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Going Granite: Reaching Montana's tallest peak in a day

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Granite Peak

Garrett Peabody crosses in front of Granite Peak en route to climbing the mountain on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

As with all fine days in the mountains, this one starts in the dark. Wearing running shoes and carrying just enough water to get from one trickling spring to the next, my friend Garrett and I began jogging along the quiet northern bank of East Rosebud Lake and up the Phantom Creek Trail in the Beartooth Mountains.

Our noses pointed upwards to other ominously titled features still hidden in the night: Froze-to-Death Plateau, Tempest Mountain — names recorded in an era when mountains were less playground, more adversary. Yet this landscape cares not for experience and equipment. We were attempting to climb Granite Peak, the highest point in the state, and for us to ascend and descend, we would need the weather, our bodies and the mountain itself to cooperate.

Few mountains are as appropriately named as Granite Peak. The summit is nothing but granite; huge, orange blocks of it teeter on top of other huge, orange blocks. Below that, more granite. The peak is humbly hidden within the depths of the Beartooths, its great mass only apparent after many miles of hiking and boulder hopping. By the time a climber finally lays eyes on it, the summit lords over a complicated maze of steep ridges and couloirs that both inspires and repels the imagination.

Granite Peak

Granite spires tower above East Rosebud Lake on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

Most people give themselves two or three days to get up and down. I climbed Granite this way in 2017 as a solar eclipse captivated the continent. I enjoyed camping near an alpine lake and the heavy footsteps of some huffing megafauna outside our tent at night. I love the slow moments of an overnight trip with a pack big enough to bring a small box of wine, how my attention is free to focus on the smallest details of the landscape. I also love moving quickly and lightly in the mountains. When Garrett, visiting from Michigan, asked me to join him on a one-day ascent of Granite this July, I eagerly agreed.

Garrett and I have been friends for nearly a decade, climbing snow, rock and ice around North America. Only recently have we begun focusing our annual outings on long days on foot. Merging the technical exposure of climbing with the endurance of trail running is certainly not a new idea, but the experience feels novel every time.

Granite Peak

The sun rises on Garrett Peabody as he runs up the Phantom Creek Trail on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

Granite Peak

A small bunch of sky pilot squeezes into a crack on Granite Peak on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

Granite Peak

A mountain goat ponders its next move on Froze-to Death Plateau on Sunday, July 18, 2021, with Mount Hague in the distance.

Granite Peak

Garrett Peabody scrambles up a boulder near the summit of Granite Peak on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

On Froze-to-Death Plateau, the faint path often disappears into a mess of scree or soggy tussocks of grass that eats shoes alive. With a map and GPS, we kept a fair heading toward our goal, moving only as quickly as the terrain allowed. Before long, we arrived at the east ridge of Granite Peak, and soon found ourselves crawling across the notorious snow bridge that guards the final, wandering scramble to the summit.

Granite Peak

Garrett Peabody kicks his running shoes into the snow bridge below Granite Peak on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

When there were no more huge, orange blocks of granite to surmount, we sat down and marveled at the view. The perpetual haze of Montana summer was settled far below, dark clouds grew above, and sandwiched in between were the expansive plateaus, steep canyons and isolated summits of the Beartooths. It was obvious that no matter how familiar this place might become, I could only ever hope to be a visitor, and all visits must come to an end.

We descended roughly the way we came and jumped into East Rosebud Lake 12 hours after we left, one more adventure down and a lifetime of adventures left to go.

Granite Peak

Garrett Peabody runs down a switchback below Froze-to-Death Plateau after climbing Granite Peak on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

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