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Another God Damned try for Granite Peak. It triumphs again!!

July 8, 2020
Froze-to-Death Plateau in 2019

July 6, 2020

My oldest son Todd brought his family from Duluth to Billings last week to climb Granite Peak.  I joined them.  I pretended it was no big deal.

My favorite activity these Covid-19 days, is napping.  I like to take one after breakfast, then another after lunch.  The governor asked all of us to shelter in place.  I feel patriotic sheltering in place twice a day, praying like I always do.

My dear P. and I like to hike a mile or more each day, usually in the afternoons or evenings.  Our dog Gunther loves to hike in undeveloped parks and down by the Yellowstone River.  He is four years old, energetic.  I love Gunther.  

I’m 71 now, and this would be my fifth or sixth try for the summit of Granite Peak, a place I have little prospect of reaching.  

In fact, last August, as I descended the 26 switch backs from Froze-to-Death Plateau I made a solemn promise to God that if I ever returned to Billings alive I wouldn’t try to exceed my limits again.  I wanted to ugly cry, but of course, it wouldn’t help.

The next day, after my return to Billings, I was laughing and jesting and proclaiming how tough I was.  My toenails were black!

My oldest son Todd, on the other hand, summited Granite at least three times and he wanted to give his sons Cyrus, 14; and Roland, 12, a shot at the prize.  

Here’s my history of attempts.

My way of climbing Granite had always been to take the shortest route carrying the least amount of gear.  

The Mystic Lake trailhead to the Froze-to-Death Plateau is about six miles, but you climb maybe 3,000 feet.  Add another six across the plateau and clamber 800 feet up the rocks and you’re at the highest point in Montana.  Officially, it’s 12,799 feet, but more recent measurement has it just over 12,800 feet.  Granite has a reputation for being difficult.  It is for someone like me.  In other words, one doesn’t necessarily require ropes and other hardware if one finds the easiest route, but having equipment is wise, depending on several factors.  There’s lots of good stuff to read.

I didn’t know about altitude sickness when I was perhaps 40 years old and trying for the top.  I had gotten across the Froze-to-Death plateau, but I felt too light-headed to stand erect.  I was also dehydrated and out of water.  I can’t remember who I was climbing with, but they went on ahead of me and I lay down and took a nap.  When I woke I had a hellish, itchy, sunburn on one side of my nose and we quickly headed back to lower elevation.  The nauseating light headedness subsided on the zigzag trail back to Mystic Lake.  

A couple years later Todd and I tried again.  This time I was armed with extra water bottles and I had taken medicine—Diamox—to counter the altitude sickness.  We got across Froze-to-Death in good time, but we were running short of time.  We chimneyed up some vertical places near the summit, then followed a ledge to the right across the north face that got sketchier and turned into more of a crack than a ledge.

We debated the next move.  A slip would mean falling several hundred feet to death.  It was close to 2:30 p.m.  We retreated perhaps 50-100 feet shy of the summit.  I think we made a wrong choice in routes.

The following week we decided to try again, and we got up at 2:30.  We set out from Billings at a little before 3 a.m.  It was late August, no moon.  We knew we had to be returning on the switchbacks off the plateau by nightfall because it would be damn near impossible to find our way in the dark.

A light snow had fallen and it slowed us down enough to prevent us from reaching the summit again.  We did make it back to the zigzag and down to Mystic, then to the car.  Then home.

The next time we tried I got altitude sick.  We headed down to Avalanche Lake north of Granite.  We followed Huckleberry Creek until it was too dark and rainy to continue.  We had no gear.  Todd and I cuddled before a fire I started with Clif Bar wrappers.  We had one jacket between us, and one hat.  In the wee hours of the morning we made it to Mystic Lake, then back to the trailhead, then back to Billings.  I drove to Lame Deer and worked in the pharmacy that day.  When I got back to Billings that night I was so tired I pulled in to the driveway next door, but I backed out and got it right the next time.

Seems like several years later that Todd wanted to try again.  I was shot, but I offered to go with him part way.

Todd made it to the top that time, when I made a camp at Mystic to wait for him.  Took Todd all day.  He got sick and vomited on the plateau while I waited, lonesome, below.  I remember watching a super strong young man without a shirt carrying an ice chest on his shoulder to Mystic Lake.

I made a fire on the trail where I waited for Todd, my hiking boots in the dust and soot, I wrapped up in a quilted space blanket.  I fell into a fitful sleep.  About midnight, or so, Todd jogged up.  I stopped sobbing. 

Jump ahead thirty years.  I eventually retired from working in Lame Deer.  My grandson Josiah wanted to try Granite.  Hell yes!!

