Backpacking the Beartooths: One Epic Loop Including Whitetail Mountain and the Montana High Point

Located in south central Montana, near Yellowstone National Park, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in the Custer Gallatin National Forest is home to some of Montana’s highest mountains, including the state high point: Granite Peak. It’s also only a long day’s drive from the Twin Cities. In August of 2017 Erik, myself, and our friend Craig, headed out to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, what we colloquial call the Beartooths, for a week of backpacking.

This trip had 3 goals: 1. Climb Whitetail Peak. 2. Climb Granite Peak. 3. Make a loop combining these two peaks. This would involve about 50% off-trail travel. Our friend Bjorn, who is arguably crazy, loves traveling off-trail in the Beartooths and so he inspired this route. As we suspected the off-trail travel would be slow, we planned to do this 65 mile loop over 7 days. Typically we average about 15 miles per day on-trail, so obviously we were planning much less average distance.

Our 65 mile Beartooths backpacking 2017 route, starting and ending at East Rosebud Lake.

If you ask why Whitetail, it’s because back when Erik was in high school, his church youth group took a few trips to the Beartooths and Erik saw this Whitetail Peak and wanted to climb it but never had the opportunity back then. Why Granite, well because I’m an aspiring state high-pointer.

While I had previously traveled off-trail, these were always short stints and extra spurs on our route. This would be my first trip going point-to-point off-trail and as such it established a new precedence for me.

After driving all day, we intended to camp at the campground at East Rosebud Lake, our trailhead, but the campground was full (and the boys didn’t take my advice to try to get a spot at the campground farther down the road) so we just decided to start hiking and find a place to camp off the trail. From our map it looked like there might be some good camping possibilities within the first mile or so, but unfortunately there weren’t. We started gaining elevation, it was getting dark, and we were amidst scrubby pine trees. We found the best spot we could, tied up some pines, tried to clear away some others, and ultimately slept with a tree half coming into our tent.

Me eating breakfast with a photo of our tent getting personal with some pine trees!
Day 1: 8/20/17
First Day, from Camp 1 to Camp 2 about 14 miles.

We’ll call this our first day although we had technically already hiked a mile the night before up the Spread Creek Trail, leaving east from the East Rosebud Lake Trailhead.

Photo looking back down to the East Rosebud Lake Valley and where the Phantom Creek Trail goes, showing we had gained some serious elevation during our short evening hike.

We broke camp and kept hiking up the Spread Creek Trail. About an hour later we got to a stream crossing and flatter section that would have been good camping. For next time, I guess. Next we hiked up the Crow Lake Trail as were going off-trail between Crow and Mary Lakes. Good camping was to be found on the northeast side of Crow Lake, across the stream which required lots of rock hopping to keep feet dry.

Craig taking a selfie with Erik in the background as we crossed Hellroaring Creek just downstream of the Crow Lake outlet. That’s an impressive mountain behind us!

Then the bushwacking began with our first off-trail foray along the east side of Crow Lake. The bushwacking was short-lived as we hit some boulders as we climbed up onto the ridge.

Navigating the first of many boulderfields on our trip.

The boys saw a moose once we got up on the ridge. The wildflowers were really good. We aimed for the more easterly saddle of the two above Mary Lake and climbed and descended mostly on grass which made for good walking.

Amazing wildflowers and easy grass walking!
A panorama from Craig looking down on Lake Mary, across to a giant plateau, and Whitetail Peak.
Erik and I above Lake Mary with Whitetail Peak. Here you can see our backpacks. With the guys acting as my sherpas, I was able to use my tiny red pack. You can see that Erik’s pack isn’t too big either.

On the east side of Lake Mary we hit a good social trail and crossed to the west side at the narrow part of the lake where we gained the maintained trail. There were lots of switchbacks heading down to Quinnebaugh Meadows. We didn’t see any obviously good campsites near Quinnebaugh Meadows but we did find a place to stop with a great view of some islands in a wide spot in the river and Whitetail Peak. I was having my usual afternoon slump and had much more energy after eating a cliff bar and taking that break. 

The West Fork of Rock Creek near Quinnebaugh Meadows with Whitetail Peak dominating the horizon.

We continued for a couple more miles up the West Fork Trail before camping between Sundance and Shadow Lakes near where the trail crosses the West Fork of Rock Creek. There was a great spot for swimming here but the camping was less than ideal. Erik and I found a decent spot in the woods that Erik worked hard to make level but Craig set up his tent among the trees yet again. I hoped that one of these nights we’d find a good camping spot (i.e. one where it was obvious people had camped previously).

Craig and I scouting our route up Whitetail Peak for the next day.
Day 2: 8/21/17
Day 2 from Camp 2 to Camp 3, only about 7 miles but a fair bit of this off-trail up Whitetail Peak. Note, we actually followed the ridge that the “poles” waypoint is on (where we stashed our poles). On the way up we went over Mount Lockhart but on the way down we followed the blue line more closely.

