Winter Mountaineering in Montana: Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout

The annual trek to the Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout has become a new tradition for me and a few of my friends. To make things more interesting, we do it on New Year’s Eve Eve — in the dead of winter — when things get hairy and weather is unpredictable.

Our ascent began at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 30. My friend who reserved the cabin via the Gallatin National Forest website, advised we get an early start, estimating the climb could take up to six hours depending on weather. Despite the weatherman predicting a 50% chance of snow, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

My two friends on skis and their dogs, Heidi and Theo, set a torrid pace and by 1 p.m. we had completed more than half the hike without using snowshoes. The skiers gave us hikers a nice pack-down to walk on until we reached the first big snowfield, where I wish I would have put on snowshoes.

Hint: Once you’re out of the timberline and see the sun for the first time in an hour or so, put on snowshoes!

After a short break for water, lunch and pulls from the bottle of Knob Creek to ease the pain in our legs, we were back at it. The most technical part of the hike was upcoming, where a crown was clearly forming at the ravine we had to cross. The skiers glided across and the snowshoes dug into the snow nicely to keep us from falling end over end for what looked like a quarter mile.

After clearing the ravine, the rest of the hike was more physically gruelling than technically difficult. The last 1,000 feet were absolutely devastating, as the cabin is in sight nearly the entire time but never seems to get much closer. “I was hurting,” said Alex Hoerger, “but I just wanted to finish and start drinking.”

Alex had the best setup for climbing Garnet, sporting Black Diamond Megawatt skis mounted with Dynafit TLT Vertical bindings and über-light Garmont Radium boots. He finished in roughly three hours flat.

Matt Skuntz finished 10 minutes after Alex, using Rossignol Scratch BC skis mounted with Black Diamond O2 bindings, but suggests using free pivot bindings like Black Diamond O1’s. I came in third, at three hours and 15 minutes, on snowshoes. Davey, carrying 10 pounds of sushi, 2 bottles of sake and a bottle of whiskey on his back, finished in three hours and 22 minutes.

We took to drinking Glenlivet and Knob Creek, eating Swiss chocolate and laughing about the idiot who climbed up on alpine skis, duck-walking the last quarter mile instead of carrying the skis and hiking instead. We felt like we were on top of the world at just 8,245 feet above sea level.

We slept heavy and hard and began our descent at about 1 p.m. the next day. The skiers got a few turns in fresh powder while they waited for Davey and I at the snowfield for lunch, but we weren’t hungry enough to eat after steak and eggs for breakfast so we kept on trucking. We hit the parking lot at about 3 p.m. that afternoon, just 10 minutes behind our skiing friends.

When I do it next year, it will be on skis with AT bindings. The skiers made it look so easy, and my legs still ached four days later.

If you’re determined to show a mountain who’s boss this winter, the Garnet Mountain hike is a relatively safe yet difficult trek with a comfy cabin and wood stove to greet you at the finish, and though I doubt you could outdo sushi and sake, go ahead and give it a try. Just remember the cabin is generally booked year round, so make your reservations early, and don’t even try to reserve New Year’s Eve Eve. That’s our day.