Granite Peak is in the Beartooth Mountains and is the highest point in Montana. It is separately listed on our Lifelist for good reason. We have attempted to summit this peak 4 times before. Vickie and I are very familiar with this mountain. This attempt was slightly different when were joined by a visitor.
We are highpointers. That means our goal is to hike, climb, walk, or crawl to the highest point in all 50 states. Since 1998 we have completed 47 of them. The three mountains still to climb are Denali (Alaska), Gannett Peak (Wyoming), and Granite Peak (Montana).
In July of 2016 we decided to make our 5th attempt to touch the top of Granite. It is a challenging mountain to summit. Just making the drive to get to the trailhead is hard. We drove south of Interstate 90 through the town of Absarokee towards Fishtail, Montana. From there we headed up West Rosebud Road on 14 miles of washboard filled gravel road on the way to Mystic Lake trailhead. The washboard road limited us to 20 MPH in our sprinter van and when we arrived I felt like I’d been given a couple of illegal kidney punches from a welterweight fight (okay, okay……a heavyweight fight). We have now driven this road 10 times in the last 15 years and I have come to view it as a worthy opponent.
Once we got to the trailhead, we grabbed and sorted our gear to begin loading the packs. Down jacket, check. Rain gear, check. Climbing harness, check. Crampons, ice axe, rope, check, check, check.
The route to the summit starts at Mystic Lake trail head (6500 feet) and goes up about 3-1/2 miles and 1100 (7600 feet) vertical feet up a rocky trail to the lake. We left the parking lot in the late afternoon with the goal of setting up camp at Mystic Lake for an evening of acclimatization. As we hiked bad weather was building. I was confident we would make camp and set up the tent before it hit us. I was wrong. We set up and tent in the rain which continued to fall throughout the night. We decided to sleep late to let our wet gear dry before we broke camp and headed up to the next goal, Froze to Death plateau. “Froze to Death Plateau” doesn’t sound like a place you want to camp, but that was the place that would give us the best opportunity to attempt the summit.
We left for the plateau around noon planning for a 5 hour, 8 mile hike to the next campsite at over 11,000 feet. We went up the switchbacks from the lake and crossed above tree line to arrive at the plateau.
About 4 hours into the hike, we heard howling over the wind. I initially thought it might be a coyote which would be very unusual for as high up as we were. As we continued across the plateau the howling was mixed with barking and I was convinced it was a dog. Vickie spotted movement high on Tempest Mountain, so we dropped our packs and went to investigate. We found a dog in a place where no dog should be, at almost 12,000 feet between granite boulders and snowfields.
The dog’s feet were hurt and bleeding. She was scared, the hair of her haunches bristling. We knew she wanted help because she ‘called’ us over. After calmly talking to her she let us approach. She had a collar with a name tag, Kali, and her owner’s cell phone number. ‘How did she get here’, and ‘where was the owner’, were the questions weighing on our minds. I followed her tracks back up the mountain for a while to see if her owner was somewhere out there hurt. I didn’t find any traces of anyone being with her, so we decided to continue to our destination campsite.
We tried to persuade Kali to follow us on her own, calling her name, coaxing her to come with sweet talk, but she wouldn’t budge. She was conflicted, scared, hurt, and hungry. I approached her and she let me pick her up.
I started navigating the boulder field with Kali in my arms but knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long. Holding her in my arms made it difficult to see my footing, an extremely important element when boulder hopping. She weighed over 50# and I was tiring quickly at this high altitude. I made back down to our back packs and carefully put her down. She was going to have to limp on from there under her own power.
We very slowly hiked on looking for a safe campsite to set up. I was choosing the route that would be the easiest on her feet between the boulders and other obstacles. Vickie was constantly coaxing Kali to continue to follow us. About 8:00 pm that evening we found an acceptable spot with a rock wall built for protection from the ever present wind. We set up the tent for the evening and left all our gear outside so Kali could sleep in the vestibule. We all ate a well deserved meal. Vickie & I sharing dehydrated beef stroganoff with Kali being feed my trip’s entire allocation of breakfast meat, SPAM. SPAM is a must on the mountain for a couple originally from SPAM-town USA, Austin Minnesota.
Vickie was luckily able to get a cell phone signal temporarily on the plateau for long enough to call Kali’s owner and leave a partial message. The message was left that we had found the dog, but we didn’t know if the owner would be there to get the message. Before attempting to sleep, Vickie and I discussed the possible plans for the next day. Here were the cold hard facts. We were at close to 12,000 feet in altitude, 11 miles, and over 5000 vertical feet above the trailhead. We were sheltering an over 50# dog with tender bleeding feet that kept lying down and refusing to walk. We couldn’t come up with a good solution so hopefully we would have an answer in the morning.