I was ready before the guys and started heading up the switchbacks towards Sundance Pass. I kinda wanted to get this big climb done without pressure to keep up with the guys who usually hike faster than me. I guess that’s what I get for going backpacking with someone whose marathon PR is over an hour faster than mine!

The view south towards Whitetail as we hiked up the switchbacks.

It was cool and I was in the shade the entire time and managed to stay ahead of the guys. It was fun going up those switchbacks- getting alternating views to the north and south as I kept climbing higher and seeing the guys below me.

Almost to Sundance Pass and the guys about to overtake me.

It didn’t take too long to get to Sundance Pass and from there we began our next off-trail adventure- climbing Whitetail Peak. The start of this hike was a bit frustrating because instead of the route just going up, up, up, it went up and down, up and down. There was a fair bit of loose rock in this section. We weren’t really intending to climb Mount Lockhart which was on the way but we ended up on a route that brought us near there and so we decided to just summit Mount Lockhart. There were lots of boulders near Mount Lockhart and the actual summit required some bouldering. From here it looked almost like a scree field up Whitetail. We hadn’t found very many good trip reports of Whitetail but it looked fairly steep.

Climbing up to Mt. Lockhart first. I’m way back behind Erik and Craig (who is taking the photo).
Looking down to First and Second Rock Lakes where we’d be hiking by the next day.

We kept working our way to Whitetail, trying to find more alpine grass to walk on that allowed for faster travel than boulders and before long we arrived at the base of whitetail. There was a narrow ridge it looked like we’d have to stick to or else we’d get cliffed out. We noted some landmarks at the base. Fortunately the route was mostly small boulders which were fairly stable and not a scree field. There was a steep section before it leveled off and we turned more west. Here we viewed the eclipse at 96% and appreciated the accompanying odd darkness that I best describe as “sepia tone.”

Eclipse viewing through a welding lens for me and something Erik made for himself for the occasion.

After a flatter section (but still climbing) we came to the actual snow tongue of the classic white tail. From here the route was the steepest of the mountain and required the most bouldering. It was still fairly straightforward and required a bit of route finding (after crossing above the white tail, contour to the left on small rocks before the route slowly climbs, then gets to a short Class 4 climb, then it turns back north (to the right) for some steep loose rock, then it goes back left on another class 4 move or two, then you’re almost at the summit). 

Looking down the Whitetail. Looks like one epic ski run!
Contouring around above the white tail crossing, about to start some Class 4 climbing.

It was a bit hazy on top but relatively warm and we enjoyed our time on the summit very much. We retraced our steps back down. I’m slow on boulders so it took some time but wasn’t bad. We tried to stay a bit more to the east of Mount Lockhart on the way down to avoid some boulders and then even got to do a bit of glissading. 

Summit photo on Montana’s 5th highest mountain!
Craig on the summit looking north back towards Sundance Lake and Quinnebaugh Meadows where we had hiked the previous day.
The view directly south with (from left to right) Beartooth Glacier, Sky Pilot Lake, Sky Pilot Mountain, and Sky Pilot Glacier. We’d be hiking up this valley the next day and near Sky Pilot Lake.
Looking back down to Lockhart Mountain, Sundance Pass, and the crazy switchbacks up to Sundance Pass.
Erik and I almost disappear amidst the rocks.
Getting ready to cross by the White tail tongue.
Glissading- Erik’s favorite!
Erik throwing up his arms, victorious at climbing Whitetail- quite aways off-trail as Lochkahrt is in the foreground!

Before too long we arrived back at Sundance Pass and then headed down the switchbacks towards September Morn Lake. We arrived at September Morn Lake about 4 PM. It was still fairly early for us but there were great campsites (in contrast to the previous 2 nights) and we decided to do some swimming. At 12,500 feet, Whitetail is the 5th highest mountain in Montana. For my skill level, I would say this mountain was fairly straightforward, but seeing as I’m so bad at boulderfields, this still made for a full day and I was plenty ready to be done when we arrived at September Morn Lake. I always feel fairly relieved after a successful summit bid and thought the rest of the trip would go smoothly…but I sure was wrong!

Now this was a good campsite:)
September Morn Lake
Day 3: 8/22/17
Day 3: an abysmal 5.5 miles from Camp 3 to Camp 4.

We made good time on the trail descending below September Morn Lake and then heading towards Keyser Brown Lake. But then at the head of Keyser Brown Lake the maintained trail ended. We were able to follow a social trail for awhile until we came to a stream crossing and as we wandered upstream to find a good place to cross, we lost the trail. Then we came out on a boulderfield and couldn’t find any evidence of the trail. Here we decided to cross the river to the south side. The guys were able to boulder hop but I gave up and just forded the river. 

Looking at the Rock Lake Valley, dominated by Sky Pilot Peak, that we were about to hike up off-trail as we descended from September Morn Lake.

