Updated: Jun 8
It's no wonder that Granite Peak is considered one of the most challenging of the state high points; it requires 5th class climbing, 22 miles of hiking, and nearly 8000' of elevation gain. Granite combines remoteness of a mountain like Gannett Peak with the sheer size of a climb like Tahoma (Mt. Rainier). On top of that, it is the lightning rod of the Yellowstone region, funneling most weather systems right up to its top. Undoubtedly, Granite remains a memorable experience for those who make the trip, regardless of outcome.
With these hurdles in mind, I've put together my best tips for success on Granite Peak. Having guided it over the years and now running Beartooth Mountain Guides, I'm intimately familiar with the challenges many folks face every summer. This isn't an exhaustive list of what one can do to prepare, but hopefully it sets you up for a fun and safe trip to one of my favorite mountains.
1. Carefully Choose Your Route
The first challenge for many aspiring climbers lies with the logistics. Beyond the hurdles of simply getting to your trailhead, there is the key choice of which route to attempt. Depending on the season, your fitness, risk tolerance, and experience level, you have a number of routes to choose from. Below, I'll break down the 3 most common options for summer ascents of Granite Peak.
The Southwest Ramp is technically the easiest route, graded at class 4 and seasonal moderate snow climbing. It is best approached from Aero Lakes via Cooke City, a scenic hike above tree line but below the plateau. This may not provide for shelter from the elements, but at least keeps you a few thousand feet below the nearby summits during all too common thunderstorms.
Although the Southwest Ramp is technically easier, it is dangerously loose and more challenging to predict snow conditions. The nature of the climb lends itself to concentrated rockfall directly down the route, either from climbers above you or melting snow. Be extremely considerate of other parties if you're considering this route; fatal accidents have occurred here during busy seasons.
Earlier in the summer climbing season, the Southwest Ramp can be approached as a direct and moderate snow climb. Special considerations should be made, however, as varying conditions will greatly impact the difficulty and safety of the route.
The East Ridge is a striking ridgeline rising from the Granite-Tempest Col above Avalanche Lake. It is the most common ascent line, although route finding is still quite challenging even for experienced climbers. Ratings for difficulty vary from 4th class to 5.6, but I find that 5.4 is a suitable rating when the route is followed correctly. Many variations exist and it is common to see climbers on 5.7 terrain while attempting to climb this route.
Although there is some loose rock, the overhead hazard is significantly less due to the ridge feature this route climbs. The climbing is more aesthetic as well, and is easily spotted from either approach. Most parties use ropes for this technical terrain and rappel stations are usually well situated and maintained by local guides.
The East Ridge has a few challenging sections, with the most standout being the "snow bridge" and the upper mountain. Depending on the season, the snow bridge is usually the beginning of the difficulties and catches your attention with a steep couloir beneath the icy tongue of snow. With the proper tools, however, this is usually a breeze. Following the snow bridge is a serious of chimneys ranging from 4th class to low 5th class. After a few rope lengths, a talus filled break in the mountain gives you a view of the summit- this is where many parties get lost. Have a plan or annotated photo to help you through this section and be sure to stay away from loose rock or challenging terrain. The easiest path is only 5.4, but can be hard to find.
One important consideration of this route is that you are exposed to weather for the entire climb. Retreat is extremely time consuming and without an intimate knowledge of ropework and the mountain, expect to take as much time going down as you did going up. If you see poor weather forming while ascending, carefully consider your options before continuing.
There are two common ways to approach the East Ridge:
East Ridge via Huckleberry Creek- Approaching via Huckleberry is the old-school direct way to climb Granite. It's a classic adventure, including steep forest, bush whacking, difficult trail finding, and solitude in a remote valley. Thanks to this deep valley, shelter is easy to find during common afternoon storms. Summit day is notably more challenging, however, with extra mileage of talus scrambling around Avalanche Lake and to the col. For those up to the challenge, this is undoubtedly the most classic way to climb Granite Peak. On top of that, there is some all time fishing along the way...
East Ridge via Froze-to-Death Plateau- Froze-to-Death Plateau... sounds nice, huh? The plateau provides a direct, although disorienting, approach to Granite Peak, breaking off the Phantom Creek trail after gaining nearly all of the elevation on smooth switchbacks. The plateau itself can provide a rugged experience; there is absolutely no shelter from the elements, whether it be wind, hail, lightning, or sun. Thanks to this, be prepared to reach camp hours before any storm is forecasted and pack an extra layer or two- you never know what you'll get up there! The goats are bountiful though and when you have the rare calm moment, you'll see why we like to refer to the camps as Shangri-La.
2. Decide Which Season Works Best for You and Your Route
Many folks ask us what the best time of year is to climb Granite Peak. Although it was climbed mid December in the 70s, we can all agree that summer is the best time of year to climb. Most years, folks start climbing Granite as early as July 4th and are all wrapped by late September. There are a few considerations when planning the time of year to attempt Granite.
Crowds: One major consideration of timing is crowds. On one hand, seeing a few others may help you with route finding or getting beta from returning parties. On the other hand, there are few camp sites on the plateau and some routes are significantly more dangerous with other above/below you. We find that late July through late August is the busiest season on Granite Peak. Regardless of the crowds, please do your best to familiarize yourself with and practice Leave No Trace principles. One example of this is to pack out your human waste in alpine settings.
