Friday, July 8, 2011

Road/Climbing Trip 2011: Granite Peak Attempt

On Sunday, July 3, I set out with guide Kenny and fellow client Pete in an attempt to climb Granite Peak, Montana's highest point. We were the guide service's first trip of the year, and if we had been successful, we would have likely been among the first people to summit this season. Unfortunately we didn't even make it onto Granite Peak proper due largely to Pete's difficulty carrying the heavy load of gear necessary for the climb this time of year. We did, however, reach the summit of 11,755 foot summit of Froze to Death Mountain.

I woke up at 3:30 Sunday morning, but eventually dozed off again briefly before the alarm went off at 4:45. I was almost completely packed up and ready to go when Kenny knocked on the door of my motel room at 5:20. We caravanned over to Red Lodge, Montana for some breakfast, and Pete met us there as we finished up around 7:15. The three of us drove (each in our own vehicle) from there to the West Rosebud trailhead. The dirt road was closed about a mile and a half short of the actual trail due to the road being muddy, rutted, and certainly impassable by my car. We finalized the arrangement of our packs, adding snowshoes, which Kenny had deemed necessary based on reports from other climbers, and set out. We walked along the road at a pretty good pace, reaching the trail in about 35 minutes, around a quarter to 10. Kenny dropped the pace down once we were off the road, to more like one mile per hour, which is quite manageable with a heavy pack, and actually felt kind of slow to me. For the most part, the trail up to Mystic Lake wasn't very steep and the closest it got to being technical was on a stretch that had been strafed by rock fall. I had made something of a mistake starting out with my trekking poles stowed, and we didn't stop until 11 o'clock for me to get them off my pack. Once I had them, they helped maintain stability, and were a big help, aside from the times they partially collapsed.

We were all keeping together pretty well up to Mystic Lake, Kenny leading, me on his heels, and Pete a few steps behind. Once we started up from the lake on the steeper Phantom Creek trail, however, Pete started falling behind. Every 15 minutes or so, Kenny and I would have a short break while Pete caught up, and then start hiking again once he did (not giving him any breaks). I can't recall what time it was, but mid-afternoon on the switchbacks when we stopped for an actual break, taking our packs off, Pete looked totally exhausted. He looked kind of like how I felt high on Mt. Rainier. I gave him a carb gel, hoping it would revive him enough that we wouldn't have to turn back so early, and he kind of stared at it for a while, and just seemed spent. Kenny tried to get an assessment of his condition, to see if we could proceed any further, or if we needed to head back to the lake. The switchback section has no good camping sites, so we would have to go a ways further to get anywhere level enough for tents. Complicating matters were snow drifts, which were very unstable. I was following right in Kenny's footsteps, and there were several times when I sunk to my knee in a spot he had only sunk an inch. We finally reached a place that could have made for a makeshift camp site on snow around 4. To his credit, Pete found the energy to go on, and after passing up a second less than ideal camp site at 5, we finally got to a good site at 6. We had just barely gotten the tents up when a drizzle started. Fortunately, it was light and brief, and the sun came back out. We gathered in the larger tent Pete and I were sharing to eat the tasty dinner Kenny had cooked. Nobody said it in so many words, but I think we all knew our chances of summiting were pretty slim. Pete basically offered to stay behind, but there's no way Kenny could have allowed that. We all went to bed after a beautiful sunset, awaiting Pete's condition in the morning to decide how to proceed.

After quite a lot of wind (and apparently lightning I didn't see) in the night, I was up first in the morning, a little before 5. It was pretty chilly, and I was cold until the sun really started to go to work after 7. We ate some nice hearty burritos for breakfast, packed up, and set out at 8:15. Pete had assessed his chances of making it to high camp at 50/50, but it didn't take long to see he wasn't moving fast enough for us to make it across Froze to Death plateau in the time that Kenny wanted. At 9, when he and I were waiting for Pete to catch up, Kenny said aloud for the first time that there was no way we'd make it. I suggested at that point that if Granite wasn't in our future, maybe we could climb up Froze to Death Mountain, so we could at least summit something. He seemed to thing it was a good alternative, but it wasn't until after 9:30 that we all stopped and had "decision time." At that point we were overlooking what would normally be camp one. We decided not to camp there that night, but to drop our packs, climb Froze to Death, and camp somewhere lower. I was hoping we would be able to make it back to Mystic Lake, but it seemed more likely we would camp in the same spot again. Pete had been complaining about the pack weight (not helped by a 20+ year old pack and a bulky rectangular sleeping bag), but even with our very light summit packs, he wasn't able to keep with Kenny and I. We were up on the summit of Froze to Death, relaxing and snacking for maybe five minutes before he caught up. We weren't really in any rush at that point, so we chilled out at the top for a while before going back across the snow and boulders of the plateau to find our packs. We went back down to our previous camp site, and had it all set up again before 2 o'clock. We all took siestas for most of the afternoon. I actually fell asleep for a half hour outside on the tundra, and again in the tent a little later. Dinner that night was a delectable dish of quinoa and salmon. It rained again that afternoon, but for a longer period of time. Pete and I laid in the tent talking of previous highpoint adventures, trips to National Parks and the like. We got another storm during the night, but even bigger and rainy. It was a natural fireworks display for Independence Day.

Things all seemed to be dry in the morning, fortunately. After another tasty breakfast and filling our water bottles from the snowmelt stream, we packed up and started our way down around 8:30. Pete was keeping up much better, until 10:30, when he asked for Kenny's help in rearranging his pack to make it more comfortable. Perhaps if the issue had been addressed sooner, we would have had more success. Kenny was able to arrange things to be more balanced and the weight distributed better, and Pete reported feeling much better the rest of the way down. We got back to the trailhead at 1 pm, and back to our vehicles a little before 2. We got more comfortable, then caravanned out to the Grizzly Bar in Roscoe. The dirt road was really rough on my car, I felt sympathetic pain for it many times. The road wasn't any worse than it had been on the way in, but I think on the way there I was so eager to get hiking I didn't notice it as much. My car seems to have survived, and we enjoyed some frosty beverages and snacks before parting ways, they to Cody and Red Lodge, me to Bozeman to visit my aunt and uncle.

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