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.

His Holy Chossness, Mt. Saint Nicholas

Note: I’ve since returned to St. Nick, and the better climbing beta is available on Mtn Project:

https://www.mountainproject.com/v/ne-ridge-mt-st-nicholas/112077164

Just as they stick up into the sky, certain peaks stick in the imagination. Perhaps they’re aesthetic, or rigorous, or feature in an epic tale told around the dinner table. Rearing heavenwards in the southeast corner of Glacier, Mt. Saint Nicholas certainly fits the bill on all three. Not only is the thumb distinguishable from everything nearby, it’s sort of a family tradition: my grandfather and several uncles have been to the summit. I’ve heard the story of how the first move requires the leader to stand on someone’s shoulders to start the moves at the family dinner table several times, and with such a legacy to follow, it had to happen sometime.

https://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/01/03/the-ghost-of-roommates-past/


https://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/06/03/sloshing-up-mt-stimson/

Most mountaineers that play in Glacier have either climbed St. Nick or say they want to. Earlier this summer, some friends had suggested we make it happen over Labor Day weekend. Having not heard much from them in the week leading up, I got a phone call from Greg Fortin while painting a picket fence for Dave Boye. The weather looked good. We’d have our window. Did I want to go? I’d counted on the week to take care of some projects, including finishing the fence. Thankfully (for my predicament), Dave was turned around by poor timing on St. Nick earlier this year. So if it didn’t happen on time because of a climb, I figured he’d understand.

And at six the next morning, it was on. St. Nick is on the right.

Much like our soggy trip into Stimson this spring, St. Nick would require crossing both the Middle Fork and Coal Creek (twice) on the approach. Instead of the fiasco of wandering through the woods with a pack raft in tow, we were lucky to be able to ford. Greg takes to the chilly morning waters.

Amazing what a few months of melting and drainage can do. The place were Greg is standing was under ten feet of spring runoff when I last skinned by it. The trail disappeared into the chilly pond, only to remerge on the other side. Funny that it leaves a grassy meadow for later in the year.



Undesignated permit in hand (or, more accurately, in pack), we planned to camp in the saddle north of the peak that first night. After an early start the next day, we’d climb, summit, and head back out. At least that was the plan. Before we could even start the technical climbing that gives St. Nick the mystique to back up its grandeur, an 11 mile, 5000ft approach was on the menu.

As we walked in, I pondered the newness of the situation. Though I’ve been doing plenty of climbing this season, “climbing” in Glacier usually means a decent approach, 3K-6K feet of scree, bushwhacking, and a bit of scrambling to keep the “climber” honest. I’d guess that there’s ten named peaks in Glacier that actually require technical rock work or glacier travel to reach. St. Nick is one of the few where the standard route involves multipitch alpine trad climbing. My cragging seldom wanders into the multi pitch realm, and my trad leading experience was precisely zilch. Offering to carry half of the rack alongside one of the ropes was a partial token of thanks to all the leading that Greg would be doing. However, after looking at Mt. Sir Donald on Rogers Pass the previous weekend, I needed to see if alpine rock was really something I could do. And as we wandered down the valley through the wet morning grass, I knew that if it proved too much, we’d bail and come back when I was ready.

Our approach took us about three miles past the Coal Creek backcountry campground. From there, we dropped off the trail, and went straight into the Fire Swamp. Though the fire didn’t seem particularly active, I kept a watchful eye out for R.O.U.Ses and barely pulled Greg from some Lightning Sand.

Finally pushing up the other bank and out of the devil’s club was a joy. It turns out that we were off route–a better plan is to follow the ridge top just to the west of the main stream draining the NW bowl of St. Nick. Most of the game go there. Since it’s a ridge, the deadfall are stacked right on the ground instead of being lifted in the air–thanks to Greg for finding it on our way out. Instead, we forged ahead. And were well rewarded for our efforts.

Not R.O.U.Ses, but H.O.U.Ses–Huckleberries Of Unusual Size. Some friends have been calling the bushes “hucklecherries” this season, and it fits. Most of the ones we found were of the gargantuan variety–which slowed our progress, but not in a frustrating way.

Fire whipped through this area some years ago. Many of the trees in the bowl we ascended were completely torched, which changed the avalanche dynamics of those forested slopes. Slides had come through, leveling whole swaths of trees in the exact same direction, cutting right through groves that probably hadn’t seen such activity for quite a while.

Then the forest ended, and we were into a large rock field decidedly lacking in delicious fruit bushes. Near the top, I filtered four liters and stuffed them into my much heavier pack–we guessed that the saddle campsite wouldn’t have water, and were kind of right.

