Summiting Montana's Tallest Mountain: Granite Peak, Elevation 12,808'
A gentle wind rippled in sections across Lone Elk lake as we made camp at 10,000 feet in the Beartooth Wilderness. Surrounding us were dozens of outcropping cliffs and bluffs dotted with every conceivable shape and sized boulder and stone. Adjoining slopes were strewn with scree or talus and high above, as far as we could see towards the interior of the mountain range, sweeping walls dominated the sky line, some seemingly crawling like giant, granite reptiles.
Besides the few dwarfed trees, some grass, snow and water, everything else was granite. And that is precisely what we had come for: Granite Peak, elevation 12,808 feet, the highest point in Montana.
Crack of Noon Club
It had been a late start even by my standards. It was 1 p.m. by the time an old high school buddy and I pulled on our packs and stepped into the wilderness just outside of Cooke City Montana. I was glad to have been given a pair of waterproof Oboz Sawtooth months earlier.
Over the years I had evolved from blocky, heavy backpacking boots in favor of my trail running shoes with great success. However, this trip was a little different.
The six-mile hike to our base camp entailed no less than seven creek crossings followed the next day by nine-plus miles of rugged boulder hoping, scree sliding and exposed class IV scrambling. All of this to position us for the 4,500 total vertical feet to reach the summit and return to base camp.
I was confident the Sawtooths would provide just the right amount of support, protection and durability in a lightweight package, or at least I knew I would put them to the test.
After what seemed way longer than six miles we finally arrived at our camping spot on a bench above the Lone Elk Lake, partially enclosed by some fir trees, boulders and cliffs.
The next morning we rallied for another late start, rolling out of camp for the summit at 8AM. It made me realize why I never became much of a mountaineer; I hated getting up early, being cold and for that matter, heights.
Granite Peak, Take Three
This was my third attempt of Granite Peak. The first, nearly 20 years earlier, when I was younger, dumber and bolder, ended when a thunderstorm surrounded the upper mountain.
I nearly died while glissading down a steep snowfield with a rock in lieu of an ice axe. The second attempt, a couple of years later was foiled by a blizzard which kept my partner and me tent-bound for 36 hours on Froze-To-Death Plateau.
Really, I had given up on ever making it to the top of Granite Peak.
The Southwest Couloir
It wasn’t until a friend had told me about the SW couloir that I began thinking more and more about it. A ‘walk-up’ he had called it and two of his partners had even brought their dogs to the top, though he highly discouraged this.
Granite Peak is considered one of the hardest high-points of the lower states and is usually near the last on the list for high-pointers.
The Southwest Couloir provides a less technical route and an easier approach than the standard route, but is arguably more dangerous. The standard route, the East Ridge accessed from Froze-To-Death Plateau, is considered a classic. It hasgood quality, class IV+ and low class V rock, while the other route is a class III (arguably class IV) alley with boulders, rocks and stones.
If we had one thing going for us, we were fast and persistent hikers, especially with only daypacks and a small amount of climbing gear.
Not long after leaving Lone Elk Lake, we came upon Rough Lake. Next was the series of six Sky-Top Lakes threaded together by small creeks, each in turn becoming the most spectacular lake I have ever seen and like a connect-the-dots puzzle, they led right to the base of Granite Peak.
The routes around the trail-less lakes were an exercise of focused monotony: short step, short step, long, long, bound, shuffle-step, shuffle-step, scramble, side-step, side-step, bound, bound, shuffle-step, ad nauseam.
Beta and the Bowling Alley
At the base of the elusive highest point in Montana we ran across three climbers from Seattle coming down from the summit. They had camped higher up in the drainage and assured us it was an easy climb, though it was obvious they were a notch above our abilities.
However, they did warn that a group of high-pointers were moving slow on the route. They thought we would catch them and warned us about being in the couloir below them. ‘It’s a bowling alley’ they said. ‘Nowhere to go’.
Beware Falling Rock
A Summit Post from a guide in the area had lamented about the significant rockfall hazard, noting that it was a ‘role of the dice’, as parties climbing below others were exposed in the couloir.
I managed to ignore this (as well as my good sense of judgement to stay in less vertical elements in the mountains). The reality was that I fancied myself a mountain climber, even at a low level, or at least I did at one time and for me, Granite Peak, my home state’s high-point, was a crowned jewel.
Up The Slab
We started up the flanks or the mountain. Soon we were traversing under the feature known as The Slab, then, then some exposed moves put us into the couloir. We walked lightly up the jumbled rock in the couloir, staying close to each other in case we kicked something loose.
Before long, we were through the first pinch, one of two that has a fixed rope for assistance.
It began to hail. My buddy took a baseball rock to his helmet while adjusting the rope. Moving quickly, we made it up and over the second pinch and there they were: a group of four high-pointers high in the couloir.
They seemed to be suspended right above us and one wrong move would funnel loose rock down on us. I was already nervous, but now my danger meter was through the roof, especially considering how timid the group was moving. We were relieved when they soon disappeared over the top of the couloir.
Not long after, we climbed to a split in the couloir and got off route. We were stopped by class V moves, perched high on the mountain. Here, as I tried not to look down, my long-time grade school friend looked at me with all sincerity and said, “Mark, I’m scared shitless.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied, “I am too.”
We managed to gather ourselves and downclimbed to a wide ledge that led to final exit of the couloir on a ridge a few hundred feet below the summit. An airy feature known as the Gash meets up here, and I made the mistake of looking straight down into the void.
Now the route was good and solid with big shelves and ledges. We made it quickly to the summit plateau where we met and passed the high pointers just before the summit. The thought of down-climbing with them above me in the couloir or vice versa for that matter, made me nauseated and it was hard to enjoy the summit.
When the High Pointers made it over to us, we realized what a struggle it had been for them. They were definitely over their head and it was obvious that they were more terrified of the climb down than I was.
They mentioned they were going to try another route, which they thought would be easier on the way down. I knew we had just come up the easiest route and convinced them to go back down the same way they had come up.
I tried to inspire confidence in them, but I was having my own moments of mortality at the top of the highest peak in Montana. I told them they had nothing to worry about for weather and should just move carefully down the couloir, only exposing one person at a time through the dicey sections. They seemed to appreciate the advice.
Then I asked if they would give us a 20-minute head start, so we were not in the couloir below them. They said they would and we flew down the ridge, past the Gash and into the couloir where we implemented a series side stepping, backwards crab crawling, scooching and downclimbing until we were around the slab and out of danger from above.
Twenty minutes later, at the base of the mountain, I could relax.
On the hike back to camp, we took one more look at Granite Peak and were glad to see the high pointers slowly coming out of the bottom of the couloir, one at a time.
Sawtooth Boot Takeaway
The Sawtooth boots had been the perfect match for me on the climb. Even in the wet pinches of the couloir they gripped well and provided much-needed support through the rugged terrain. As we retraced our route around the lakes, I was ecstatic that I had finally made it up Granite Peak. It had been stressful, scary and debatable on whether it was even fun.
We both agreed it was right at the limit of what we felt comfortable doing, especially if there had been more parties on that route and something easier would have to be on the agenda for next year. But weeks later, after the buzz had worn down, we started talking about taking up rock climbing again, to hone our skills and perhaps, tackle something harder, after all, we fancied ourselves mountain climbers.
Mark D. Miller lives, writes, and climbs in Montana.