Montana: Granite Peak (12,808 feet)
Distance: ~28 miles via the Silver Lake and Phantom Creek Trails
Elevation gain: 8,200 feet
Dates: August 21-25, 2018
Granite Peak changed me. I am not a rock climber, nor do I aspire to be. But, bagging this peak via the standard route requires several hours of legitimate Class 5 climbing.
If you’ve read my Borah post, you know that the tiny stretch of Chicken Out Ridge was more terrifying for me than jumping out of a plane. Granite went well beyond that. To keep me going, this quote resonated with me as I climbed:
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” -Neale Donald Walsch
It’s true; Granite was firmly outside of my comfort zone. And, it made me feel alive.
We met the team at 9:00 am the day before the climb for a morning of practice outdoors in Cody, WY. The guide selected terrain for training day that is more difficult than what we would experience on Granite Peak, so it was good mental preparation and helped release some of the pre-climb jitters. After two pitches and a lower, I clarified that it was okay to sit out summit day if I wasn’t feeling the rock climbing piece. Assured that I could start the mountain without committing to the part that terrified me, I was in.
That afternoon, we completed a gear check with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and met our porter, who valiantly carried 30 pounds of our gear. We moved on with a team trip to purchase leather gloves for climbing, followed by a team dinner to satisfy my superstition and Anna’s craving of cheese pizza. We were off to a solid start.
Day 1 (~7-8 mile range, 4,400 feet of gain)
At 5:30 am, Anna and I reconvened with our teammate, Jon, in Cody and drove to Red Lodge, MT where we joined our guide and porter for breakfast. After a hearty meal together, we caravanned over dirt roads to the West Rosebud/Mystic Lake trailhead.
Beginning around 6,500 feet of elevation, the day followed a trail with some descent, but mostly ascent. A notable section of switchbacks yielded a total of 4,400 feet of net gain for the day.
Thick fog prevented good views, but created a feeling of mysticism. We were just grateful for no rain. Along the way, we stopped to enjoy delicious raspberries which were just peaking. Six and a half hours after leaving our cars, we pulled into Camp 1 near the beginning of Froze-to-Death Plateau, around 10,700 feet.
We enjoyed a multi-course dinner with a view of what we’d just climbed, made friends with some goats, and settled into our warm sleeping bags for the cold night.
Day 2 (about 4 miles; 1,400 feet of gain)
The second day was a little mis-represented as an “active rest day.” We had the promise of about 4 easy miles across a flat plateau. While the gain of 1,400 feet and timing of 3 1/2 hours was much less than Day 1, this was no walk in the park.
Moving from low to high camp involved miles of crossing talus fields. While some climbers move adeptly over rocks of various sizes, shapes, and stability, I struggle with the footing on uncertain terrain. This was more taxing on me mentally than physically, so when Anna and I pulled into high camp and saw that Tim, our porter, had already set up our tent, we rejoiced in delight.
Like camp 1, we shared high camp with sodium-deficient goats who would wait for us to pee, then go enjoy the remains as their electrolyte boost. Adorable and friendly, I fell in love with these unique companions.
We spent the following three nights in this camp at 12,100 feet, withstanding howling winds and even more frigid temperatures than night 1. The wind ripped through the tent and my 15 degree sleeping bag, leaving me shivering at points in the night. Needless to say, the naming of Froze-to-Death Plateau is apt.
Our schedule allowed two potential days for the summit to maximize our chances of topping out despite sudden weather changes on the mountain. The forecast was looking potentially rough for Thursday’s attempt, so we went to bed uncertain about the next day’s itinerary. Our guide promised to check in with us in the morning with the decision either way.
Day 3 (0 miles)
Somewhere in the early part of the morning when it was still dark, our guide assessed the weather and determined that we’d wait out the snow/wind that was rolling in. Friday’s forecast looked clear, but Thursday looked dicey. So, we slept in to the extent that we could.
Raging wind blew my headlamp out of the tent’s inside pocket. The tent wall smacked into me non-stop. It was too cold, even with four layers of jackets, to spend more than a few minutes outside. So, even when we were awake, we were holed up inside the sleeping bags. (For video of the wind experience, check out our Facebook feed).
