Scholarship Winner 2018 – Essay by Joseph Cermak

On the journey to complete my goal of climbing the highest point in each of the fifty States, I have faced many challenges and obstacles, had successes and failures, and traveled to places I may never have visited otherwise. My journey began when I was just 9 years old after hiking in New Hampshire and reading a Scholastic News pamphlet in elementary school. A small article about a fourteen year old who had just set the record for being the youngest person to complete the highpoints caught my eye. I remember going home, showing my dad, and looking up what some of the nearby state highpoints were. Before I knew it, highpointing became the focus of summer vacations with my mom, dad, and two younger brothers as we went state to state to climb the highpoints. Each one of the thirty six highpoints I have completed has presented a unique set of challenges and its own beauty, but the one experience that stands out more than any other is Granite Peak in the rugged Beartooth Mountains of Montana.

Long before arranging a trip from Ohio to Montana to climb the beast of a mountain, I knew it would be a challenge. Back when my dad was in college, he and some friends had attempted Granite but failed to summit. Twenty five years later, the mountain had not gotten any easier. We first attempted Granite in 2015 and made it as far as the bottom of the technical climbing section near the summit before a storm turned us back in defeat. As we hiked out inthe rain the following day, we vowed to come back the next year and conquer the summit.

In 2016, we planned a return to the Beartooths. My dad, two brothers, and a friend of the family, Jeff, who had heard stories of our highpointing adventures and wanted to come along so he could return to the beloved backcountry, would make the journey. We spent all summer training daily and studying route and climbing maps so we would be ready. A few
weeks before the trip, a makeshift climbing wall was built in our barn so everyone could practice their rappels and rope knowledge. When the trip arrived in August, we were ready.

Arriving in the small town of Red Lodge that would serve as the base to head into the Beartooth’s from, the weather forecast presented a perfect window of 3 days with clear skies after a day of scattered showers. With a big storm front predicted to move in afterwards, we knew this would be our chance. We were organizing our gear outside the hotel to get ready to head into the backcountry when a fast approaching storm led to a rush to get everything into the hotel room without anything blowing away or getting wet. What should have been an easy taskof packing our backpacks quickly became difficult and the first of many challenges on this trip. Cramming five people and all of their gear into a hotel room was almost impossible. We quickly realized the hotel was much too small for the task, resulting in Jeff laying out all of his gear in the bathroom, with his pack in the tub and sitting on the toilet with gear all around. A lot of frustration led to a lot of laughs and it was not long before everyone was packed and ready to go.

The next morning began with a hearty breakfast before making our way to the trailhead. The sun was out but some rain clouds were building in the west, which meant the forecast was probably correct in its prediction of some rain on our approach day. Our months of training paid off and we made quick work of the 3 miles up to Mystic Lake. With the easy part of the hike done, we broke for lunch before heading up the “Switchbacks from Hell” and hoped we could make it to our proposed campsite before the rain moved in. As we made our way up the valley towards the plateau, we ran into another group of six with the goal of summiting Granite. Being the outgoing person that he is, Jeff quickly made conversation with the leader of the group, Dave. In what is undoubtedly the biggest coincidence I have personally experienced, Jeff and Dave realized that they had gone to the same small college in Maine and even lived on the same floor of the same dorm their freshman year. The odds of running into each other forty years later on the same remote mountain trail are extremely small, but would turn out to be a blessing. It was not long though before our group outpaced theirs and headed up the switchbacks after wishing them luck. As we neared the tree line, it became apparent that rain was imminent. With some incredible luck, we rounded a bend in the trail and found what is likely one of the only small flat areas along the entirety of the switchbacks. We all acted quickly to
clear some stones and pitch the 3 man tent before the 5 of us clamored in with our packs just as the rain started. It was a tight fit, but did the job to wait out the short storm. Despite trying to take a quick nap, some inopportune cramping led to a laughter filled tent with stories we still talk about.