At some point early on this day, Craig pulled my leg and said we weren’t supposed to camp at September Morn Lake because it wasn’t September yet- and that’s why we didn’t see anyone else camping there. I believed him (even though I saw no signs and nothing was noted on our map) for over a month until Erik told me he was just pulling my leg. 

Once on the south side of the river we alternated between bushwacking and bouldering. As we were low down, we were mostly bushwacking. My legs were getting torn up, we were going so slow, and I started wishing I was back at work. This is something I wish often when on these “vacations” that are really more like strenuous adventures. We finally came to a clearing in the middle of First Rock Lake and had our first tortilla-peanut butter- dried fruit snack. It was stupid of me to not have brought pants for this bushwaking, but somehow I imagined a nice thin piney forest to walk through, not dense underbrush like in Minnesota.

Making it to First Rock Lake. We celebrated every milestone this day.
Endless boulderfields…my favorite…NOT!

Then we went through a boulderfield with big boulders before it was more bushwashing- pretty much almost all bushwacking between First and Second Rock Lakes. At Second Rock Lake we walked along the shore. There was a small social trail at times, other times it was bouldering, and other times it was bushwacking. There was a giant boulder that Erik and I were actually able to crawl under. First time I ever did that move. Then we had this really brief section of meadow walking that lasted less than 5 minutes.

Making it to Second Rock Lake!
Except I was like paralyzed to keep moving forward on the rocks. Here you can see the forest was really thick.
Craig at Second Rock Lake with Beartooth Mountain behind him.

Next we tried to follow the stream for a bit. It was more bushwalking with occasional boulders. Then at the next steep section there was a waterfall to the right, snow to the left, and some big rock slabs for some good bouldering. I saw that rock slab from across the boulderfield I was on and couldn’t wait to do some Class 4 climbing- anything but bouldering! This was probably my favorite section of the whole day but unfortunately was short lived as soon we were in another big boulderfield.

My absolute favoring climbing all day up this rock wall. On the right is the snowfield and at the base the boulderfield we navigated to get here. Good thing I’m wearing my red backpack so you can see me:)

Craig did so good in the boulderfields. He was totally kicking my butt even though he’d never been on boulderfields previous to this trip. We briefly all seemed to lose each other in this boulderfield as we all needed water. It’s amazing how hard it can be to see others among big boulders and scattered trees. We stopped for a snack and I really wanted to quit. This was so hard and we were making such poor progress. We were well behind goal for the day.

Eventually we had a small snow crossing and then we got out into this meadow. While walking across the meadow we ran into another guy walking off-trail in the opposite direction as us. We really didn’t think we were going to see anyone else, but here was this man. He was the only other person we saw in a three day stretch. Next we went up a couple steep grassy sections to get up to about the level of Throop Lake and then up above Throop Lake. The going here was easier as we were able to find grassy sections and more open forest.

Making progress, here on the snow.

It was about 3:30 PM when we got to a mostly flat grassy spot above Throop Lake. We kind of wanted to go farther but we were relying on trees to hang our food and knew we would soon be above treeline. We spent quite awhile debating whether we should keep going versus stop for the night. It was still a bit early and we thought we could go for another hour, but that would likely give us a colder, windier, rockier campsite without a bear hang, so in the end, we decided to stay there for the night. Our dinner spot had a great view of the valley and the backside of Whitetail Peak.

Craig and I eating dinner with a view of the backside of Whitetail Peak. For some reason the mosquitoes were bad here, really the only time we had bad mosquitoes the whole trip.

This day was incredibly difficult. In planning for this trip, I spent hours searching this range for a good place to go across it off-trail (the Beartooths has very few trails that form good loops) and was totally enticed by High Pass Lake where the divide had no cliffs. I told this to my friend Bjorn who had followed this route previously. He said it was “really hard.” I should know better than to do something that Bjorn says is “really hard.”

Day 4: 8/23/17
Day 4: a whopping 9 miles from Camp 4 to 5 thanks to improved off-trail conditions.

We hoped this day would be a bit more promising than the previous day- especially as it was mostly going to be above treeline. We started by climbing a steep grassy slope that led to some big rock slabs. One rock slab had some bushes growing out of it and was reminiscent of the hiking on trails out in the eastern United States. Soon we came to big rock slabs which were easy to walk on and almost completely flat. Then we crossed the river and walked up this icy snowfield above the river. It looked really dangerous had we lost control and fell into the river as we would have gone under the snow. 

Then we tried to pick our way through more alpine grass walking before going up a snowfield above Sky Pilot Lake and from there we had a big boulderfield that must’ve taken at least 30 minutes to get up to High Pass Lake.

Ascending the snow field above Sky Pilot Lake. The sketchy snow about the river crossing was just below where the land drops off. It was interesting to see a tongue on this side of Whitetail Peak, too.
Back on the boulders with the Bear’s tooth in the background.

