Flashback: suncup eights on Blackfoot Mountain

After seven months, three failed attempts to transfer the photos, and a bit of slow blogging time, I’ve finally got everything together to actually tell (and perhaps remember) a ski trip from this July past. To tell the truth, this was in the same 4th of July weekend that saw me skiing Iceberg Notch, but enough with the excuses–it’s winter now, so here’s a piece of sandal wearing summer skiing.

Originally, I’d been eyeing a snowfield on the northwest face of Mt. Jackson. Just as I saw on the Notch, spring rains had ripped snow out of the hills, and the line probably wasn’t going to go. That meant flexibility, and since Rose and a group of folks from the Park Cafe had just climbed Mt. Logan in the same basin, I though of Blackfoot. Glacier travel makes it one of five “technical” peaks in Glacier (all of which have been successfully done without gear), so it’s a dubious designation. The line, though, promised some of the most connected July skiing available.

Clay, fresh off a stint of staring at and banging rocks in Canada, hitchhiked to the shuttles with his backpacking, skiing, and glacier travel gear. I found him looking severely clean shaven on Logan Pass. Our backcountry permit gave us a night at Gunsight Lake before our climb, so it was off to the trailhead. Diving into the brushy track down to Reynolds creek, our ski boots drug through dusty alder–we were definitely in for an adventure.

We rolled into the backcountry campground a couple hours later. Gunsight Lake sits at the base of a cirque full of waterfalls. Even filtering water and munching bars on the gravel beach next to camp feels scenic.

A steep track (“Not recommended for pack stock” on the sign) leads into the glacial basin. One side sees the remnants of Jackson Glacier, while the other leads up into the Blackfoot Glacier. To get a better perspective on our line, we grabbed the lids of our packs (which, in a stroke of luck, become fanny packs) and hustled up.

Routefinding.

Though without service, Clay phones in a request for sunshine.

During the wander back to camp, clouds knit themselves above the valley. Though I’d already donned my shells to keep the ferocious mosquitos at bay, it started to rain as we cooked our couscous. Wasn’t much of a downpour, but it left the brush wet, and stray bits of drizzle during the night meant that, come morning, our hike to the glacier would be a soggy one.

Five am. Behind the sound of my watch alarm came the rasp of something chewing just across the campsite. A headlamp check revealed a deer trying to get salt from our pole grips. Breakfast would wait, we’d filter water higher up, so camp was struck, and time to don packs. Stashing a beer in the creek for the return, Clay’s lamp lit the narrow slice between shrubs studded by raindrops. Halfway up, my shoes were beginning to slosh. To make matters worse, the spot Clay had called in the sun was covered in dense fog. Descending the moraines with care, we crossed into the bottom of the glacier basin.

Early light showed that the fog was low cloud cover, stretching across the valley. Clear conditions were our navigation plan, so after climbing the east terminal moraine, we sat for almost an hour, wondering. But there wasn’t much for it–we’d hiked six miles to camp, four more to check it out, crawled through the wet shrubs–too early to give up. Balancing on the rocks at the edge of the snow, we stashed our hiking boots, roped up, and skinned into the fog.

But it was only a couple hundred feet thick. Time for sunscreen, sending it, and that bit of euphoria released after sitting beneath a boulder for an hour wondering if the whole thing was shot to hell. A quick series of gullies between moraines and the rock face lead us onto the glacier proper.

Despite the spring rains, the glacial surface wasn’t too cracked out. We’d brought a picket apiece, planning to use axes or skis to make other snow anchors should we need them. Moving off a bench and up onto the higher glacier required negotiating a couple cracks/bergschrunds. I set our pickets as running protection, and we made the traverses in fine style.

Once above the cracks, another traverse above some downslope holes was required. I remember thinking that another picket would be super nice. Never the one who seems to find gear in the mountains, I was completely shocked to look down the rock ledge to see a picket and quickdraw lying there. Still haven’t found the owner, so if you lost it, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll keep using it.

Switching back into our skis, we made good time across the upper flats.

The summit snowfield was another switch back into our crampons. Clay lead it, finding a lone mountain goat looking down on us at the top.

Looking over to Harrison Glacier on the backside of Mt. Jackson.

Later in the season, some friends would have a high-angle confrontation with an ornery grizzly sow and two cubs, but we were lucky to drop our crampons for an easy three hundred foot rock scramble to the summit proper.

The fog had burned off, we’d been just fine on the glacier, and looking back down the glacier and valley to the trailhead, it seemed a long way to have come to make July turns. On the way out, we met David Boye and his buddy Gary on the trail, who talked about how “in your twenties, you don’t really think about efficiency or practicality in trip planning.” Which was fair. We’d carried camping, skiing, and glacier travel gear through summer foliage, over moraines, and then used some of it to get all the way up here. A single day assault might have been lighter. There were things in my pack I probably didn’t need. It’d be a long walk out.