Josiah’s father Bob and I planned the climb.  I was only 70 years old.  The first afternoon we hiked to Mystic, then up the 26 switchbacks to the plateau where we camped on a nice flat place with trees.  I had a day pack with water and fig newtons, but Josiah carried my kapok-filled sleeping bag.  We had a great conversation while watching the night sky.  Clear, black, many stars, some satellites.  The next day, while Josiah and Bob hurried across the plateau, I followed at a slower pace, stopping for water.  I found many streams, but I used a rivulet with a spider dangling.  I dipped my Rubbermaid(TM) bottle and drank some ice cold water and ate fig newtons.  By 10 a.m., the weather was changing, so I headed back to our camp near the top of the switchbacks.  There I napped until the others returned.  They said they turned back short of the summit because of a lightning storm.  

The trip took a lot out of me, but I limped back down the trail to the car.  

My toenails were black and eventually fell off after five or six months.

This year was different.  

I knew I couldn’t count on anyone carrying my equipment, so I bought an ultra-light sleeping bag and a one-person tent with a total weight of a little over three pounds.  I took minimal clothing, including a down-filled coat with hood, long-sleeve shirt, trousers with zip-off pant legs.  I took the Rubbermaid(TM) 750 ml water bottle and a Grayl brand 750ml water purifier.  Here’s why:

I asked my doctor if he would prescribe me some metronidazole if I got diarrhea from drinking water in the Beartooth.  Instead, he urged me to buy a water filter.

I also a got bunch of Clif bars and three dehydrated meals.  I brought two wag bags to carry out human waste.  This all fit into my day pack.

P.  camped at Emerald Lake campground with Gunther.  Turns out she got lonesome.  She got into a row with another camper.  She returned to Billings before we returned two days later.

Roland, Cyrus, Susanna, Todd, and I walked the three miles to Mystic where we found a place to camp perhaps 200 yards from the lake.  That night I was cold.  Turns out the light sleeping bag was good for 40 degrees Fahrenheit, no colder.  The ground was cold, a few pine cones poked up beneath.  Longest night ever.  All I had was my tee shirt, my long-sleeve shirt, and my hooded jacket.  I couldn’t get warm.

I couldn’t think of any nice way to leave the group and return to the trailhead, so I packed up my meager stuff.  Susanna gave me a second light sleeping bag, and she left our group.  I continued with the group.

Todd wanted us to approach Granite from the north along brushy Huckleberry Creek.  That way the lofty summit is visible for several miles.  On the way we encountered Todd’s cousin Jon who joined us on our quest.  Up the creek we went.  Now steep, now bouldery, now clear and sunny, now rainy.  About a mile toward Granite we found a campsite, rare in the rocky jumble near the creek itself.

Soon Josiah and Bob caught up with us.  

While we ate supper a stranger showed himself, asking if we had a satellite phone to call for help.  A climber had broken his foot near the summit of Granite.  Jon had one.  It was late, so we all went to bed.  This time I had a bag inside a bag for sleeping.  I missed P.  I missed Gunther.

I was marginally warmer that night, although the ground was still cold.  No pinecones, I picked them up.  It rained most of the night.  Much thunder and lightning.  Lots of condensation on the inside of my one-person tent.

About 7:30 the next morning a medical helicopter flew up the valley toward Granite.  Several other flights came around, including a couple that circled our camp.  We had a small smoky fire.  We pointed our arms in unison up the valley to tell the pilot where the injured person was.  Some hours later we saw a chopper with an attached litter fly out, apparently with the injured person.

Bob, Josiah, Todd, and the two smaller boys went on toward Granite, while Jon and I walked back to Mystic and then to the trailhead.  Todd said the weather was bad, so they spent one more night at the foot of the mountain before returning.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Late August is the best time to attempt Granite’s summit.  Get there before the first snow of autumn.
  • A twenty degree bag is a must. So is an insulated sleeping pad.
  • Three days is ideal for the trek.  It’s the only way to deal with the altitude.
  • Use a water filter and perhaps one extra water bottle.  Giardia can be difficult to treat.
  • A light-weight tent is good for staying dry at night.
  • Attempt the summit before noon, before the afternoon storms.
  • Have a satellite phone, just in case.
  • Three people minimum is safest if someone gets badly hurt.
  • No need for ropes or other protection if you can find a good route.  A good route exists.  Find it.
  • Boulders are a bitch.  Take extreme care.  They tip, they rock.  Be patient.
  • Don’t scrimp on rain gear, pants and parka.  They will also keep you warm if the weather is really bad.
  • Rain makes the boulders as slippery as grease.  Don’t try to walk after a rain.

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One Comment
  1. Blaine Ackley permalink

    Good advice from one who knows the mountain and the terrain. Pretty darn feisty for an old guy.
    Keep on walking, keep on talking, keep on writing.
    B

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