Granite Peak, Montana
A Climbing Expedition with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides
Highpointing – As Good as it Gets
12,807 ft., 24 miles
August 23, 2013
Granite Peak from High Camp
The success of climbing expeditions boils down to three factors: the terrain, the team and the weather. This trip to Granite peak in Montana gets five stars on all three.
Terrain & Weather
Granite Peak is the tallest mountain in Montana, and as such attracts Highpointers (see Highpointing, a Primer – Wes Chapman’s Blog) like honey draws bears. It is part of the Beartooth Mountains in southwest Montana, about 10 miles from the Wyoming border. I signed onto this climb not knowing a soul, and not having done a meaningful Hill since the Alps last summer – but after a year spent pushing ropes, I was ready for some time in the wilderness of Montana. I signed on to my first climb with Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, ready to get up Granite Peak, the only technical rock climb of the 50 state highpoints.
Mystic Lake on the approach – day 1
Granite Peak was the last of the state highpoints to be climbed – first climbed in by a party led by Elers Koch, James C. Whitham and R.T. Ferguson on August 29, 1923, after several failed attempts by others. It is normally a 4 day/3 night undertaking when approach from the West Rosebud (Mystic Lake Trailhead) which was our route.
Adrian & Daniel above Mystic Lake
Steve on the approach
Our team of 5 climbers and 2 guides (Kenny & Daniel) and a porter (Ryan) set off into warm temperatures and glorious sunshine. The first day is 7 miles (4,200 feet vertical) of climbing to the “Froze to Death Plateau” in the shadow of Froze to Death Mountain – somebody must have had a very bad initial trip here. The trail runs up an approach to Mystic Lake, and then up a series of switchbacks to the plateau.
Mountain goats at Camp 1
The first camp was delightfully populated with a herd of mountain goats. These goats are salt deprived and are attracted to camp to derive the salt from the climbers urine. They are pretty aggressive about this, which makes for some interesting – and initially uncomfortable – bathroom breaks. The views across the valley were partially obscured by smoke from wildfires around the area – but still afforded terrific views of Mt. Hague and Mt. Wood.
Mt. Hague from Froze to Death Plateau
The Author sporting a Dartmouth Football hat on Froze to Death Plateau above Mystic Lake
Day two was a 3 mile, 1,600 foot gain day to a point near the summit of Tempest Mountain (12,478) – more with the bad weather theme. We enjoyed great weather, a very easy day and got to bed early – preparing for a big day on summit day.
High Camp on Tempest Mountain
We set off for the summit at 4:30 AM on day three into clear skies and a light breeze from the SW. This unfortunately involves a descent 700 vertical feet to the col between Tempest and Granite.
The Moon setting over Granite near the snow bridge
From there it is a walk up a boulder field to the East Ridge, approximately to the elevation that we started at, where we roped up into two teams at a small snow bridge. The next 800 feet to the summit was really terrific rock climbing (click to see video) – level 4 and low level 5 – arriving before 8:00 AM.
John ropes off the summit
Guide Kenny G. at work
I enjoy a successful climb on Granite Peak
Rich checking his gear at the summit
The trip down was both safe and anti-climactic – except for the chance to watch some mountain goats (click to see video) really strut their stuff. The 700 foot climb out to high camp is a bit of a slog in the sun, but we were back in high camp before an afternoon storm hit. The final day was a quick exit to the autos, and a stop at the Grizzly Bar for a well-earned cheeseburger a la Jimmy Buffet – with all the fixings.
Clearing after the storm at High Camp
The Terrain – Geology
Granite Peak is a big hunk of eponymous rock, thrust up into the air as part of the Laramide Orogeny (mountain building episode) approximately 70-35 million years ago. The granite batholith is dated by radio-isotope methods to be over 2 billion years old, and was thrust up through much younger sediments – in much the same process that formed the Adirondacks. The granite mass that forms Granite peak was cut by subsequent intrusions of igneous rock – horizontal sills and vertical dikes of much more magnesium and iron rich (mafic) rock. The heat from these later intrusives metamorphosed the granite, fracturing it and making it brittle, and making for fairly interesting climbing. There is a lot of loose rock on this hill. The major notches in the mountain are caused by vertical dikes of softer intrusives. These produce some fairly challenging skiing for the local mountaineers in the winter.
Mafic sills (horizontal dark bands) visible on the right flank of Granite Peak
This was the best all-around team with which I ever had the pleasure to climb. The team from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides was really terrific. Kenny, the lead guide, is in his late 50s, and really understood his business, this mountain (his 25th trip) and – most importantly – our team, which ranged from 49 to 63 years of age. Kenny hails from the topographically challenged state of Wisconsin, and the second guide, Daniel, came from Arkansas – an odd origin for a guy who specializes in ice climbing. Both these guys had a perfect score in the three skills that matter most to me on one of these trips – people, climbing and cooking. The porter, Ryan, went out of his way to be helpful to the entire team and has all of the skills to be a guide in his own right – he just needs to quit smoking.
The climbing team of guests was simply terrific. Every one of the guys had a passion for the mountains – two were completing 48 highpoints on this trip, two of us were in the 20s-30s completed, and one guy had only six – but they included Denali, Gannett and Granite (as well as Aconcagua). Professionally we had two consultants, a business owner, a special education TA, and a retired railroad engineer. Unencumbered by professional demands, the retiree was in the best shape and kicked the rest of our butts. While the team looked like the cast for a Viagra commercial, everybody got along and got the job done. There was absolutely no whining, not a cross word, and no mystery illnesses like nocturnal snow blindness that we witnessed in a woman a couple of years ago on Cotopaxi. This was a great bunch of guys, and a real pleasure to climb with.
Granite Peak – Quite a Hill
On balance this was a 5 star climb – I can strongly recommend the Hill and the guides. In full disclosure, three of the guys had climbed with JHMG the previous week on Gannett and had a pretty bad time. What a difference a week (and change of crew) makes. If you go, ask for Kenny or Daniel – and enjoy Granite Peak, one of the most beautiful climbs in the lower 48.
Adios from Granite Peak