San Jose Ryan, Ohio Adam, Minnesota David and Boston Will: America atop Montana

Four strangers from San Jose, Boston, Minnesota and Ohio formed a climb team for the Class 5 summit of Montana’s highest point, Granite Peak.

“Rock!” Oh no, I just knocked a grapefruit-sized chunk of granite down towards two of my teammates. My knee was blocking the small boulder from view and I kicked it. There was only enough time for Boston Will to turn his back before the rock smashed into his lower shoulder blade. I had broken my own rules.

Adam Fox mug shot

One, there was too much distance between me as the lead and the three other climbing team members below. And two, I should have made them clear the fall line before I proceeded.

The space between us was due to me trying to route find. On the side of Granite Peak, at 12,000 feet, there is no trail. We were nearing the top of the “SW Ramp” and had hit an impossible pass. It’s a big wall we couldn’t get around or over. I started backtracking, downclimbing, looking for the little gap on the climber’s left going down that would lead us out of the Ramp and around the obstacle.

Picture a steep mountain face. Then draw a diagonal line from the top right corner to the bottom left. That line is the SW Ramp, a skinny little section that’s like a Pringles tube, cross cut, that you can climb up. If a rock falls from the top, it will continue down the tube and there’s no way you can avoid it.

Minnesota David and I in da Ramp
Minnesota David and I in the SW Ramp (photo: SJ Ryan)
Boston Will in da Ramp
Can you see Boston Will in da Ramp? (photo: San Jose Ryan)

Will screamed upon impact.

“Damn, dude, so sorry; I didn’t see it! You good?” Will didn’t respond but David, who was two feet away and could have been the one that was struck, gave me the shame and disappointment glare. In my defense, it was my first mistake, albeit a huge one.

I descended back level with them, but on the opposite side of the shoot, climbed up and found the way out. The exposure was huge. I wrapped around the wall, not looking at the death drop-off to my right. Someone actually fell here the day before and was life-flighted off the mountain. I found the way out, but why was I even doing this?

Planning the expedition 

Three months earlier, I was on Facebook reading about all the people talking about doing Granite Peak, the highpoint of Montana, around the time of the Highpointer’s Convention.

I was getting jealous that so many people were going to have one of the top-five hardest state highpoints completed and I wasn’t. So I started really studying the route. Could I do it?

I didn’t want to hire a guide and might have to go solo. OK, I could climb it with the right conditioning (close to 30 miles roundtrip at high elevation) and a bit more work in the rock climbing gym. Could I afford it?

I started looking at flights, $500? No way, I couldn’t pay that.

I went home and cried to my cellmate, Megan. She told me to stop being such a baby, and that for Father’s Day and my birthday in August she would get the plane ticket. I love my cellmate.

Once the flight was booked, it had to be done. Find a rental car and start all the logistical planning, from Bozeman, Montana, to the wilderness area where you can park your car. It’s up some crazy mountain road that’s hard to navigate. Would I need 4-wheel drive? Memorize the road, the turns, via Google Earth.

What’s the weather, will I need crampons and an ice axe? What about climbing gear? How cold?

For the next three months leading up to the trip it was all planning. Running three times a week, rock climbing in the gym a couple times, diet, almost no drinking (the worst part of training) and studying topos and maps. It would be the first time I hiked off trail and would have to do the navigating completely by myself.

Day 1, August 2016

The trip almost didn’t happen. My alarm was set wrong and just before I fell asleep cellmate Megan said, “Check your alarm again,” and it saved me! Woke up at 3:30 a.m., on time.

Drove an hour to the Cleveland airport. Parked car, shuttled to terminal. (Tons of Cavs championship gear!) Checked bag (it weighed 49 pounds and the limit was 50!) and flight to Chicago. Two-hour layover because I wanted to save $70 when choosing flights. Boarded at Chicago to fly to Montana and sat on the runway for an hour. Had to de-board because of an air conditioning unit malfunction. New flight two hours later.

Arrived in Bozeman, Montana, around 4 p.m. Rental car line then walking to the car with my 50-pound stuff sack over my shoulder. Drove to Bob’s Outdoor Store to get bear spray and fuel for my stove. Can’t fly with either.

