Granite Peak: Montana's Highest

Photo of Granite PeakIt is all a mountain should be...remote and majestic. Sheer walls on all sides and crevassed glaciers flowing from its upper reaches present an awesome sight. At 12,799 feet, Montana’s Granite Peak stands out as the patriarch of “the roof of Montana,” the Beartooth Range of the south-central part of the state.                                                                                      

The one-million-acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness boasts of 28 peaks over 12,000 feet in elevation. Granite is one of seven of these found in a closely-grouped chain that includes Hidden Glacier-12,377, Glacier Peak-12,351, Mount Villard-12,319, Tempest Mountain-12,478, Mystic Mountain-12,063 and Mount Peal-12,002.

The heights of Granite and the surrounding summits perked the interest of early-day Beartooth explorers and mountaineers. In late July 1898, a pioneering expedition to these big peaks was led by geologist and mining engineer James Kimball. He was searching for minerals and planned to map the region between Cooke City and Nye, Montana. Bad weather disrupted the mapping and no precious metals were found. The group did make an attempt on Granite Peak but were stopped at the 11,447-foot level (estimated by their aneroid barometer).

Perhaps the person with the most interest in exploring the Beartooth and climbing Montana’s loftiest peak was Fred Inabnit (Mount Inabnit, south of East Rosebud Lake was named in his honor). His first sojourn to these mountains was in 1907; then in 1910, he approached Granite with the thought of scaling it. He scanned the east ridge and concluded that there had to be a better route. After crossing Granite Creek and the pass to Sky Top Drainage on the east and south sides of the peak, his party was turned back by an intense August snowstorm.

Again in 1922, Inabnit led five well-equipped climbers to Granite, approaching from the south by way of Sky Top Creek. They came within 300’ of the top before being halted by sheer walls.

The undaunted Inabnit returned once more, in 1923, after persuading the Forest Service to participate in a joint climbing venture. From a camp on Avalanche lake, in upper Granite Creek (southeast side), the expedition split into two assault teams. They spent the first day doing a reconnaissance of the mountain, concluding that there was no easy way to the top. The next morning, Inabnit led his group into the Sky Top for another try at the south face. Forest Service legend Elers Koch took the other climbers up the east ridge. Inabnit and his team were again blocked by steep walls, when they heard the triumphant shouts of the rangers above, thus Granite Peak was first climbed that August 23, 1923.

Ascending Granite today is just as exciting, and almost as challenging as it was at the turn of the century. Altitude, weather and very rugged and precipitous terrain, make our state’s highest summit and its environs one of the most adventuresome areas to climb in Montana.

The peak is approached from several points. The south side is best reached from Cooke City to the Sky Top Lakes. The most popular route, and the one that leads to the so called “easiest climb,” on the east face and also to the north face, is from Fishtail to Mystic Lake and the Froze-to-Death Plateau. A trail up Phantom Creek from East Rosebud Lake is also used to get to these same places. All these routes are shown on Rocky Mountain Surveys’ Alpine/Cooke City map. And you can get the more detailed 7.5-minute USGS quads at your local outdoor shop as well. Falcon Press’s Hiking Montana has a good description of the Mystic Lake access.

There are four major climbs on the peak: the east face route, the north face, a couple of spines on the southeast side and the south face. The south and north faces are the most difficult. This writer has done the north face, south face and east face routes. No passage on Granite offers a hands-in-the-pocket walk up. All approaches and pitches are steep requiring a great deal of physical effort. Granite Peak should never be considered as a first mountain for novice climbers unless they are accompanied by at least one experienced mountaineer. A knowledge of route finding, belaying and rappelling techniques and the use of an ice ax is necessary. An experienced group can do the east face without equipment other than an ice ax for the snow bridge that is encountered part of the way up. I would suggest though a 150-foot length of at least a 9-mm rope, for any party for safety purposes.                                                                    

Granite presents many hazards, including intense rain or snow storms that can strike at a moment’s notice, high winds, slick boulders, falling rocks and the dangers of hypothermia. Dressing properly with layers, using quality camping gear and having some idea of the long-range weather conditions will help provide you with a great experience in spite of the inherent dangers on, and around, this very formidable mountain.

Rick Graetz