Diversion: on significance

It’s hard to tell, but I’m in this picture.

This shot was taken without my knowing it, but after the fact, Darcy Chenowith (who you should have checked out by now) clued me in and then was kind enough to send it along. Jason Mills and I were on the Little Matterhorn, the mountain on the right. Below is Lake Mary Baker, Floral Park up and left, and then Sperry Glacier and the glacial basin. Comeau Pass is on the central skyline.

Of course, you can’t see us—we’re too small. And that’s part of my point: mountains are big. Really big. They dwarf us, our ambitions, our concerns. They don’t care whether you top out or get slid, rockfalled, killed, or return home happily. As playgrounds, or as testing grounds, or as places to see my own progress, they offer all my ambitions and stamina can handle. If there’s a cathedral equal to the possibility and wonder of this life, it is in the mountains that I find it.

Staring at the stars, there’s an insurmountable feeling of vastness, of exposure. The drop away from my sleeping bag goes on literally forever, and though a shiver might run through the realization, it doesn’t terrify those who are scared of heights. But looking over the edge of a mountain, I can fathom the distance. I can grasp it, and it’s real, and it’s still so much bigger than me. Middle-distance, I’d call this: big enough to matter, small enough to measure. And because of this middle distance, mountains cast huge shadows physically and mentally.

There is no question that, as humans, we are changing the hills, even as they outsize those who would climb. Glacier National Park is projected to have have technically lost its glaciers by 2030 or so. This won’t mean that there isn’t any more glacial ice, or that the places we see glaciers won’t still look like glaciers; the existing glaciers will have just shrunk to where they are reclassified as permanent snowfields. Treelines will creep upward, moraines will be colonized and turned into forest, animals will die out and change habitat. The seasonal lack of water from places that used to hold snow will dramatically shift everything downstream from fish habitat to where you can camp midseason. Hotter, drier summers amplify conditions ripe for the wildfires we’ve seen this year.

Personally affecting what seems so unassailable via climate change is perhaps the hardest dichotomy of being a mountain person. I drive a car. I participate in a fossil fuel based economy. I’m a guilty party. To know firsthand how big these places are, how their grandeur opens a similar space and freedom in my own heart, only to see them so delicately balanced on the collective results of individual actions like mine—that’s hard.

I welcome change in so many parts of life, yet want the places that feel so homelike and stalwart to remain the same. Bedrock not only in the way it was laid down, lifted up, but also in how it grounds me. Gives me something stable: a place I speak about in terms used often for a lover.

Worse, I don’t have answers for you. I know what my answers are, but this blog post isn’t intended as a soapbox or political rant, though those dimensions are inevitable once thought turns to action. Envisioning the changes in store for a place that feels close to me profoundly affects who I am, what I stand for, and that process doesn’t feel genuine unless you, every single person who reads this, experiences it on their own terms. My goal here is only to trace where it’s taken me. What I really want to leave you with is this:

Go spend time in your cathedrals. Make yourself vulnerable to their volatility, their storms, their sunshine, their fast and slow change of leaves and ice and steams swollen with runoff. Give yourself to them. Then learn what all of us are doing, square those in your head, your heart, and find the line you can take between them.

Backwards: chalet to chalet again

One of the things my ninth grade P.E. teacher said sticks with me: “We’re only going to run once this semester: when we run the mile.” That I remember his words a decade later is telling of my attitude towards running back then. Going fast was for skis. Or bikes. Why would you want to run somewhere? Running was hard, sweaty, and frustrating.

Running is still hard, sweaty, and frustrating. However, I got introduced to the road version. Then a couple friends showed me about running on trails. Which was more interesting, but involved hills. Then Myke Hermsmeyer completely confused my ability to distinguish fast hiking, running, and scrambling.

But the running paid off. I felt better. Could move faster. And did I mention that it’s hard? Hard things feel worthwhile; they’re the struggle to just keep my head above water rather than cruising. They’re so much learning. And once I get good at something, like hiking uphill, then I wonder if I could do it faster. If I could run uphill.

So this spring, I gave it a try. My body is not that of a runner’s. Too much girth to be fleet and bounce through the forest with the nimble, skinny elves—I roll past like a stampede of walruses on snowshoes. But I found that I could do a little running uphill. And even run downhills too. Which made me think: maybe I could run in the mountains. Maybe I could do the Chalet to Chalet again.

Last year, Myke and I completed what I think to be the first connected visit to both of Glacier’s remaining backcountry chalets (Granite Park and Sperry) in one day. (I’ve been since told that someone from GNP trail crew did Goat Haunt to Logan Pass to Lake McDonald via Floral Park in a day, which blows our trip out of the water). Up the Loop, across the Highline, up to Hidden Lake Overlook, down to Hidden Lake, across Floral Park to Comeau Pass, down to Lake McDonald. 7200ft of gain over some 30 miles. Neither route was new at all, but nobody I knew had decided to connect them before. We’d hiked the whole thing, and went the easy way.

So with my running ideas in my head, I wanted to try it the other way, with one major change: instead of dropping to Hidden Lake, I would go up and over the Dragon’s Tail. This added some extra vert, kept me out of the closure at the foot of the lake, and kept things interesting. In the process, I covered just over 30 miles, 9100ft of elevation gain, and most importantly, found a route that I think solves one of the peak circuit mysteries that’s baffled me at Logan Pass.

This year’s route, on July 9th: Lake Mcdonald to Sperry Chalet, Sperry to Comeau Pass, traverse below the glacier in the Sperry Basin, to Lake Mary Baker, up to the Pass, drop down and traverse right on the bench above Hidden Lake, ascend to summit ridge of Dragon’s Tail, summit, drop down the east side to goat trail to pass near Reynolds, return to Hidden Lake Overlook trail, run down boardwalk, do Highline to Granite Park then drop down the Loop trail.