Grizzly bears were my number-one fear heading into this trip, more than flying, driving, rockfall, slipping and mountain lions. I watched tons of videos on bear attacks, how to survive them and everything in between. I’m a grizz expert now. How do you stay safe?

Be loud; if you sneak up on a bear they will attack. Two, keep a CLEAN camp. No food in the tent or around the area. Eat, cook and store food away from camp.

Three, don’t run or they will chase. Four, if you find yourself between a sow and cubs, you are screwed. She will attack. Take bear spray out and discharge when she is 30-feet away. Aim low as it will rise and you don’t want to overshoot.

Five, if a bear is stalking you or attacks your tent, it is there to eat you, and you must fight back. If it is just startled, play dead.

Six, if the bear is attacking you, leave your pack on as it creates a barrier between its claws and your spine. Roll onto your stomach. The bear will try to roll you over. You have a split second, when it tries to roll you, to stab it in the face and get away.

After procuring the bear mace and fuel, I went to the Lucky 7 Motel in downtown Bozeman to pick up climbing team member Will. He was a 31-year-old kid from Boston and he contacted me about a ride to the “trailhead” on Facebook. Shaved head, medium build and fairly thick frame from all the Spartan races and cross-fit.

Three minutes into the drive, he said, “I had time to kill since your flight was delayed, so I went to this coffee house and talked to this smokin’ hot girl. Got ‘er num-bah.”

I was going to say something like, wait, you’re Will from Boston, talking about getting her “num-bah,” and I’m not supposed to make a Good Will Hunting “how do you like dem apples” joke? Too early, I thought. He’ll see the depths of my depravity soon enough.

Yellowstone NW Entrance Representin’ The Land at Yellowstone

We headed east on I-90, with its 80-mph speed limit, for 40 miles and then due south on 89 for another 40 minutes to the Wyoming/Montana state line, that also served as the entrance to Yellowstone National Park (more or less, no Internet truthers!). This was actually the quickest way to Cooke City, Montana, the town closest to the trailhead, so it was a pretty scenic commute.

Extremely wide rivers, endless slabs of granite spilling into them, rafters, horseback riders and gnarly evergreens. After continuing south into the Park for 30 minutes we headed east again at the Mammoth Springs area of Yellowstone, as a female full-grown elk ran across the road. Cruising along the north rim of the Park. Bison. Now that’s one amazing animal. Glad we didn’t extinct it. Saw elk and antelope, too.

Will & ElkBoston Will & Elk

“You’re married, right?” Will asked between clicking photos of the bison, leaning out the window of my rented Toyota Corolla.

“Yeah, my cellmate is pretty cool.”

“I was in a serious relationship for a while. Vermont girl, actually. We did the long-distance relationship thing and one day, she’s like, ‘I’m moving to Boston.’ Thought she was moving there for me, right? Small-town girl, from Vermont, gonna move to the city and not change? Ya, right. She’d been there for a month and did a complete change. That girl, you wouldn’t know her now. Broke up with me. Took it pretty hard,” Will said.

“Heartbreak sucks, but at least you found out who she really was sooner than later, man, I mean—”

“Holy sh** look at that bison. Everyone always says, ‘buffalo,’ but they are wrong. We don’t have buffalo in America.”

“Only the crappy football team,” I said.

Boston Will and I got along really well and three hours of driving later put us back north into Montana and we arrived in Cooke City and met up with the two other members of the climb team, Minnesota David and San Jose Ryan.

Originally, I had planned on going completely alone. But a week before the trip, the fear of camping solo with the grizzly bears finally got to me. So I put a post on FB about wanting to camp within a mile of other climbers that were on the route.

Minnesota David, Boston Will and San Jose Ryan had already agreed to be a team, but were happy to add another “experienced” member considering the route was so insane from start to finish.

I still packed as if I was going alone, not wanting to be dependent on them for shared tent, stove, food or most importantly, navigation. I just needed other humans so that grizzlies wouldn’t eat me.

“I’m sure I’m faster than at least one of you,” I joked on the message board before we left.

The Soda Butte Lodge was our dinner spot in Cooke City. The old mining town looked the same as it did when the gold-seekers settled it 200 years ago. I ordered a flat bread pizza so I could pack in a few slices the next day.

