Climbing The East Face of Montana’s Granite Peak In The Beartooth Mountains
Location: Granite Peak, Beartooth Mountains, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana
Type: Out and Back
Rating: IV, 5.4
Trailhead: West Rosebud Trailhead
Distance: 24 miles total
Time: 18 hours
West Rosebud Trailhead Elevation: 6,557′ | 1,999 m
Granite Peak Elevation: 12,799′ | 3,901 m
Total Vertical: 6,242′
Maps: Granite Peak, Alpine
Forecast: Granite Peak Weather Forecast
Granite Peak lies deep in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. As the highest point in Montana, it’s a peak that’s been on the bucket list for a while. When the weather opened up in late September, Jeremy Wood and I decided to climb the East Ridge of Granite Peak in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness of the Custer National Forest.
After discussing the feasibility of climbing Granite Peak in a day, we opted to take two days as neither of us knew what to expect and we wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the alpine start or the long days of summer. We carefully studied the map and decided the best approach for us was to drive to Fishtail, Montana and start at the West Rosebud Trailhead (6,557′). You can also start your hike in the East Rosebud (6,150′).
We got a late start and found ourselves driving the final 14 miles of washboard dirt road to the trailhead in mid-afternoon. After parking and packing, we jumped on the heel-toe express and started up trail #19 toward Mystic Lake.
The trail immediately passes a power plant. Then it follows the West Rosebud creek through a beautiful canyon. It steadily gains elevation and then after about 3 miles you reach 7,815′ and get your first view of the dammed Mystic Lake.
The trail skirts the south side of the lake and soon you’ll see the turn off for the Phantom Creek Trail #17 at about 7,800′. Alternatively we can continue on to Huckleberry Creek and approached Granite from that direction, but we didn’t. Instead we let the switchbacks begin! Approximately 30 switchbacks, often dubbed the “switchbacks from hell” criss cross back and forth as we climbed about 2,300′ to the Froze To Death Plateau. Luckily, the switchbacks maintain a mellow grade so the hiking is easy.
Before we reached the top of the trail (10,140′), we saw a faint climbers trail that led to the Froze To Death Plateau. We opted to cut the corner and start our cross country adventure across the high plateau from here. The FTD is a barren place covered in delicate tundra and random rocks. It gets battered by strong winds. It’s easy to underestimate its size and it’s wise to carry proper navigation tools through this inhospitable place. We certainly wouldn’t want to be up there in a white out or a thunderstorm.
We made decent time rock hopping across the plateau trying to link together distant cairns before the sun set behind the mountains. With our late start, there was no way that we would reach the high camp near Tempest Mountain on day 1. Instead, we found a flat spot with a nicely built wind break near a permanent snowfield at about 11,100′ and set up camp there. There are campsites like this scattered across the FTD. If you plan correctly you can find a trickling stream of water or patch of snow for drinking water.
To reach our campsite, we covered about 9 miles and 4,500 feet in 5.5 hours. The campsite had an amazing view of the alpenglow on the Granite Range to the north and a direct line of site to Columbus in the plains below. The phone signal was exceptional – never expected that. After setting up our Black Diamond single wall tent and eating some dinner we looked at the map and made a plan to tackle Granite Peak in the morning – little did we know that the mountain would kick our butts.
We woke at sunrise and hoofed it across the Froze To Death Plateau. Finally we had our first glimpse of the Granite fortress pocked with snow. It’s a massive mountain. Eventually we reached the super cairn at about 12,100′ near the high camp on Tempest Mountain (12,478′) where we could see more of our route.
We gazed across at the ominous north face of Granite Peak and the Granite Glacier. Impressive – definitely some ski lines on that face! The standard route takes you down the west face of Tempest Mountain to the saddle between Tempest and Granite. A climber’s trail marked with cairns helps you navigate across this lumpy boulder field all the way to the saddle at 11,550′. There are two more campsites on the saddle, but water is scarce.
Staring up at Granite from this angle is impressive – as are the views in every direction. We dropped down onto the south side of the saddle and scrambled up a 3rd class section to about 12,300′. This is where the adventure begins.
Luckily, Jeremy had spend the four hour car ride reading up on Granite Peak trip reports (here and here) and had a basic idea of where to go. Following his lead and keeping our eyes out for climbing cairns and rappel slings, we started to climb. None of the climbing is very challenging, but it is all very exposed. It seemed like every time you reached out to grab something, there was the perfect handhold. We did not rope up for any of the ascent, but anyone not comfortable with exposure definitely should.
