What happened to summer? Part 1: Heavy Shield (Mt. Wilbur) with Dave and Gary

Confession: at long last, I’ve become one of those harried, terrible individuals who is responding late to all sorts of messages, blogging late, and wondering where all the time went. Current projects seem to keep running over the time I used to have to process and write. I once wondered what on earth such busy people were doing with their time, that they couldn’t find a half second to respond to my quibbling questions or issues. However, I now get it. To all the people I didn’t understand before: I’m sorry. To everyone who was waiting for this, thanks for your patience. I’ve been living in the moment a lot, and it’s high time to catch up.

Thanks for bearing with me as I keep trying to find balance. The next few posts will be about a few summer escapades so as to not totally lose my mind on the cronology.

Though I can’t successfully shop for groceries without one, hit lists of a mountainy sort don’t appeal to me from a number of perspectives. Making one is a sort of commitment: if I spend the time to organize my desires and sort out which are worthy and which are just passing fancy, I feel even more invested in them. Friends can tell you that I’m not a bucket list kind of guy.

So when talking to friends about summer ideas, I brought a couple things up, but didn’t write anything down. When very few of those passing comments happened, I wasn’t bummed because I hadn’t gotten all invested with a physical list. Instead, many of my summer trips were to familiar places with friends who hadn’t been there before. Case in point: doing the Thin Man’s Pleasure route up Mt. Wilber Heavy Shield with Dave Boye and Gary back in July.

Some nomenclature first. I’ve ranted before about the appalling tendency to substitute boring white guy names instead of the original, native designation. Heavy Sheild by name, the peak that you can find on maps and visitor brochures and guided vista informational handouts of the Many Glacier area is often called Mt. Wilbur. I’m not sure I know who Wilbur was. I don’t care. And this is why: the SE face of Heavy Shield looks like an enormous quarter pipe with grassy foothills. It directly squares the vista from the Many Glacier hotel front deck (perhaps the best place in the entire world to drink a beer post-climb), rearing skyward with that imposing quality of sheer ramparts and fortressness. It looks menacing—like something that inspired Tolkien’s visions of Mordor. Some impossible loaded pillars complete the eastern summit ridge, while a conical scree and talus cap completes the tippity top. It was a sincere and grave error in understanding to rename something that is so very clearly a Heavy Shield after a white dude of comparatively paltry significance. Henceforth, you’ll see it referred to properly in this blog.

For all the reasons I just listed, Heavy Shield is an imposing climb to view head on. It shows up on lists of technical peaks in Glacier, requiring rope work for most people (at least a pitch on the the up and a 35m rappel on the down over exposure). Beyond the lore, it’s just so central to the view. Every since I’d been to Many, I thought: “I want to go up there.” Longing to go up there is part of any decent Glacier mountaineer’s experience.

Dave and Gary got ahold of me, we booked a weekend in July, and I went skiing the day before on my way over. Gary’s connections through work had us a place to stay in near the Many Glacier campground. Since I was the guy with the most technical experience, we all got gear out and practiced rappelling with third hands anchored to a post in the glow of the front porch light. This proved handy the next morning.

Which, at 5:30, came pretty dang quickly. The walk in to Red Rock Lake went smoothly. No bears. Dave filled Gary and I in about his trip to Disneyland and American Girl dolls, which was a nice continuation of why I go out with these two: besides being great company, they’re old. Two generations ahead of me. They know how to function well in relationships, have gobs of good life experience, and know much about things that I don’t. Far easier to shortcut via their pitfalls rather than suffer the same defeats.

They’re also fast. If Dave Boye didn’t have his hands full being a father and running a mortgage company, he’d be the quickest guy in the Flathead Valley. None of us would keep up with him, except maybe the Spirit Bear, and he doesn’t count. So thanks to his desk time, Gary and I were right behind him. Until the brush started.

For those paying attention, the best way to approach the beargrass slopes at the bottom of Heavy Shield is as follows: go past Red Rock Falls, until you hit a straight stretch of trail that seems past where you should be to enter the valley with the stream draining the whole SE face. There will be some nicely angled rock along this straight stretch of trail, go the the end of it where it turns back to the west, then leave the trail and angle up and right through the mellow grass and occasional trees.

