Ascent of Granite Peak on 1991-08-26

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Monday, August 26, 1991
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Granite Peak
    Elevation:12799 ft / 3901 m

Ascent Trip Report

Saturday, August 24, 1991:

The next day I drove from Challis, ID all the way to Mystic Lake, MT, on U.S. 93 into Montana, MT 43 to I-15 to Butte to I-90 east. At Livingston, MT, I took a huge detour south on U.S. 89 and U.S. 212 through northern Yellowstone National Park and the utterly spectacular Beartooth Mountains, on probably the most incredible scenic mountain drive I had ever been on. In Red Lodge, MT I had dinner in a supermarket restaurant, and then drove on MT 78 to Roscoe, and then on a dirt road to the Mystic Lake Road, twice stopping to ask directions on the dark, confusing dirt roads of the ranching region.

When I reached the end of the Mystic Lake Road, at about 10 P.M., after tortuous driving on the completely washboarded, rutted road to my trailhead, I again crashed in the car, ready for an early start up Granite Peak, Montana's highest.

Sunday, August 25:

I was awakened from my fitful sleep in the back of my rented Geo Prizm by another car pulling into the parking lot, making noise crunching gravel. It was still dark, with perhaps the slightest hint of dawn in the sky. My alarm wasn't going to go off for another twenty minutes or so, but I still woke up. I got out of the car, stretched, went to a nearby outhouse, and then ate a very quick breakfast of crackers and water while sitting in the car. The people who had arrived took off up the trail quickly.

After breakfast I took out my battered old Gregory internal frame backpack and loaded it up with my sleeping bag (always a pain to jam into the too-small compartment), tent, groundcloth, mattress pad, extra clothing, and food (all cold, since I brought no stove). I also organized the car, put on my hiking boots, and otherwise got ready for my hike. I could now see, for the first time, what the trailhead looked like, since there was now enough light at 6:00 AM. There were about fifteen cars parked where the road ended, with a small lake, an outhouse, and several information signs in the area. No mountains were visible, since the trailhead was in a deep canyon with fairly steep walls on either side.

I finally shouldered up my pack about 40 minutes after waking up and started up the trail, which was at first a road leading past a series of huts and pipes, all part of the Mystic Lake Hydroelectric Station. One of the pipes the trail crossed came down one of the canyon walls from a horizontal pipe way up above me, and the pumping station way up there had been the source of a light I had seen from my car last night, only in the dark I hadn't realized that there was canyon wall all the way up there.

Shortly the trail entered woods, rising gradually and coming near or crossing a large brook, West Rosebud Creek. I stopped to strip off my Gore-Tex jacket briefly before continuing upwards. After a while the trail left the brook as it climbed more steeply up through a semi-treeless area of huge, jumbled boulders with steep cliffs looming overhead. The sun wasn't shining directly yet, and the wind was brisk, so I didn't sweat much.

I saw several other parties, many of them coming down, surprising for an early morning, and passed one group on my way up. Most of these groups seemed like they were going up to Mystic Lake to fish and camp, and I thought few of them were trying for any peaks like I was, owing to the type of gear they had.

After some huge switchbacks through the semi-open boulder area on the left-hand side of the canyon (facing uphill), a few stretches of forest, and some ups and downs over rocky humps, the well-graded trail finally approached a prominent ridge that seemed to dam the valley. I had been watching the horizontal pipe on the other side of the canyon, and saw that I was approaching its altitude as I climbed, recognizing that the pipe was probably at lake level, providing me with an easily-seen man-made contour line. Sure enough, at the crest of the natural dam, I could suddenly look down to the beautiful, elongated shape of Mystic Lake spread beneath me. Steep mountainous slopes rose on either side of the lake, forested only for a thousand feet or so above its rippled shores.

It was suddenly extremely windy, so I donned my jacket for the short, steep, and hugely switchbacked descent to the lake shore, and then followed the trail along the left side of the long lake, looking for shelter from the wind and also the trail to the left that would take me up to the plateau above. After passing close to the rocky shore and a couple of beaches, the trail entered the woods, wound about, crossed a brook, and then a small sign announced the trail to East Rosebud via Froze-to-Death Mountain.

Here I rested and ate some candy bars. So far I hadn't gained much elevation at all, but up from the lakeshore I knew I was in for some serious vertical. So after a bit I put my pack back on, and started up the trail. It was a well-graded, easy-to-follow path that switchbacked relentlessly, usually in huge, long arcs up a steep chute-like valley, and then up a broad ridge. It was still early, so the steepness of the slope kept the sun from shining on me for the most part as I toiled upward, resting every now and then, seeing no one. After the lower section, which was marked by crossings of a small brook and thick forest, the switchbacking path gradually brought me up through thinner trees and ever-increasing views of the mountains across the now-maplike Mystic Lake below me.