We exited the tent a few times, starting with a brief visit to our outdoor kitchen to fetch coffee, which we immediately took back to the tent. A few hours later, we emerged for a group brunch, then back to the tents, where we mostly stayed until dinner.
During my day-long tent confinement nestled in my sleeping bag, I finished an entire book. Reading helped prevent getting too stir crazy. And, venturing out a few times to pee (a 15 minute endeavor every time), eat, and circle camp to say hello to the goats helped stretch the legs and keep me mentally grounded.
That afternoon, a group of two climbers who had made a bid for the summit despite the forecast, passed through camp, reporting that they had to turn around 300 feet from the summit due to sideways snow. This report made us feel good about the call to stay put at camp that day.
During dinner, we noticed a pica living in the wind break wall and one small marmot lurking near camp. We fueled up on burritos and retired early for our alpine start the next day.
Day 4 (~4.5 miles; 2,100 feet of gain)
After an oatmeal breakfast, we began our descent down the saddle at 5:00 am, where we lost 700 feet of elevation. We each stowed our poles and a liter of water at the top of the saddle closer to the summit for our return.
The first leg of summit day is across more talus, which began the mental strain on me. Two fun snow crossings and more gain, the day progresses into some class 4 terrain mixed with 5.4 climbing.
As a team, we helped guide each other through the puzzle that is climbing. Support and teamwork were key to keeping us all mentally and physically in tact. One pitch after another, I took things one step (or hold) at a time.
One traverse offered solid handholds and footholds, but the rock jutted out at my core, requiring me to invert in the shape of a C. We weren’t roped, just had a spot from the guide, which felt risky. Add to that, the fear of falling over the course of several hours, despite being roped, remained until we were out of the technical terrain.
At the summit 6 hours and 45 minutes later, I was in disbelief that I’d made it. I had no doubt about Anna’s or Jon’s ability, but I’d questioned my own ability purely from a mental, not physical, standpoint.
I had cell service at the summit, so I took a minute to announce our accomplishment. We snapped some photos, had a snack, then began the trek back to camp.
The descent kicked off with two lowers and another down climb/lower, followed by many roped down climbs. Eventually, we were back at the saddle to collect our stowed water and poles.
At 5:30 pm (12.5 hours from our departure), we pulled back into camp with total of 2,100 feet of gain for the day. We were so tired and cold that even though we started dinner together, we finished our meals in the warmth of our respective tents. I finally began to relax.
Day 5 (about 12 miles; ~6,000 feet loss)
After a granola breakfast and coffee, we pulled out of camp at 7:55 am.
We descended the entire way to the trailhead, returning to the cars at 2:37 pm. On the way down, we had clear views during the leg that had been foggy on the way up. The trail is truly breathtaking.
We celebrated over beer and endless rounds of fried cheese curds at the Cowboy Bar and Supper Club in Fishtail, then said goodbye to the team.
I continue to reflect upon my opening quote. Even after all of my other crazy adventures, I truly felt alive pushing far beyond my comfort zone through what can only be described as intense fear. Granite Peak changed me for the better. My hope is that it may change you too.
Granite Peak vs. Gannett Peak
After Gannett, I surveyed several climbers who have summited both mountains to gain an understanding of what lay ahead. Everyone has a different opinion, so here’s my take: Gannett required everything I had physically to reach the summit, but never scared me. Granite demanded significantly less physical energy and covered a notably shorter distance, but the type of terrain taxed me mentally and emotionally. Both required digging deep, but no mountain has ever pushed me so far mentally. Granite feels like the bigger overall accomplishment.
- Another solid experience climbing with JHMG. Chris got us safely to the summit and back and cooked great meals. Tim was amazing with all of his help along the way.
- Jon and Anna, you both were fantastic climbing partners. Without your support and direction on footholds and handholds (and hugs/high fives/cheers along the way), the climb would have been notably more difficult.
- Special shout-out to Anna for achieving her first ever camping experience. She survived the harsh, cold, windy conditions and has even agreed to try camping again.
- Photo credits – active climbing photos with me in them are courtesy of Jon. Thank you for letting me post them!