Cooke City Dusk Cooke City Dusk
Cooke City DawnCooke City Dawn

We agreed to meet at the trail at 7:45 a.m. and be ready to hike at 8. We were all supposed to go over gear in Will’s hotel room at the Soda Butte Lodge after dinner. I could tell by the packing and general disorganization in Will’s room that this would be the biggest backpacking trip Minnesota David (a self-described “half-ginger” of medium height and very short blonde-to-rust hair) and Boston Will had yet to do.

San Jose Ryan (of the tall and skinny climber’s build) seemed to be in control, and based on his resume (slightly better than mine, damn you Ryan, damn you!) of summiting Rainier, I didn’t have any trepidations concerning him.

Just before leaving I asked San Jose Ryan and Minnesota David where they were staying.

“Probably just camp at the trailhead,” Ryan said.

Grizzlies were spotted two miles up the road at a campground they had to shut down. I didn’t want half of my team dead before we started.

“Well, you two can crash on my floor, I’m stayin’ at the Alpine Motel across the street. I’m not worried about any cash,” I said.

“Oh, I definitely want to do that,” David said in his thick Minnesota accent, heavy on the vowels, Fargo-like.

“Would you have room for one of us to crash on your floor, too?” David asked Will.

After a pause, Will said, “Sure.”

I took David and Will took Ryan. (No money was ever exchanged although David did buy me an egg and cheese muffin and coffee on our way out of town the next morning.)

Crashed around midnight, 2 a.m. Ohio time, almost up for 24-straight hours of stress travel and would be up six hours later to start the most grueling experience of my life (outside of marriage, har-har, jk).

Day 2

Waking at 6 a.m., the last shower for days, and the last use of a good toilet. Never, ever, forget how blessed we are to have indoor plumbing.

Got to the trailhead parking area but I knew there was a route that would save us a half-mile. Everyone packed into my white Corolla, and we drove up the unpaved, rocky, pot-holed-filled road. Five-to-six cars from trout fishermen and lake campers were also at the secret spot and I couldn’t find room.

Tried to go around the cars like I had Gravedigger and got stuck. What an idiot. Nonsense and failure before we got started.

Luckily, Will was able to source the problem, a large log on one side of the wheel, and a boulder on the other. I cleared the boulder, thought about not having full coverage on the rental, floored it, got out and parked.

The bad news was that Will left his gloves on the top of the car at our first stop and they had blown off. Gloves were a necessity. I had to do the drive all over again. Good news was that we found the gloves and were on the trail at 9 a.m.

Jabronis on da Trail Jabronis Start on da Trail
Bear Mace Practice Bear Mace Practice

We started around 8,000 feet, in a lush high-altitude zone, so you had grass and mosquitos and tall pines and lakes and wide rivers, but everything was sparse with big gaps in scenery.

For the first two miles, there was a pretty well-established path from the trout fishermen and horses. We followed that to Lady of the Lakes, a great spot to glare at the water and have the sun’s reflection do the same thing back.

Lady of the LakesLady of the Lakes

From Lady of the Lakes, navigation now became paramount. I memorized the hell out of this terrain.

“I don’t think we’re going the right way,” the Minnesota accent of David said.

“We are,” I said, not breaking stride.

“I want to stop and look at the map,” David said.

“Let’s keep moving; I guarantee we are on the right course,” I said.

“I guarantee we aren’t,” David said.

“Whoa, now, is that a Minnesota guarantee?”

“Hell yes it is,” David said.

“OK,” I said, “but we are keeping track. Every time someone is right or wrong.”

I was 6-0 by the end of the first day and the “Minnesota guarantee” became an ongoing joke. For four complete strangers, team morale and chemistry was pretty amazing the whole time and I thought we all got along really well.

Four miles of pretty easy hiking and we arrived at the tri-river crossing, where, as the name implies, three rivers ran together. I found the easy crossing, but the group preferred switching footgear and making it more difficult because they had not yet fully accepted my leadership.

Ha! But for real.

Footwear was my only complaint about teammate Ryan, a California-born mountaineer with a French girlfriend who was close to equal to me in height at 6-foot-1, but he had dark short hair to my grey sides fading into a brown-top mop.