After freezing my hands with very thin gloves on a few of my previous mountain trips, I had decided to bring with some old winter ski gloves on this trip, mostly for the warmth. It turned out that these gloves were completely worth the extra weight as I used them on all these boulderfields where I frequently used my hands and upper body to balance myself and move through the rocks. There was some grass by High Pass Lake but it became progressively rockier as we got to the divide. Being as this divide was very low, it was not impressive.

Craig, aka Gandalf, at the divide.

After crossing the divide we hooked west, trying to stay on snow as that was easier going than bouldering. I managed to slip out on the snow and slid a few feet. I guess using gravity allows for a faster descent! As we wrapped around well north of Donelson Lake and trended closer to Maryott Lake, we tried to stay on as much grass as possible and we made good time in this section. Our map had 50 foot contour lines which was not good enough to really show us the terrain and so there were a number of ridges we crossed that weren’t on our map. 

Finding some grass above Donelson Lake.
Amazing wildflowers between Maryott and Crystal Lakes.

As we descended to Crystal Lake the terrain got really steep and we crossed back to the north side of the creek where we happened upon a social trail which was exciting after over 24 hours of off-trail hiking. This trail even had some switchbacks but unfortunately was steep and had lots of loose rocks. The wildflowers were again amazing. Once we got down to Crystal Lake, we were finally back in some vegetation! We continued following the social trail along the north side of Crystal Lake. At the mouth of Crystal Lake the trail crossed to the south side of the creek and seemed to angle away from Alp Lake. The wildflowers were so amazing in this section. They seemed unusually good for late August but at the same time we encountered mosquitoes and think that maybe the heavy snowfall accounted for a late summer and hence a delay in wildflowers and mosquitoes that lasted into late August.

There was a really great trail along Castle Lake and the stream leading out of Castle Lake. Eventually we had to ford the stream to head towards Summerville Lake.

Flowers by where we forded Sierra Creek near Summerville Lake.

Once again we were on a fantastic social trail that pretty much appeared maintained. These trails were marked as part-way maintained trails on other versions of maps we had. We had a bit of difficulty following the trail once we were down by the small un-named creek that flows from the northeast into Lake Elaine, but after crossing it a couple times and doing some bushwacking, we found the trail on the south side of the creek. 

Down at Lake Elaine, we headed along the north side of the lake to meet up with a real trail. Alas, we had one last boulderfield to go through and a big stream before getting to the real trail- probably why there wasn’t a trail in this area. The stream crossing looked deep but the current wasn’t very strong. Earlier in the summer, in Banff, we had come to a “swim” stream crossing where the water was very cold and the current incredibly strong. Then I had told Erik I could do one or the other but not both. Now at this stream crossing perhaps we could have walked through the meadow and found an easier way to get across the stream but we just decided to go for it. Craig went first and the water went up to his chest. Erik went next in a slightly different spot and the same thing happened so I just decided to swim it. Erik came back for my pack and I swam. The water was cold but not take-your-breath-away cold. I could feel the current pushing me but it was very mild- and so, like I said, I can do cold but not current.

Then we were back on a real maintained trail! We made some good time as we headed towards Farley Lake and then Jordan Lake (where there was another shallow ford). I took the insoles out of my shoes and took off my socks and walked that way for a good hour without any hot spots on my feet so I thought my new Nike shoes were pretty solid. We camped at Otter Lake where the maintained trail ended.

Craig hopped across some rocks above where Erik and I forded Farley Creek at the mouth of Jordan Lake.

In this whole area, we were up on a high plateau. The view was more of hills than high peaks. It was kind of weird to be up so high but to not have any good views of any really big mountains. That’s probably why we didn’t take any photos of Otter Lake.

Day 5: 8/24/17
Day 5: 12 miles from Camp 5 to 6.

Under a bright blue sky, we hiked along the south side of Otter Lake and onto Mariane Lake off-trail. There was a bit of bouldering but the sections were very short. Once we got to Mariane Lake we found a good social trail and on the west side of Mariane Lake we were back on the maintained trail. At Russel Lake we turned north onto the Beaten Path Trail where there was a brand new footbridge! We encountered a trio of young women on this trail who were doing a loop by the Aero Lakes- that’s an off-trail route. These women said “hiking off-trail is the best!” I guess we weren’t the only ones.

The Beaten Path traverses the Beartooths in a linear direction. We would hike on this well worn trail today and on our last day but unfortunately it doesn’t provide any good loop hiking options.

We continued up the trail which had a couple “mirror lakes”- the kind that don’t have any rocks on the shoreline and just looked “punched out.” Then we came to an un-named lake with the sweetest island ever! It was between Ouzel and Skull Lakes. The only drawback was we were still up on this big plateau and so there were no big mountains visible from this lake. 

The very pretty un-named lake with a cute island between Ouzel and Skull Lakes.

As we passed Skull Lake there were a couple guys having a fire (above tree-line mind you) and camped like 20 feet from the lake! They were not demonstrating very good backcountry etiquette. As we hiked in this section, all in a line on an easy trail, we talked about our ski team fall camp and Craig’s dice game- a perfect lightweight backcountry game about hiking. It was nice to be able to chat when we weren’t spread out over a boulderfield! 