Keeping up a good pace, after a while I found the trail leaving trees behind for good as it began a long slabbing tack across grassy slopes, obviously nearing the top of the huge plateau I was ascending. The sun was now out and beating down on me, and after one more rest I came upon the broad, totally above-timberline crest of Froze-to-Death Mountain, a massive rolling plateau. I followed cairns to a saddle in the middle of the north-south trending plateau, where there was a small trail sign. Here I took of my pack and took a long rest. It was 10 AM, about 4 hours after I had started.

The trail continued down the other side of Froze-to-Death Mountain to East Rosebud, but I was headed for Granite Peak, so I turned right off of the trail and started travelling cross-country southward, over the low swells of rocks and grassy areas.

For the next few hours I simply made good progress across the almost featureless plateau. The footing on the rocky areas was sometimes tricky, especially at one point where I was turning a corner; the wind was ferocious; I saw two other people coming back down but was too far away to talk to them; I tried to follow a series of very, very sporadic cairns, with little success; and admired the views to either side of the rugged Beartooths; and noticed that, as usual for the Rockies, the weather was getting more and more forbidding as clouds rolled in.

By around 2 PM I was at the last saddle on the great plateau prior to its last rise to Tempest Mountain (I hadn't climbed to the summit of Froze-to-Death Mountain, since I couldn't tell which of the several rocky bumps on the plateau was the actual summit, and my route was skirting or slabbing the whole time to avoid gaining unnecessary elevation). The skies were now positively ominous, and I thought it best to camp out now before any weather hit. There was a large snowbank on a gentle slope off to my left--I had been staying a little bit right, hoping for a view of Granite Peak over the edge of the plateau unsuccessfully--so I made for it, thinking that some of its meltwater would be nice to have around near my camp.

It started raining lightly, and the wind picked up, just as I found a series of stone shelter breastworks people had built for protection from the wind. Since I was totally alone, I picked the best and roomiest rock crescent and pitched my A-frame tent on the little sandy spot it partially enclosed. After getting into the securely battened down tent an extremely violent thunderstorm lashed across the plateau, with torrential rain, incredible wind, loud thunder, and lightning strikes, some of which I could see out my tent window, striking awfully nearby. I was fearful for my life, since my tent was thoroughly battered by the wind, seemingly ready to get blown away with every gust, and since I was on essentially flat ground, on top of a high plateau at 11,600 feet, I was afraid lighting would strike my tent.

After the storm passed I went out and got some water from the tiny brooks issuing out of the large snowbank near my tent, difficult because they were so small, and had my dinner of cold food. It started raining again, and the wind was still very strong. I tried to doze off, with no luck, got some more water at a lull in the rain, brought a bunch of rocks inside my tent and put them in the corners to help in holding it down, and then tried to sleep again.

The rest of the afternoon, evening, and night were a total nightmare. The wind never let up at all, relentlessly lashing at my poor tent and making it impossible to sleep, since it always sounded like I was about to go flying off the mountain. The rain continued, heavy all night, often exploding into thunderstorms, with lightning lighting up the sky time and time again. The stone shelter walls really didn't seem to offer much protection for my tent. I felt totally alone and utterly insignificant, battered brutally by the elements in my puny tent, waiting to be blown away or be fried by a lightning strike. I dozed very fitfully, never really falling asleep, as I pondered what I was going to do in the morning. Granite Peak seemed like it was out of the question.

Monday, August 26:

After one of my half-awake fitful dozes I looked at my little clock (which I did a lot of during my hellish night) and saw that it was 4 AM. The wind was still ferociously ripping at my tent, but when I clambered out I noticed the rain had stopped, and that I could even see stars and, far away to the north, the lights of Columbus, Montana on the horizon. Since I couldn't sleep with the howling wind, I ate some food and, in the light of the moon and my flashlight, pulled down my poor tent (still pretty wet) and put it, my sleeping bag, and other junk in my backpack, which I then covered with a trash bag, laid it next to the rock crescent, and put rocks all over it so it or the trash bag wouldn't blow away. It was awfully cold out, too.

I had left out my daypack, and at about 4:30 AM., in the extreme darkness and howling wind, shouldered it and began climbing upward again, up the gentle north slope of Tempest Mountain (well-named). I angled to my right, toward the edge of the plateau, but was somewhat disoriented in the dark, and had an especially hard time with my footing on the innumerable rocks strewn everywhere. My plan was to at least get a look at Granite Peak, and if I didn't feel like climbing it, make the easy stroll up to the top of Tempest Mountain and then get out of the Beartooths with my life.