Contemporary mountaineers love the mantra of “light and fast,” so instead of a heavier waterproof hiking shoe or boot, Ryan went with almost a running shoe. As a result, we had to be extra careful with river crossings and many times I wanted to take the shortest distance between two points, but we were unable because the dude couldn’t get his feet wet.

But overall, Ryan was a badass. Stayed calm and cool the entire climb. Was well conditioned and using little bits of duct tape to mark our route so we could find the way back down near the summit was the stuff of pure legend.

And I’ve since switched to waterproof running shoes over hikers.

Once the three-rivers crossing is navigated, you walk a couple of miles through what is known as the Sky Top Drainage, where all the rivers and lakes flood a giant flat plane. It features ountain flowers and the amazing sound of hard water flowing aggressively over rock.

At the end of the Drainage, it was finally time to start cutting into elevation. With 35-pound packs, it’s hard work, especially because you simply can’t get enough oxygen to flow to your muscles. We crisscrossed up the hard ground and small rocks until we made it to Lone Elk Lake.

Lone Elk LakeLone Elk Lake
Da TeamDa Team

I lead the team to the left side of the lake, then around the right side of Rough Lake, going up slowly. I was actually thinking to myself, man, I’m pretty sure about this, but not sure. And every time it worked out. It seemed like I had done the trip tens of times and I never shared my insecurities with the group.

After Rough Lake it was another big ascent to get to the Sky Top Lakes area. I was outvoted on a shortcut but we made it to the second lake in the chain after 10.5 miles and close to nine hours of heavy pack hiking.

Snow Walk to BasecampAlmost to Basecamp with Snow

“I’m not going any further,” I told the group. The “where to camp” debate started on the FB message boards before we started. Ryan wanted to go to Sky Camp, the highest camp that would put us at the base of the mountain for summit day. That’s a great plan if packs didn’t weigh anything. Think of it like this: you can hike with your heavy pack to Sky Camp at get up at 6 a.m. and be right there ready to make your summit push.

I can camp three miles earlier, get up at 4 a.m., and meet you at the same spot at 6 a.m. having carried less weight and able to move faster out of the backcountry, sooner. It’s just preference per climber, but for me, it was an experience thing.

My regular climbing partner and cousin Dusty and I hiked in threemiles for Mt. Marcy in the winter and camped in -14F. There was no need for a base camp — just leave earlier. On Mt. Whitney, I hiked all the way up to the high camp, around six miles and 12,000 feet, and was mad for doing so. Met a guy that left at 1a.m. from the portal and he took his time and was physically fine, because he didn’t have a giant pack. I left at 4 a.m. from base camp and we were at the same spot below the 97 Switchbacks.

Hips Don't LieMy Bloody Hips from my Borrowed, Unbroken-in Pack
Base CampBase Camp, 10,500 feet

I had an amazing view of the Lake, black spires and the granite mountains all around us. Where the one lake drained into another there was a pretty fast-flowing river. That’s where you wanted to get your water, even if you were purifying.

Front Porch ViewMy Front Porch for the Next Two Days

Will opted for the standing water of the lake. I packed in an empty three-liter plastic jug and filled it up and purified it. I learned from Whitney it sucks to retrieve water every 20 minutes and you have to dramatically pound water when you get to basecamp, anyway.

One, you have lost a lot of liquid over the 10.5-mile hike and need to replenish. Two, and more importantly, you have to continue to acclimate. The best way to adapt to over 10,000 feet is by drinking a ton of water. The more you drink, the more white blood cells are transported to areas of need in your body.

Will had taken altitude medicine the day before in an attempt to get ahead of any sickness and was debating taking more now, asking if anyone else wanted some.

“Don’t think it will do any good for me now,” San Jose Ryan started, “that medicine is designed to open your lungs and help you breathe deeper. But all you have to do is inhale deeper. It’s really for sleeping, so you continue to take deep breaths. So just do that until you sleep and you should be fine,” Ryan concluded through Rainier wisdom.

I fired up my pocket rocket stove, then dumped the boiling water into a pouch of dehydrated three-cheese lasagna. But my water didn’t really boil, and I didn’t let it stand long enough so it was crunchy. Next, boiled water for everyone else. Had to tell Will twice to remove the dehydration packet so he didn’t die.