Then we crossed the divide into Fossil Lake. It was more of the high-plateau-no-big-mountains visible. At the stream leading into Fossil Lake on the north side we started heading north, off-trail towards Granite Peak. In the distance, we saw a few people on the Beaten Path near Fossil Lake.

Starting the off-trail hiking towards Granite Peak with lots of wild flowers and Fossil Lake in the background.
And the view heading uphill- we were mostly able to stay on grass as we wrapped around a bit to the right.

As we headed north off-trail from Fossil Lake the going was mostly easy until we got to an un-named lake, just east of Looking Glass Lake. From there it was mostly boulders up to the small pass north of there. Then we made our way west and slightly north to the lowest of the Sky Top Lakes.

The reports we read recommended hiking along the west side of the Sky Top Lakes but we were better positioned to go along the east side and there also looked to be much more snow on the west side (had we gone on the west side, we would have had to walk along several snow fields above the many Sky Top Lakes and if we slipped out we would likely slide into the icy cold lakes).

We proceeded along the east side of the Sky Top Lakes. It was relatively easy going but tedious as there was significantly more topography than our 50 foot contour map provided and we found ourselves climbing up and down between gullies very frequently as we got cliffed out. After a couple hours of hiking along the Sky Top Lakes under threatening skies, we arrived at our planned campsite above the second Sky Top Lake. It started raining shortly after arriving to camp and we stayed dry in our tents.

From our campsite, we had ample time to view Granite. We saw the area labeled on our map as the “snow tongue” didn’t have any snow on it and hoped that meant there wouldn’t be any snow on the ramp. We made out The Slab and we could almost imagine where the ramp came out above the Gash. 

Hanging out in the tent while it rained. This is looking back down the valley, away from Granite Peak.

During our time in the tent, we played Craig’s new backpacking dice game and strategized about our plans for climbing Granite. Just before we went to bed the rain stopped and the clouds began clearing. We got out of our tents and snapped a few photos.

One of my all-time favorite photos- me in the tent looking out at Granite Peak- the 4th hardest state high point behind Denali, Rainier, and Hood.
Day 6: 8/25/17
Day 6: our lowest mileage day at only 5 from Camp 6 to 7. Erik named Camp 7. The blue line is our route up and down Granite.

We awoke to clear skies and started our trek towards Granite Peak after I went down to the second Sky Top Lake with its ice peninsula to get us water for our summit day. That water was freezing cold! As we traversed the land to the small pass before the base of Granite, we opted to walk on the very icy but sun-cupped Sky Top Glacier to avoid some boulder hopping. I always struggle with the fear of crevices on these glaciers, especially given that we don’t rope up, but at the same time many of these glaciers have become more characteristic of permanent snowfields in our warming world. They seem so receded, that if there was a crevasse, we would only fall about two feet to the solid ground below. It took us almost an hour to reach the base of Granite.

Craig and the view down the Sky Top Valley. We camped near that lake with the snow peninsula.
Craig and I hiking on some “glaciers” as we got closer to the base of Granite.
A close-up of the sun-cupped glacier.

Prior to the trip, I had spent a lot of time researching Granite. It’s technically a “technical” peak, meaning ropes are required. The previous summer, our friend Bjorn had been out in this area. He thought it was possible there was a non-technical route up the south face of Granite. That got me searching and I found the following two helpful blogs:

When approached from the south, the prominence of Granite is a pathetic 1,500 feet. This didn’t fool me though as the mountain looked super steep. We planned to do the Southwest Ramp Route as it looked the easiest. It should be noted that 2017 was a very snowy winter in the Rockies.

The different route options of Granite’s south face from Again, we planned to take the Southwest Ramp. You can also see “The Slab” well in this photo.

Once we started up Granite, it was immediately clear it was mostly loose rock. While I’m not a big fan of big boulders, I do greatly appreciate the stability of stable boulders. Given that I had started up the mountain first, I had to be so careful to not rain down boulders on Craig and Erik below. The loose boulders ranged in a variety of sizes with many loose ones of 1-2 feet in at least one dimension. 

As we neared a narrow and steeper section (likely the start of the snow tongue), we climbed to our left (towards the west) and saw a few cairns along this route. We mostly split up at this point, each taking different routes. It was hard to know which route was better. There did seem to be some evidence of a social trail through this section where the rock was all smaller. 

Me nearing The Slab, hiking in the shadow of Granite. Check out the glacier green lake below in the glacier moraine bowl!

Soon we arrived at the base of The Slab and followed this upwards and westward to the Southwest Ramp. We didn’t want to miss the ramp but it was a bit hard to find the start of it from this angle. The start of the ramp is actually fairly steep (i.e. bouldering, albeit easy, required). We weren’t totally sure if that was the right way and we didn’t see any cairns but after we got past the steep part the ramp became more evident. 