But of course, we had 3600ft of skiing ahead of us. Clay drops in.

Digging our edges into the slushy goodness, all the lame things I could say about why it’s worth it to drag skis in just evaporate. Clay skied the first pitch, I followed.

And since it seemed like a good idea, we made some slush eights down the upper face: 

Clay fills in:

Once back at the cracks, we had to make the call about how to get back across. Standing above it that morning, it occurred to me that the slope was perfect for just jumping across. Looking at it again, it seemed the simpler option. And probably easier than down climbing.

I’d call it the benefit of freeride eyes in mountaineering. A long traverse, and we were back atop of the gully where we’d left the fog. Near the bottom, we grabbed our boots, and negotiated some cracks and rocks, but the eights came back.

At the bottom, the hiking boots went back on, and we retraced our steps over the moraines, back to the lake, to the beer we’d stashed in the creek that morning, and out.

On the trail, we got a chance to look back at the route from afar.

The weight of the skis on our packs was a reminder that we’d been up there, across the valley, in July, making slush eights as people backpacked and hiked by. It feel neither “practical” nor particularly “efficient.” The hill back up to the highway wasn’t much fun. Now, in the middle of winter, with tons of options and plentiful snow, it’s good to look back on July and how we made use of the snow then, our youthful enthusiasm, and this gorgeous playground.

Many thanks to Clay for his companionship, photos, and uncanny ability to bring good weather on our trips.

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Open for business on Great Northern

First of all, thanks for stopping by. It’s been about a year since I started this blog, with no real ideas about what I wanted it to be other than a place to put things that didn’t fit elsewhere. Since then, it’s become another creative outlet. A way to share stories. A way to link people all over the world to the time I get to spend outdoors.

If I had one wish for this little piece of internet, it would be that these words and photos make their readers interested in closing their computer, turning off the phone, and disappearing into the veil of nature. That what I’m doing serves to inspire. There are as many callings as people under the sun; mine seems to be to chase the dream. Thanks for tuning in.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

At the top of the page, it says “The adventure blog”. People have suggested that I add other aspects of my life, but there’s a purity of purpose here that I cherish. However much I’d like to rant about politics or grammar or whatever, this is a place dedicated solely to adventure. This is a question of spirit, of style. Mountains and wilderness are places free from the immediate influence of entities too far away or different in character to know them properly. It’s good to know there’s nobody looking over your shoulder. So in writing about that feeling, the content should reflect that singular sense of freedom from noise.

I bring this up because the shuttered US government is now affecting where we get to play. While the unpleasant side effects of the shutdown are multifarious and hardly knowable in full, one seemingly small aspect of closed government are the closed gates and makeshift barricades now blocking the entrances to our national parks. My usual destinations of interest are located inside a place that technically belongs to me, as a citizen, but is currently sealed off because of brinksmanship and inability to compromise. Which means that for a weekend climb like the one I planned last weekend, Glacier was off limits.

Photographer and all around gentleman Myke Hermsmeyer had been kicking around a weekend climb during the work week. We headed out of Kalispell pretty early on Saturday morning. The night before had been a scramble to find some extra gear, and I hadn’t been able to come up with a pair of spikes for him. With new snow in the alpine, it meant that we had to keep it mellow, and if it was too hard and scoured, we’d be turning around. A few wrong turns and a bit of dirt road later, and the peak was glowing in the dawn.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Great Northern by name, it’s a pretty popular summer destination for fit day hikers. When not drifted under the snow we found, there’s a goat trail that runs all the way to the summit. Located in the northern Great Bear Wilderness, which abuts the southern boundary of Glacier, it is separated by only an imaginary line drawn along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The trail isn’t official or maintained—and hence goes practically straight up for the first mile.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

After a bit of sweating in the forest, we popped out into the alpine, the wind, and better views.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Somewhere in there, we hit snow. Though up and down for a bit, we hit the summit ridge after some easy walking.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

In the distance, all the peaks in view are part of Glacier. It’s strange to think that such majesty can be considered “closed.” That a place that is specifically purposed for exploration and wonder could be walled off to prevent those very activities. That the people who caused this may have never seen the places they are closing. That any government or human entity pretends to exercise judgment or control over these places. Staring across the valley, such assertions seemed utterly laughable in contrast to the stately snowcaps adorning each peak.  Which made me smile.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Once on the summit ridge, the wind did not let up. We made steady progress for quite a while over the various bumps and drifts. As often happens, the snow got deeper as we ascended. Footing was good until a route finding error saw me on a narrowing, slippery ledge. Scoured and refrozen ice made my explorations crampon worthy, and with Myke behind me with none of his own, we went back to try another option on the direct spine.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Something like an hour was wasted in all this. However, we did find a neat window of rock in the top of the ridge as the first fruit of our labors.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

And after that and a quick posthole up some drifted snow, we were again on our way. Long gone was the trail. My left leg was punching through wind buff up to my thigh. Navigating slopes that now held enough snow to create slide potential but kept Myke’s footing secure, a couple false summits came and went.

