Sunday, August 25, 2013

Solo climb of Montana's Granite Peak

Maybe it doesn't quite count as soloing Granite Peak (Montana's highest at 12,799 feet), since I did do the technical section with two guys from Salt Lake, but I did free solo the ascent and was fully prepared to go it alone. In fact, I was overprepared and was carrying far too much weight on this trip, which (along with the route itself) made for a miserable descent. Frankly, I would not recommend the Froze-to-Death route to anyone. I haven't done it personally, but I know two people who have done the Avalanche Lake route, and it sounds highly preferable. The technical part, which is after those two routes meet, was a lot of fun and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is really comfortable rock climbing. Of course it's not necessary to ascend ropeless, there was a guided group ahead of us roped up, but there really isn't much exposure on the few truly fifth-class pitches.
In short, it was great to knock of highpoint #38 (especially after failing two years ago), and I would definitely rank it as the second most difficult of the state highpoints I've done so far (and I anticipate it remaining so once I'm done), behind Denali.

On the evening of Wednesday the 7th of August, I went from work to the airport and flew to Bozeman, MT. I stayed with my aunt and uncle, who live in town. The three of us went and floated a section of the Madison River in their raft. I spent a bunch of the rest of the day going through the massive quantity of gear I brought with me, deciding what all I would take. I had the great fortune to have run into a guy just coming off of Granite at a gear shop in town, but I must have missed the part where he effectively said I wouldn't need a bunch of the stuff I was planning to take. In order to save weight, I should have left the bear vault (I had no plan to stay in bear habitat); I could have left almost all of the slings and rappel rings (maybe one for a backup) if I had known/processed that the rappel stations on the mountain were good. I could have left the ice axe, I only used it for a few minutes on the snow bridge; I could have used a trekking pole instead. I probably could have gone with two liters of water instead of three, since there was a decent amount of water flowing on the route (though clearly well below peak water flow). Knee and shin guards would have been more useful than a helmet, but I couldn't have left that behind. I still would have had a heavy pack if I had left all that behind (with a rope, tent, stove, etc), but it would have reduced the slog factor for sure. As it was, I was probably carrying somewhere over 65 pounds at the start of the hike.

I woke up about 4:15 on the morning of Friday the 9th, ate some breakfast, packed my gear into my aunt's car, and hit the road around 5. Before I left Bozeman, though, I stocked up on Dr Pepper at a gas station around the corner from their house. From there it was 100 miles of interstate to Columbus. I stopped at a truck stop there for a bio break. I would have gotten a candy bar, but there wasn't a cashier. I continued south through the small town of Absarokee and the tiny town of Fishtail. I knew the turn to go to West Rosebud was near town; I thought I had passed it and turned around. The only road I had passed in Fishtail didn't go anywhere, so I was pretty sure the turn was further, down the way I had been going. Just to be sure, I asked a guy walking his dog, and he confirmed it. I was following a map from the Internet and paying attention to mileages, but we all know these things aren't always entirely reliable. I had been this way to West Rosebud two years prior, but I had been following another car at at that time. When I came to a sign saying West Rosebud, pointing to the left down a dirt road, I took the turn. After a few mikes, however, I was starting to have doubts that I was on the correct road. I eventually came to a Forest Service information board, so I stopped to double check. Pretty much the only landmark I had to go by was a campground I had just passed, and fortunately that was shown on the map as being on the road I wanted, and the trailhead that was my destination was only a few miles further. Reassured, I continued on, arriving at the trailhead at 8am. After some final arranging and deciding to leave the remaining Dr Pepper in the car as a return present to myself, I set out hiking a little after 8.
