I also want to preface this report with a note that we didn't HAVE to do this in the manner that we did. We worked around the weather forecast and ended up with a small window before we had to be in Yellowstone for a class. There were a few days set aside after the class as well, in case this attempt didn't pan out for whatever reason (well, as long as it was a reason we could remedy). So I wouldn't necessarily recommend this itinerary.
We do like early starts, so we got to the trailhead just as it was getting light enough to see the trail. We approached the mountain from the south, up Lulu Pass Road from Cooke City. And by the way, Colter Campground is a wonderful staging point, easy access and wonderful camp hosts. The road to the trailhead is a rough 2 miles but we took it slow and our 2WD truck had no problems.
Starting out toward Lady of the Lake in the early dawn:
First creek crossing - easiest one of the day! Love this bridge (this is on the trail up to the little cabin and the slightly-closer parking area that looks to require 4WD to get to - we opted to walk instead):
It didn't take long to hit snow patches, just walk-overs (or through or around):
Lady of the Lake was still and quiet. It turns out John and I had different motivations at that point - I wanted to talk to alert potential animals while John wanted to proceed quietly with the hopes of seeing wildlife. In any case, nothing made itself known.
Gorgeous Montana scenery:
Good spot for the first snack break:
One trail junction that's easy to spot:
More snow patches. John took it upon himself to try to clear parts of them by knocking down the edges and helping them melt.
Sometimes he makes me laugh!
We initially missed the cutover to the Broadwater River (well, creek) crossing, but I was watching the map closely and it only took a minute to cut back to the right to find it. Our first creek crossing back above Lady of the Lake was shallow but chilly. Broadwater was deeper but still pretty easy. The biggest complaint was walking out of it with freezing cold feet. Pins and needles... keep walking... OK, eventually they warmed up again.
The trail down to Sky Top was easy to follow and soon we were climbing up the next long drainage. Sky Creek Creek was really moving! Much of the ascent was loud, full of rushing water:
A brief respite from the noise as we turned toward the Lower Aero Lake crossing:
As promised, there were several braids in the side creek, mostly not challenging except one that took a bit of inspection. It was nice having trekking poles for balance and the actual crossing went fine. Again the biggest difficulty was the freezing feet, made worse by having to submerge them multiple times in a row. Ouch.
Continuing up Sky Top Creek, with an occasional little detour up and around the side, or just through the edge of the running water, lovely morning:
There are some impressive cascades through here!
Yes, I'll stop taking so many pictures and get back to walking :)
Popping out at Lone Elk Lake, where the scenery completely changed. So much snow! The ranger station folks didn't have any trail/mountain condition info when I'd called, so we knew this whole trip was going to be an adventure. We'd either make it to the top of the mountain or we wouldn't, but we would definitely learn something!
Starting around the first part of the next lake, Rough Lake, to try to figure out where to cross to the south side:
There are multiple crossing options and reports from past years about which options might work, but I hadn't seen any prior photos with this much snow and ice. There were definitely places we were NOT going to cross. The question remained what might be feasible.
Looking toward the pseudo-island at the southwest end of the lake:
This spot seemed like a "maybe" but John waded in to find that the deepest channel was deeper than we wanted to attempt. Right here I really wondered if this might be it for the day. At least we had plenty of time to try to find an alternate plan.
We proceeded around the next small section of lake to a double outlet, and each of them was shallow enough to wade. The 2nd even had a rock dam that worked great once we got to it. I've got photos further in this post from our return trip. At the time I was too focused to take pictures (and then some weather blew in). And then my feet were too cold to stop and look back at what we had done. Suffice to say, that choice worked well for crossing the water.
The south side of Rough Lake was covered in gentle snow slopes, easy travel. Apparently when the snow melts what remains is a bunch of rock-hopping talus that isn't as much fun. I think snow cover can make things both easier and more complicated, and overall our trek up the valley was fairly slow but not difficult.
As we reached the big stream pouring down the hillside into the upper end of Rough Lake, dark clouds and wind blew in some flurries. I think the technical term is "graupel", little frozen pellets. Like miniature hail that doesn't hurt. There was a very thick snow bridge over the creek and it was pretty obvious that we should check it out as an alternative to wading. We took turns walking across, thank you snow bridge!