Not remembering how many high points there were, I suggested that Myke go ahead to shoot back down the ridge at me.

It turned out that the mountain didn’t go any higher, and it’s safe to say that we were both stoked.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

I put out the usual squeals of excitement, while Myke didn’t have to say anything—he’d climbed in a pair of Carhartt work pants, no spikes, and gaitors that my dad could have pulled from an ‘80s gear drawer. Quite badass.

For my part, I was decked out in Mountain Equipment softshell goodness (Centurion Jacket, Mountain Stretch glove, Epic Touring pant, Mountain Stretch gaitor), and I’ve got to say that it was nothing short of cozy. Long gone are the days of sweat soaked hardshells and imaginary breathability. These fabrics and constructions allow a supremely sweaty climber (namely, me) to move hard and still stay totally content under my layers. Totally astonished by how well the Centurion worked; I can’t wait to ski tour in it this winter. Yay Neoshell.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Wind pushed us off the summit, and it was really nice to be headed down in the sun. To my left, Hungry Horse Reservoir glittered. To the right, the “closed” peaks mutely stated that they didn’t care one way or another what the silly humans have to say.
To me, the need for wilderness is primal—to have places that are unregulatable, wild, far beyond the control of people. Summits and vales and vast woods that dwarf us puny humans and keep us humble, remind us how small we really are. For me, I need their shadow, looming. And as we delayered after heading into the trees, the views slipping away, it seemed reasonable to say thanks, once again, for all the mountains give us.

Great Northern, like many things around here, takes its name from the railway that comes through Whitefish. There happens to be bar and brewery that share the name with the mountain, so once back in town, we set out to the other “summits” of Great Northern. I’ll let the next three photos tell the story.


Huge thanks to Myke for being a sorcerer with his camera and a stand up climbing buddy. No thanks to the jerks that caused the shutdown. May packrats make nests in the kitchens of their summerhomes.

Whether the weather

If you look back through the blog posts from this year, there’s a prevailing trend of sunshine and good weather. Fog has blown off, storms have not materialized. Who knows how this has happened, as I don’t believe in weather forecasting. Though when I heard on NPR that there was a thunderstorm watch for most of southwest Montana the night before another promising climbing weekend, it didn’t connect that it was headed this way.

Friday started off innocuous enough. Light rain fell on St. Mary as we rallied the crew and headed out. Coming over the hill into Two Medicine, things were sunny. They stayed that way through the trailhead.

Our aim was to climb Little Dog (on left above) and Summit Mtn (on right), both located on the southern border of Glacier. The ridgeline connecting them is part of the Continental Divide, just up from Marias Pass. We hiked in the Autumn Creek trail, took the fork towards East Glacier, and eventually turned into the trees for an easy bushwack to the base of Little Dog.

Once out of the trees, it was plain that the weather was coming in from the south. Echoing in my head was the radio broadcaster mentioning that “the storm is headed north at forty miles per hour”, which would have put it, well, right about on top of us.
Ever cool while hiking with approaching thunder, Scott manages to text while climbing.

Thinking it best to wait a bit, we hunkered down in the trees to see what the clouds would do. South, the storm was headed to our east, and missed us by ten miles at least. Another one behind it held our attention when some piece of the first one rallied back west. Coming up fast, it proceeded to soak us with rain and hail as we hastily pulled on raingear. A minute later, it blew through. Waterfalls tumbled down previously dry gullies above us, the concentrate of acres of bare rock. Somewhat bewildered and back in the sun we started upwards again.

Zips open, the layer calisthenics began. Useful only ten minutes prior to keep the rain at bay, our jakets were now smothering in the full sun. Atop the next rise, and last bit of shelter before entering the upper scrambling, we stopped again to scope the behemoth thundertowers following the belt of the storm east of us.I have zero meteorological training. Nobody in the group did. That didn’t stop us from speculating at length about high to low pressure, storm movements, and whether or not it was going to slam us higher on the peak. Prior group experiences with proximity lightening atop weren’t anything close to positive, so that weighed in for a turn around. My mind changed several times. Eventually, it seemed that it wasn’t bad enough to warrant canning the day. Twenty minutes later, the fun scrambling began.
Strangely for Glacier, much of the upper mountain was scree free. Occasional shelves sat in an otherwise bare rock face, explaining the insta-waterfalls from before–there was nothing for the rain to soak into, hence it all heading immediately downhill.