When the rain passed, we packed the tent back up and continued on through the now dreary weather. A few short hours later, we had made it to the camping spot we found during our first attempt the year before and made camp. As we made dinner, the sun came out for a gorgeous sunset and promising good weather for the next day. We moved to our second base camp the next day and spent the afternoon hiking around the plateau and checking out the mountain we would be climbing the following day. While on top of a short sister peak, we witnessed what we later found out was a helicopter rescue of a climber from the other route that had fallen and suffered what would become fatal injuries. Watching the rescue was a truly humbling experience that really put into perspective what we were about to attempt. At the base camp, both our group and Dave’s group were sharing the same campsite and we were discussing our plans for the summit day. Our group planned to start around 2 so we would be a little ahead of the Dave’s group, while Dave talked about how if all went well they would be back at camp in time for lunch. He could not have been more wrong with that timing.

We awoke early the next morning and got on the move up towards the saddles and the approach to the summit. By the time we reached the low point in the saddle and began the slow hike up the steep boulder field, Dave’s group had caught up to us. One member of his group, was having some trouble keeping up with his group on the boulder field. We stashed his climbing stick in the rocks and helped him find his way up boulder field, beginning the fusion of our two groups. As our group reached the base of where the technical rock climbing began, my younger brothers started getting nervous and wanted to call it quits at this point. I was not going to let them stop now after making it all this way, so after a quick pep talk, we roped up and began the first stage of the climb through some cracks. As both groups moved towards the base of the bigger multi-pitch climbing sections, Jeff caught up to Dave to get some assistance on route finding up the cliff face, as Dave had successfully summited the mountain previously. Before we knew it, he had offered to assist us in getting through the next sections, almost doubling the size of his group to eleven people. Both groups began to work together to belay, set ropes and anchors, and make our way up the final approach. With eleven people, it was slow going one at a time up each section, but in just a few hours, we were all standing on the summit together and taking in the incredible view from the highest point in the state of Montana.

It was truly an incredible feeling of accomplishment for us all to be there, as many of us from both groups had thought of giving up at some point during the summit day.
After some quick celebrating and everyone getting their photos, it was time to start the descent, as we all knew we had a long way back down, and certainly would not be making Dave’s predicted lunchtime return to camp. The descent from the summit is what made this climb so memorable for me. While getting the eleven of us all to the summit was a feat on its own, it was on the descent that our two groups really became one and were able to work together cohesively to get everyone down safely and effectively. We started off with a two hundred foot rappel over a ledge by using the ropes from both teams. With the ledge there, you could not see where you were going, just that the ropes dropped off the edge into space. While many of us were nervous, we all supported each other, with climbers both on the top and the bottom of the rappel yelling encouragement as we went down one by one. With the first rappel complete, the rest of the descent was done with several short rappels. My dad and I grabbed our rope and set up the next rappel. I went down with one of the other climbers and Dave’s group and went right over to the next point to set up the next rappel. As climbers came down the rappel they could get off that rope and hook right into the next one. With both ropes and a blended group, we “leapfrogged” down the rest of the mountain with the rappels so that we could move quickly and safely. When we reached the bottom of the saddle, we had about 800 feet of elevation gain back up to the pass before making the final descent into camp. We split up the group so those that were faster could get back to camp and get food going while the slower ones made their way back. One of my brothers, my dad, and I stayed back with a member of Dave’s group who was exhausted by this point. We carried his backpack and his poles as we helped him navigate back to camp. My other brother went ahead with the climbers at the front and headed to camp, where he refilled our water bottles and then brought them back to us as
we had run out of water. It took until 8 that night to get everyone back to camp, but we all made it safely.

Without both teams working together, I have my doubts that all of us would have summited Granite that day. Each of our two groups had its strengths and weaknesses and by working together, we were able to conquer the serious mountain that is Granite Peak. I learned a lot on that climb about the importance of teamwork and having the ability to adapt to new challenges presented in a situation, lessons that have proved valuable every year since that climb both in school, during internships, and in highpointing. Climbing Granite Peak with the group that found each other through pure coincidence and united through necessity to reach the goal is something that I will never forget.