The rutted two-track ends at the crumbling ruins of a century-old mining site. Ancient rocks hemmed by rusted iron and black slag guard the entrance to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness like a medieval tower. Our destination, however, lies far beyond the ruins left by early miners. We've come for Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain, hoping to scale a rarely-climbed route on its rock and ice draped flanks.
Climbers have established many routes up Granite's 12,799-foot summit, and my climbing partner Chad Harder and I have chosen the southwest couloir, one of the mountain's most obscure. It's only moderately technical, but the route's arduous 16-mile approach sways most climbers in favor of easier trails. Wary of the Beartooth Plateau's notoriously fierce and fickle weather, and anticipating at least one down day, we've got enough food for a week.
With the sun already low in the sky when we arrive at the trailhead, we stop just two miles up the trail at Lady of the Lake, a 42-acre azure pool reflecting the surrounding slopes and distant peaks. We tuck into the pines at the far end of the lake, a perfect site with water on three sides and splendid views. While setting up the tent, we're joined by several mule deer grazing without fear right in our camp. Watching quietly, we nearly miss the pine marten—a rare cat-sized member of the weasel family—as it scampers toward us on a log, inspects our camp and quietly disappears into the brush.
Minutes later, a large cow moose crashes through the brush, runs across a grassy opening and splashes through the lake's meandering inlet. The moose keeps looking nervously behind her, and soon she vanishes into the trees.
Just as she slips from sight, a huge grizzly bear explodes into view, swinging its enormous head from side to side and sniffing the air as it runs straight through the stream. Hot on the moose's trail, the bear's muscles and hide ripple as it charges toward its quarry. The bear melts into the darkening woods as darkness falls on our camp.
With a grizzly nearby hungry enough to pursue a full-grown moose, we keep the bear spray close at hand that night, just in case he stops by, looking for dessert. Out here, nature still calls the shots. Ravenous predators make their own rules, and we are definitely visitors—and rather small visitors at that.
Sweet Doe's Escort Service
There's wonder aplenty in wilderness, and sometimes magic, too. Packing up camp the next morning, we begin climbing toward higher and rockier ground when a beautiful doe begins leading us up the trail. Never more than 40 yards in front of us, the doe stops regularly, looking back as if to make sure we are keeping up. For a mile or more we follow willingly as she continues through the pines, uncannily leading us toward our objective.
Entering a lush, wildflower-filled meadow at the confluence of two rushing streams, she stops and grazes contentedly. We leave her behind to find our way—hopefully to a trout-filled lake with a fantastic campsite.
They say "behind every fly angler there's a blackened skillet," and since we've lugged one along, pulling a dinner trout or two from the tiny, rock-bound glacial lake would really hit the spot. Scrambling down to its shore, I haven't even chosen a fly when the first flakes of a fierce snowstorm descending from the Beartooth Plateau rip into us. We'd soon learn that this was only the first of many on the trip.
Snow or not, we're hungry for fish. I pull on my hood, and get to casting. I notice a trailing wake on the lake's surface. Perhaps a stunted alpine cutthroat, cruising for tiny midges? But something is missing—the dead giveaway of concentric circles made by a rising fish. To our amazement, a closer look reveals the wakes actually track the thumb-sized tadpoles of boreal toads.
The range and habits of boreal toads in Montana remain somewhat unknown. They are found in alpine environments up to 11,500 feet of elevation. Like their relative, the Great Plains toad, these nocturnal amphibians breed in small water bodies. If the mature toads feed just a dozen times a year on insects, they have a chance to survive. Hunkered in our down parkas and fending off a howling blizzard, we wish the infant croakers luck. With no fish biting, we leave them to their fate and return to our camp for another trout-less dinner of freeze-dried mush, wondering aloud if we should be frying tadpoles instead.
According to venerable Montana backpacker Bill Schneider's book Best Backpacking Vacations in the Northern Rockies, Rough Lake got its name "because it's rough getting there by any route." Indeed, we found out for ourselves: Schneider speaks truth. The lake lies well beyond the trail system, and we follow narrow, snow-covered game paths worn by deer, elk, and bighorn sheep through rocky headwalls laced with glistening waterfalls. Eventually, even those thin paths vanish as we push up onto the expansive, golden granite plateau. We finally arrive at the shores of the slate-gray lake, 10,128 feet above sea level.
Here, the forest gives way to the true high alpine country for which the Beartooth Plateau is famous. Gone are the tall pines, the lush greenery and abundant wildlife of the lower elevations. Instead, we find a world of stony fangs and icy snow beneath the imposing shoulders of Granite Peak, and we're awestruck by its fearsome beauty.