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April 2001

Death On Montana’s Granite Peak

High on a Montana mountain, the mystery of a long-lost climber continues to unravel for those willing to make the arduous trek and search for clues that literally lie at your feet.

Four decades earlier, in 1959, Bruffey had parked his vehicle near where we had left ours, at West Rosebud Creek. He had driven down from his home in Havre in northern Montana. He was a World War II veteran, a construction worker, and an accomplished, daring climber.

He told some workers he met at the power station near the trailhead that he planned to hike over Froze-to-Death Mountain and climb Granite. Bruffey’s wife later reported that her husband was traveling light, carrying “some salami, a small loaf of bread, a package of raisins, and two chocolate bars” to sustain him over the 3-day trip.

Bruffey made the summit. Climbers later found his entry, dated August 16, 1959, in the log on the peak. But there his trail ends. In hundreds of hours spent combing the area, searchers found only a Leica telephoto lens similar to one Bruffey carried. It was later claimed by a Billings man who said he’d dropped it several weeks earlier. There was nothing more.

Nothing, that is, until Joe Kampf bent over a weathered boot 40 years later.

Joe Kampf of Colstrip, Montana, had vowed to climb Granite before he turned 50. On Friday, August 13, 1999, 2 months shy of his 49th birthday, Kampf and three friends were turned back by the black, howling weather typical of the high plateau country at the heart of the Beartooth Mountains. They were heading down, descending along the edge of a glacier below Granite Peak, when Kampf made a bizarre discovery.

On the ground lay an old, high-topped, smooth-soled boot. It was akin to a work shoe, and certainly was not the type of footwear a modern-day hiker would use to scale a peak as difficult and strenuous as Granite. Poking out of the top of the boot were the sheared-off bones of a human’s lower leg, and inside were the decayed bones of a foot, still held in a bedraggled sock.

Standing over the boot, studying the gray, shattered bones and shouting to be heard over the wind, Kampf and his companions decided to carry their find to the authorities. They built a small rock cairn to mark the spot, stuffed the remains into the plastic bag that had held their trail mix, and hurried off the stormy mountain toward basecamp at Avalanche Lake.

“We waited out the worst weather I’ve ever been in,” Kampf recalls. “Hail. Lightning. Unbelievable wind. I wondered if we’d brought down the wrath of God, picking up that boot!”

Two days later, Kampf notified the Park County Coroner in Livingston and handed the morbid, mysterious artifact to a sheriff’s deputy.

“That boot reopened three old missing persons cases,” says coroner Al Jenkins. “There are three people we know of who disappeared close enough to Granite Peak in the last 50 years to make them candidates. Of course, it could also be someone we’ve never heard of. There are lots of missing people out there who vanish without leaving a clue.”

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