After a brief snack break, using a large snow bank as a wind buffer, we climbed up the closest drainage to reach the first of the Sky Top Lakes. John asked if it mattered which drainage we picked, as previous reports suggested going up the middle one instead. I didn't think so, but my mistake was in not getting out the map once we topped out. We did a roundabout traverse above the lake, when we should have cut to the left, climbed just a little bit, and taken the proper shortcut. And I was enjoying the nav and everything, would have been nice to get that one right on the first shot. Ah well, things we can fix on the return trip.
Coming along the next Sky Top Lake, which I'll call "the long one", we could see a snow-free flat spot of dirt. As we got closer, it was obvious we should check it out. Good enough for a tent? Why yes, it most certainly is! Possibly the best spot of the whole area, given the "sh*t ton of snow" conditions.
We dropped the packs and worked together to erect the tent in between gusts of wind. Good thing we brought some extra tie-down cord to hold the fly on.
Piled inside and ready for a brief nap (or at least an eye-closing and leg-resting):
Timing-wise, the idea was that perhaps we might be able to summit that evening? The weather that had been off-and-on great and then crappy was supposed to turn beautiful soon. We had many hours of daylight remaining, and evenings were generally very nice. The other option was early the next morning, but then we had a long hike out (needing to be in Yellowstone by the end of the day) and that seemed like a lot.
We decided to at least try it and see what we would learn.
Our tent, in the most prime camping location:
Looking south over the icy lake:
Setting off across the snow:
Water refill almost direct from Sky Top glacier - and even I didn't feel the need to treat it:
We hiked up to the saddle, hitting it just a bit early and needing to drop down to the low point, not a big deal but something else to fix on the way back. I should have taken a picture of the valley to the east, more pretty views.
Instead we were mostly studying the route up the snow "tongue" and along the base of the slab. Lots of snow, and it looks steep. I was enjoying the consistency of it, soft enough to make easy steps but not so soft that we'd slide out.
Time to rope up! Short roping is working well for us in situations like this, where we're both comfortable on the snow (John especially so) but my mind tends to freeze up if I'm unroped. I sort of amaze myself sometimes at what I'm capable of when I can focus on what I'm doing. Thank you Mr Mountain Goat!
Mr Mountain Goat was now also kicking steps and carrying the remaining gear, so his all-day peppiness had suddenly turned into "out of breath" guy. Well, we are over 11,000 feet, after all. I didn't mind taking an occasional break and sometimes I'd pull out the camera:
John asked if I could get a decent photo of the slope, so I think this is fairly close to a horizontal shot. I cropped it into a square to check on the angle - not quite 45 degrees... but not far off. I had not realized just how steep the snow tongue would be.
We watched clouds meandering by, alternating bright sunshine and slightly worrisome darker clouds, but there was nothing immediately pending that we were concerned about. Little by little, the clouds brightened up and the evening turned nicer.
I remember us saying "this might not be the smartest thing we've ever done, but it's certainly not the dumbest."
After the snow tongue, the slope along the base of the slab was more gentle and easier. We turned up to the "ramp" that would lead most of the way to the top. As we suspected, it was also completely full of snow. John tried climbing up the rocky part to the right, but I was so much happier on the snow that we abandoned that idea. More steep snow climbing, let's do it!
Wow, that's a long way up. Apparently when the ramp isn't snow-filled, there is at least one "crux" section of rock scrambling. We climbed and climbed and never saw it, although I thought I recognized the rocks near the top of the ramp from photos I'd seen in other reports. John eventually started front-pointing and kicking ladder-like steps, with excellent ice axe plunges in front of him for stability. I love having a good ice axe handhold.
After some amount of time and a whole bunch of work on John's part (making excellent steps for me to follow), we reached the top of the ramp. Now the rope was even more important, because John was happy to be climbing around on the big rocks and I was, well, not. He belayed me up several spots, and our prior scramble practice was very helpful in giving me the belief that I could do this.
At one point he led the way up a narrow gap in the rocks and I questioned if this really was the right way? I guess so! Despite the challenge of wedging myself up, that was one of the lesser exposed spots. The "gash" to the right was impressive, and the ridge up along it was pretty much the most straightforward route. John found plenty of holds and ways to clamber around and places to belay from. It's a good thing he's really good at this.
And then there was a short bit of flat snow, a couple more boulders to negotiate, and we were at the top!! I immediately sat down.
