Labor days: one big picnic

Though there seems to be some debate about who exactly started the idea of Labor Day, it goes without saying that the founder never envisioned his creation as an opportunity for herds of sunscreened folks to pile into cars and flock to the national parks. As early as 1882,  “the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic” (Ibid). So that’s what it would be. I went on strike (or the painting workweek ended) Thursday night, the Monday holiday creating four days of potential awesome. That night, I headed over to St. Mary.


After sleeping in, I finally got out the door and headed back up to Logan Pass. On the trail by two pm. Headed up the Siyeh Pass trail for a bit, then cut up to the saddle between Going To The Sun Mtn. and Mataphi Peak, my destination.

Logan Pass area:

All through the drive and hike up, the wind positively howled. Clouds ripped past overhead in that way that seemed like a time lapse but at real life sort of speed. Leaves all over the park are turning those fall-like colors; they seem to be imparting a bit of the nip into the wind as well.

For me, that meant worrying about the grey and dark clouds that moved at hyper speed. Instead, it just blew all the wildfire smog out onto the plains and kept things nice and cool. Relaxing near the summit:

The Sexton glacier, Baring Creek, and St. Mary’s Lake.

Climbing these peaks alone certainly decreases the number of options in a bad situation. However, I relish the clarity that comes with hours of nothing but nature sounds. The chance to move at my own speed. Being able to stop wherever or keep going until I get there. But most importantly, it means that you don’t have to share the ripe huckleberries you find with anyone else. First part of the picnic:


Rose and I got up at 4:45am the next morning. DJ, Nick, and Ken all met us in the dark cafe parking lot and the whole lot of us fairly flew up and over Logan Pass. Our objective for the day was Heavens Peak, a climb notorious for horrid bushwhacking, coming out in the dark, and other unpicnic-like annoyances. Indeed, our route up was Nick’s lucky discovery after some eight hours of brush swimming on a previous trip. My last experience with the mountain involved three days, a massive rockslide, and eighteen hours in the shrubberries with my mother and her friends.

So this time, we really wanted to make things easier on ourselves. Cold water at 7am does not fit that description, but here’s DJ crossing McDonald Creek anyway.

Then we spent about ten minutes going up the wrong creekbed.

But after that, Nick disappeared and found what we should have gone further south for in the first place: the Secret Stair (said in a Gollum voice, please).

Just after exiting the jungle, the summit gave us a tease.

Easy VB for about 2400ft up the wall with not a single nasty bit of flora. In a word, fun. DJ, Nick, and Ken pretending they have rock shoes on.

And this guy would be able to crawl right up anything without rock shoes. Luckily, he didn’t become a participant in the picnicing.

Once out of the dry gully, it becomes a straightforward walk along the top of what’s called the Glacier Wall. As you can see behind Nick, it curves all the way up like a giant loading ramp to drop you off at the summit. The camera lens got all ethereal.

The route I just mentioned is known as the Slab Approach. In the late season, when the massive blocks of snow that could climax avalanche have left, it becomes an awesome option. However, we didn’t know that for certain. The same snow nearby can make the smooth rock wet, creating a high angle bowling alley for rocks and human bodies. Given that I knew we’d be able to make it up via the north summit ridge, dropping off the wall seemed prudent. One nasty moraine crossing (that saw me with my axe out) later, and we were walking across the bottom of an old glacier.

Skirting the north side of it, we headed upslope. My last time up here, we camped at these small lakes. To give you a sense of the connectedness in the park, Mt. Merritt is the high peak on the right.

DJ and Rose playing pika in the boulderfields before the summit ridge.

And after a bit more scrambling, it was time to glory walk to the summit. Snow to our left, the Camas drainage to the right.


DJ in full technical picnicing gear.

Looking south and east from the top.

On our way up the boulderfields, we spotted another group that had continued up the ridge to the slabs. They arrived at the summit a few minutes after us, and after their description, we decided to head down that way to keep things interesting. Just at the top of it:

Rose on the descent.

And of course, once we got to the most sensible piece of snow, I certainly wasn’t going to walk down the rock.

On our way up, the ridge we now descended had blocked this view of Avalanche Lake, Sperry Glacier, and Mt. Jackson. So it was neat to see it from atop the thing that was blocking before.

