McDonald Peak: Extra dimensions in the shrubberies

There’s a basic truth to nearly every blog: they’re all in need of an update. I’ve not posted anything adventure-based since Jack’s fall, but that’s mostly because I’ve been busy collecting adventures to write about. No other excuses there.

My gamble continues to be that people want to read in-depth, long-form content about the things that I do outside. There’s a necessary contrast to the soundbite mentality that inflects too much of the media I regularly consume. Maybe Skinning with bear spray is too long for some people. Maybe I ramble too much. But if I’m to be mediated here–packaged as who I deliver myself to be to those who only know me through what they read on the internet–then I’m going to try to show that honestly, completely. Not always a simple endeavor, or easy. I’m going to take my time to do it, and I’m going to own that need to take time.

So that said, let’s crank this thing back up, and bounce back to three days after I came out of the Belly River post-accident. While down at RMO, Matt Brake asked about going up McDonald Peak in the Missions. We’d be considering a later date, but suddenly Wednesday was open. I was headed down the Swan Valley anyway to spend Fourth of July with family, so a day trip from that side worked into our plan. I woke up too late, arrived at our meet spot late, and we left the trailhead at least an hour after we’d targeted. Matt was very gracious about all this, which is appreciated.

The window to climb McDonald is a little narrower than other local options. Because it rests on tribal land, we both got permits from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (available anywhere you can get a fishing or hunting license) to be able to legally climb. Beyond that, the alpine closes on July 15th to keep the bears undisturbed as they climb up and gorge themselves on the insects that go up high to mate and reproduce. Imagine grizzly bears with paws covered in ladybugs. Big bear tongues licking bugs off the talus. I’m not even making this up.

Neither of us had much sleep the night before: he’d been helping a friend move. I’d been up late packing, or something. We were both pretty dang chipper as we set off from the Kraft Creek trailhead. It’s a few switchbacky miles from there up to Heart Lakes, the place were we’d set off on the cross country trek.


Looking across lower Heart Lake.

McDonald is the highest peak in the range, and boasts a seriously long ski descent off the NW side of the summit. I figured that’d be the way that I first came up, but the other side sounded interesting too. Plus, it had been years since I’d been up high in the Missions. The trail quickly gave way to some schwacking over rock slabs on the NW side of upper Heart Lake. It wasn’t bad going. In hindsight, we should have gone back this way.

There’s a pass you angle towards. We ended up sidehilling much of the last half mile, but I’m not convinced there’s a way better route. Unless there’s a major game trail that we missed from the lakes below. Maybe it was just easy going because of the conversation: Matt and I have known each other for a while. He once orchestrated an operation that let me try on three different pairs of hiking boots while I was posted up for eleven weeks at a backcountry chalet. My mom hiked them in, I picked the ones that fit the best, and then had boots for the summer. But we’d never adventured together. He’s an introspective, deep-thinking dude–just the kind of guy that makes trail disappear underfoot as the talk distracts from the repetition of step after step.

They’re serious about the signage: this big thing is all the way up at the pass, way off any developed trail. A higher vantage seemed helpful in scouting our route down, so we leveled up to see this:

From the pass, we’d be working our way around Cliff Lake in the foreground, then ascending the left ridge. On the way back down to the pass, I found a little ski line:

A nice game trail drops right out of the saddle and steeply descends to the lake. You could probably fall over and roll right down the thing. We then detoured left around the south end, going up and over a cliff band to avoid a bit of deep water soloing. Maybe you’re noticing a trend: this was the right way to go. I’d recommend going back this way too. It was so good I even drew in a little red line.

Things get a little strange in the bottom, but eventually we popped out and had to cross a creek. I watched Matt move a decent sized tree that had been ripped out by avalanche to make a bridge–the stream washed it away as we looked on. We hopped across with an athletic jump and trekking poles.

It’s immense country up there, and pretty dang remote. No official trails reach into the basin. The base of the mountain is perhaps eight miles from the trailhead. So there aren’t many people to appreciate the splendor of waterfalls like this one:

Recommendations suggested following the rock rib up the SE side of the mountain, but as we got up there, both Matt and I noted the lovely ramp of snow that lead right up to the top. No scrambling or fussing needed. Might as well use the spikes we’d hauled in, right?