Arriving at the ridge, the view to Elk Mountain was cool.

Better still, we had to climb this to the summit.

Running shelves beneath the crenulations in the ridge, the biggest objective hazard in the fog were the death farts carried back to us from Nick. A bit socked in on top.

And I include this for the amazing facial expressions. Not staged, I promise. And everyone was stoked to be at the summit. I guess that’s the danger of climbing with me: ridiculous looks may end up on the internet.Fog sent us a ways down the wrong ridge before Rose, the map, and the GPS confirmed that we should traverse. Coming across it and towards Summit, the clouds blasted up and  across us. Really cool ridge walking.

Eventually, we heard thunder again. That meant turning up the pace to make the summit and boogie. Looking later, we got within about a quarter mile and 300 ft vertically before we had to hunker down in the vicinity of a big overhang.

Mist obscured the storm moving in. Thunder got closer. I ate peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwiches while leaning into the uncomfortable rocks. Sound was our only guide to where the electricity was. Didn’t get close to us, but we sat for perhaps thirty minutes in the rain and hail. This time above, we watched the creeks form, one pushing a muddy rivulet through a scree field to wash mud into the gully.

Once the bulk of the storm passed, we elected to bail. With more on the horizon (or so it seemed), it was a good call. Twenty minutes and a pile of slippery descent later, we were rewarded for our caution with this:Nick put in perspective, saying “You know that if we’d hung around, it would have kept raining.” Add in his English accent for proper emphasis.

Regardless of the weather, the lower scree fields were a total blast. Something like 700ft of loose, consistent, cushiony crumbled mountain to run down. I was making turns as Scott blazed straight down.

Somewhere below the scree, I did some wet beargrass sledding in my rain pants. Huckleberries were found and devoured. Back at the car, the condition of my gaitors said it all: wet, dirty, unzapped, and happy to be back at the car.

Saturday came with morning thunderstorms. I rewaterproofed my boots, tried to dry things out, and read my book. Later in the day, the returning cafe employees got a party going. Rose and I checked out about midnight. Morning came with a hangover and headache. The scene outside:

Given that the thunderstorms were supposed to give way to sun the next day in the forecast I don’t believe in, it seemed reasonable to go for a climb again. Nick, Connor, Emily, Rose, and I piled into her car and headed for Two Medicine.

I would suggest that there are perhaps no straight sections on this road. My stomach, by the time we got to the parking lot, was anything but happy. Boots on. Ignore headache. Hit the trail.

Our plan was to climb Never Laughs mountain, a relatively mellow gain of about 2600ft with a good part of that being off trail. After taking the advice of a boat company employee, we took the Aster Park overlook trail and then began to ‘schwack around the north end of the mountain.Just the weekend before, I climbed Painted Teepee, the mountain visible in the center left of this photo. With rain coming in and out, clouds bottlenecked in Two Medicine Pass, and my shell a constant companion, it was quite a change.

Who knows how many people have climbed Never Laughs. We certainly aren’t the first, but I assert that the age of exploration is still alive–all it takes is a map, some vague ideas about route, and trying them. Route finding is a challenge that makes even minor summits cool. To add to this, my hangover wasn’t checking out. Given that I don’t train to drink hard, it understandably never gets easier for me. Lesson: even small climbs seem longer while fighting off the effects of the liquor infused with the very juniper berries I walked past.

Formidable. Especially dicey when wet. Thankfully, we went around the back.

Scree chute up to the summit ridge.

Looking down the summit ridge just below the top.

Rose and I up top. This marked her fortieth summit in Glacier, and I consider myself quite a lucky guy to hang out with such a tenacious lady. This may be the first time with her wearing shorts while I rock long pants.

An old trail exits Buttercup Park, the drainage to the south of Never Laughs. We descended an awesome scree chute, feet churning, rocks flying. Somewhere near the bottom, a couple of bighorn rams were grazing. Here’s the typical picture of sheep butt:

The trail had some deadfall, but really was in good condition even after so many years of neglect. Nick started thinking of beers on the lake, which translated to hustling our way out as the weather got downright balmy.

If was sunny all the time, it wouldn’t snow. It’d be too easy. Weather is the constant variable that makes it fun, random, and difficult. Pinned down by lightening, digging out a tent in the storm, drying raingear in a big wind–these are the things that keep it fun for me. Getting turned around is good, as it flexes the retreat muscles. Mountaineering is about the long game, as the things we seek aren’t going anywhere fast. It’ll be cool to head for Summit again sometime, but until then, I count it an excellent fall climbing weekend. Thanks to Rose, Nick, Emily, Scott, and Connor for making sure that we laughed through the rain.

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.

Friday.

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:

Saturday.

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.

Success.

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.

Sunday.

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.

Monday.

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.

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.