As the-guy-who-had-been-there-before, it was my job to know where to go. Nervousness saw me leave the trail too early on a promising game track that quickly evaporated into thickets. Dave has at least a Level 3 Bushwhacking cert. He could be heard ahead enjoying himself as Gary and I struggled along in his shubbery-y wake. I thought I spied a better route, and ended up airborne at least once before descending into the creek ravine and up the other side to join Dave and Gary in the beargrass.

From there, it’s a lot of upslope walking to get to into the real climbing. Edwards’ stair step approach goes up the left hand side of the mountain, following the ridge through easy scree/talus and a couple cliff bands until one runs into the upper castle.

My first time on Heavy Shield came three years ago with a crew from the Park Cafe. Vinny lead the way, and I remember thinking that it would have been impossible to locate where to go had he not been in the lead.

This time, it was my turn to be that leader, and I worried that the same blankness I’d seen before would send me searching for the right way to go. As we put on harnesses and helmets, then started up the scree chute and diorite, I relaxed into the climbing and it became clear: the route was right there.

Up left, plugging in hands and good crimps through some of the only igneous rock in the park within the diorite band. Then detour right on the ledge, around the bulge that signaled the belay platform. There was the cannon hole we’d climb through, the feature for which they call it Thin Man’s Pleasure. A few years more experience, more time spent doing steep stuff, and it felt fine to tie the rope to my harness and start soloing up as Vinny had done before. I rigged a belay off the two angles hammered into a crack, and Dave and Gary came up to join the party on the chockstone. Plan on bringing your own webbing, because both times I’ve been up there, the previous party has left an American death triangle for an anchor.

From there, it’s steep scrambling and traversing with one notable move at the place where Thin Man’s joins the central couloir routes.

A traverse on thin, loose holds comes to a corner, where most people jump six or so feet into a fan of screen next to the rappel anchor. Exposure yawns down underneath the jump, and it’s committing. “I don’t go airborne much anymore,” was Dave’s comment as I described it early in the day, but sure enough, he sent the jump with poise.

Past the scree jump, the route follows a ledge into a notch in the summit ridge. It’s not the low one that you see from the parking lot and hotel, but the view down to Iceberg Lake  is stunning. If you own a copy of Edwards’ A Climber’s Guide To Glacier National Park you’ll quickly recognize that the cover photo was taken here.

As the guys made the last moves and we settled into the mountain top lunch routine, I thought about how cool it was to be out there with them. The day had a vicarious thrill that I know well from coaching skiing: when someone puts the pieces together and I’ve contributed encouragement or advice, their excitement is contagious. I feel a jolt of satisfaction that’s part and parcel of the same experience; what can be a singular achievement is shared.

The elation Dave and Gary gave off at making the top was its own thrill even though it had been a casual day for me, through a place I’d been before. There’s so much to be said for sharing outdoor experiences and opening doors for friends. The older I get, the more important that becomes for me.

Dave ate a Jersey Boys sandwich he’d hauled up there. I napped a little behind the small windbreak of stacked rocks near the summit cairn. Then we packed up and started down the screen cone.

The corner we jumped on the way up is easier moves on the down, so that was narrow, but everyone handled it fine.

At the cannon hole, I rigged saddle bags of the rope to make the rap cleaner–yet another good idea I learned from Vinny the first time I’d been up. With a 70m, you can rappel climber’s left all the way to the scree ledge, skipping the platform we used on the way up. A couple overhangs allow protection from the rocks that get kicked down as others descend. Dave and Gary had some difficulty with their third hands; perhaps extending the rappel devices on a sling might have helped. I put them on a fireman’s belay and they made the rappel without a personal backup, so that’s something to improve on in practice. Both hadn’t rappelled in Glacier before, so there was some excitement as we all hit the ledge and headed on down.

We stopped for water on the way down, then found the route I described earlier following Dave’s Level 3 worthy lead. Cruising out on the trail was just hot. It was July, after all. There’s a satisfaction to walking back out after a rad climb. I’m always happy to be out of the gnarly, dangerous parts of the mountains, no matter how much I seek them out and enjoy the step up in heartbeat the accompanies those spots. I might trip and fall on a flat trail—but the consequences there aren’t there, so I can relax my mental concentration.

Dave and Gary wanted to bail back to Kalispell, so the beer on the porch of the hotel didn’t happen. But if it had, I’d have sat there and stared back at Heavy Shield, its impressive upper wildness, and marinated in having safely been part of the skyline, a satisfaction that only pilots and mountaineers can understand.

Thanks to Dave and Gary for their idea, their excellent companionship, and their photos. Always a pleasure, gents.

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