Glacier’s chalets are a holdover from the origins of the park. Tourists would arrive from back east on the Great Northern Railroad, following their slogan of “See America First”, as opposed to going over to Europe. Without irony, many of the buildings they constructed were done in the architectural style of the european areas they were trying to get people to skip. Once in the park, visitors were then ferried about the park on horseback, traveling between tent camps and chalet buildings that were all spaced about a day’s ride apart.

Two of the chalets remain standing: Sperry, above Lake McDonald, and Granite Park, above the Loop. Summers of 2008 and 2009 I worked at Sperry as a dishwasher and server, respectively (loudest dishwasher ever). Summer of 2012 saw me at Granite Park as one of the hotel housekeepers (knocks on door: “Housekeeping!”). Those three summers account for 31 weeks spent continuously (in three chunks, obviously) in the backcountry at 6500ft with no access to the internet, marginal cell service, and a great amount of time to go hiking and play in the mountains. The friends I made and things I learned there daily impact who I am and why I spend so much time outside.

Best of all, I’ve a family of kindred crazy people who still work there. Visiting them was a big part of why this traverse is interesting to me. The Sperry crew was expecting their first guests of the season the day I rolled through. This was unfortunate for me, as there wasn’t any pie yet made. I’ll just have to go back.

Granite Park had been at it for a while for this summer, but like Sperry, they benefited from our epically dry spring by not having to shovel their trail at all. Pack trains supply the chalets twice a week, taking in food and clean linens, and packing out the garbage and dirty sheets—but they can’t move over snow. My year at Granite, we did significant shoveling for eleven days. So they got away clean this year. It was nice to see them looking so spry and unsullied by days in the deep trenches.

What those trenches looked like last year. Remember, these were dug by hand in consolidated spring snow.

The Floral Park traverse should have had a connected trail. Had Sperry Glacier not been so massive in the early years of the park, I’m sure that some enterprising, trail-building sillies would have linked Hidden Lake over and up through. As it stands, it’s one of my favorite non-technical alpine traverses in the park. I’ve done it on skis, in Chacos, and three other times, once climbing Bearhat en Route. The standard option from Logan Pass is about nineteen miles and 4500ft of elevation gain.

Doing it backwards meant gaining 5000ft on trails from Lake McDonald. Once over Comeau Pass, snow and moraines connect down and around the toe of the glacier. Where the glacier has receded, bare rock slabs tilt at bizarre angles with pools of water between them. Moraines with stunted trees mark former borders of the ice. Everything is tan or red or milky blue, giving a very surreal quality to it all. Then, you pass into Floral Park proper—which was fairly exploding with its namesake as I went through. Alpine wildflowers and their attendant bees are always so impressive: short growing season, tough environment, stunning colors. It’s a carnival of the first rate.

Hidden Lake spends perhaps five months of the year without ice, meaning that the fish that live there spawn in the middle of the summer. Bears then show up to feast. Wisely, the Hidden Lake trail is closed while this happens to keep people out of the orgy and feast. But more problematically, the Hidden Lake part of Floral Park is a trip out of the alpine. The Dragon’s Tail has always seemed like a better way to follow the ridge, but I hadn’t talked to anyone who had traversed it. The Climber’s Guide to Glacier talks about rappeling on the ridge, which I’d believe.

Setting off knowing that I’d have to climb an untried route midway through was committing. Doing it alone was committing too. I love the process of anteing up for this kind of move, as it demands a total trust of my abilities and preparation. There’s a confidence that I can handle it, which informs a lot of what I do in the hills. The line had to be there, because the animals that travel through there certainly aren’t rappelling.

My route up onto Dragon’s Tail. Entered from the lower right, followed the easy climbing left, then traversed right to the shadow line and up to the ridge. Nothing worse than class three if you stay on the goat trail.

And it was. I followed a well-worn class three goat trail up from the bench above Hidden Lake. It went right up where I thought I could climb, and deposited me right by the route from from the east side. It was a small triumph to find that, and it now opens up the connection from Bearhat to Reynolds in my mental Logan Pass circuit options.

I suffered on this trip. By the time I topped out on Dragon’s Tail, my stomach was in rebellion. I was moving slow, after 8k ft of vertical gain. Dehydration seemed close, despite constant water sipping. The cheese and crackers in my pack tasted bland on the summit, which is never good. I should have bailed at Logan Pass, but thought I was feeling better as I started walking out towards Granite Park.

Logan Pass feels so bizarre as the middle part of a long day.

Walking the Highline as a long slog is just not a good idea. Doing so in 3pm heat is far worse, after already going 18 miles for the day. My stomach stayed unhappy. I drank more, but pushed forward through the slow miles. It was great to see everyone at Granite, but I talked too long and ad to run most of the way down to catch the last shuttle. I was the only one on it.

First class trail tan.

It wouldn’t hit me until I was home, but I just wasn’t hungry. Not good after a day like that. Everything that I’d put in my stomach came back up the next morning. Couldn’t keep anything down. That afternoon, I ended up at Jack’s house: he was recovering, his daughter Lucy was catching up on sleep with her foot in a boot, and I lay on the couch feeling miserable and weak. We all felt rough.

The better part of valor would have been to bail at Logan Pass, and let my stomach rest. Afternoon heat couldn’t have helped. I pushed on because it seemed like it wasn’t that bad, but losing the next couple of days to feeling so sick reinforced that I should have quit. It wasn’t a race, and the objective wasn’t going anywhere. No expectations but my own pushed me through; learning to curb those is the refinement of experience. As I learn to do more with moving fast in the mountains, I’m excited to take in those lessons and see how much more I can push myself. Wonderful to see the chalet crews in their elements.

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.