I stop at the edge of a glacier in a barren talus bowl at roughly 11,000 feet. The sheer north face of Granite Peak, Montana’s highest, looms almost 2,000 feet overhead. Earlier, I stood on the sharp summit and posed for a picture. Now I’m staring straight up, my eye catching the gleaming, exposed snow bridge we inched across an hour or two ago, each of us tethered on a belay, throwing prayers to the heavens to keep us from slipping. I drop my pack on a knob of exposed rock and search the ground. I look up again and imagine a body sliding off that snowy notch, zooming down the steep ice, gathering terrifying velocity, then careening into the boulders and talus, bounding into space, cartwheeling as it tumbles some 2,000 feet to where I stand.
It isn’t often that I feel twinges of vertigo when I look up. Any alpine trek entails risk, and people have died trying to climb Granite. But right where I’m standing, the remains of one victim keep turning up decades after his fall, rekindling a mystery that refuses to die. That mystery is, in part, why we’re here.
Everything about climbing Granite Peak (elevation: 12,799 feet) is hard. The approach hike to the base, no matter which route you take, is an arduous trek. The actual climb is a challenging ascent, rated a class 4 in its upper reaches. The hike back down to the trailhead is a pounding test of endurance.
Generally, it takes 3 days to go up and down Granite. The seven of us—all over 40, a couple cozying up to 50—started our jaunt at dawn. The sky was hazy with smoke from an out-of-control fire season. Rumor had it that the wilderness backcountry would be closed to hikers later that morning. We figured once we were in, they couldn’t kick us out.
The main trail up to Mystic Lake and along its shore is easy to follow. Despite climbing 1,000 feet and hiking more than 5 miles, we made good time and reached the turnoff up Huckleberry Creek before the morning was too far gone. There was cocky banter at that point, something about how easy the climb was.
The bluster dried up within the next quarter mile, partly because we were all breathing too hard to talk and partly because we could see just how difficult the second half of the approach hike was. The broad, well-beaten path dwindled abruptly to game-trail size, and petered out altogether here and there. The route wound steeply through dense stands of timber, through tortuous sections littered with blowdown, and across chaotic boulder fields. We assumed a zombielike pace, adjusted and readjusted our heavy packs. I thought about the stuff I should have left behind and questioned the masochistic urge that possessed me to do this.
And I thought about Ernest Bruffey.