Given the slide that Jack had taken, perhaps steep snow travel should have bothered me more. I remember thinking a bit about it, but not worrying. Route finding was easy. The going was simple and we made great time up the switchbacks I kicked in. Looking up the face:

Matt higher up.

Nothing steeper than forty degrees had us cresting the top pretty quickly. The summit plateaus on the SE side, and with a bit of ridgewalking, we were up top.

Glacier summits have a lot of familiarity for me–each top has its place within its fellows. I recognize other spots, and connect dots. McDonald was very different. Dropping off the west, the valley floor nearly six thousand feet below feels a bit removed due to the lateral distance. None of the surrounding peaks are imbued with the memories of climbing up them; it’s a little exciting and context-less at the same time.

Skiing down in this direction would be so fun–hopefully that’s the mode of transit next time I’m up here.

We’d hit the top in the full of the afternoon, and a nap felt warranted. But the long walk out beckoned. Bailing off the top was plenty fun though: nice glissading lead into putting our spikes back on for the steeper pitch, only to pull them off and slide our way down the less wild lower portion.

For anyone following along, this is where we should have followed our tracks in. Instead, we thought that the ridge on the NW side of Cliff Lake somehow looked connected–nevermind that our idea didn’t square with the map, or how water flows downhill. Maybe we were tired from less sleep. Traversing climber’s right, we got way over there and committed before realizing how wrong we were. Going all the way around the north side the lake was our option. The true adventure of the day was just starting.

At least that waterfall was still gorgeous.

Crossing the foot of the lake saw us walking on the raft of somewhat floating logs. A bit nerve wracking.

From there, we had a steep gain to what looked like a connected ridge. Instead, a series of three or four up and downs tested our patience. The bugs were out, the sun shown down, and it just plain sucked that we’d made our job of getting out that much harder. I forgot to take any more photos, concentrating on boring straight into the middle of the suffering and just getting out.

The saddle was really nice. We followed a well worn trail we’d missed on the way up, which quickly ran out and left us schwacking through creeks on the south side of the basin. Again, following our route up would be been way better. Clomping down the slippery rocks took on that air of the doom-schwack–surge forward, grab whatever, just keep moving. Mosquitos started to get thick. The terrain kept us from moving fast enough to lose them. Eventually, a good trail by a small lake to the southwest of Heart Lake gave us hope that there’d be a better option.

Nope. Crashing down the steep hillside above the lake, the shrubberies were fully overhead. I’d step down small creek beds, a veggie belay in each hand. The bugs got so bad I put on my shell. Matt continued on, and I’d hear him crashing around ahead of me. Most of my caution was completely gone–it was a pell-mell insane no-holds-barred assault on everything separating me from the trail. Type three fun, for that thirty minutes. Rolling downhill might have honestly been an option–maybe someone will come up with a way to surf across thick vegetation. I’d invest in that.

Finally, I reached the lake. Only to realize that I’d have to go back up and over a cliff that came straight out of the water. Bear trails have a telltale, high-waist sort of height to them, where the brush smacks your face and upper body but nothing touches your legs: I followed one of these around, eventually finding Matt in full rain gear at the foot of the lake, surrounded by every mosquito that has ever existed. This is not hyperbole (ok, it is, but it didn’t feel like it then). The bugs were insane. Twenty of the little bloodsuckers hovered around my face, while ¬†hundreds more crawled on my soft shells, trying to find an opening. It was absurd. We just packed up and got out of there.

Maybe it’s people I climb with, or maybe it’s something I bring to the trips, but most walks out are quiet. Tiredness or eagerness to get done pushed our legs along. We moved fast, eventually lost the bugs, and pulled into the trailhead as things were starting to get darker. I dropped Matt off at his car (he later told me that he had to sleep for a few hours on the side of Swan Lake en route back to Kalispell), while I headed south to our family cabin.

I don’t have exact figures. My guess is that the day is twenty miles, 6000ft ish of gain from the side we went. And for the love of all the mountain sense, follow the easy route back out.

Thanks to Matt for his wonderful company and suggesting the climb–it was an honor to eat summit snacks and suffer alongside him.

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