We were both physically and mentally exhausted. We stopped and rested on a ledge. The slope was becoming a cliff and we knew we were nowhere near the gully in which we had come down from the plateau hours earlier. The temperature was dropping, and I was ready to sit and rest for a few hours before it was too cold to do so.
Tyson swore knew where we were. So, I began following him as we scrambled up the cliffs in the dark. 15 minutes later, we stood on the summit of Tempest Mountain (we were so turned around at the time we didn’t know it was Tempest though). We headed downhill and another 15 minutes passed. The slope leveled out and our tent stood in the darkness in front of us.
I can’t explain the comfort that the tent gave me. I was so drained at this point. We had only had about 4.5 hours of sleep in the last 40 hours and hiked at least 16 miles that day.
I climbed inside. The weight of being lost was gone. We were back in the tent!!
The night was cold. We laid the sleeping pad wide so both of our torsos were insulated from the ground. I emptied my pack and stuffed my feet into it. We draped the sleeping bag over us and tried to sleep.
It was cold. I woke to my body trembling over and over again. After one of the longest night of my life, a glow slowly filled the tent as the sun began lighting up the sky outside.
The warmth of the day returned and we slept in it.
We got up after we were finally able to get some decent sleep, packed up the gear, and headed back toward the Phantom drainage switchbacks that brought us from Mystic Lake. We were beat. We started strong, but after we hit the switchbacks we were hurting.
We ate lunch at Mystic Lake and continued over the dam for the last stretch. The last 2 miles drug on. It felt like an eternity. We were limping. Tyson’s knee was ruined. I had two golf ball-sized blisters on my heels.
We crumbled onto a bench at the trailhead and rested. We walked the last half mile to the parking lot and crumpled again into the car.
The drive back was long. We got in late. The hike was brutal. It was filled with intense moments.
The day after I had returned home, a friend called me and asked about the trip. I don’t think I told him anything good about it. I just told him it was so hard that it’s going to take me a few days to recover psychologically from it.
Granite Peak beat me down. It made me humble. It provided me with the intense difficulty that defines why I climb mountains.
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