After a bit of climbing it began to get brighter as a perfectly clear morning dawned, and I soon came near the edge of the plateau, where I could see a sort of cusp in the edge, a gateway of sorts. I anxiously hiked over to this area, marked by a large cairn, and saw Granite Peak for the first time. It was an extremely impressive sight, a great meat-cleaver of a mountain with a serrated ridge crowning the sheer rock wall facing me. From the gateway where I stood, a path slabbed down the side of Tempest Mountain to the Granite-Tempest col, and then I could see a climbable slope leading upward from the col to a point on the serrated ridge about two-thirds the way up to the summit. This slope was sort of in back of the sheer wall, and it didn't look too bad. I couldn't see what was behind the serrated ridge near its summit.

Since it was still awfully early in the morning, and it was a clear day, and I had made it this far, I elected to go for Granite Peak. I confidently started down the cairned path that slabbed down from the gateway to the col. It crossed over some rocky ribs sticking out of the mountain, and became hard to find as the slope became very rocky with treacherous footing, but the route was downhill and the col was almost always in sight, so I made good progress and was at the col after only about half an hour.

My next task was to ascend a steep slope of crumbling talus, the one I had seem from the gateway. It was much higher than I thought, and I needed many rests as I clambered up the broken rocks, again with much treacherous footing. There was a big, tall snowfield I skirted, and as I neared the top I couldn't really see what was ahead, owing to the steepness of the slope. The slope was triangular in shape, and as I neared the apex I saw that there was a serrated ridge continuing from that point. Therefore, I went a little to my left and crossed over the pointed subsidiary ridge below the apex, and started following a rough, intermittently cairned path that ran behind and below the jagged crest of the ridge.

It was now bright and sunny out, but still cold and windy, and I was wearing a spare pair of socks as mittens. The terrain I was now traversing was more vertical than horizontal, really a series of cliffs. The main ridge of Granite Peak, to my right, was too rough for travel, but progress beneath it was hampered by about three or four subsidiary ridges that crossed my path as I attempted to parallel the ridge. Carefully placing every step, and frequently having to use my arms to steady myself, or occasionally pull myself up a ledge, I made tortuous progress, with loose rock, faint cairns, and sheer dropoffs all hazards. There were about three or four spots that demanded extreme care, and I wondered how I was ever going to get back before deciding it was best to forget that for now.

I had read guidebooks which mentioned a snowbridge in a col on the route, and soon enough I came to the obvious col. Fortunately, there was no snow there, which was a rare occasion when the route was on the crest of the ridge. After a while I found myself in a very steep sided chute with what looked like the summit above me, the very faint trail having died. It was 9 AM, and I was about a hundred feet below the summit.

The direct route from my precarious perch went up a very steep cleft or chimney, but I knew I couldn't climb that. I tried to make my way along the cliffs to the right, failed, then to the left, and failed again. There were just too many places where I simply could not get up or across a sheer wall. I tried to the right again, this time using a big crack in a rock to hang by as I made it across a small face, but beyond that still found things impassable. I came back by that way, and tried to the left, but that was even steeper, and really looked hopeless. I sat down and rested, eating some food, and basically decided to give up.

It seemed that I needed a rope and a companion to surmount the final cliffs. I had a bum shoulder, was totally alone in a remote and rugged area, had little rockclimbing skill, and was basically in way over my head. I took pictures, intending them to be "this is how far I got" shots, then decided to make one more reconnaissance to the left. I was very upset about having come all this way to be defeated so close to my goal.

While up there, I studied the way to the right, and saw cairns beyond where I had been, then saw a possible route, if I could just surmount one small cliff face. Deciding to give it one last try, I went back up to the right, made the hanging traverse carefully, and then, very careful with my shoulder, pulled myself up the small cliff I had seen, then saw a couple cairns. I was going to nail this bastard mountain! A few scampers up and around boulders brought me to the crest of the actual summit ridge, and then, as I panted heavily from my burst of activity and from the excitement of finding the route, I came to the summit, a very jumbled area of huge boulders. I mounted the highest one and exulted, loudly and emphatically, my arms raised high as I swore to the world.

I rested for a good half hour at the summit. It had taken me a good hour to get up the final hundred feet, owing to my futzing around, but it was still early, so I leisurely signed the register, read the earlier entries (it seemed about one party every two to three days made it up), admired the 360 degree view of the massive, ugly Beartooth Mountains, and took several pictures, leaving just one shot in the camera. It was still cold and windy, and I still needed my socks on my hands to keep warm. I thought I heard people a couple times, but it was always just rocks cascading down the steep slopes of the mountain.