I took 9 photos in the space of 3 minutes, nope don't need any food or water at the moment, just hit the "OK" on the InReach... John says that was probably the least amount of time we've spent on top of a state highpoint.
The marker at the top:
The register box - yep, we're on the right mountain! Later we realized we should have checked the register just out of curiosity, but at that moment I didn't have much concern about making our accomplishment known.
Amazing views off to the north:
And south - OK, let's go.
Back on the short flat section - can you believe this place?
Or more appropriately, can you believe it?!?!
John belayed me back down the rocks, and I'm getting better at believing that anything I can climb up I can also climb back down. It didn't take long to reach the snowy ramp again.
Usually I do better on snow descents, but for some reason this time all I wanted to do was frontpoint back down, one step at a time. John wondered if I might want to try other methods, so I attempted a couple things. Nope, I'm backing down the ladder. Something to work on in the future. John was patient, as always. Thank you John!
So that took a while, and I could step relatively quickly but there were so many little steps. Backing down off a mountain is probably not the most efficient method, but I felt safe the whole time. And we made it to the saddle without needing lights, yay!
The rest of the way back to the tent was in the dark, which is where adventure racing comes in handy. Route-finding in the dark? Sure, why not. Especially when we've got our own footprints to follow for much of it. That was a luxury.
We were pretty tuckered out when we got back to the tent... John said "I'm not even brushing my teeth tonight", we just got out of the wet socks, pulled on dry pants, semi-piled the gear under the tent fly, and crawled into sleeping bags. Good night!
The most beautiful thing was enjoying lying in the tent until the sun finally hit it the next morning. No alpine start for this hike out!
Thank you Granite Peak!
Another gorgeous day in the mountains:
Walking across the snowfield to fix our minor "nav error" detour from yesterday:
Yep, that was much better. We dropped down the same reentrant to find the giant snowbridge across the creek - we still crossed it separately out of an abundance of caution, but it wasn't going anywhere:
Looking down the creek toward Rough Lake - and snow shadow selfies:
The snow surface was a bit harder in the morning since the sun hadn't had much chance to warm it up, so we kept the crampons on for a while for better grip. Sun cups can be just a bit annoying occasionally, but I really can't complain if that's all I have to complain about.
Here's the first half of the double creek crossing that we did to get to the inner "islands" of Rough Lake. John went first, traversed the rock dam, and didn't even get his feet wet. The day before we'd waded through the pool from the snow pile (right side of the photo) over to the rock dam. John wanted to find out if there was a way over the rocks to avoid the pool. And all be darned, he was right. We climbed over the rocks and dropped down onto the snow field. Very nice.
The other half of the creek, with a small snow bridge. The water is also quite shallow here, so wading again would be an easy option. John hopped the snow bridge and I followed, dry feet again! We were fairly proud of ourselves with that solution to the current snow/water situation at Rough Lake.
Coming around the last section of Rough Lake:
I believe this is the edge of Lone Elk Lake, the last shoreline before the water drops into Sky Top Creek. We went to the right after this, almost veering toward Shelter Lake before turning south and working our way down to the confluence:
Yeah, still a lot of water in the creek!
Finally back to an actual trail:
Not lacking for waterfalls to look at:
We met our first hikers of the morning at the Aero creek crossings, and while our feet didn't freeze as badly as the previous day, it meant that neither party wanted to stop and chat. Get out of the water and get walking again.
One "big" (not really but it felt like it) climb up along Broadwater and then we met a couple guys at the next creek crossing. They had questions for us and we were glad to explain what we'd done and seen. We made a couple suggestions, compared notes on the map, and wished them well on their Granite Peak climb. Hope they made it - we suspect they did.
Our turn to cross Broadwater, happy once again for the trekking poles:
The intersection that we missed on the way out, which will likely become easier to spot as the snow melts out of the right fork:
Helping the snow melt out:
Oh right, the mosquitoes. After not seeing any the day before (which was really nice for camping), they started landing and biting on our trek down Sky Top Creek. Time for the bug nets, so helpful.
We had a nice walk down the last couple miles of trail, happy not to be rushing today.
A better look at the awesome bridge leading to the trailhead:
And we're back!
Highpoint #42! (page to be updated in the near future with Montana added)
And an amazing experience, satisfying and slightly mind-blowing. Thank you John!