You Belong Outside Spotlight:Granite Peak Alpine Climbing

Granite Peak 12,799 from Tempest Mountain. (c) Kevin Dean 2012
Granite Peak, the highest summit in Montana, is often called the toughest state high point in the lower 48 states.  While there are several that are higher, none of them have the unique combination of remoteness, exposure, and unpredictable weather that make Granite such a tough mountain to climb. Summiting is mostly considered a two or three day trip, but depending on your fitness level and which route you choose it can be done in a day.  Granted, for most of us, that is a very long day. There are multiple established routes to the summit and two great references (both are currently out of print): Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone by Thomas Turiano and the Granite Peak map and climbing guide by Joe Josephson. 

Getting There:  There are several ways to approach Granite. The two most common trailheads are East Rosebud and West Rosebud.  To get there from Bozeman head East on I-90 to Columbus and go south to Absorkee. To get to West Rosebud head to Fishkill, Montana and take FR 72 to the West Rosebud/Mystic Lake trailhead.  For East Rosebud take 78 from Absorkee to Roscoe and from there take FR 177 East Rosebud Road and follow the signs to East Rosebud. Park at the Phantom Creek trailhead.

Goats on Froze-to-Death Plateau (c) Kevin Dean 2010
The Approach: The approach is one of the biggest reasons Granite is such a tough mountain to summit.  There is noa direct way to the top. The most common route is to cross Froze-to-Death Plateau.  As uninviting as it sounds this is considered the easiest way across. Loose rock and Alpine tundra can make this a slow slog, but the views make it well worth the hike. There is also an active mountain goat population that is commonly seen on the Plateau.  Route finding can be very difficult but there are cairns along most of the way.  It is recommended to have a map with you in order to choose the best route.  Please tread lightly and be aware that this is a fragile environment; take efforts to stay in the rocks or along a trail, avoiding the grasses and wildflowers.

The East Ridge. (c) Kevin Dean 2010

The Standard Route:
The standard route has three general parts: the east face (commonly called the triangle), the snow bridge, and the technical upper mountain.  The triangle is a straightforward scramble up scree or snow (depending on the season) followed by a traverse to the snow bridge.  Crossing the snow bridge can be tricky though it varies from season to season.  Once on the other side you are about 800 feet below the summit.  Route finding through the chimneys and ledges will take you to the south side of the mountain where you will look for the keyhole feature above you.  There are several different variations and using your own judgement is a must in order to find the best way to the top.  Climbing moves top out between 5.5 and 5.7 with most moves in the 5.3 range. Bringing a rope is recommended. While some parties decide they don't need it on the way up it makes the descent much faster and safer.

Matt Weiland skiing the Notch Couloir (c) Loren Rausch

Other Routes: There are several other routes that have been established on Granite Peak. The North Face has three routes that mix alpine rock with some steep snow and ice.
The Notch Couloir, is a tricky climb/ski line with a pitch over 50 degrees and can be downright scary depending on the snow conditions.  This is a very steep line but also a classic ski descent in Southwest Montana.
The Clanch Route and Chadwick-Bowman routes are two big alpine routes that start with climbing the Granite Glacier and then take on the large north face.

Bridget Belliveau on the South Face. (c)Loren Rausch 2010
Another great option is the Northwest Ridge Traverse. It's a long route, but worth the time and effort. This gives you some of the best views of Granite and will put you on the little climbed Northwest summit which is only about 50 feet below the main summit. From there, rappel down into the notch couloir and climb two pitches to the main summit.
Fewer routes have been documented from the south side but with an adventurous spirit and some route finding skills there are several routes up both rock and snow from that aspect. Check out this link to one such route.

Kasey Wells on the summit (c) Matt Parsons

Weather:  Thunderstorms are a large concern in the Beartooths, Afternoon is the most dangerous time and most parties plan on doing early ascents in order to be back on their way down by the afternoon.  In addition it is not uncommon to see snow showers high in the mountains at any point in the year, so be prepared for cold weather. A 90 degree day in Bozeman can be barely above freezing when you top out on Granite Peaks summit!

View of Granite from Mount Hague (c) Loren Rausch

Approaching Mystic Lake from West Rosebud.  (c) Matt Parsons

Granite Peak is just one of many excellent options for climbing in the Beartooth Mountains.  Whether you are looking for peak bagging or alpine climbing, there are countless opportunities in the Beartooth Mountains that can keep you busy for years. Check out the Beartooth Publishing map of the Beartooths or stop by and check out a few of the guidebooks that highlight the area.  Climbing is a dangerous activity and having the right equipment and a partner are necessary for a safe outing. For those who may not be ready to head out on their own there are guided climbs available through Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

Your comments and critiques are welcome as we show off areas of Southwest Montana we know and love. Email Kevin with any thoughts, corrections, or suggestions.

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