I'm not entirely sure why, but I had it in my head that I could get up to Mystic Lake (3 miles from the parking lot) in an hour. Under normal circumstances, this would have been no problem. But with as much weight as I was carrying, it was foolish to go that quickly. I was kind of pleased with myself when I stopped on the shore of Mystic Lake for my first break of the day, just over an hour after leaving the parking lot, but I had exerted far too much energy to do so. After about ten minutes drinking and snacking, I continued along the trail around the lake. I knew I had to branch off to a trail to my left, and of course I had been this way before, but somehow I missed it. I was thinking I should be near the turn, then based on my watch I knew I should have seen it already. My watch said I was 3.6 miles from the trailhead, and a map I had looked at said it was 3.5 miles. At first I figured there might be some inaccuracies on both, so I kept going a little further. I was sure I had gone too far, but kept thinking "maybe it's just up ahead." Finally, when my watch said I was 4.0 miles from the trailhead, I stopped and consulted my map. Based on watch distances, it was certain that I had passed the trail. I briefly considered continuing around the lake, to an alternate route up the mountain, past Avalanche Lake, but it looked like I was quite a bit closer to the original trail, up the switchbacks to Froze-to-Death Plateau. While backtracking, I was trying to mentally see the trail and figure out how I missed it the first time. The only thing I pictured a small trail I had passed that seemed too soon and too minor. I eventually got back to something that looked like that, so I started down it, not because I was sure that was the trail, but more because I wanted to make sure I didn't miss it a second time. That little trail I went down only led to camp sites, then petered out. I rejoined the main trail and continued back in the direction of the trailhead. I came to a group of tents, and I guy sitting outside. I asked him if he knew the trail I was looking for. He did, and guessed it was about another quarter mile. With some reassurance, I thanked him and continued. When I finally got to Phantom Creek Trail, I realized how I had missed it: there were tents set up on the opposite side of the main trail from the side trail, and when I came up, I was distracted looking at the tents and missed my turn. I was ticked at myself for adding 1.5 miles to my trip, but at least it was flat walking.
When I was on the correct trail at last, I was determined to not lose more time, and put my head down and started hiking. This of course did not help that I had already been taxing my body. Although the trail isn't really steep, it does gain a lot of altitude in not a lot of ground. Since I had been at less than 1000 feet elevation less than 48 hours prior, and was at this point above 8000, I did not maintain anything close to a blistering pace. Well, not in the figurative sense, anyway. I was forming a blister on the inside of my left heel, but at that point it was only at nuisance level. While I would typically take a break about every hour on a hike, going up the switchbacks I took one about every 45 minutes. They stayed in the 10-minute range, so I wasn't completely slacking off. It wasn't too long before I was above tree line, and not terribly long after that when I came to a small trail off to the right. I wasn't entirely sure at first, but I believed this was the trail that would lead me to the plateau. When I got a little further, the trail petered out, but I recognized it as the place we had camped two years ago, so I had some reassurance I was on the right track. There was an older guy sitting there, consulting the information he had. He asked me some questions about my intentions and what information I had. His plan was also to climb Granite solo, but that he had been advised against it. Clouds were moving in, so I was anxious to keep moving, and wasn't keen on sticking around to chat. I didn't see his actual pack, just the lid of it, so I really have no idea what he was up to. I never saw him again, I hope he was okay at least. Frankly I doubt he made the summit, certainly not in the time frame I did. There was no trail in any direction from there, which I expected, so I went straight up them hill. I had a general direction, it was just a matter of finding an efficient route. I hadn't gotten far when the clouds moved in on top of me, and visibility dropped to just a few feet. Having nothing to set my bearings, I sat tight for a few minutes, hoping it would clear enough that I could get a heading on where I wanted to go. That's when I first heard thunder. I looked around for any kind of shelter, but I was well above free line and it was basically alpine tundra. There weren't even any large rocks. I thought about trying to set my tent up, but there wasn't even any level ground anywhere that I could see. I wasn't particularly worried about lightning since I was far from a ridge, but setting up a lightning rod (aka aluminum tent poles) probably would not have been a great idea. It wasn't raining at first, but I didn't want to get soaked before doing something about it. What I did was to pull out the ground cloth and fly of my tent. I tied the ground cloth over my pack, laid down next to it and draped the fly over myself. I soon was getting chilled, so I put on another layer along with my rain gear. Soon after I was hunkered down, the rain started. Lightly at first, as the storm moved over it got pretty heavy. Everything stayed pretty dry, somewhat amazingly. I even dozed off briefly between thunder claps. I was sheltered for about an hour and a half before it lightened up to where I thought I would start hiking again. I can't imagine what anyone would have thought if they had seen this orange blob on the side of a hill.