Satisfied with my triumph, I started back down the mountain. Somehow, though, I got mixed up among the jumble of summit rocks, and started going down the chute-like gully to the southwest of the three-ridged peak, and only after I had gone a good way down into the gully and failed to see any cairns did I start to look carefully at the walls of the gully. Realizing my mistake, I had to precariously climb all the way back up to the summit and descend into the southeast gully. In my defense, the gullies were remarkably similar. I lost about half an hour with this dumb move.

Once back to the point where I had almost given up I gingerly made my way back across all the sharp subsidiary ridges, the way I had come. This time, though, I had better luck following cairns, and probably took a better route, but I was much more fatigued, so had to be extra careful at the four or so spots where substantial jumps or climbs were needed. My feet were aching and the skies becoming very, very cloudy as I finally made it to the top of the big talus slope. The worst part of the hike was behind me, the part of the mountain where a fall or slip could have severely injured or killed me.

Going down the large talus slope, beside the snowfield, was a chore, owing to the steepness of the slope, the soreness in my feet and knees, and my thirst, which I was able to take care of by hiking down to below the tall snowfield there, where a small brook was born. From the top, though, the snowfield looked like it was a long way down, and from the snowfield it was still a ways down to the col. After a rest at the col I wearily started up the slabbing semi-path to the gateway up on the plateau.

This was also very wearying, since it was uphill, the footing was, as usual, rough, and I lost the path several times, having to rock-hop horribly on badly-placed rocks. Also, there seemed to be more small ridges to cross and be in general much longer than before. About halfway along I took my last picture, a self-timed shot of me looking back at the great shark's fin of Granite Peak under ominous, leaden skies.

Once at the gateway I was very glad, since it was all pretty flat and easy for a while, going along the plateau. As I went down (not doing Tempest Mountain, an easy stroll to my right, since it was getting late and the weather was threatening), I started angling away from the edge of the plateau, looking for the snowfield by which I had stashed my pack. After a while I found the snowfield, but at first couldn't find the series of breastworks where my tent had been and my pack was now. After searching for a bit, very puzzled, since I knew my tent had been not far from the snowfield, a nasty thunderstorm rolled in, just as it had at the same time and in the same place as yesterday.

I crouched close to the ground as lightning flashed all around me, since I didn't want to be a 6'-5" projection above the surrounding flat ground in the middle of the fierce electrical activity. At a lull I searched more for my backpack, getting wet in the rain, then waited out another brutally windy, wet period of lightning, then started getting very upset. I searched over and over again, looking up, down, right, left, and center, until I knew the area like the back of my hand, but still no familiar breastworks or backpack. The hard rain, thunderstorms, and my fatigue didn't help.

After an hour or so I decided that I must be at the wrong snowfield, even though the shape of the huge snowbank looked familiar. So I rockhopped down the gentle slope for five minutes to the north, treacherous in the rain, until another snowfield appeared. This one definitely did not look like the one I had camped near, so I thought of going back up to the first one. Instead, I decided to see if there was another one further down. The slope steepened some, and after ten minutes I saw another snowfield, way off to my left, closer to the edge of the plateau that I remembered.

However, as soon as I got near the base of this third snowfield, I clearly saw the row of breastworks on the far side. My pack was sitting in one, with its trash bag flapping in the breeze but still keeping it pretty dry. Relieved, I sat down and rested. In my defense, the terrain there was pretty featureless, a huge area of gently sloping rocks, and I had packed up and left camp in utter darkness in the morning, but my stupidity lay mainly in my stubborn insistence that the first snowfield had to be the one I camped at. I should have realized after two minutes of not seeing my pack that it had to be another one. In the dark on the way up I hadn't seen any others, so thought there was only one on the whole plateau.

My immediate goal was now to get my butt off of the god-forsaken Froze-to Death Plateau. I could have pitched my tent again where I had last night, but another night of howling wind and harsh rain above timberline was simply unthinkable. So, despite my complete fatigue, and having wasted over two hours in various blunders, I stowed my daypack into my big backpack, waited out another burst of electrical activity in the fetal position next to the breastworks, then started off back down the plateau in the driving rain.

Not far away from my campsite I saw a person coming my way, and we both detoured slightly to meet each other. It was the first human I had seen in over 24 hours. In the fierce wind and rain I told him briefly about the breastworks being a good (relative to other spots around) campsite, and a little about getting to Granite Peak itself, as his three companions caught up to us. Wishing them luck, I took off back down the route.

