| Granite Peak, MT
Granite Peak, MT
July 17-19, 2008
West Rosebud Creek – Froze to Death Plateau Approach
We spent the first day of our trip driving. Drive time from Denver to the Greater Granite area – 10 hours (with the occasional stop). Instead of camping that night, we got a room in Absarokee, about an hour drive time from the trailhead. Everything we read about the mountain up to this point warned about the horrendous weather of the Beartooth Range, as well as the route finding problems frequently encountered on the mountain. Sure enough, once we turned South off I-90 towards Absarokee, a storm rolled in, a big storm. The side of the car was getting pounded with heavy rains and driving winds, lightning was striking all around us. Not a good start. Thinking if this was Colorado, there would be a good chance it would blow through in an hour or so, we kept waiting. And it kept storming. When we went to bed that night, it was still blowing wind and rain and thunder.
The forecast still said 'chance of thunderstorms,' when we went to bed, which is about is good as you are ever going to get up there, so we planned on heading out the next morning anyway. Waking up at 3:30 am in Absarokee, the weather had passed and the plan was to start walking at first light. But after we arrived at the trailhead, we instead went with a 30 minute nap in the car before heading out on the trail. For anyone wondering about the road to the trailhead, it is a very good 14 mile dirt road, any vehicle could do it, no problem. There were 4 other cars in the lot, so we expected a few people up on the mountain. It was still early season for Granite, so a few cars seemed reasonable to us (as opposed to very many cars later in the season).
The trailhead elevation was 6,550 ft. We started walking at 6am and the 3.5 miles up to Mystic Lake went by uneventfully. It was very beautiful, but uneventful. You follow the West Rosebud Creek drainage, which at this point in the season was huge, raging with all the snow melt. You gain only 1200 ft in this first 3.5 miles. This section of trail, the Mystic Lake trail, is one of the most popular day hikes in the area (as we would find out on our return, when we passed a very many people). This morning, however, we didn't see a soul.
After Mystic Lake, you diverge from the popular day hike trail and start up the "Swtichbacks from Hell." There are 28 switchbacks in total, which rise from the ~7,600' Mystic Lake to the start of the Froze to Death Plateau (10,100'). At this point you start getting views of the surrounding high peaks of the Beartooth Range. We gained the Froze to Death Plateau around 11am that morning, and after a short break started the great traverse across the high, exposed plateau. The Plateau, contrary to what you might expect, isn't flat, it is angled, where the start is at 10,100' and the 'end' tops out at 12,100'. Not only that, but isn't not a straight shot, there are rolling hills 'with-in' the plateau, creating interesting route finding challenges. We had clear weather, which helped the navigating immensely. I could easily see how in white out conditions (or in the dark) navigating the FTD Plateau would be challenging, and probably downright dangerous.
The FTD Plateau starts off with lush green grass, and many wildflowers, however about half way up, transitions to a lifeless, rocky, flat, wasteland.
At this point, we were starting to get tired, and began to notice building clouds all around us. About 3:30 in the afternoon we were looking for our bivy site.
We had read that the ideal ones were at about 11,600' or 11,800' because they were slightly sheltered from the weather (as much as anything can be up there). Finding these sites proved to be difficult, and before we knew it, we were on the ridge, at the top bivy sites at 12,100.' At this point, we sure were not going back down to find the lower bivy sites, so we set up shop as fast as we could. Good thing too, because the moment we had our tent and tarp set up the storm hit.
(First view of Granite from Camp)
Sideways hail, blowing snow, rain, everything. Cracking of thunder and lightning all around us. Talk about being exposed, there is absolutely no where to hide up there. We immediately took shelter in our tent and sacrificed the hot dinner. Most definitely, without a doubt, the worst weather I have ever camped in. We slept fitfully that night, awaking occasionally with the loud cracks of thunder. The infamous Beartooth weather was living up to its reputation.
Aside: we figured it was about 4 miles (and 2,000' gain) across the plateau, which took us the better part of 4 hours. Still hadn't seen any people. No one on the route, no one at any of the camps, so we didn't know who those cars at the trailhead belonged to. As far as we could tell, we were the only ones on the mountain. Stats for the day: 5,800 ft of gain in 10 hours.