Smiling as we started out on the Southwest Ramp.

Once on the ramp we gained elevation quickly. Someone had placed a fixed rope above The Slab on a section of rock where it wasn’t warranted. The bouldering here was easy and fun and the rock stable in contrast to the other very loose rock on the ramp.

Bouldering up the first section of fixed rope; you can see the rope I’m not using in the foreground in the shadow.

Then we saw where the ramp narrows and gets steeper, there was still snow in that narrowing. Someone had placed a blue rope in this section, we presumed earlier this season. We were hoping for no snow, and weren’t prepared for snow- we didn’t have ice axes or crampons. The reports I had read said this area was snow-free.

Craig was in the lead and Erik just kept yelling for him to get on the rope, lean back into it (makes it less likely for the feet to slip out) and go for it. Despite Erik’s urgency, Craig was tentative. It did seem possible to boulder up on the rocks on either side of this extra steep gully, but the bouldering looked difficult. 

We waited for what seemed like forever for Craig to get up this 50 foot section. There were a couple hard bouldering moves at the top, once off the rope, during which Craig struggled.

Next it was my turn. Before I could get on the rope, Erik asked if there were any Cliff Bars in his pack. I told him there weren’t. And he was disappointed about this. He was very hungry but I was quite nervous to be going up this rope section. I climbed up on the rocks on the side for awhile. Before getting on the rope I took off my gloves to have a better feel and also tried to warm my hands up. It was 40 degrees and we were in the shade and it was fairly chilly. 

When people think they’re about to die, food is irrelevant. I didn’t understand how Erik could be hungry.

Once I started up on that rope the adrenaline really started going and I was as close to hyperventilating as I’ve ever been in my life (and maybe I was). Now this section was not vertical by any means, but if I slipped out on the hard icy snow, it would be a fast ride down to a lot of loose boulders below. I didn’t want that to happen. I gripped that rope tightly, my hands becoming colder with every second. I placed my feet carefully and leaned back into the rope and while my feet never slipped out, I was so scared that might happen. There was an almost vertical boulder wall at the top of the ice and even though the rope kept going, I did what Craig did and got off the rope. 

I made a first bouldering move and then found myself rather stuck, needing one more move to get above the ledge.

“Yeah, that was a difficult move,” Craig said from above me, sitting on a boulder, his voice shaky like his body. Great, I thought, and Craig has two feet more wingspan than me. But ultimately, I had more cumulative bouldering experience.

Craig couldn’t give me a hand. He would simply kick down too many rocks on me and on Erik.

Here I was, needing to make the hardest bouldering move with the most risk I’d ever encountered. If I slipped, it would be a five foot free-fall, then a 50 foot slide down icy snow before I crashed into some rock. I couldn’t think about that.

What ensued was probably the most difficult bouldering move I’ve ever done without help. I had no choice. 

I went for it and somehow made it. I was shaking, and the rocks were sliding everywhere. I tried to move towards Craig, towards some rocks that weren’t sliding.

“Don’t move!” Craig yelled, or at least as much as Craig could ever yell without cheering for someone in a race. “Or you’ll kick down rocks on Erik.”

So I just stood there, most of my weight on my right leg, balancing on the steep, mobile rocks, shaking, waiting for Erik to come up the rope thinking fucking shit, Elspeth, you just did the one thing you are NEVER supposed to do- up climb something you can’t down climb!

Erik made it up the rope, stayed on it for the bouldering moves, and didn’t appear rattled at all. He just wanted to eat but since we were on such loose rock, we had to climb to the top of the gully. There was more snow above us, but here the gully was wider and we were able to climb up on the side. I started climbing up the left side which appeared to have more stable rock, and hence, more traditional bouldering. The rock here was loose, too, and once a boulder gave out on me. It didn’t move very far, but did tear up my shin. It looked like the right side was easier, albeit with more loose rock. Erik headed to the right side, and before long, he kicked loose a 2 foot x 1 foot x 1 foot boulder. That sucker just shot down the gully and we could hear it bouncing off other rocks for a few seconds, the sound ricocheting off the mountain wall across the valley. We had seen a couple guys climbing up below us and hoped they were well out of the path of that rock- because if it hit anyone, it would likely kill them.

We kept scrambling up the loose rock gully, the “gully of death,” I started calling it. We worked our way to the right where the blogs we read said the climbing was easier. As it became more bouldering towards the top, there was still loose rock and we had to be so careful with every hand and foot hold. 

Finally we arrived at the Gash. Erik declared we had to take a food break. I was thinking about all those bedtime stories my mom had made up when I was a kid, about some family that climbed up a mountain and couldn’t get down. This was essentially my warning to never do this…but here I was, so determined to climb this state high point, that I had climbed something (that icy rope section) I wasn’t sure I could get down. Moreover, the noise of that rock tumbling down to the valley was still echoing in my head. I told Erik I couldn’t go back down that rope. It was just too scary. Now I know that when I say I “can’t” do something, then I probably can’t and if I say I “can,” then I probably can. But that was about the most intense 5 minutes of my life and I wasn’t prepared to repeat it.

