Mindless on Mt. Merritt

Glacier National Park is home to six peaks over 10,000 feet. Last week, my buddy Mitch and I found ourselves in line at the Apgar Backcountry Permit office at 6am, hoping to climb two of them.

The initial plan was hatched on a random drop in to Mitch’s house earlier in the summer. Over homemade pesto, he mentioned that he was looking to climb Mt. Merritt, one of the tens,  and Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in Glacier. We put dates on the calendar, and that’s how we found ourselves at Apgar a full hour before it was set to open.

Usually, that’s enough time to be first in line. In recent years, the popularity of Glacier has exploded. People of all stripes have been flocking to the park, including backpackers who fall in love with the scenery and deal with the somewhat medieval backcountry permitting system to sleep under the stars. However, we were third in line. Because four offices open at the same time, we were in competition for something like twelve to fourteen groups connected by the same internet-linked reservations system. With a limited number of sites available in the Belly River, our subsequent nights got gobbled up by other groups. We left with one night at the head of Glenn’s Lake, about a fourth of our intended itinerary, no thoughts of Cleveland, and an inkling that the trip we were about to embark on was going to be a bit silly.

Rose got off work in the afternoon, and we had twelve miles to cover after leaving the Cheif Mountain Customs trailhead. Three of those went by before the rain started.

Thunder echoed all over the valley, gullies on the mountains became white with sudden streams, and the vegetation overgrowing the trail brushed water onto our legs and boots.
I got the squishy feel of water in my only pair of socks (only out for one night, right?) as we neared the Belly River ranger station.

Cleveland in the thunder.

Wet crossing over the Belly River.

Near the foot of Cosley Lake, things got extra overgrown. Meaning extra wet. Though the storm seemed to be clearing out as it got dark.

It was a wet crew that rolled in to eat dinner at 11pm. No idea how my phone transformed  Rose into a zombie. I fell asleep listening to water drop out of the trees onto our tarp.

Breakfast. 5am wakeup. And the worst part was putting dry feet into wet socks into still wetter boots. A bright spot: oatmeal.

Good morning, Merritt.

Crossing the north end of the lake.

Mitch and Carl.Water stop at Mokowanis. Looking up at the Stoney Indian peaks and Cleveland.

The Edwards route description notes finding elk trails across a “vegetated gully.” Given that we were the third party to summit this year, it comes as no surprise that we weren’t able to find much. Heading into the soggy shrubberies.
After some serious sidehilling and a bit of cliff scrabbling, Mitch and Rose top out in the cirque.

We stopped for a break, dried socks and maps, and I realized that the thunderstorm had frosted the summit of Kaina Mountain with the first new snow I’ve seen this year.

Yay for winter. I can’t wait.

Drier socks on my feet, there was a bit of scree/talus to traverse before the gully scrambling begins. No real goat trails through there, and the storm from the hike in kept the rock wet. Mitch starts the real climbing.

Just above the algal reef, an outcropping of particularly hardy rock that we cut through via a nice little shelf, Rose looked up and said, “Bear!” We all watched a nice blonde griz make a hasty retreat up through the cliffs and into the draw to the left. Despite the fact that bears can be anywhere at any time of year here, I admit that my guard was down. Pretty impressive to see it move so fast up the shelves and scree.

Carl near the top of the cliffs. At this point, we’d done nearly 1500ft of scrambling since leaving the basin.

Cresting the ridge, we got our first views to the south. Mitch drinking it in.

From there, the route traverses a number of scree shelves above the Old Sun glacier. Rose heading across with Natoas Mtn to her upper right.
Yours truly bringing up the rear.A short arm of snow blocked the route, and Carl was kind enough to lead and cut the steps in for the rest of the crew.Some confusion about which of the two summits was higher ensued. The map and route description consulted, we headed up to the northern one.



While up there, I thought about the rainy trip in. My wet boots. How far we had to walk out that night. And really, those are the parts that make the summits sweet. That part of talus that doesn’t get any higher is flavorless unless it’s spiced by everything that comes before and after.

Back at the saddle for our water break.

And the descent.


On the way down, we found our elk trail. It emptied into a streambed infested by a large moose. We waited for him to leave, followed it down, and then saw why we couldn’t it find it on the way up.

It was easy overhead going, with lots of ripe thimbleberries to sweeten the ride. We made noise, ate, schwacked, and popped out at the lake to find some buddies enjoying their dessert.

No more photos from this point on is a testament to the grunt back out. A couple miles to  Glenns, and we we grabbed the rest of our gear. With no permit for that night, we were determined to headlamp our way to the trailhead. About six miles in, my feet were feeling it. Carl started telling cougar stories. Eight miles in, and sitting down wasn’t smart. Ten miles, and my stomach began to do backflips. One trip into the woods, and I thought I was good.  A mile further, and I hastily ran in there again, but didn’t make it in time. One am, by headlamp, holding up the group, changing out of soiled shorts into the other pair of underwear I had, my long johns.

Somewhere around this point the trudge entered the stupid level, where each foot propels itself forward. Blisters starting to form from still damp socks. Rose’s headlamp died, so I was lighting her feet and remembering for when I got there. A couple of times, the eyes across a field would flare in our lamps before heading off. At the beginning of the trip, I joked about the switchbacks right below the trailhead being punishment. Instead, I can honestly say I smiled when we hit them.

2:30am saw us laying in the parking lot, watching shooting stars. Earlier this year, two climbers I met on the trail mentioned that “while in your twenties, you don’t think about efficiency or practicality in your climbing trips.” They said this in reference to our overnight bags complete with skis and glacier travel gear. Lying there behind the car, it flashed back to me. I remember thinking, “well, they said efficiency or practicality, but at least we brought our headlamps.”

Thanks to Rose, Carl, and Mitch for sending it on such a fool’s errand. ‘Twas an honor to be out there with you all. Thanks to Mitch for his summit photo, and to Rose and Carl for taking my picture.

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