Do your research and you’ll see that there is much debate as to what to rate the East Face of Granite Peak. Is it 4th class? 5th class? We agreed to stick with Turiano’s interpretation in Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone – the east ridge of Granite Peak is IV, 5.4. There are certainly some climbing moves above exposure – none of them very hard, but mentally challenging. You can make your own opinion when you head up there.
There are many different route options. Here’s what we did. We crossed the infamous snow bridge that was mostly melted out. Then we scurried down a steep slab with loose dirt and rock above a massive south facing couloir where we climbed the first snowy chimney located below an large X on the rocks.
Then we scooted across a platform and climbed up another choked chimney. This one was a bit tighter and brought us to the top of a ridge feature. We scrambled up this and continued toward the peak. We climbed one more chimney and found ourselves on the upper face of Granite Peak.
At this point we traversed across the face on a series of ledges, climbed up a more committing section of rock, and traversed back across to the east ridge. Here we free climbed up to a finally chimney below the keyhole. We opted to climb the snowy section on climber’s left and then a simple rock hop allowed us to reach the top of Montana.
The summit of Granite Peak sits at 12,799′. It’s about 12 miles and around 8000 feet from the trailhead to the summit according to my Suunto Ambit3. Supposedly it’s one of the hardest state high points to reach. According to Outside Bozeman, only 10% to 20% of climbers who attempt Granite Peak actually summit. How they figure this, I’ll never know. We made it and that’s what mattered to us – and the views were amazing.
With hardly a cloud in the sky, the expanse of the Beartooths spreads out in all directions and quickly merges into other mountain ranges like the Absarokas, Gallatin, and Madison. The hazy outline of Lone Mountain could even be seen in the distance. The Crazies and Crazy Peak can be spotted off to the north. Glacier Peak and its rowdy ski lines dominate the view to the southwest. Yellowstone National Park is visible to the south. There are lakes in every valley. #Montana has so much to explore. It’s incredible.
You could spend a lifetime soaking in the views from the tiny summit, but when you’re mountaineering, you’re only half way when you reach the summit. It was time to head home. Our goal was to down climb as much as possible, but had brought a 70 meter rope to rappel with if necessary. We followed our route back the way we came, but quickly came to the conclusion that climbing down is a bit more intimidating than climbing up, so we opted to rappel.
There are plenty of rappel sling in place and more than enough places to build bombproof anchors on Granite Peak. With an assortment of webbing and cord, we proceed to set up or backup four different rappels – some we could have down climbed easily, others not so much. We would rappel, scramble, down climb, rappel, and so forth all the way back to the snow bridge and the 3rd class section.
From here the adventure out is easy, but long. We regained the saddle between Granite and Tempest, climbed the 500’+ to the Froze to Death Plateau, and hoofed it back to our campsite – only stopping to refill our Nalgene bottles.
We took down our camp quickly as it was already 4 pm and we had a long walk back to the car. We retraced our footsteps making excellent time back to the trail, cruised down the switchbacks, walked past Mystic Lake, and boogied back to the West Rosebud Trailhead. We reached the car just as the sun set behind the mountains.
Now all we had to do was drive home. Car to car this adventure took us about 28 hours. Our moving time was approximately 18 hours. We covered about 24 miles and 8,000 vertical feet with about 500 feet of “technical” climbing.
In late September, I’m glad we took two days to climb Granite Peak for the first time. It’s certainly a mountain that can be climbed in a day if you’re familiar with the route, in excellent shape, carry light packs, and take advantage of the long days of summer. I’m looking forward to bagging Granite Peak in a day in the future. Until then, I’d love to ski some of the lines on that mountain.
I highly recommend climbing Granite Peak though and I’ll definitely climb that mountain again. Granite Peak is not a mountain to be taken lightly. It’s a serious mission deep in the wilderness. Do not rely solely on this trip report as your only navigation and beta. You need to know what you are doing as you are responsible for your own safety in the backcountry.
Our route on HillMap:
Watch a 360 degree panorama from the summit of Granite Peak:
Additional photos from climbing Granite Peak in Montana:
This trip report is from September 29-30, 2015.