Granite Peak, MT


We follow Bob's idea to climb Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana, by a little-known route.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

Bob decided that he wanted to try a different route up Granite Peak, the Southwest Couloir. The "normal" route comes in from the north via Froze-to-Death plateau. We looked at the information on SummitPost. There we noticed that someone, Vince, had recently climbed the route. I emailed Vince and he shared his pictures with us- which was very helpful.

Granite Peak is in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, just north-east of the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. This area is very rugged, and quite wild. Most of the trails we used were use-trails at best. There were no signs. And in the high country, there were either no trails or just an occasional goat track to follow. Make sure you have a good map, and we found the altimeter very useful. Even so, you can spend a lot of energy trying to second-guess the cliffs.

This map (5Mb .pdf) shows the route we would follow if we were going to repeat the route. Red is the better route, blue is the route we used on the way in.

We had a lot of fun trying to find the trail head. As stated before, no signs. And SummitPost had the mileage wrong. Fortunately, I had found a snippet on a Forest Service web site that finally got us there, where we parked at about 8800'. We changed and started walking at about 2pm.

We followed the SummitPost beta on the way in, walking past Lady of the Lake and up Zimmer Creek. We hit the junction of Zimmer Creek and Broadwater River in about an hour, then proceeded up Zimmer Creek.



Zimmer Creek

You leave Zimmer Creek at about 9000' to climb what the locals called Heartbreak Hill. It's fairly steep and ascends about 1000' and then the trail just quits. This was the route recommended on SummitPost.

Heartbreak Hill

When you get to that point, you are looking down on Aero Lake. Taking only two hours so far, we were very pleased with our time. But from here on, things got slow. Our route took us out through miles of boulders just like those you see between Tom and I.

Aero Lake


After an hour of boulder-hopping and scrambling up and down rock ribs, we still were not all the way around Aero Lake. The shadows were getting long and we were feeling tired.


High country above Aero Lake

Finally at about 6:30, we made camp at Lone Elk Lake (10,200'). We had hoped to get all the way into the Sky Top drainage, but we were hungry and pooped. Although it had been comfortably warm all afternoon, as soon as the sun went down, the temperature dropped.

Later this evening, just before dark, we were visited by several goats that perched on the rock right above the tent. Later yet, they came briefly down to the tent to scavenge- looking out under the edge of the tent, Bob said he could see their feet within arms reach.

Camp at Lone Elk Lake

The next morning we got underway as soon as it was light enough to navigate, about 7:15. Here Bob and Tom pose above Rough Lake.

Morning above Rough Lake
We followed our noses and the topo map, finally getting into the Sky Top drainage (10,600'). We got our first view of Granite, on the far right of the ridge in the background, at about 9am. View of Granite Peak

But there were still lots of boulders to hop before getting to the base of the mountain.

Note that there are TWO people in the picture. Where's Waldo?


The red line shows our route up the south face. You clamber up a very loose scree field to a solid slab. You traverse left under the slab until a hidden gully, or couloir, appears that slants up to the right. At the top of the couloir, you scramble around a ridge to the actual summit ridge, then move right to the true summit. The following pictures show some details.


Here's Tom near the bottom of the hidden couloir. The terrain in the picture is fairly typical of the 800 feet of elevation remaining to the summit- some loose talus, and a little scrambling over boulder-sized steps. But generally without any exposure. Also, the three of us had little to no problem with rolling rocks.

We did see some rappel slings at a few points, but would have to guess they were put there in inclement conditions. We did not carry a rope, and saw no need to do so if the rock is dry and you stay on the route. And when I say that, I should add that although Tom is crazy, Bob and I are actually somewhat conservative.


Bottom of the gully

This is the top of the couloir. If you click on the picture, you'll get a bigger version that will allow you to see Tom. We all went pretty much straight up from there (what appears to be to Tom's left), but that is a more difficult (4th class) variation and not really the route.

Click for the bigger version, which has a line drawn showing the recommended route.

Top of the gully
It might not be obvious, but at the top of the gully the real route goes up the extreme right-hand edge (climber's right). As I noted before, that's NOT the way we went up. Bob and I didn't want to reverse the way we went up, so we found a better route on the way back down- here's Bob down-climbing the easier route. If you do this route correctly, there is minimal exposure and the climbing is relatively easy. And lots of fun.
Class III exit

From the top of the gully, you get a view of the summit across a yawning abyss, the head of another gully to the east of the SW Couloir. Again, click on the picture to see Tom traversing around the top of this second gully to the true summit.

If you get to the top of the couloir and the knife-edge of the ridge you are on looks scary (big drop into teh gully to the right, just in front of the camera here), you need to turn left and traverse around the ridge to climber's left, where it is a simple scramble. Tom, of course, went straight up here.

The summit ridge
This picture should make that description of the top of the couloir a little clearer. Again, to gain the top of the couoir, climb the right side. When you get to the top of the couloir, traverse left. Click for a bigger version. The summit ridge
I was in a t-shirt all the way to the summit, which we hit at about 11:15. There was a very slight breeze, so I put on my jacket to keep from getting chilled. Other than all the smoke, it was a stunning summit, especially for September, and on a peak famed for nasty weather. Summit

Then it was time to head down. We knew we had a long way yet to travel.

That's the Sky Top glacier in the background. Bob is just ahead of me, and Tom is a ways down in front, about to exit the couloir.

Heading down
We started back down the Sky Top drainage and headed for our camp. Just before we got there, the building clouds sprinkled on us lightly- just enough to get the tent wet before we packed it up. Upper Sky Top drainage
We arrived at camp at about 2pm, just under three hours from the summit. We packed up, pumped water, and brewed some coffee. We probably spent an hour eating and resting. Camp

Then it was time to go. On the way out, we followed a route not shown on our maps, but mentioned by Vince. So we descended the Sky Top drainage, shown on the right. This was way, way easier than rock-hopping around Aero Lake.

Walking down Sky Top creek

We followed Sky Top Creek all the way to the Broadwater River (seemed like a long, long way) where we climbed uphill/upstream for a short way and then finally re-connected with our path from the previous day at about 6:00pm, crossing the creek without removing our shoes (picture on the right). Our time out wasn't much different than our time in, but it was nowhere near as fatiguing.

Just before we got back to the car, it started raining on us. Granite wasn't going to let us off that easily. But when we got to the car at 7:15, it stopped, allowing us to change out of our hiking gear with minimal fuss.

We went into Cooke City, filled up with $3.70/gallon gas (Note: looking back from 2014, this doesn't seem bad. But at the time, gas was about $2.50 in Boise), and had a quick dinner at the cafe. Then drove all night, with my birthday #52 somewhere around Idaho Falls (and I'm the youngest of this group). We got into Boise at 5am.

For more information or pictures, Bob has created a trip report on SummitPost.

Crossing the creek

Mr. Natural Home | 2007 | Back to top of page | Questions :: e-mail to splattski