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Day 0 & 1 – The Journey Begins
It was quite an interesting transition flying straight from such a business focused mindset at my Texas Instruments sales conference to some of the most peaceful and remote wilderness in the US.  Jimmy and I met up at the Denver airport, a mutual layover destination, before our final flight into Billings, MT.  Despite a delayed flight into Montana, the guys at Budget rental car were kind enough to stay open late for us to pick up our wonderful Toyota Corolla rental car which we later nicknamed Konichiwa.

After a quick stop at Wal-Mart for supplies, we were finally on the road; it was 1:15 am.  It was 3:30 by the time we finally arrived at the camping area and almost 4:30 (6:30 am Eastern Time!) by the time we finally fell asleep.  This is certainly not the best way to prepare for a multi day climb up the 3rd hardest state highpoint.  Despite both sleeping very little earlier in the week, we decided on waking by 8:15 the next morning.  We woke after only sleeping a little more than 3 hours.  It took us a while to break down camp and get all of our supplies packed but we were excited to begin the climb.  During breakfast a large buck and several does wondered past camp not more than 30 yards away.  

At 10:40 we officially began making our way up the trail.  We had opted for the longer and steeper East Rosebud trail head because we had read it was more beautiful than the West Rosebud, standard route.  It certainly didn’t seem more beautiful at first as the forest we were hiking through, along with the surrounding area, had been ravaged by a forest fire.  It wasn’t long however before we made our way up to Slough Lake, when the scenery became extraordinary.  The lake was crystal clear and massive sheer granite faces towered above.  We gazed up at them quietly thinking about the vertical climb that lay ahead.  Unfortunately at this point, I had huge blisters forming on the back of my heels.  I covered them up with the MoleSkin I had in my first aid kit and continued the hike.

Once the trail passed the lake it steepened greatly as we started the long climb from the valley floor to the lowest section of Froze to Death Plateau.  Early in the climb we were treated to a magnificent view of the lake below as the trail traversed a large, wide open rock slide.  We became increasingly worried about bears.  Since Wal-Mart didn’t stock Bear Mace due to “safety reasons” we had no means of protecting ourselves other than yelling out “YO BEAR!” as we wondered through the woods.  This avoids sneaking up on a bear and startling it – when most bear attacks occurred.

As we zigzagged our way up the mountain our 70 pound packs started to feel like 150 pound anchors holding us back.  As we neared the tree line our stops became more frequent and our lungs starved for oxygen in the high altitude.  We finally reached the top of the pass and the base of Froze to Death Plateau at 6:40.  Completely exhausted, we decided to take a long packs-off rest before heading up the plateau.

Soon, two hikers appeared on the horizon and headed in our direction and asked us about the rock shelters at the top of Froze to Death Plateau.  I explained to them that this was a great deal further up the trail and that it was unlikely they could reach it before dark.  Tomorrow we would realize just how far away it really was.  I told the hikers we planned to travel a little further up the plateau and make camp somewhere along the way, but they insisted this was not wise since, “winds could reach 200 mph and blow us right off the mountain.”  I had read previously about climbers making camp along the way, but since there was nasty weather brewing on the horizon and it is never wise to be in an exposed area during a thunder storm Jimmy and I followed them back down the East Rosebud trail to a choice location they had seen on the way up.  Loosing elevation we had fought so hard to gain is never fun, but the spot turned out to be quite nice.

It turns out the two hikers, Mark and Josh, were brothers.  They had taken a few days off to enjoy the back country and generously offered us some of the extra food they had brought along.  While we set up our tent, they went to work clearing a spot to hang their hammocks from with a hatchet and their samurai swords.  Yes, they each carried a samurai sward that they purportedly liked to spar with.  After digging a small pit they made a small “soldiers” fire as they called it to heat up the water for a couple of packages of dehydrated dinners.  Jimmy and I were especially grateful for the hot meal since we couldn’t find anywhere to buy fuel for JetBoil stove in billings.

After such a long day the hot meal of beef stew and lasagna was too satisfying to put into words.  Mark and Josh kindly offered us a swig of their black velvet and hand rolled cigarettes which we declined.  Conversation drifted across many interesting topics as I blissfully lay on my back and gazed upon the night sky.  At close to 10,000 feet observing the night isn’t the same as anywhere else.  There isn’t any separation between you and them.  It is more like floating through outer space and being surround and amongst the stars.  The Milky Way isn’t so much a slight streak in the sky, but a striking slash of millions of distinctly visible stars suspended in a blazing pool of starlight stretching from horizon to horizon.  Our eye lids grew increasingly heavy as we watched one shooting star after another streak across the sky in blazing glory and dozens of satellites crisscross like stars in motion across the blackest night sky you can ever imagine.  The brothers accepted our invitation to join us in climbing Granite Peak the next day.  As we drifted off to sleep, thoughts of what lay ahead and dreams of the view from the summit drifted through my mind.

Day 2 – Face to Face with Granite Peak
We awoke much later than I had hoped, but by 7am we were on our way.  We decided on the strategy of traveling light and fast so we left our tent pitched with all non essential gear behind and set out with nothing more than water, climbing gear, and snacks in our packs.  We passed a spring on not far from camp and we refilled everyone’s water supply.  In no time it was 8:30 and we were well along our way up Froze to Death Plateau.  There is no trail across the plateau so basic navigation and compass skills are required.  When we took our first break, we were immediately joined by a curious mountain chipmunk by our side and close to two dozen dear in the distance.

