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.
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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.
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.”
Of the three possible matches, only Ernest Bruffey seems likely, according to Jenkins. The other two, Scott Robinson and Jeremy Moors, were swallowed up in mountainous terrain so far west of Granite that it would have required extraordinary circumstances for their bodies to reach the snowfield where Kampf found the boot.
As we toiled toward Avalanche Lake, where we planned to set up basecamp, our rest breaks got longer. The culmination of the day’s hike was a brutal, mile-long stint across boulders the size of cars. Each of us performed at least one little life-and-death jig along the way.
Late in the afternoon, after setting up camp, I stripped down for a frigid dip in Avalanche Lake, followed by the numbing soak my bruised feet had been crying for since lunch. Across the lake, rising 3,000 feet above, the dark north wall of Granite Peak blocked out the sky.
I slept outside that night, though fitfully, thinking about the upcoming climb and about Ernest Bruffey. The startling whitewash of moonlight kept me awake, listening to the bleating of mountain goats cruising camp in search of the salt licks of our pee spots. Every time I opened my eyes, the ghostly monolith of Granite Peak filled the night.
One of the most intriguing circumstances of Bruffey’s disappearance is that on the day after he signed in atop Granite, the most destructive and powerful earthquake in Montana’s recent history struck the southwestern corner of the state. The quake registered between 7 and 8 on the Richter scale and was felt hundreds of miles from its epicenter.
If Bruffey was still alive when the earthquake hit near midnight, he presumably was snug in his tent. Did a rockslide bury him as he slept? Did he already lie dead on the slope below Granite when fresh rockslides covered his remains? And if he was still exploring the high country the next day, could he have fallen victim to an aftershock or a crumbling face made unstable by the shifting Earth?
News stories at the time favored the buried-by-earthquake-caused-rockslides theory, and Sweet Grass County Sheriff Ken Thompson, a member of the search team, described the freshly disturbed debris near Granite Peak as “enormous.”
At dawn, the sky was gauzy. We all awoke as if by telepathy and rummaged around in the chilly, dim light, eating our cold breakfasts and adding to the summit packs we’d prepared the night before. The day was still gray when we started.
Granite Peak wasn’t successfully reached until the mid-1930s, and with good reason. The climb is best characterized as a series of “Should I attempt this next move?” decisions—decisions that accumulate and become an ominous weight as you confront each one and then move to the next, trying not to think about what you’ll face coming back down. Even worse, the heart of the high Beartooths is a cauldron perfect for brewing storms. More than a few climbers have made four or five attempts to reach the peak, only to be stormed off each time.
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.
“No way,” I think, as I scan the expanse of talus and snow. “No way we’ll find any bones in this monochromatic place.”
Joe Kampf’s rock cairn is gone, I notice, and wonder if we’re even in the right spot. I walk uphill into steep skirts of small talus, across the slope, up and down. Everyone else is wandering the same aimless way, heads down, searching. We’d come to climb Granite to prove we could do it, but we’d also come here, to this spot, because of a morbid fascination with the unsolved mystery of Ernest Bruffey’s demise.
Suddenly, I hear a shout from below. Jeff holds something overhead. I scramble over to him. In his hands is a knee joint and section of lower leg bone. He puts it next to his leg. Too small for a bear. Too big for a goat. Human—it has to be. The bone is weathered, dry, and gray, with scraps of tendon and tissue hanging like parchment.
In the next half an hour, we pluck two vertebrae and the weathered sole of a boot from the rubble. There is something riveting about these fragments, about this forgotten human tragedy. We come to the mountains in part because climbing nudges the exhilarating fringes of danger and risk. We come fully expecting to return home. But we also know, in those airy moments of risk, that we may not.
We search for a while longer. One could have a worse grave than this high, wind-buffeted place, I tell myself. But it might be better not to be scattered loosely across a talus field.
In a kind of homage to risk gone wrong, we linger on to keep searching. When we finally give up, I drop into a plastic bag the mute bits of what was once a human being. The thin air feels cold again, even in the sun.
Two days later, my own skeleton still bruised from the pounding descent from Avalanche Lake, I hand the find to coroner Jenkins.
“This is getting kind of spooky,” he says, peering at the bag of bones. “Whoever this is really wants to be found.”
Postscript: After this story was completed, the crime lab in Missoula confirmed that the leg bones found by my party match the bones in the boot discovered by Joe Kampf in 1999.
Alan Kesselheim is a full-time freelancer who lives with his family in Bozeman, Montana.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Granite Peak, MT
The way: Take MT 78 south from Columbus to Absarokee. Follow the USDA Forest Service signs to West Rosebud Creek. The trail starts at the end of the dirt road, near the power station below Mystic Lake dam.
Author’s route: The two major routes to Granite Peak both start at the trailhead on West Rosebud Creek. Our route goes 5.5 miles on the Mystic Lake Trail, then turns south along Huckleberry Creek. From there the going gets steep and the trail, less and less obvious. At Princess Lake, we bushwhacked along the northeastern shore and climbed to the boulder field near the outlet of Avalanche Lake. Crossing the boulder field, the last challenge in a long day, gets you to a basecamp about two-thirds of the way along the northeastern shore of Avalanche Lake. Climbing Granite involves a 1,500-foot hump to the saddle between Tempest Mountain and Granite Peak and another 1,500 feet up the back side of the peak.
Alternate route: Another route leaves Mystic Lake and climbs up to Froze-to-Death Mountain. The trail crosses a high, exposed plateau on the way to Tempest Mountain, then descends to the saddle. Climbers generally consider this the easier approach to Granite, although the plateau is renowned for bad weather, and its ascent is without water.
Basecamps: The only basecamps along our route are at the outlet of Avalanche Lake and about two-thirds of the way along the northeastern shore. On the Froze-to-Death Mountain route, most climbers set up basecamp close to Tempest Mountain so they’ll be within quick striking distance of Granite. For hikers who are not interested in summiting, there are a number of nice campsites lower down along either route.
Season: Snow isn’t out of the high country until July, and bad weather is a constant threat. August and September are generally regarded as the best months to hike in the high Beartooth Mountains.
Special equipment/skills: I would never again attempt Granite Peak without wearing a climbing helmet—there’s too much loose rock. Carry climbing rope, a climbing harness, and enough hardware to set a belay and manage a rappel if necessary. Crampons are a good idea, too.
Guides: Forest Service map for Custer National Forest (available from the Beartooth Ranger District, 406-446-2103; www.fs.fed.us/r1/custer). USGS 7.5-minute quads Alpine and Cooke City (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov; $4 each). Hiking Montana, by Bill Schneider and Russ Schneider (Falcon Press, 800-725-8303; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $15.95).