There were still some lingering showers, but it was time to get going. I shook off as much of the water as I could off of my tent and shoved it back in its sack and repacked my backpack. It wasn't too much further that I came up to the plateau itself. The term plateau is a little misleading, as I still had about 1000 vertical feet to gain before I got to where I was planning to camp. There is no real trail. It's pretty much a boulder field with occasional bogs (though some of the would-be bogs were dry this late in the season). There are cairns marking where someone else went, but they are kind of all over the place in some areas, and few and far between in other areas. I was really just guessing as to where to go and finding my own way across. I reckoned it a bit to sighting when open water swimming (and we know how good I am at that, ie NOT): there are markers along the way, and it's up to you how closely you come to those markers, as long as you're going the correct direction. After a while, I wasn't quite as sure I was going in the correct direction, so I stopped to consult my map. It indicated that I was headed the right way, but a little lower than its path. As I started to climb, I saw another hiker headed my way. I thought either he knew where he was going or at least I could follow him and think less about finding a route. We wound up chatting as we made our way. His name was Ralph, up from Salt Lake City hiking with his friend In, who was hoping to bag his 48th state highpoint, and be that much closer to being the first Asian 50-state completer (In is originally from Korea). In was a little behind at that point; I had passed him on my way up the switchbacks and we had exchanged four or five words, I also saw the two of them coming up behind me when I stopped for breaks. Ralph and I came to two sturdy-looking tent sites, with a trickle of water very close by. We could see people camped a little higher up toward Granite (which we had just finally gotten a glimpse of), which would have made for a more convenient summit day, but since it was starting to rain again, I was pretty keen on the site we were at. In wasn't that far behind us, but I already had my tent up and was inside trying to keep warm when he arrived in camp. We chatted briefly through the tent. The rain passed before long and once I was warmed up I filtered some water and boiled some to prepare my freeze-dried dinner. We had gotten into camp about 5:30, making for 8 hours of hiking including breaks plus an hour and a half sheltering. I was ready to get to sleep when the sun went down. I had gotten chilled again sitting outside eating my dinner, do I had to warm up before I could get to sleep. Once I was warm, I was plenty warm all night in my 10-degree bag. I had made a rough plan with Ralph and In that they would leave camp a little before me the next morning, I would be moving a little faster, and we would meet up at the snow bridge to do the technical climbing together. Frankly I didn't really intend to keep to that plan, I thought I would blast past them and solo the whole thing.

Saturday morning I woke up at 5. Well, I woke up several times in the night, but I actually started moving at 5. I laid in my sleeping back for a little while before getting up to make breakfast (dehydrated eggs with peppers). I stayed in camp a little while after Ralph and In left at 6 to "take care of business." I headed out with my now much lighter pack (but still overloaded) at 6:20. I headed toward the pass leading to Granite (and the peak itself beyond) as well as other climbers ahead, but before long I was in kind of a bowl and couldn't see any landmarks or people. I basically just headed up. It was not a very efficient route- I was hopping from boulder to boulder, steeper in some bits than really necessary. I finally came to the crest of the hill. I knew I was too far west of Tempest, but I wanted to get a view of the area to fully orient myself. When I did, I was hit by a big blast of wind, but at least I had a good look at the area, particularly the large cairn at the crest marking the actual trail. I headed that way, which marked the dispiriting loss of several hundred feet vertically to cross from the Tempest massif to Granite. It wasn't exactly pleasant travel terrain, side-hilling a boulder field, but at least it was pretty well marked with cairns and flags. I could see Ralph and In ahead of me, as well as a team of four guys. I caught those guys at the gap, and passed them soon after. I took a short break at a spot In was just leaving. When I got to the snow bridge, he and Ralph were getting set up to cross using a running belay. I took a break and put my harness on. I didn't feel a great need to rope up to cross ~30 feet of snow, but a slip would have meant a pretty nasty slide. That was really the most exposed section of the whole climb, and the only time I used my ice axe (but a trekking pole probably would have worked just as well). Once across I basically cast my lot with Ralph and In (at their invitation) by ditching my rope to save some weight. Really I could have left most of the stuff in my pack. From there it was sort of a collaborative effort of route finding, or just trying to follow the guided group ahead of us. I didn't use the rope at all going up other than across the snow bridge. There was one sort of hairy section Ralph and I climbed up unroped, and then he set up a belay for In. There was one bit I had some trouble finding appropriate holds/moves, otherwise it was fairly easy climbing. After scrambling and climbing for a good while, we were finally right below "the keyhole," kind of a triangle of stacked rocks right below the summit. We reached the summit proper around 10:30am. There was a big mass of guided folks, plus two guys who had come up a different route. There was a bunch of camera passing for summit photos.