Somewhere around this point, it occurred to us that, barring any mistakes on the downclimb, we’d nailed the route finding.

Once back to the car, Nick informed me that it was nearly 6000ft of elevation and just over nine miles of walking. Considering that it only took us thirteen hours with no major bushes or headlamps, it was an epic success. I can honestly say that most of my drive back over the pass was spent contemplating the massive Heavens Peak burger that I’d picnic upon once back at the cafe. Four burgers for five hungry climbers.


The long day before deserved a lie-in, meaning I hit the trail about noon over in Two Medicine. Located in the southeast corner of the park, it has miles of spectacular ridge walking between summits. I planned to take advantage and string together Painted Teepee, Cheif Lodgepole, and Grizzly mountains.

Sinopah on the walk in.

Glacier is full of amazing pockets. Take this whole valley, for instance. Then add a perfect stream bathtub.

Thinking that I’d find an easier route up, I went all the way to Cobalt Lake. This scree chute went great.

Hugging the right margin just against the cliffs, I popped out above pretty quickly. Some walking along the ridge, and the summit pillars came up.

It’s sometimes hard to know exactly which one is the highest point. Sometimes, morons place and leave cairns on points that aren’t actually the highest point. Still further, people such as myself see them, and thinking it’s the high point, scramble up. Only to be confronted with this:

“Yep. That’s the actual one.”

So I went over there and daintily picniced on peanut butter and honey sandwiches. They just might be the pinnacle of western cuisine. Possibly. Here’s the lower summit with Cheif Lodgepole Mtn and Two Medicine Pass behind.

Two Medicine Lake.

I timed out the next couple of hours, and figured I could make it up Grizzly and back out by dark.

Somewhere between the summit and place where the scree chute met the saddle, I thought about my plan. Given the number of trips and climbs that I’ve been on lately, it can be difficult to make each summit feel special and worthwhile by themselves. The term  “peak bagging” leaves a foul taste in my mouth, as it can become a gateway drug to the sorts of jerkish machismo that thinks only of the number of peaks climbed–not the experiences, or the route aesthetics, or the beauty that soaks every single inch of this place. So I call it off on Grizzly. Ran, giggling, down the scree. Furry forest animals of every stripe went running for cover as I stripped down and jumped in the lake.

Pine-scented “drying rack” at the “beach.”

On the way out, a nice, older lady asked where I’d been. When I pointed it out, she shook my hand. Thought it was cool. When she stopped to play on the swinging footbridge for a while, I got another reminder that there are some things entirely right with the world. Perhaps Labor days doesn’t fit at all the sleeping in I managed over the weekend. Arriving back at the cafe, I hung out for a while and headed to bed after arranging to hike with Kelsey, Kimber, Liz, and Amber the next day.


Kelsey banged on the door at 9am, and I think we hit the Iceberg Lake trail at around noon. Again. Our overall plan was to climb to Iceberg Notch, then run the goat trail along the backside of the Pinnacle Wall to Ptarmigan Tunnel.

For the fourth day in a row, I was surprised at how well my legs were holding up. We chugged up to Iceberg, leaving the trail early and going around a lower lake that had been snow-covered the last time I was there.

Bighorn sheep butts:

The crew. The lake.

From the lake, it looks sheer. From directly below, the route isn’t too intimidating. Once on it, the climbing is quite fun.

Looking down at the lake from the top of the Notch. Next spring, I plan to ski down.

Ski down this guy. Very excited.

The crew with incoming weather behind them. Ahern Pass below.

Ipasha and Merritt.

Given the impending rain and the late hour (3pm), we decided to bail to Granite Park Chalet. Huge, purple piles of bear poo covered the trail on the way there. Once arrived, we dropped down to the Loop and some other folks from the cafe dropped off a car that we drove back. Riding back with my pack on my lap, five people in a five person sedan, it smelled of sweat. Smelled of good times. Smelled like the picnic was over and it was time for a nap.

Thanks to everyone who made food, climbed hard, and slept in. Long live the Park Cafe and the first rate folks who make it tick.

2 thoughts on “Labor days: one big picnic

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