Elevation: 12,807ft Date: August 11-13, 2012 Group Size: 4 Miles Covered: 26 Difficulty: The most mentally challenging highpoint, hands down! Scenery: Absolutely mesmerizing scenery. Even if you don't go for the summit, you should come here for a backpacking trip. This highpoint takes the crown for the most beautiful scenery.
2012 is so far shaping up to be a great year! I finished my Ph.D., completed several projects with my consulting company, will be getting married in about a month, and now, with the climb to the top of Montana, I finished the quest I set off on in 2001 - a quest to climb the highest peak of each US state. Ok, two states still remain, Alaska and Hawaii, but those can wait. Really my main goal all this time has been to knock off the 48 contiguous states. And now it's done!
Granite peak was always that one scary highpoint looming on the horizon. It is the only highpoint that requires a roped class 4 or 5 climb on the standard route. Not being a rock climber and generally having a fear of heights, I found this mountain more challenge than I wanted to swallow. I kept pushing the attempt year after year, promising myself to take on rock climbing but never finding the time. So when another highpointer Alex emailed me asking if I wanted to join
his group on an attempt of Granite, I first refused. However, after Alex told me that they were taking an alternate back way, up the Southwest Couloir, that required no climbing, I finally relented. The timing was awful, their climb was scheduled for the weekend right before one of my contracts was due, and knowing myself, I knew it will be a miracle to have things done beforehand. But this was also a too-good of an opportunity to pass by.
Cooke City, MT
But I almost didn't even get out of D.C. My Delta flight to Minneapolis left D.C. at 6am. I got only one hour of sleep the night before trying to finish the project so the moment I got on the plane I took a nap. It didn't last long; before the takeoff I got woken up by the flight attendant telling me I need to place my netbook (the size of a book) under the seat or in the overhead compartment. I told her that I typically fly with Southwest and I've never heard of this policy before. In fact, I even flew with Delta to Atlanta two weeks before and I had my netbook in the seat pocket without anyone saying anything. The lady started barking at me about how she doesn't care what Southwest does and how she follows federal policy. She asked me if we had a problem. I told her that yes, I do have a problem, and that is with her customer service. She then started demanding my boarding pass presumably so she could kick me off the flight! Since it was stashed in the overhead compartment, she calmed down a bit, but not before having the pilot make an announcement. I don't understand the logic of this policy Delta has, but regardless, there were better ways of handling wanting me to place the laptop on the floor than being rude. Incidents like this really make me appreciate Southwest so much more.
I met Alex in Minneapolis and we caught the same flight to Billings. The weather in Billings was quite apocalyptic - blowing wind, orange haze, and smoke-filled air due to a nearby wildfire. We waited for about an hour to get a rental car - most cars were checked out to the firefighters. Alex' friend Fun was going to meet us in about 2 hours, which gave us just enough time to go to town to look for stove gas canisters and get some food. The first place we tried, Walmart, only had white gas. We then went to Cabela's. At the entrance we were greeted by a gun check-in station where presumably you are supposed to leave your various firearms while you go about shopping. This definitely is not something that we have in the D.C. area! But Cabela's was also out. In fact, the sales clerk told us that he has not had any gas canisters since April, making it sound like there was a major gas canister drought in this city. But he suggested we check The Base Camp, an EMS-like store. Finally, success. I also grabbed a topo map of the Beartooths and a Granite Peak guadrangle, just out of habbit. Little did I know how handy the map will become later on. We then headed back to the airport and got there just as Fun arrived.