It was a miserable traverse of the plateau. My feet were in intense pain, the footing on the jumbled rock was slippery, the wind caused my trash-bag pack cover to flap so badly I had to discard it and let my pack get wet, and the rain continued, with especially mean-looking black clouds on a mountain massif further north fortunately keeping their distance.

As I got down a little further, though, the rain stopped, and sun actually began to peek out from behind clouds. The better the weather got, though, the worse my feet did, and soon I could hardly bear to walk on rocks (basically impossible to avoid), so I sought out grassy stretches of plateau whenever possible. The general flatness of the walking helped, even though the sparse cairns were not much help in picking the most efficient route across the jumbled surface.

I finally gained a small rise and saw the final descent to the trail, and this last half-mile took forever, since every step was painful, and the more-steep downhill didn't help. Near the trail I started veering off to the left, cutting off an angle, and I soon came out onto the Mystic Lake-East Rosebud Trail, just below its high point on the plateau.

Here I took a long rest and drank the last of my water, also ministering somewhat to my poor feet. It was about 6 PM, and I realized that there was no way I could make it back to the car, so I planned on camping down at Mystic Lake, directly below me. It was still partly sunny, and all danger from falls or lightning was well behind me, but I still had a ways to go. I started down, soon leaving behind the stark world of timberline for the open western forest of the side of the steep Mystic Lake valley.

I hiked very fast down the trail, really flying for most of the way, since it was well graded and solid downhill the whole way, and I figured the quicker I was down the mountain the shorter my misery. My feet were still in excruciating pain, but after a while I noticed that less and instead started to get very, very thirsty. As the trail switchbacked endlessly down a steep gully towards the lake I kept hoping for a brook crossing, of which I recalled several from my upward trip. Finally, after an eternity of long-striding downhill and false-hope switchbacks that approached only rustling wind instead of rushing water, I came to a swampy brook crossing.

Here I drank heartily, filled my canteens, and then hiked down the remaining fifteen minutes through the forest to the trail junction just back from the shores of Mystic Lake. I very quickly found a nice clearing not far off into the woods from the junction, and pitched my tent at 8 PM in the dusk as it started to rain lightly. By the time it was up the rain stopped, but I crawled in, ate some food for a couple minutes, then totally crashed out, utterly exhausted.

Tuesday, August 27:

I woke up at about 8 AM after a solid, totally uninterrupted and restful 12 hours of sleep. I ate some of my little remaining cold food, packed up my tent and stuff in the cold, sunny morning, and started my easy three mile hike back to my car.

The hike back was pretty uneventful. My feet still hurt like hell, and I was very concerned that my upcoming trip on Mt. Rainier might be threatened, but that was three days off, so I couldn't worry about that now. As I hiked up the steep "dam" of Mystic Lake and then down the now-hot valley of jumbled house-sized blocks on the trail I again started seeing other people, none of them obviously heading for Granite Peak (because of their garb, gear, or small children). In my entire 36 hours above the lake I had seen only 2 parties, widely spaced, but it seemed many fisherman and day hikers liked to hike as far as the scenic lake.

I kept plugging along gamely as the trail descended further and further down, the pipe on the opposite side of the valley reminding me how far down I was coming from lake level, until the trial flattened out in a forest, passed a couple of signs I had remembered, then emerged by the little series of huts at the hydro station and finally the parking lot. My dusty Geo Prizm was a welcome sight.

I took off my hiking boots first, and my feet didn't look too bad, just a couple of minor blisters, except for my big toes, which had enormous blisters on them, my right toe looking like the nail would soon come off (it did, about three weeks later). I spread out my damp tent in the trunk, in general not bothering with organizing my car too much, then got in for the tortuous drive back to civilization.

The rutted, dusty, potholed, washboarded, awful, and tortuous road was just as bad as it had been on the way in, and as I carefully drove along in low gear at 20 mph I fervently hoped that I wasn't damaging the car, especially since I hadn't signed the damage waiver. One car passed me as I looked at the scenery--grassy valleys, scattered forest, and increasingly lower buttes and hills on either side of the road--on the way out.

Granite Peak under ominous leaden clouds, from the slope of Froze-to-Death plateau (1991-08-26).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:7522 ft / 2292 m
    Extra Gain:640 ft / 195 m
    Round-Trip Distance:24 mi / 38.6 km
    Trailhead:Rosebud West TH  6557 ft / 1998 m
    Grade/Class:Class 4
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cool, Windy, Overcast
Terrible thunderstorms in afternoon
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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