It's not like I was in a hurry to get down, but I didn't really want to just sit around on the summit. Ralph was trying to send a message home, since there was some phone service up there. Really, though, there wasn't much point in trying to head down right away, the guided group was just starting to belay their folks down after taking quite a while to sort out their ropes. Around 11:15, Ralph made the call to pretty much just go around them. They didn't mind, they realized they were taking forever. We waited until the person on the rope at that time was down, then went down the first bit unroped. We went a slightly different way than they were going, and blasted past them in short order. We soon got to a section that was a bit of a dicey descent; Ralph started down unroped, In and I were a little hesitant. Ralph had the rope, so he climbed back a little and tossed the rope the rest of the way up. In and I set up the rappel, and Ralph rapped down a little further for where he was. Then I rapped down to him, and In came last. That was the order the rest of the rappers went. We set up at an existing rap station, then went down. There was a little bit of route finding, but basically it was station to station until we got back to the snow bridge. This time we crossed unroped. We were more or less together for a little while after the crossing. I was so thirsty that when I finally came to a tiny trickle I stopped while they continued on. The water was flowing enough that I managed to filter a liter of water, half of which I drank on the spot. Back down to the Tempest-Granite gap came the soul-crushing ascent back up to Froze-to-Death Plateau. to make matters worse, weather was moving in. I was near the top of the pass when it finally hit. I was kind of glad it was sleet and not rain, I didn't really get wet, and most fortunately it didn't last long.
From the top of the pass, I could see my tent a ways below. However I quickly lost sight of it as I descended. I thought I was getting close to camp; I saw In veer from the sort-of trail and followed him. The going was not very pleasant, all bouldery. I got to where I thought camp was, and there was nothing. I kept descending and hoping I hadn't missed it somehow. After seeming ages of slogging, camp finally came into view another couple hundred meters away. Part of what led me astray, mentally, was that I was judging location based on snow patches, not realizing I was looking at a different one than I thought I was. I got to my tent, dropped my pack, and laid down. It was about a quarter to 4pm at that point, and I gave serious thought to just staying there another night. Camp was already set up, I had food. It would have been quite easy. One big reason I didn't was that I said I would be back, though I did say it might take me three days. The biggest factor, really, was that I didn't want another freeze-dried dinner. Frankly, after forcing myself to eat a few at 17,000 camp on Denali, I vowed that if I never ate one again it would be too soon. The one the previous night was bearable, out of necessity, but I didn't think I could do another. The same was true of my breakfast of oatmeal for the next morning. I heard a snore or two from the next tent as I filtered a couple liters of water for the hike out. They roused themselves from their little nap as I was starting to pack up. We wound up all leaving about the same time, around 5:30. Going back across the plateau was not pleasant. I was over boulders by that point. My feet hurt- beyond the usual toe smashing I get descending, I had developed a blister on the inside of my left heel that was not feeling any better, to say the least. The three of us kind of jockeyed around who was in the lead and who was following whom. By the end of the plateau, I was generally trailing. When we finally got back to the actual trail, Ralph and In got into a bit of a discussion on the geography. I was exhausted, wanted to keep moving, and particularly did not want to be involved in this minor disagreement, so I walked off down the trail. I basically never looked back from that pint. I had a little lead on them for a while and only saw them when I turned a switchback. By the time they caught up to me, they had gone quiet. I didn't really like having footsteps right behind me, but at least there wasn't