Sweet Grass County Highpoint Trip Report

Mount Douglas (11,282 feet)

Dates: August 1-2, 2009
Author: Adam Helman

Participants include Jim Perkins and the author.


Montana resident Jim Perkins only needed two county highpoints at summer's start to be the first in-state completer. Just two peaks in the Beartooth Range remained - Carbon County's Castle Mountain and Mount Douglas. However nothing in the Beartooths is easy; and, much to my disappointment, Jim relays that he failed, twice, to climb Castle Mountain the previous weekend using an eastern approach.

Thus our tentative completion climb was not-to-be right from the start. That written, for Jim, Mount Douglas is a vengeance peak, having been stymied by snow in June 2008 surprisingly early along the trek-in to high camp. Thus he is eager to succeed now with my company - and leaving him just Carbon County to contend with four weekends later.

This effort was part of a larger journey collecting Idaho, Montana, and Washington county highpoints in late July and August 2009.

Approach Hike

We overloaded on food from a Big Timber, Montana restaurant the previous afternoon, the fare ranging from fried chicken to big omelet to dish-sized pancakes to a sumptuous half-pound slice of berry cream pie. There's also a large chocolate chipper from Jim, which I enjoy as breakfast with extra walnuts, dried fruit - and milk.

Consequently, and aided by an overnight backpack with neither technical climbing gear nor multiple days of food, we make excellent time on the Upsidedown Trail. It is 6 miles from the trailhead to Horseshoe Lake with 3,000 feet of elevation gain - and just 3 1/2 hours. After reaching the trail's high-end at 9,750 feet we drop down 750 feet and reach Lake Plateau after 10 total miles (and 5 hours 34 minutes).

At a well-marked trail junction trail junction we head due north, and, 1 1/4 miles later, assemble camp near the northernmost Rainbow Lake's northwest edge.

Attempt One

The weather is gorgeous. The mosquitoes are intolerable. Unable to bear their onslaught, we set out for the summit at 3 p.m. - taking a route bound for unnamed 11,105T to avoid cliff bands noted in Tim Worth's misleading trip report (see later for an explanation). The obvious peak on the horizon visible from camp IS unnamed 11,105T - not Mount Douglas.

Now the topographic chart shows a steep descent to the north which, nonetheless, leads to Mount Douglas - as does a Google Earth image. The reality is different - a sheer, vertical cliff that prevents further progress. Jim is MOST disheartened, and yet we have a second opportunity the next morning - when our summit bid was planned for anyway.

In theory my completion map temporarily has "red" for Sweet Grass County.

Attempt Two - Ascent

Jim is extremely focused this morning as we awaken at 5 a.m. and have the mandatory oatmeal before starting at 6:02. He won't even look left or right as I point out the pretty scenery accentuated by dawn colors. He mutters something about "getting to the summit even if it takes until midnight".

We reach "Squeeze Lake" as the route crux, sometime after seven. Tim Worth's instructions are to go around the east side, staying high enough to avoid cliffs. HOW high? We have no idea. I point out that the west side looks doable.

We ascend about 150 feet and attempt to cross over a ridge - yet are stopped by extremely thick krummholtz. We ascend maybe 150 feet more; cross over the ridge, and find ourselves fully 500 feet above the shoreline and immediately below 10,282T. Going north towards the summit is impossible. I spot a steep chute filled with talus leading down to near the north shoreline of "Squeeze Lake". It is our only hope at this point.

We descend this damned chute. At one point is a ten foot tall, smooth boulder slab tilted over 45°. I warn Jim that sliding down it would be irreversible - on the return we would have to go a different way. We butt-slide anyway. Definitely a Class 5 friction climb if going uphill. Eventually we arrive at the chute's base, head north, and find ourselves cliffed-out yet again. We reascend a bit, head west, and find a way to the south end of another lake 200 vertical feet lower and yet in the general direction desired.

We fill on water and contemplate the route, one that is simply a "grunt" from here without any serious issues. I for one, however, am feeling the 5,500 feet of elevation gain of yesterday.

Although several routes will suffice, here is the route Jim and I took. From the south end of the lake head directly uphill some 500 feet on a grassy slope (shown on the topo chart). Turn left (northeast) and scramble over talus and boulder on a relatively flat section. (We chose a poor route that took us over and through some enormous, car-sized boulders that force us to jump from one to another. On the descent we found a route that avoided the largest boulders).