We now had three out of the four climbers. The final guy, Mitchell (with about 44 highpoints under his belt), missed his first flight and got stuck waiting for another one. He wouldn't be arriving until midnight and thus will take a separate rental car. With this, the three of us took off for Cooke City, a two hour curvey journey through an amazing high country that gives you a taste of things to come. We checked into Alpine Motel and went across the street to the Bistro for a bite to eat. Our waitress looked and sounded Slovak, and sure enough, was. Turns out, there is quite a lot of Slovaks working in this area, and this was her fifth summer working in this restaurant (for those who don't know, I am from Slovakia, and also run a Slovak cooking website). After dinner, we headed back to the room, where I continued working on a proposal that had to be submitted before we left for the hike. I stayed up most of the night. We expected Mitchell to come in the next morning around 9, but instead there was a knock at the door before 7. He drove down the night before but didn't want to wake us up so he slept in the car. We had breakfast (biscuits and gravy for me) and then the other guys patiently waited while I finished and submitted the proposal at 10am, right before the intermittent internet went out again.
Approach to the base camp
On to the summit!
I left the camp the next morning before sunrise. I didn't get bothered by any animals. I think we had goats visit the first night as I heard some hooves, but the second night was quiet, not even the wind was blowing (or maybe I just slept better). I was hoping to catch up with the other guys at Rough Lake (or wherever they may be). But this was not to be. I got completely disoriented in this high country, and the easy one hour segment to Rough Lake turned into a seven hour class 3 scramble through the glacier covered hills. I was quite desperate at this point, I was completely alone and lost in this desolate land. I seriously contemplated returning back to the campsite for one more night and trying again the next day. Then, I finally caught a glimpse of the marshes and the lake from one of the hills. However, the descend down was too dangerous so I had to climb back up and started following ridges until I got to a waterfall. I thought at first this was the waterfall joining to Rough Lake, but I soon realized it looked unfamiliar and so did the lake. This was another significant panic moment, since now I felt totally lost. Luckily I had a map, compass, and the Spires to navigate by, by they all seemed to point to the Upper Aero Lake. But it couldn't be, as I was at all times south of it. Now in retrospect I suspect I ended up at the back side of the bottom Sky Top Lake, but to this day I am not sure. I wish I had a GPS up there to track my zigzags.
At this lake I started heading down what looked like a valley but it was dry and I knew I had to follow a creek. I again backtracked and then found another waterfall - this time the right one. I was so delighted to see the stupid Rough Lake opening up in front of me!
I made it down to the lake at 1 pm, and found three figures on the horizon. But when I got closer, I realized they were not my original climbing partners. There was no sign of those guys. I contemplated camping here for the night as by now I was absolutely mentally drained. I find it hard to believe that I almost got lost and perhaps died on this mountain, not because of the tricky and technical route to the summit, but due to irresponsibility of my climbing team. However, it was still too early, and the sun was shining so I pressed on.
However, I managed to get a hold of Alex using the motel's phone. I gave him an earshot and he was not even apologetic at first.
He said they waited for me until 6pm but then left since they didn't know where I was and wanted to get to a lower camp. They didn't leave a note since they didn't have a pen and paper. They spent the night between the Rough and Lone Elk lakes and started hiking down the next morning around 7 or 8.
Him and Fun were now in Billings, but Mitchell stayed behind to look for me and call the rangers to report me missing. Well, the problem now was that, since there is no cell phone reception here, we could not get a hold of Mitchell. His signal finally came on as he got out of the mountains and into Red Lodge, about hour and half from Cooke City. All this time, my awesome Colombian girlfriend kept pestering the guys pretending she didn't know where I was to make them feel bad about leaving me on the mountain. After we got a hold of Mitchell, I headed across the street to the "casino" for burgers and beer. They tasted great! Mitchell picked me up around 10 and we got to Billings little after midnight, just in time to catch about 3 hours of sleep before our 6 am flight the next morning. So in the end, everything ended OK, even though this turned out for me to be much more of an adventure than I had envisioned. I don't think that Alex, Fun, and Mitchell meant bad, they seem to be nice guys, perhaps they are just less experienced in this sort of stuff. I hope they learned a lesson here that you should never leave a climbing partner on a mountain, and should wait at least until the next morning for him/her to come back.