Length of day: Many climbers attempt Granite Peak in a day or expect a big day for their summit push. It is important to note that daylight ranges from nearly 16 hours in July to 12.5 hours in September. Without intimate knowledge of the terrain, it is challenging to stay on route in the dark. Timing is critical when descending too, as we like to be far away from the summit when the afternoon thunderheads are building. Factor this into your decision for the type of trip you're planning and what type of terrain you can manage in the dark.
Weather: Cooke City, the nearest town to Granite Peak has an average of 7-8 days of rain in July-September with July being the wettest month. Average daily highs peak in July, dropping nearly 10 degrees by September. Historically, there is 2.2 inches of snowfall in Cooke, 5000+ lower than Granite, during September. What does all of this mean? Well, based on statistics, the weather in the region is driest and least likely to snow during August. That being said, in our experience, the weeks leading up to and following August are just as good. September can be even better, with cooler temps and light crowds, but significant snowfall is common by mid September.
Snowpack: Snowpack is a very important consideration for Granite Peak. For those climbing from the South, they may want a deeper snowpack for better snow climbing conditions. For those attempting the East Ridge, snow conditions will dictate the amount of gear needed. Late season, snow melt might even be an issue when searching for water sources on the plateau. Generally, expect a lot of snow above 11,000' until mid-late July. By mid August, conditions are usually quite a bit drier. Follow our Instagram (@beartoothmountainguides) for seasonal updates.
3. Prepare Appropriately for Granite Peak
Are you ready for Granite Peak? The answer to this question depends not only on fitness and experience, but also how you wish to climb the mountain. Factor in you desired route and plan into your training. A few climbers attempt this in a day with a light pack and no rope, but many of us take our time over 4-5 days to ensure a successful climb and enjoyable hike. With this plan, be sure you can carry you overnight equipment, climbing gear, and food. Pack weights are regularly 45+ lbs, but if you can hike slow and steady then this isn't a problem. Be sure you're feeling comfortable with a heavy pack for not just mileage but vertical as well. Simply ascending to the plateau is over 4000' of elevation gain.
Climbing Granite isn't all about fitness though. From being familiar and efficient with your backpacking equipment to being comfortable on technical exposed terrain, there's a lot more to worry about. Be sure to have tested out your gear: break in your boots, know how to set up your tent in a storm, and fit your pack well. The climbing on Granite is relatively easy, but high consequence if you make a mistake.
If you're inexperienced with technical climbing, consider hiring a mountain guide. This is the most effective way to add to your chances of success, as our guides all know the mountain extremely well and can either help you prepare or simply safely climb the mountain with you.
4. Bring the Right Equipment
Equipment choice can make or break a trip. With too little, you might find yourself turning around too early or, worse, ending up in terrain you can't safely manage. With too much, you'll be slowed down by the weight of excess gear; our packs are already heavy enough!
Choose your equipment carefully. Factor in the route, length of trip, and your experience/fitness level. Always add a bit more for the unknown and be prepared to pull the plug early if you opt out of specific gear. Save weight where you can: utilize ultralight tents, sleeping pads, meals, cookware, and clothing.
Don't skimp when it comes to technical equipment unless you are extremely confident about the terrain you may encounter. For the East Ridge, our guides always bring a light rack, a handful of long slings, a 40-50m rope, and an assortment of personal gear. Most rappels are managed well with a 50m rope, but be sure not to miss an anchor on your way down and always ties knots in the ends of your rope. Be very careful on the last rappel to the snow bridge, as this is longer than a single 50m rope will reach.
Snow equipment depends on route condition and your experience level. As a good rule of thumb, it's best to bring your crampons and ice axe. You can always leave them on the route once you're sure there is no more snow.
Don't forget a lightweight first aid kit and satellite communication device. Be familiar with basic first aid and how to operate your device(s). Cell service is ever improving on the plateau and summit, but still not a reliable back up plan. Helmets save lives and are extremely light nowadays. We encourage all climbers to wear a helmet on Granite Peak.
If you're working with a guide, make sure to ask them what their recommendation is for equipment before making any purchases. We're always happy to help!
5. Be Flexible
Can you touch your toes? While that certainly helps, we're not talking about that type of flexibility. As you probably already know, climbing any mountain requires a degree of patience and fluidity in planning. We as humans have tight schedules, however, so this can often be a challenge. Of it's class, Granite is a particularly challenging mountain and some estimates have put it's success rate as low as 10-20%. The people who turn around, waiting for their next attempt, are properly exercising their ability to be flexible. Another way to do this, though, is to simply pack in an extra day or two of travel time around your trip and build your climb around the forecast. Big t-storms on Friday afternoon? Push back a day and summit on Saturday. Don't box yourself into a tight window in less than ideal conditions, otherwise decision making might be challenging after coming all that way.
While there is more one can do to increase their odds of success, hopefully these tips were a good start for your visit to this part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Remember to pack in a few days to spend around the region, as there is a lot to explore nearby between Red Lodge, the Beartooth Highway, and Yellowstone National Park. Remember to have fun and be safe out there; the Beartooths are remote and rugged and their beauty commands respect. Please do your best to Leave No Trace!
by Akio Joy
Akio is an IFMGA certified guide and co-owner of Beartooth Mountain Guides. He lives at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains in Red Lodge, Montana and considers the Beartooths to be among his favorite places to explore year round. He guides Granite Peak multiple times every season and you are likely to talk to him if you email or call our office at 406-446-1407 or email@example.com