And I certainly didn’t feel hungry- when thinking I might die, or get severely injured, eating isn’t a top priority.

I was contemplating how to get off this mountain- call for a helicopter (very expensive option and only possible if we had cell phone service), attempt to go down the Southwest Couloir (for which we had the GPS coordinates, but that route was supposed to be more difficult than the route we had come up, but possibly snow-free and more stable rock), or maybe there would be some people rock climbing up the other side and they could hike down with their gear and belay me safely over that icy stretch???

No longer smiling as I reached the Gash.

Nevertheless, we ate our usual lunch- a tortilla with peanut butter and dried fruit. I took it down, because, even when facing death, I’m still a good eater. It also helped that we were now in the sun, and I put on my pants to help warm my shaking body. I had a bloody finger (didn’t remember when that happened) that I put a band-aid on and then I just tried to collect myself. Although mostly I was glad that this being one of the hardest state high points, meant that almost every other one is easier.

    And somehow as I sat shaking on that rock, the irony of the metaphor that climbing this mountain was to childbirth was not lost on me. I was 32, married for 9 years, and most of my usual thoughts in my normal day-to-day life drifted to the decision of whether to have, or not to have children. For the past few days, as we had been largely hiking off-trail in the Beartooths, I was living in the moment. But now as my life flashed before my eyes and I thought about that crux section, it was like what women have said about childbirth: “there is no where to go from here but to push the baby out. And no one can help you.”

No one could help me down that rope. I had to do it myself and I wasn’t ready yet. 

As I finished my snack, the tears started coming. I was still shaking and very scared. Erik asked, “Do you want to keep going.” Now the fact that I said yes may sound entirely ludicrous, but we were ridiculously close to the summit and from here the rock was much more stable. Besides, given that I was still cold and shaking, I didn’t think I was in a very good place to return down the gully of death. So I did what I knew how to do- and climbed on.

From here to the summit the rock was significantly more stable. There was a bit of fun bouldering. And it took us less than 30 minutes. We were in the sun the entire time. By the time we got to the summit, I was warm. We found the geological survey marker which was on the very highest rock. I tried to enjoy the view, and we spent a bit of time scouting our route down once we got back to the saddle, but inevitably, some threatening clouds and knowing I had to get through that crux section convoluted any real enjoyment.

Probably our best summit photo.
And the head shot summit photo looking directly south over Cairn Mountain.
Craig and the view north to Avalanche Lake.
Craig pointing towards our campsite (again near that snow peninsula lake-now so far away!) in the Sky Top valley.
My feet and checking out our route back out to the east, down to Lowary Lake and then to Granite Lake and out the shallow valley.

We headed down the same way we came up because we knew the way and it was supposed to be easiest. Just before we got to the “ramp”, or gully of death, we encountered the two guys who had been climbing below us. They had been very near where Erik kicked down the rock. These guys also taught us (at least Craig and I) a trick for going down that rope. They suggested we wrap it around our waist or arm an extra time.

Carefully we descended the gully of death. The whole time I was thinking about bypassing the ice section by climbing down on the rocks, even though I don’t have great bouldering skills. When we got to the ice section, I started trying to down climb on the boulders on the north side. Meanwhile, Craig got onto the step above the small section of vertical boulders, wrapped the rope around his arm an extra time, and then started his descent. As he started down, he noted the snow was much softer than earlier and he said, “Elspeth, this really is a lot easier.”

So I gave up on down climbing on the rocks and took my turn on the rope, also starting out on the ledge above the vertical boulders. Erik helped me get onto that ledge as the bouldering was tricky. Once I wrapped that rope around my arm an extra time, the friction was amazing and I felt so secure. As I went over the edge on the short section of vertical rocks Erik said, “Elspeth doesn’t need a harness to repel!”

“Rappelling” down the rope with Craig hanging out in the sun.

It was indeed much less scary than going up but it seemed to take a lot longer, probably because there was so much friction and I had to stop to ease up on the friction. It was still thrilling.

Once I got off the rope I tucked behind some rocks where Craig was sitting to wait for Erik to come down, out of the way where he would kick rocks down on us. Craig said, “I don’t think I’m ever going on vacation with you guys ever again!”

I was thinking about how I couldn’t tell my mom about this. It’s crazy, I was 32 and couldn’t tell my mom about how stupid and stubborn I was. 

Looking back up the rope, you can see the hard bouldering at the top.
Craig and I tucked out of the way waiting for Erik. This photo does the steepness justice.

Once back down to the saddle, we headed east and down towards Lowary Lake and out the Granite Creek Valley. We didn’t find any info on this approach and for reasons we soon learned- this may be the hardest way to get to/from the mountain. 