Directly ahead, and under the peak, is a steep scree slope for about 100 vertical feet. It is very steep for scree; and all due care is needed to avoid slipping.

Beyond this scree slope it is simply a talus field, interspersed with grass, clear to the summit. Pass by a prominent-appearing rock horn maybe 100 feet below the top. Selecting randomly, we stayed on its right (south) side.

Our reward, apart from completing an arduous climb, is a grand vista of the Beartooth Range. Jim has partial success with his cellular phone, alerting one of his daughters that it might be later than 11 p.m. this evening before hearing from us again - and, if so, that we decided to camp another night in the high country. I enjoy a good-sized sandwich.

Attempt Two - Descent

It has already taken us four hours to get here. Our descent, following by breaking down camp, will see us returning to the cars well after sunset.

We return the ascent route, reaching our unnamed lake in good time. There we encounter four fishermen!! I immediately ask,

"Did you come from the north or the south?".


"Did you bring technical climbing gear?"


Most surprised at these replies,

"Which side of the lake did you go around?"

"The west side."

Jim and I learned that their route took them no higher, in their estimate, than 70 feet above the shoreline. What a relief - we can avoid some nasty, pioneering route that takes hours to cross. Furthermore, the four men claim that going around the east side of "Squeeze Lake" is "Impossible". (Well, not quite, I am pleased to write!)

After a brief episode in which Jim and I get separated (a BAD idea here), we rendezvous at the north side of Squeeze Lake and then negotiate a reasonably straightforward path around the lake's west side. We generally can walk at lake-level apart from two sections, one of which was covered in snow and too steep for traversing without ice axes.

To access this route from camp, at the south tip go left (northwest) and walk about 75 yards while paralleling the shore. Turn left, upslope, and ascend no more than 30 or 40 feet before contouring at the same elevation and northbound. At one point is a "tree squeeze" where you will have to step up about two feet while crunched between rock and tree trunk. Pick your own route after that, recalling Jim and I never had to go higher than 50 or 70 feet above the lake.

This route is "infinitely" easier than anything possible around the lake's east side.

We reach camp around 1:30 p.m., remarkably the exact time I estimated upon learning that a western route was feasible.

Hike out

Camp is deconstructed after a short rest, and we leave around 3 p.m. after I have a most energizing coffee/milk beverage with a Butterfinger candy bar.

A thunderstorm temporarily moderates the mosquito annoyance as we ascend the trail after leaving Lake Plateau. Making hardly any better time than yesterday, we arrive at the campground, with waiting vehicles, sometime around 8.

A 20-ounce can of pineapple with sugar syrup hides in the nearby river, stashed there the other evening for our return. After sharing it, Jim and I part ways - he must work tomorrow, and I will simply sleep here. By the time I reorganize items it is after 9:30 p.m. I then eat a cold supper and turn-in around 10 and a quarter.


The net elevation gain is roughly 4,925 feet as 11,282 feet - 6,350 feet at the trailhead.

The approach to camp has a 100 foot downhill section between 7 and 8,000 feet elevation. There is 750 feet of elevation loss after Horseshoe Lake and before Lake Plateau, lending the name as "Upsidedown Trail". These sections add 2 x (100 + 750) = 1,700 feet of elevation gain.

The summit climb has 400 feet of descent when one does it efficiently rather than taking our circuitous and dangerous chute - 200 feet to reach "Squeeze Lake", and 200 more to reach the second lake to its north. Bypassing "Squeeze Lake" to the west results in 75 more feet of descent as one traverses from south to north.

Adding values, one has 1,700 + 800 + 150 = 2,650 feet of elevation gain beyond the net gain. Thus the total elevation gain is 4,925 + 2,650 = 7,575 feet.

The total distance is twice the distance to camp (11 1/4 miles) plus the camp-to-summit round-trip distance of 6 1/2 miles - a 29 mile total and as correctly surmised by Tim Worth.

Our efforts, including the failed first attempt via 11,105T (we reached 11,000 feet), had a total elevation gain of 9,400 feet and a total distance of 34 miles as 29 miles plus 5 miles for the afternoon attempt. It is a shame we did not trivially scramble the roughly 100 feet to the top of 11,105T: for who else would have gone there?

Jim Perkins' report