Mid-meal, four climbers appeared to be rounding the lake in front of us, returning from Granite. They owned the three tents that were set up in the area.

“Do you go for Granite?” I asked, close enough to them now to see the pure exhaustion on their faces.

“We did, the bearded man in the green puffy coat and un-lit headlamp said, “but we had to help get that climber down.”

“What happened? What climber?” I asked nervously.

“A kid fell,” he said, “pretty bad. They had to life flight him off the mountain.”

“No sh**?!?!” I said.

“He was trying to come down the Ramp but overshot it along the summit ridge. Instead of retracing his steps, he tried to cut back across the face and ended up falling into the Ramp. Fell like 20 feet, but then kept rolling down once he hit. The crazy—”

“Did he have REM?” David interrupted.

“The crazy thing was he was unconscious but it really seemed like he knew we were there.”

“Did he have rapid eye movement?” David asked again.

“One eye was closed and the other was just slightly opened, like he was barely looking at you, but he wasn’t,” the climber said.

“When did you leave for the summit, how long did it take you to get to the top from here?” Will asked.

“I don’t know,” the man continued, “we got up at 4 a.m., cooked oatmeal and left at 4:45 a.m. At the base by 6:45 a.m. Then started up the Ramp,” he said going back towards his tent after a miserable day and adding hours and hours by helping the fallen climber.

“Good job sticking to the climbers’ code guys, and get yourselves right mentally; don’t carry that accident back with you,” I said.

(Update 8/30/16: 19-year-old Thomas Craig Pfeifle died from injuries sustained during the fall after a week in a Seattle hospital. Condolences to his friends and family, and to the amazing climbers that helped him.)

When dinner was completed, Boston Will got out his .357 that he brought along for bear protection.

“Hey, you want to check out my gun?” he asked, pointing it right at me.

I quickly said yes and took it. My thumb slid the lock down and out spun the wheel. Before I gave it a turn I could tell it was empty. Thank God.

It was given back to Will and again it was waived in my direction.

“Don’t point that fu***** gun at me, man,” I said.

“It’s not loaded, you know that, you just checked it.”

Ryan, who was observing the interaction from five feet away, sitting on a rock said, “But isn’t that the idea, that you are supposed to act like it’s loaded all the time?”

“Yeah, suppose you’re right,” Will said.

With the rockfall, we needed to be the first team on the route the next morning. The plan was to get up at 3:45 to be hiking by 4 a.m., arriving at the base of Granite Peak at sunrise.

My daypack was pre-packed and ready to go. One liter of water, water purifying tablets, PB&J (the altitude sucks all the moisture from the sandwich, so it’s like eating peanut butter chalk), couple Cliff bars, a Power Bar, shades, GoPro, GPS device and my watch that had a built-in barometer so if there was a crazy drop in pressure, we’d know to turn around.

Basecamp Sunset and Moonrise Basecamp Sunset and Moonrise (Photo by David)

Just after dusk, I climbed into my little one-person tent. Two pounds so it was thin fabric and not warm. I also decided to bring a 35-degree bag instead of the 15 because of the weight. “Light n Fast” blah, blah.

To bed I wore: thin synthetic long john bottoms, thin nylon pants, no socks because my feet sweated all day and had swamp foot and needed to dry out, long john top, thin fleece, thick fleece, windproof shell. Should have put on my winter hat and gloves. Climbed into my bag and froze all night. Thin blood from the humid Ohio summer.

Too excited and shivery to fall asleep. So hard to breathe. Conscious of the deep breaths but still feeling like getting air through a thin straw. Somehow 3:45 a.m. finally came.

Day 3: Summit Day

4:45 a.m., headlamps on, we started following the shoreline around the lake. The mountains didn’t fall gradually or equally into Sky Top, so you would have to climb up and over boulders and small little faces to continue to stay close to the water.

No trail and darkness and stars and it was SO FUN! Every step became a success. Eventually we cleared the four lakes and began the uphill hike to the base of Granite. Non-stop bolder hopping. Couldn’t move very fast. Dawn finally arrived when we were at the last water hole. Headlamp switched out for the GoPro.