The answer came in the middle of the night. Vickie woke up and rushed outside to vomit. Altitude sickness had hit again. Real altitude sickness is more than just a headache that you can pop a couple of Advil to alleviate the discomfort. It feels like a terrible flue or the worst hangover of your life. You are crippled with a splitting headache and dizzying nausea. You can’t keep anything down, even water. You just want to curl up in a ball and wish it was over. It is a severe condition that could lead to serious consequences if not remedied. The only remedy is lower altitude. We had to go down.
At dawn, we packed up. Vickie had puked up everything she ate or drank since midnight. She was staring at a 6-8 hour 11 mile hike without food or water. I lead the way down moving extremely slowly. Vickie was coaxing Kali and I was trying to pick the route that would be the easiest on her paws. She would hobble about 100 yards and lay down. At the pace we were going, it was going to take days to get down. Vickie didn’t have days to get down.
Finally, Kali just plopped down and quit. She was done moving. No more coaxing, calling, scolding or prompting was going to get her to take another step. I picked her up and threw her over my neck and we started picking our way through the boulders. Vickie feeling like she was going to vomit at any moment and me with 110#s of dog and pack straining my neck and back. I was hoping not to trip and break my neck or drop Kali on the rocks. I lasted about ¼ of a mile.
Plan B. Drop the pack, throw the dog over my shoulders and continue the journey. I made it about ¾ of a mile this time before I had to put down Kali. My back was killing me. She didn’t like the plan any more than I did riding on my shoulders as I hopped across boulders, walked through muddy grass, and post holed through snowfields. She was whining and squirming on my shoulders and making it hard for me to keep my balance. I set her down thinking we still had 9 miles to go. I decided to walk back to get my pack while Vickie and Kali tried to slowly press on so I could contemplate plan C.
Plan C. There is no plan C. Kali is too big and squirms too much to safely carry and I can’t take days to get down with Vickie in her condition. When I caught back up to them, Kali had quit moving again. We decided to walk on hoping Kali could find the determination to keep following. She didn’t. We had to leave her by herself on Froze to Death Plateau. Priority 1, get Vickie down far enough so she could drink. I know this may sound cold, but I had to get Vickie down 1st. Kali would have to spend at least another night on Froze to Death Plateau.
We slogged down across the plateau. I have learned to despise this place. We have been here 5 times and 5 times we have made an urgent evacuation. Hiking is supposed to be enjoyable. This isn’t. We just grind out the miles and make our minds numb to pass the time. I don’t want to think about how Vickie is suffering and I don’t want to think about Kali left behind.
We finally got low enough to get back into the trees. Vickie was able to keep down a couple of ounces of water, a good sign. We grind on. We arrive at the lake which is about 7600 vertical feet and she is feeling better. A rest, more water then we complete the last few miles to the trailhead and our vehicle waiting for us. We have tried several times to get a signal and check to see if Kali’s owner is okay and to let him know about her, but we were just too remote. We have to drive all the way back close to Absarokee to finally get a signal.
That is when we get a series of text messages from Kali’s owner Trevor, each one a little more desperate wanting a response from us about his dog. That is good news. Kali’s owner is not hurt or lost. The bad news is we didn’t have his dog. We called and talked directly to Trevor letting him know the situation and where Kali stopped and gave up. He vowed to return to the plateau to search early the next morning. I am going to ruin the drama of the story right here, right now. The story has a happy ending.
Trevor hiked up to the plateau at dawn but couldn’t find her at 1st, but he was able to get a signal and sent us a message. I was able to take a screen shot on my phone of a map of Froze to Death Plateau (Thanks to Google maps!) and drop a pin with the last known location of Kali. Thankfully, he found her right there. After a very long day on the mountain he was able to get Kali safely down. He called us when he finally got out of the mountains to give us the good news. See, a happy ending.
Vickie & I will have to wait until another time to attempt the summit again……..hopefully. We will need to figure out why she has altitude sickness on this mountain between 11,000-12,000 feet. She has summited many 13,000 to 14,000 mountains on mostly day hikes. But she was fine for 9 days on Kilimanjaro which is over 19,000 feet. Hopefully we can figure it out, otherwise we will have to dramatically alter our Lifelist. We will let you know how it goes.
Here are some pictures from previous attempts.
Vickie a couple thousand feet above Mystic Lake