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Disasters at 12,799 feet

Disasters at 12,799 feet

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Granite Peak
Martin J. Kidston Independent Record Granite Peak sits in the Beartooth Mountains in south central Montana. It’s an enormous area bordering Yellowstone National Park and it comprises the largest contiguous landmass in the lower 48 states above 12,000 feet.

A HAM Radio operator in Livingston received the distress call over the mobile unit in his pick-up truck. The call came from a mile up - an urgent mayday sent out by two climbers stranded on Granite Peak in the Beartooth Mountains.

Less than 200 feet below the mountain's 12,799-foot summit, 35-year-old climber Clint Kaul lay stranded on a ledge with a sprained ankle and knee and a badly broken hand. His climbing partner, 61-year-old Roger Kaul, was stuck 35 feet above on a ledge with no rope.

Still, Roger Kaul had a radio, and when his urgent plea for help was received by an unsuspecting radio operator in Livingston, it launched a high-mountain rescue that would take two days to complete. Before it was over, two helicopters would be forced to turn back and a crack team of rangers from Grand Teton National Park would lower the injured climber off the ledge and save his life.

Stories of disaster and failed summit bids are as synonymous with Granite Peak as winter is with Montana. It's the state's highest point and one of the toughest "high point" climbs in the country. One slip can spell disaster and the steep ravines that line the mountain can gobble up hikers without a trace.

"Most of the time it's people with unrealistic expectations of what's involved in getting up there," said Stillwater County Sheriff Cliff Brophy. "They greatly underestimate the distance, the technicality of the climb, the changing weather, the need for rope."

After 20 years as sheriff, Brophy has heard the calls before. Most relate to overdue hikers who eventually show up several hours later. But not all calls have happy endings, and despite its modest elevation, Granite Peak has claimed its share of climbers.

Before heading out to elk camp last week, Brophy named the cases going back nearly 30 years. He recalled one incident in 1988 when a party of three attempted to summit the mountain. On the way up, however, one climber discovered he was afraid of heights. He turned back as his two companions continued on, leaving him alone to find his way down.

"He was coming back on his own and was lowering a pack over a 350-foot cliff," Brophy said. "Why he tried to do it over a cliff face, we'll never know."

Brophy tells other stories, including the famous case of the missing boot - the one that held a human foot. It garnered headlines across the country and received write-ups in the New York Times and Backpacker Magazine.

That story began on Aug. 16, 1959, when Havre hiker Ernest Bruffey reached the summit of Granite Peak. But the climber seemingly disappeared off the mountain, opening a mystery that would endure for nearly 40 years.

It would endure until Aug. 13, 1999, when Joe Kampf and a team of other climbers, including Alan Kesselheim (who wrote that story for Backpacker Magazine), were descending Granite Peak ahead of a sudden storm. The team dropped off a saddle near a glacier on Granite's north face when Kampf discovered a leather boot lying in the rocks.

It was an old boot - not the kind a climber would wear today. It was an odd discovery made worse by the fractured bones of a lower human leg protruding from the shoe. Inside the boot was a man's decaying foot. It was still clad in a rotting sock.

"That was actually called into our office," Brophy recalled. "That was probably the biggest story. They believe it was him (Bruffey). It was an unusual call. 'Really? It's still got the sock on it?'"

Stillwater County Coroner Al Jenkins told Backpacker Magazine in 2001 that Kampf's discovery reopened three cases of missing persons, including that of Bruffey and hikers Scott Robinson and Jeremy Moors, who also disappeared on Granite Peak and have never been found.

It's hard to say how Bruffey perished on the mountain that day in 1959. There are rumors to be sure. Some say he fell during his descent, after he successfully entered his name in the mountain's summit log. Others believe he was buried in a massive rockslide released the following day by the Hebgen Lake Quake - the largest temblor ever recorded in Montana.

"If Bruffey was still alive when the earthquake hit near midnight, he presumably was snug in his tent," wrote Kesselheim. "Did a rockslide bury him as he slept? Did he already lie dead on the slope below Granite when fresh rockslides covered his remains?"

However Bruffey perished, he wouldn't be the last to die on Granite Peak. While the views from the mountain are everlasting and one swears he can see all of Montana and half of Wyoming, the exposure is extreme and the weather unforgiving.

In 2004, a 34-year-old hiker named Charles Thomson set out to climb the mountain. His failure to return prompted a grueling two-week search, one that Brophy remembers as if it happened yesterday.

It wasn't until authorities called off the search that a pair of hikers found Thomson's backpack lying in the boulders. It sat just off the trail on a popular approach. His body rested 200 feet below in a deep ravine. He was apparently scrambling up some rocks for a photo when he fell to his death.

Granite Peak sits in the Beartooth Mountains in south central Montana. It's an enormous area bordering Yellowstone National Park and it comprises the largest contiguous landmass in the lower 48 states above 12,000 feet.

The mountains are steep and the ravines are deep. Traveling cross country is a strenuous affair, the dangers of backcountry exploration amplified by the altitude and shifting terrain. Boulders as big as cars can move underfoot, emitting a hollow grinding as one hops from rock to rock across Froze to Death Plateau. Below the mountain, glaciers still cling to the shadows, feeding glacial lakes.

"We get injured hikers in there a lot," said Carbon County Sheriff Thomas Rieger. "A lot of them don't realize how serious the mountains are back there."

Rieger has lived in Carbon County for nearly 30 years, serving the last seven years as sheriff. Given the terrain in his backyard, it only makes sense that his search and rescue teams, along with medical responders, are trained and equipped to deal with the likes of Granite Peak and the Beartooth Mountains.

Rieger talks of paramedics ready to dash into the wilderness with a small medical kit to stabilize the wounded. Search and rescue members are trained in high mountain navigation. Rieger has helicopters capable of operating at 12,000 feet at his fingertips, ready to assist in a difficult rescue.

"You go up there, and the people rock climbing slip and fall," he said. "We've got to get them out."

Doing so isn't always easy. On Aug. 28, 2003, a 34-year-old climber named Erin Taylor, along with 32-year-old partner Rebecca Hodkins, were scaling a route in the Beartooth Mountains when a 60-pound rock broke free and fell on Taylor's back.

Hodkins moved Taylor to a stronger ledge before repelling off the mountain and running 5 miles for help. A Carbon County rescue team hiked in to stabilize Taylor. They requested help from Grand Teton search and rescue, which eventually hoisted Taylor off the ledge in a suspended litter.

The same Grand Teton rescue team also retrieved an injured climber off Granite Peak in 2002.

"It's tough," Rieger said. "They go into remote areas up there. The only way to get them out is to use horses or walk. A lot of that has no cell coverage."

Reporter Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or


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