The rocks were grey-black with green patches from dried vegetation. Looked like Ireland. We boulder-hopped up a steady grade until we hit an ice field. Took that until some large talus and back to jumping. Finally arriving at the bottom of Granite.

Ice FieldIce Field (on way back down in this pic)

The approach to the Slab was steeper than it looked in the videos. Which meant it was only going to be worse in the Ramp.

With the grade, it was the first time I had to use my hands. Shopped at two different outdoor stores but finally settled on my tight, rubber-bottomed gardening gloves from my garage. Perfect.

The old Snow Tongue had melted into two little patches. So instead of walking up it and avoiding the steep section, you now had to go around. I was advised online to go to the left, and that indeed was the correct way. Again I thought, crap, if getting around that was more than I wanted it to be, what lay ahead?

Past the Snow Tongue we finally reached the bottom of “The Slab.” It was a 200-foot-tall piece of slick granite, very distant and noticeable. Now it was time to get serious. Rockfall really began then.

Da SlabDa Slab! (photo by: San Jose Ryan)

Hugging tight to its base and wall, we hiked up along side The Slab until we reached the other end. A quick right turn and climb up a 10-foot section of wall entered you into “The Ramp” aka the rock fall death zone aka the Pringles tube filled with rocks.

Ryan took the initial lead and we stayed to the right, shouldering the wall, using our hands the whole time. Class 3 scrambling. The team stayed tight. I know I’ve been hard on the team, but when it mattered most, everyone was totally solid in The Ramp.

The first difficult move had ice below the rock in the Ramp, but had a red rope tied around a boulder at the top with little knots in it. Never trust a rope you didn’t place, they say. Seemed secure enough to us. They key is to use it just as a backup, not putting all your weight on it or securing your balance from it.

Ryan wanted to start his approach more to one side, so he tossed the rope over five feet. Bad. We could only see the first 10 feet of the rope before it disappeared behind the rock above. So he scraped the loose rock off the top when he dragged the rope across to reposition.

We heard it first then yelled, “Rock!” Luckily it missed us all. Scary even with our climbing helmets.

Ryan got out his ice axe and started up. It was still the early morning so the snow was hard and slick like lubricated concrete on a steep hill. With that grade, if you are going to use an ice axe, you’ll need solid footing. Only way to get that is with micros or crampons, which we didn’t have. Ryan had brought the axe close to 13 miles for this section, against, cough, cough, my advice, cough, and he just had to use it. After a couple of minutes he abandoned it as an aide and just climbed the rope. He is a man of conviction, I’ll give him that and a lot of my respect.

I sped up the line and we waited for Minnesota David and Boston Will, whose moves were fluid and clean, easily ascending.

More scrambling along the right side until we hit what is know as “The Crux,” the steepest part of the pitch. Again, a blue rope was placed and we took advantage. That was going to suck on the way down, regardless of the rope. It’s not like we had harnesses or our own rope or carabineers or a belay device. Wasn’t really needed, either.

Never-ending scrambling finally ended. We hit a wall—the end of the Ramp, the top of the Pringles can we’d been climbing through. A man on the mountain yesterday told me, if you get to the end, and you see a purple sling, then you’ve gone too far.

The purple sling was staring at me. I down climbed a bit and didn’t let Will and David clear the area and that’s when I kicked the rock down on Will at the start of this story.

I exited the Ramp and the exposure on the outside of the tube was pretty crazy. Climbing was less steep, as we were following a narrow yet gradual goat trail, but if you slipped it could be all over. Especially if you peaked too far over the edge of The Gash, a straight drop off to your right.

Looking Back from Where We CameLooking Back from Where We Came

With all the rocks looking the same, Ryan brought a pinch of duct tape, the size of a roll of pennies, and marked as we went.

Eventually, there was a person on the summit 100 yards away that I could see. Sooooo close.

Summit Ridge to true summit. The rock formation that I had seen in others’ summit photos time and time again.

Summit Summit of Granite Peak
America's Climb Team America’s Climb Team at da Summit

Probably my least enjoyable summit experience. So anxious about the down climb and rock fall. The views were amazing and so glad clouds didn’t rob me of my view like on Whitney.