The storm subsided at 2 am (I know because I was awake), for a total of 10 hours of very consistent, horrendous storming. Our alarms went off at 3 and we took a peek outside the tent. It was partly cloudy, but no wind or precip. Good enough! Packing up, we were off by 3:45am. A little over an hour, (and ~700 ft elevation loss) we were down to the saddle between Granite and Tempest Mountain at 5am, and it was starting to get light. Good timing. From this point on, the route required careful route finding and possibly some cautious climbing for which light would be beneficial. Normally, people scramble up the ridge on the rocks, but it was early season and there was a good bit of snow cover on the south side of the ridge. Given this, we thought it would be easier to do a little snow climb than scramble on the rocks.
About 800' of elevation later, we were at the infamous 'Snow Bridge.' This part of the route gets a lot of hype, but I'm not really sure why. With the proper gear (and experience) its no big deal. My best guess is that most people that attempt Granite are more rock oriented climbers and don't have much steep snow travel experience. If this were the case, I could easily see how the snow bridge would be something of concern. I have no idea if this is actually the case, I'm guessing.
The Snow Bridge
After the snow bridge, the climbing begins. The first bit is Class 4, partially exposed in places, where the hardest part is route finding. That said, if you aren't confident climbing/ scrambling on the rocks, this would be very challenging. Although the climbing was pretty vertical, the holds were plentiful and bomber.
After doing this for an hour or so, you come to the crux of the route, 200 ft shy of the summit. We read mixed reports about this section, some calling it Class 4+, some call it low 5th Class… 5.4 and 5.5. After completing the section, I would likely call it low 5th Class. The difference between this section and the previous hour's worth of climbing is that you start to loose the many hand holds, so you are left with limited options. We never roped on the way up, feeling relatively confident on the rock. Additionally, the technical rock sections were short pitches separated by ledges, providing some sort of (likely mental) reassurance. We lost about 30 minutes in the crux section while we searched for the proper route. Not the end of the world, but without all the maps and pictures we printed out prior to the climb, we would have been struggling. If you end up off route, the climbing gets very difficult, very quickly.
The Crux of the route
At around 9 am we were on the summit. The weather still looked relatively stable, but knowing that can change quickly, and that the way down could take just as long (if not longer) than the way up, we packed it up after 10 minutes on the summit. (Aside: we still haven't seen a soul the entire time, pretty cool).
We had read reports of parties down climbing the entire route, but most people choose to rappel at least a few sections. In all, we did six raps down to the snow bridge. Most anchors (slings) were pretty solid, although we added a few slings of our own in select places.
Rapping down to the snow bridge
Back down to the snow bridge, we down-climbed the snow fields, which were getting pretty slushy by this point. It was now about 1:30 in the afternoon, and we could see the clouds building. Our major objective was to make it to the saddle (the end of the technical terrain) before the weather hit, and if we were lucky, all the way back to camp before the weather hit, and if we were REALLY lucky have enough time to cook dinner before the weather hit. But, of course, the weather hit when we reached the saddle at 2pm. Thunder, lightning, wind and hail/snow/rain hammered us as we climbed the last hour back up to our camp.
"What's up with this weather?"
We got into our tent as fast as we possibly could, again, no hot dinner. It was looking like we had hauled up stoves, fuel and freeze dried meals for no reason. It was going to be 3 days without hot food. Summit day turned out to be 12 hours round trip, which we felt was reasonable. We weren't going particular fast, but we weren't dogging it either. It is only 2,500' of gain summit day, but the technical sections and route finding tack on time. The storm that night didn't let up till 2am, making for 12 hours of snow/hail/rain/wind/thunder/lightning.
We woke the next morning to an inch of snow, a beautiful sunrise and a goat strolling through camp.
After packing up camp, we were off walking by 7am. Good weather made for an easy walk back down the plateau, down the switchbacks (where we saw people for the first time) and all the way to the car. It took us 7 hours from the top of the FTD to the car (a 3 hour improvement from the way up).
All and all, I think we got pretty lucky, not many people summit Granite on their first attempt. Take away lessons:
1. NEVER underestimate the weather in the Beartooths,
2. Don't underestimate how much time and energy it takes to get across (and up) the Froze to Death Plateau,
3. There is only one way up and one way down the technical section of the mountain. If you are doing this on a busy day, you'd be waiting for use of the rap stations. This will delay you, and increase your chances of being hammered by an afternoon (and all night) storm.
Great trip though, awesome mountain. We talked afterwards about how it was a great mix of things, orienteering and navigating, endurance and strength, steep snow travel (you wouldn't have this late in the season), and technical rock climbing.
If anyone is thinking of going, feel free to shoot me a PM, I'd love to talk about it.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):