Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mt Cowen & Granite Peak

After returning from the bugaboos, I found myself in bozeman with a few days before needing to move out of my sublet.  I made the easy decision to use my time running/scrambling a few prominent peaks in the area whose trailheads are prohibitively far from missoula. 
elbow lake.  the summit of cowen is hidden by the prominent buttress, home to the montana centennial route (IV 5.11a 12p), reportedly one of the best routes in the state
First up was Mt Cowen, the highpoint of the absaroka range.  The 8 initial miles to elbow lake made for great running before switching gears to boulder hopping around the W side of the lake and steep hiking to the upper basin.  I was able to break ice at the shore of the tiny pond just E of the upper lake for a water refill before continuing up.  I mistakenly climbed the wrong gully above the lake and scrambled all the way to the top of the SE sub-summit before confirming my suspicion that I was off-route.  I tried to scramble W along the ridge to the true summit but got cliffed out at a rap station above the top of the gully so was forced to reverse my route nearly to the base of the gully before traversing west to find the correct gully and route (nearly an hour detour).
S face of mt cowen (do not climb the snowy gully on the R - its the wrong one) 
S face of mt cowen - more fun than it looks
The S face was covered with cairns showing the way up the 3rd and 4th class ledges systems til reaching the upper W ridge just below the summit block.  I then walked out L on the large ledge above the N face and examined the numerous chimney options to gain the summit.  The first looked unattractive but the 2nd (from the W) looked much better, holding 20ft of low 5th class terrain to gain the true summit.
the summit block as seen from the upper W ridge, traverse L onto large ledge, then up/R the 2nd chimney  
view of the upper lake from the lesser SE summit of cowen
After hanging out on the summit and soaking in the incredible views, I reversed my route to elbow lake for a quick swim before cruising the 8 miles down to the car.

Stats – approx. 20mi/7k vertical in 8 hours car-car
Approx. splits – 2 hrs elbow lake, 3 hrs upper lake, 4 hrs lesser SE summit, 4:50 true summit, 6:15-6:30 swim in elbow lake, 8 hrs TH

Rose: legs feeling great on the 16 miles to/from elbow lake despite taking over a week off of running for the bugaboos
Thorn: dropping & losing my camera on the way down from elbow lake (but fortunately a friendly guy from livingston found it and managed to track me down on facebook and get it to chad in bozeman and ultimately back to me…thanks guys!)
Bud: returning with a partner, climbing gear and a few days to sample the great looking climbing in the cowen cirque            

Other thoughts – the scrambling portion of route is mostly 3rd/4th class with just a touch of exposed low 5th class near the top (not 5.4 as guidebook mentions IMO), sub 6 hrs car-car is certainly possible with proper routefinding and a stout pace

Next up was granite peak, the high point of our great state of montana.  (unfortunately I don't have any pictures since I lost my camera on mt cowen two days prior).  I drove out to E rosebud the night before to make an early start doable.  Despite containing four thousand feet of gain, the initial 7 miles up the phantom creek trail felt fairly moderate in grade to gain frozen to death (FTD) plateau.  I was able to run most of it but my legs were definitely feeling the effects of mt cowen two days prior. 
frozen to death plateau (photo: karl helser via summitpost)
Next up was the 4mi voyage across the desolate FTD plateau that despite its moderate grade, was difficult to maintain a running cadence due to the mix of scree, talus and vegetation.  A plethora of springs across the plateau kept my bottles full and my buff wet and the hot conditions bearable.  I made the mistake of going due west til the plateau ended rather than cutting a nice chunk of ground with a SW bearing directly to tempest near the end of the plateau but I eventually made it to the bivy sites near tempest before dropping down to the saddle at 11,500ft.  I experienced a weird pseudo-bonk on the climb to the snow bridge at 12,300ft despite fueling and drinking well.  I had to dig surprisingly deep to keep moving upwards.  The snow bridge was much shorter and more casual than I was expecting given the amount of attention it receives in route descriptions and trip reports.  The remaining 500ft to the top was a mix of steep 4th class chimneys/steps and large ledges so it felt non-sustained and easy to pause and re-assess route finding as needed.  The crux for me was surmounting a small chockstone of a chimney at low 5th class but comfortable in running shoes. (I used the following site for route beta with great success).
E ridge of granite, as seen from the slopes of tempest mt (photo: matt lemke via summitpost) 
S face of granite, a person is circled in red for scale (photo: zoink via summitpost)
I spent a few minutes on top of montana, eating and soaking in the great view before heading down.  I briefly chatted with a guide and clients near the snow bridge and another guide/client group at the tempest bivys on my way by.  Frozen to death plateau proved to be a bit of a slog on the way out but I perservered.  I cant imagine what its like to tackle with a heavy pack of camping and climbing gear.

Stats – approx. 24mi/8k vertical in 10:30 car-car
approx. splits – 1:50 FTD plateau, 4:20 tempest-granite saddle, 5:45 summit, 7:00 saddle, 9:00 FTD plateau/trail junc, 10:30 trailhead

Rose: after years of being on my list, finally giving granite a go
Thorn: pseudo-bonk from 11,500’ saddle to 12,300’ snow bridge
Bud: returning to the beartooths…with skis!

Other thoughts – I saw numerous (6+) rappel stations, some of questionable looking integrity on route.  while i realize most folks climbing granite require an overnight approach, it is certainly doable in a day by strong parties, ideally comfortable on low 5th class terrain without a rope since it’s a long ways to carry a rope for just a touch of use.  Sub 9 hours is certainly doable with good routefinding, strong talus running skills and a stout pace.  Experiencing a storm and/or poor visibility on frozen to death plateau would be a very unfortunate and potentially dangerous experience

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