any inane chatter. Ralph at one point made the crack "We're a real talkative bunch." I resisted saying anything to the effect that I liked it quiet. I was almost too spent to say anything at all. We stopped at a stream a little bit above Mystic Lake. They sterilized some water; I had plenty of my own left. It was almost completely dark at that point, so I broke out the headlamp. Ralph and In stopped for a snack along the shore of the lake. I was nearly zombified and did not want to stop for more than two seconds. We said some goodbyes as I continued on. There were a couple times on the way down I saw headlamps behind me as I made a turn. Most of the trail down from 10,000 to the lake had been relatively uncrappy, not a lot of big rocks. In my head I was thinking the trail down to the parking lot would similarly not suck too bad. I obviously had either completely forgotten or completely blocked the fact that most of it was quite rocky, and really sucked to go down that evening. I was the living dead, but whinier. I wished for some sort of teleportation device, but had to just keep slogging along. Finally I reached some landmarks that I knew were fairly close to the trailhead. I wasn't done yet, but thank goodness I was getting close. At the sort of camp of a few houses, Ralph and In passed and slowly slipped away ahead of me. When I got to the parking lot a few minutes later, they were pulling out and heading away. I was not in quite as big of a rush to leave. I changed from my boots to sandals and from my nasty clothes to shorts, a t-shirt and fleece I had left in the car. On top of my other woes, my climbing pants had stretched enough that they were falling off of me; it was pretty annoying. I downed a good portion of the Dr Pepper I had left in the car and started back to full-on civilization at 11:30pm. As I got close to the town of Fishtail I got phone service and sent my uncle a text, in case someone (like my mother) was particularly worried about me. When I got back to Columbus I sent her an email. At the truck stop there I got more fuel for the car and myself. I was tired but not super tired when I got on the highway. I started to fade a little about halfway back to Bozeman. I pulled off the highway, but couldn't find anything that looked like a good place to park for a little nap. I got out of the car and stretched; the night air helped revive me. I made it back to my aunt and uncle's at 2:30 safe and sound. I took the grossest of my things out of the car, but left the pack itself overnight. As so often happens in such a case, I was kind of wired/punch drunk, so didn't actually fall asleep until 3:15.

I was pretty wrecked on Sunday. I didn't sleep particularly well, or nearly as long as I would have liked. After breakfast my aunt and uncle went to the gym. I went back to sleep for an hour until they came back. I wasn't really interested in doing anything that required wearing shoes, let alone anything physically demanding. The main event of the day was a visit to the Montana Raptor Conservation Center, which was having an open house. It was pretty neat getting to see some of their temporary guests getting some rehab as well as their permanent residents, those birds permanently injured such that they can't go back to the wild. The eagles, hawks, and owls were cool to see, but I didn't need to see the vulture, there are tons of those that hang out on my office building while migrating.

I was still pretty sore and stiff on Monday, but moving a little better. We went for a tour of Lewis & Clark Caverns, which required shoes as well as a bunch of walking. It's a pretty nice cave with good formations, but so many of them were damaged. It was a tourist attraction way back in the day when they encouraged taking souvenirs. One of the other things I thought was cool looking (but not great conservation) was that when the CCC developed the cave, they carved some steps out of the rock floor itself, making neat strata lines. That night we met up for dinner with some old friends of my family, from back when they lived in my home town. They live in Bozeman now, and are friends with my aunt and uncle. A little hard to catch up with a big group including young children, but nice to see them. I flew back home Tuesday morning.

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