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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.

More than 2,000 feet uphill and on the back side, we came to a snow bridge and another moment of decision. The hard, narrow wedge of snow and ice sits in a notch 50 feet long and 2 feet wide. There’s nothing to it, except that if you slip, you’ll plummet to a certain death. We gathered in front of the traverse, each of us assessing it quietly. When someone suggested a belay, everyone nodded in relieved agreement.

Just after the crossing, I noticed that threatening clouds were building. We worked around another corner, up a dirty ramp of rock, and into a wide chimney mined with untrustworthy handholds. One step at a time. Clouds matted in the sky and zoomed in fast over the ridge. I remembered a picture in a book about climbing Granite that had featured such a sky. The caption read, “When the sky looks like this, turn around!”

Two hundred feet below the summit was a sketchy traverse across exposed rock, requiring a couple of maneuvers that left us hanging in space. One member of our group looked at it hard, thought about it hard, then hunkered there on a ledge out of the path of rockfall to wait for us. The rest of us went on, knowing he’d made a reasonable and prudent call, wondering if we should have done the same, and watching the grim, scudding clouds.

Eventually, we reached the “keyhole,” the final corner, and made a quick scramble to the peak. The summit is a level bench of granite wide enough to sit six people, no more. We sat, snapped photos, quickly scanned the forbidding skyline from the highest perch in the state, and scurried away. We were there for less than 5 minutes.

The thunder began in the middle of the rappel we set up to avoid the scary traverse. Three group members had never rappelled before. There were six of us and one rope, with the wind howling up slope hard enough to blow the coils back in our faces when we threw the rope over. The instruction session on the art of rappelling was the briefest in climbing history.

Partway down, snow pellets started bouncing off rock, and cold bursts of sleet wet our faces. We donned wool hats, raingear, and gloves, typical attire for a summer morning on Granite. Suddenly, the rock was not just loose and treacherous, but slick, too. We moved slowly, carefully, staying clear of each other, testing the way, our bodies taut with adrenaline-laced urgency. My breathing was harder and my heartbeat, faster than when we were going up.

As quickly as the storm had pounced, it retreated. Once across the snow bridge, we lounged in the sun, stripped off layers, and enjoyed lunch. The rest of the descent was mundane, a long trudge though eroded rubble, back past the saddle, and on down to that place where a person who fell off Granite might land.

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