Travel along the plateau begun easy enough, but this would soon change.  After crossing above a melting glacier we soon realized one of the reasons this was the third hardest of all the state high points.  Not only was there no trail, but the journey up the plateau takes you across one large river of gigantic rocks after another.  We carefully picked our way across the rock flows of ottoman and lazy boy sized rocks as we came to them and the marshy sections of glacier melt in turn.  Although traversing the rocks was exhausting, moral was high and we were excited to be in such an amazing place.  Everywhere you looked was such striking beauty it made your soul smile deep within.  

Around mid morning, Josh began suffering from mild altitude sickness, called AMS.  He had a headache and begun to feel nauseous.  Realizing it was unwise to continue, we parted ways with the brothers and Jimmy and I continued our assent.  Not long thereafter, we met a party of four descending.  They had camped out at high camp at the base of Mount Tempest the night before and had decided not to make an attempt for the summit earlier this morning due to stormy conditions on the horizon.  One of the more experienced group members had summated Granite six times before and helped save a couple of climbers who had been caught in a storm on top once before.  Before parting ways, we were informed that it would take about 5 hours to summit from the high camp depending on how strong of climbers we were.

Jimmy and I continued along our way undaunted.  The news was discouraging but we hoped for favorable conditions.  We had no choice but to summit that day or turn back empty handed.  We struggled up the plateau a couple more hours before finally stopping for lunch at a very nice, large rock shelter.  It was noon.  From here both Tempest Mountain and Granite Peak towered close by on the horizon.  Granite looked incredibly intimidating with its sheer north face staring us down.  I tried to imagine what the south face looked like and hoped it was not as bad as the north.  By this time the altitude was thin and our packs heavy.  Although the altitude prevented us from feeling hungry we new we must eat something.  We reclined upon our packs resting at an angle against the rock shelter struggling to eat a package of tuna which we couldn’t quite finish.  At this point we were completely wiped out due to the many miles of steep hiking and the miniscule amounts of oxygen our bodies could siphon from the thin air.  Despite feeling no better after the rest than before, we donned our heavy packs and continued up the mountain fueled by sheer determination alone.

We inched our way farther up the plateau but morale was down.  By the time we reached the area of the rock shelters in the high camp at the base of Tempest Mountain, violent thunderstorms were visible in several directions and it was now already 1:00.  We struggled making sense of all the facts as they all indicated that we wouldn’t get to summit after coming all this way.  Even if we could force our tired bodies up the next section at the 5 hour pace well rested climbers do after a full night of rest at high camp, we wouldn’t reach the summit until 6:00.  Had it not been for the storms we might have made a push for it, but we were smart enough to know better.  It is better to stay alive and climb the mountain another day, then to role the dice with your life on the line.  We certainly didn’t want to spend the night in exposed conditions and face death due to hypothermia. 

I had decided the day before that I wouldn’t be able to resist visiting this wonderful place again.  So the sting of turning back was dampened by the fact I knew I would be back again soon; if we did the smart thing and not put our lives at risk of hypothermia and the perils of lightning strike.  We enjoyed the view a little longer and Jimmy celebrated the accomplishment of climbing to his highest elevation ever at ~12k feet.  We headed back the mountain deflated but still very happy we were fortunate enough to visit such a magnificent place.

The trek down was equally cumbersome picking our way across the huge rock flows.  We finally reached camp around 4:20 and decided we should break down camp and head back to the car.  It was questionable if we would beat the rain or even if we would make it down before dark, but lured by the idea of a hot meal we said our good byes to Josh and Mark and were off.  The climb back up to the top of the pass burned once again with the full weight of all our gear was grueling.  We had already expended so much energy I wasn’t sure if we would make it, but after we reached the crest at 5:15 we coasted along almost effortlessly.  We daydreamed about what the perfect meal would be and yelled out, “Yo Bear!” as frequently as we could remember.  Fortunately we didn’t cross the path of any grizzlies and made it down to Slough Lake just as the sun was setting below the high mountains above our head.  I took a few pictures of what photographers call the magic hour and was quickly back on our way still hoping to make it back before dark which we just barely did.

We arrived at the car around 5 min to 9pm.  We headed toward the small nearby town of Roscoe for a hot meal.  The first building we saw in town was Grizzlies Burgers and Steaks.  After a magnificent meal of steaks and an appetizer sampler, we made a short drive back to a campsite in the national forest outside of town.   

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Map of US HighPoints
KEY: States: Green - summited, Yellow - attempted, White - Not visited
Dots: Green - State Lowpoint, Red - State Highpoint

 

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©2008 Kyle E. Hoelscher. All rights reserved.

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CA - Mount Whitney AL - Cheaha Mountain, 2,407' AZ - Humphreys Peak, 12,633' AR - Mount Magazine, 2,753' CO - Mount Elbert, 14,443' FL - Britton Hill, 345' GA - Brasstown Bald, 4,784' ID - Borah Peak, 12,662' MT - Granite Peak, 12,779' IL - Charles Mound, 1,235' IN - Hoosier Hill, 1,257' MO - Taum Sauk, 1,772' KS - Mount Sunflower, 4,039' KY - Black Mountain, 4,145' LA - Driskill Mountain, 535' MS - Woodall Mountain, 806' IA - Hawkeye Point, 1,670'