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Mountain High



If you’ve never lived in the flatter states, beyond the soaring peaks and broad vistas, you might be forgiven for considering it a priority—as some climbers do—to stand atop the highest points in each of the 50 states. Washington’s 14,470’ Mt. Rainier, for example, is a worthy rock-and-ice venture, despite the improbable number of low-elevation, not-in-shapers who stand atop its ice-bound, sulphur-spewing crater rim every year. And California’s highest summit, Mount Whitney, is a well-worth-it Sierra classic. Alaska’s Denali is the only 20,000’+ peak in North America, and unique weather patterns make this mountaineering feat as burly and time-consuming as any.

But Delaware’s dome? Or the mound of tilted farmland claiming to be Illinois’ pinnacle? Gimme a break! There are tougher valley hikes in the Bitterroots than these creampuff “just-to-say-I-bagged-all-50” wastes of time. I mean really, arbitrary state borders don’t qualify a bump in the Kansas plain as an adventure worthy of a day—not while thousands of challenging, thin-air summits go unascended.

But Granite Peak, Montana’s 12,799’ apex, is a different story, typically requiring two days to ascend to its prestigious summit. Starting with a one-day, mile-o’-vert approach, climbers are then assaulted with a nearly sleepless night, blasted by notorious winds on the justly named Froze-to-Death Plateau. The merciless gusts flatten tents, scatter unsecured gear across the treeless 11,500’ plain and readily drown out the beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beeping of predawn summit alarms. Rise from slumber you must, for perhaps the most critical aspect of a successful Granite bid is getting off the peak before the afternoon’s like-clockwork electrical storms start reducing wind-scoured summit boulders into exploding gravel. In other words, folks who attempt to summit the 12,799’ Granite Peak are either up-and-down by early afternoon, or quickly bailing as their hair stands up, the sky glows purple and the bolts rain down in stereo.

If putting your pink, fleshy self into the void between churning thunderheads and the highest point around sounds like a bad idea, try climbing Granite between November and April. But good luck, as you’ll be lugging up winter mountaineering gear via a brutal ski-in approach through often white-out conditions. Granite’s reasonable summit window is short—very short. And that’s exactly why most attempts are made in late July and August, when the old snow’s mostly melted and the new snow hasn’t yet begun to fall.

But because of the remote trailhead, arduous approach and a semi-technical ascent (some say the summit pitches are Class IV, others call them easy Class V), the top of Montana remains more or less uncluttered with tourists. For many, the best option is to go with a group, and sometime in “the last half of August,” the New Rocky Mountaineers’ prolific summiteer Luke Casady (777-0190) plans to Pied-Piper willing sloggers to the summit.

If Montana’s top summit sounds like too much pomp for you, consider the you-won’t-see-a-soul option of trekking across the Blackfoot Glacier Basin in Glacier National Park from August 21–26. This six-day traverse will include multiple summits—including the rarely-bagged Split Mountain—and will bring mountaineers into the wilds of the now trail-less Red Eagle Basin. Before World War II, Red Eagle Basin held one of the most popular trails in the park. And according to Glacier climbing guru J. Gordon Edwards, “hundreds of horse-borne visitors” traveled through the basin weekly in the summer months. But alas, the trail has been abandoned and no longer appears on topo maps, leaving trekkers much more likely to see bears than other hikers on this journey. Call NRM-er Jim Cossit (756-6818) to affirm that brutal bushwacks, miles of scree and remote snowfield crossings are your idea of a good time. (As of press time, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed from West Glacier to Logan Pass, but call Cossit to confirm the itinerary.)

And speaking of fire, “Stage II Fire Restrictions” remain in effect for nearly all of Western Montana’s public lands, and much of the Bitterroot National Forest is closed to the public. In other words, DON’T USE A FLAME IN THE WOODS. Never fear, however, as you can play the Forest Service’s “Living With Fire” interactive computer game by “logging” on to:

Big Mountain is hosting the Gear Grinder competition the weekend of August 16 and 17, with downhill, cross-country, mountain cross and kid’s races in multiple categories. Entry fees range from $25–$50, and include T-shirt, medals, prizes and refreshments, so call the Race Department at (406) 82-2911 to get in the game.

After watching Lance Armstrong crank his way to a fifth badass victory at the Tour de France, it can be tough not to pony up for a sweet road bike and set off into high-efficiency, rapid-transit bliss. But if you’re not a world-class cyclist racing through France, it’s a good idea to start your cycling regimen a little closer to home. Try the Helena Bicycle Club’s Double Divide Ride, August 16–17. About 100 cyclists will glide through the rolling hills en route to two crossings of the Continental Divide via MacDonald Pass. There are bicycle-friendly shoulders, fine meals for all and classic Montana landmarks—like the site of Ted Kaczynski’s cabin (the cabin itself is in Sacramento)—just spittin’ distance from the route. Call Wayne Chamberline at 449-2002 for the lowdown.

Or, if you’d rather run on trails than bike on roads, you can hit the August 16 Escape to the Hi-County Run in Lincoln, a 10k/5k/1mile/trifecta that shuns the paved routes. Contact Melanie at 362-3067 for the scoop.

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