On the way down to Lowary Lake, there was a huge snowfield. We decided to make our way down on the rocks just to the south of the snowfield. The rocks in this section were huge slabs with a bit of grass in-between. We weren’t sure we could get down safely but Craig kept picking a route that was Class 3. It hailed on us a couple times while we were on this descent and we were glad that we were off the main part of Granite Peak. Once down at Lowary Lake, we hiked around the north side which was reasonable and we made decent time. 

Me in my Dry Ducks rain suit with Lowary Lake. We came down the rock on the left side of the photo. The snowfield looked a bit too steep to safely glissade!

At the foot of Lowary Lake we dropped into the valley below Granite Lake, just to the northeast and hit boulderfield central. This valley is incredibly shallow and all the rockfall from the adjacent mountains comes falling down and so even though we had a net elevation drop, we were constantly going up and down from these rock slides. We started hiking in this boulderfield around 3 PM…and we reached the end of this boulderfield around 8 PM (we did stop for about an hour to make and eat dinner).

Now, I don’t really like boulderfields. I never have. They just keep getting in my way of climbing these mountains. I’m not courageous or “springy” enough and I don’t think my small size helps. Usually “vacation” and “boulderfield” are like two opposites, but, I do have a knack for going on really hard vacations and this one was quickly becoming the hardest yet!

Despite not liking boulderfields, for this entire boulderfield of like 4 hours I kept a pretty positive attitude. I think this was either because (1) I was so happy to be alive after the morning’s steep icy section and/or (2) I had planned this fricken hard off-trail route and hence had no one to blame but myself.

It was a complete meditative exercise, treasuring small progress, and chasing daylight. It also stopped hailing and raining which helped. 

Getting towards dusk and almost out of the mile-long boulderfield. That pointy peak is Granite behind me. We started hiking at 8 am, got to the top of Granite at 10 am, and it’s 7 pm in this photo. in this very remote valley, we likely touched many boulders that had never been touched by man before. This was a day about redefining limits. It was about turning “I can’t” into “I can” and finding the possible in the impossible. In other words, it was a “I sufficiently kicked my own ass day.”

Around 8 PM we finally arrived out of the boulderfield as we hit the treeline and some small grassy areas. From here we were on the edge of a steeper section that headed down to Echo Lake. There was ample camping here and good spots to boot. We had just enough time to set up camp before it got completely dark.

Day 7: 8/26/17
Day 7: we hiked out from Camp 7 to East Rosebud Lake Trailhead, 11.5 miles.

The next morning we continued our off-trail excursion, first down to Echo Lake, then hiked along the south side of Echo Lake. Even though we had tried to do our research and thought there was a social trail on the south side of Echo Lake, it looked like the real social trail was on the north side. Hence we had a few more boulderfields to cross, streams to ford, and trees to bash through before we got to the bottom of Echo Lake where we found an excellent social trail (it even had a couple switchbacks) that lead down to the East Rosebud Trail/The Beaten Path.

Craig found a new Gandalf staff to help him hike out.
Early morning from the west side of Echo Lake.
We hiked off-trail through the trees between the two mountains to get down to Echo Lake.

Once back on the Beaten Path/East Rosebud Trail it took an hour or so, and then we started seeing more people than we had seen in the previous 6 days combined. It didn’t feel so great to be seeing all those people. Lake at Falls was stunning- as were pretty much all the lakes. We ran into a Ranger and she gave us the whole backcountry scoop and she was quite surprised by our itinerary. I made the mistake, but gave the truth, that we slept with our food when we camped below Granite (there were no trees to hang it from). Maybe I should have lied…I dunno. It got really hot as we got towards the trailhead and down to lower elevation.

The trails crews have worked really hard to make this nice Beaten Path through this talus field.
Erik and I above the also beautiful Rainbow Lake.
A bridge!!!
Almost back to East Rosebud Lake and the town of Alpine.

It’s always a bit bittersweet to end a trip- to leave behind the simplicity of pre-decided meals, carrying everything I need on my back, and in particular on this trip, being away from people and so in-the-moment. Despite that, the comfort of bed and showers are always appreciated. And as the trail got popular and hot, it made me want to leave.

If we had to do this trip again: I would bring hiking pants for the bushwhacking. And I will NEVER hike off-trail in the Granite Creek Valley. I wouldn’t do the south face of Granite either. Maybe I would do the Froze-to-Death plateau route- but not sure I will ever do this again.

Best decisions: Doing this crazy route and bringing my thick ski gloves.

Next time: Unfortunately, or fortunately, this trip greatly expanded my horizons to off-trail hiking. Hence, I’m no longer satisfied with merely staying on-trail. That being said, someone would have to pay me a lot of money to repeat this route. The next time I head back to this area we will likely do a loop to the northwest of Granite based out of the Mystic Lake Trailhead.

6 thoughts on “Backpacking the Beartooths: One Epic Loop Including Whitetail Mountain and the Montana High Point

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