Summit ViewsSummit Views

Wind began to pick up. Team of four climbers with a female guide noticed and started down. She said, “How are there eight guys here and only one woman?”

“And you’re a better climber than all the guys here,” I said.

Down climbing sucked. The duct tape was a success, though. An older gentleman promised to remove them on his way down. Pleaded, actually, as we had already removed some.

Past the two roped moves and at the base of the Slab. Couple of jabroni climbers had caught us and were raining down some boulders. Missed Will and David, the last two down, somehow.

On the way back to base camp, Will rolled his ankle and was slow. David was gassed so they stayed together. Ryan and I went on ahead to use the bathroom. Not fun.

Will and David arrived a half-hour later and got some rest in the tent. Ryan and I really wanted to pack up and move down at least two miles, less exposure and wind, bit warmer and be closer to the exit for tomorrow.

After a little reluctance, Will and David agreed to pack up and move.

“Just let me get a snack first,” Will said. No one saw him enter the tent.

A few minutes passed and David went into the tent and said, “Wait, Will, you are eating salmon right now?!?”

“Yes,” Will said.

“The whole tent smells like salmon now you idiot,” David said.

“Oh my god, you’re right,” Will said.

“Do you have cougar snacks in there as well?” I asked from outside the tent.

We doused Will in hand sanitizer, packed up and headed down the mountain with me setting the pace and route. I knew spots to cut corners and even with Ryan’s river phobia, we chopped close to a mile off our original route.

Mountain Man and Mountain Goats Mountain Man and Mountain Goats (photo: Ryan)

Eventually, we stopped for dinner. Ryan and I pulled out our rocket stoves and had water boiling within five minutes, everyone eating in 10.

I can’t tell you all what happened next, but there was serious conflict within the team. Some things, good or bad, that transpire on a climb, stay on the mountain and remain with the team.

Not too much longer after dinner I found an awesome place to camp. Boulder windbreak on both sides, wood for a fire, stones for a fire pit, close enough to a river for water and that amazing flowing-liquid sound.

Camp 2Camp 2

Ryan and I set up on one side of the plateau, and the salmon tent camped across the fire on the other. All food and scented items were removed from the area, including toothpaste and brushes.

Salmon Tent Salmon tent on the other side away from me (Photo by David)

Will and David were fast asleep and it was finally time to pour water on the fire and head to bed. Forgot to hang the food bag. I asked Ryan to help and we set off on a little hike away from camp. I almost had the bag good and secured when I heard a loud stick-cracking sound in the trees. It was dark and the headlamps only did so much. I reached for my bear mace. Damn. I left it beside the tent. Not sure if I will ever equal that feeling of both vulnerability and stupidity.

We quickly returned to camp and the bag and the salmon tent were both still secure in the morning.

The seven-mile hike out after dawn was mentally long but everyone was in good spirits and we made great time. Will took off his shirt and there wasn’t a mark from the rock, thankfully; he’s got some Wolverine healing in him. The tendon below the outside of my left ankle was pretty sore and I had to keep stuffing my sock down against it with my hiking pole to relieve the pain. Little did I know I seriously injured my achilles and would be doing months of physical therapy years later.

Beartooth Wilderness Beartooth Wilderness

We all parted ways in Cooke City. Then started thinking about the intensity of the climb and I got pretty emotional. Not doing climbs like that again. Too crazy.

The next day I was sippin’ whiskey on the flight from Bozeman back home, legs sore as hell, but content.

A grandmother of seven was seated next to me and we were chatting about the climb.

“It was crazy and fun and scary, and I just think, with having two young sons, I shouldn’t put myself in those situations until they are older, like in college,” I said.

“Bullsh**. You drove from Bozeman to Cooke City, right?” she asked.

Surprised by her aggressive approach, I said, “Yes.”

“Well, there have already been 121 traffic deaths on those mountain roads this year. Climbing Granite, sleeping in grizzly and cougar country, you know what the most dangerous thing you did this week was? Drive to the trailhead. You could die crossing the street tomorrow; live your life, son.”

Mountain Road Accident Mountain Road Accident on way to Trailhead (Photo by David)

The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.

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