Impressively, the last thousand feet were a frustrating bit of scree work, alternated with slippery rocks and route finding up the chutes. I would have been lost on the way down had Greg not known the way, so I’d mark it well on the way up. I was expecting to be way high on a ridge with an epic view down into a valley–the lake and plateau that instead showed up were even more interesting.

Looking south. Central high point is an unnamed peak north of Church Butte, and the craggy ridge is Salvage Mountain.

Once we’d ate dinner, Greg went off to the snowfields below the pass to get some more water. He took a wander on this way back up to see the plateau behind the ridge in the above photo, and came back quite excited about some grassy patches of flat turf that seemed much more protected than the windy, rocky options in the saddle.

Greg headed out to the better spot.

Of course, it was a pretty rough spot, with the blasé views you generally get around here.

A quick trip up to the ridge for sunset left us contemplating the last thousand feet or so–it certainly looked impressive.

I totally relish sleeping outside, but some places carry the beary bogeyman with them. Brilliant stars shown down. The Milky Way splashed across the sky, changing positions every time I woke up. An unusual amount of shooting stars skittered their way through the atmosphere. Right around three AM, I looked over to see greenish Northern Lights decorating the north horizon. And through it all, I remained subtly convinced that the rustling of my sleeping bag in the breeze was the sound of a bear crunching through scree. Sort of a ridiculous thing to worry about, because even if it was, what was there to do? Nevertheless, it was there. And I totally slept through most of Greg yelling at me to get up for the sunrise.

But not all of it. And Greg caught me looking really spiffy.

The snow Greg put in our water bottles the night before had melted some. After a hurried breakfast and repack, we were off to the races. There’s quite a bit of gain from the saddle to the Great Notch, where the rope work starts, and we definitely had our share of route finding difficulties. Last time Greg was here, eight inches of snow fell while he was trying to get to the mountain, and he had to fix extensive portions of line to get his team out safely on the slippery rock. As we climbed up, he recognized a few pieces of sling and cordelette that he’d left in those heinous conditions.

There’s a bit of info available on the Summitpost page for different routes, but not much in the way of actual explanation for the Northeast Ridge. Anytime an obstacle is reached on the ridge approaching the Notch, we detoured to the south side, staying pretty high on each detour. There’s a couple bits of stiff class 3 en route. But pretty soon, you pop out on the little summit to the north of the Great Notch, and it’s party time. Just before, take a look up the cliffs, and if the slings are still there, it’s easy to spot the first two belay stations–boulders with nice ledges and good spacing. The vaunted first move is, at worst, a 5.8 overhang with poor feet. A small stack of rocks helped us, but once you slug through a couple hard moves on big handholds, it’s way easier.

I circled the belay stations in the composite photo below, and what I think is the third belay ledge. It’s probably not as far as it looks, but that third pitch was pretty long for us, and used most of a 70m rope. Anchor is another large boulder with slings.
All of this climbing is directly on the spine of the ridge–no need to wander onto the faces. There’s a bit of curve to the thing, and even when it’s starting to level out more, there’s a bit of work left to do.

To start the fourth pitch, detour not too far off onto  the NW side of the ridge spine (several piton belays stations over here). We made the mistake of going towards the SE side, and that lead to thin, nasty 5.9 with rope drag and very few places to put in pro. This pitch was perhaps the steepest, most exposed climbing, hitting somewhere around 5.8 for most of where we were. I’d wager we took a harder line than necessary, and again, it was a boulder for an anchor. Fifth pitch was pretty quick, and we scrambled the last one to the summit (but did a single rappel back down it).

Getting into the groove came easily. Greg was doing great lead work, and it was a pleasure to see the rope snaking out through my belay. I wore my Mountain Equipment Eclipse hoodie all day as a thicker side of base layer, and it was perfect–warm enough for the windy belay, but great when the sun was shining down too. Especially using the hood as a sun shade.

Greg on pitch two:

It wasn’t until the third pitch before I really realized how high up we were–as the photos show, it’s blocky and not totally vertical. Contrary to what I’d expected, the exposure was there, but not incapacitating. I had a solid belay in Greg, and though I didn’t weight the rope once, I think that confidence allowed me to pull out the microscope. Focus on the moves. Be right there, right now. One hand and foot at a time, moving steadily upward. And that’s the beauty of something so mentally involving as climbing up rocks–I totally forgot about bank accounts, frustrations, and even my own name. It’s the sort of trance that I get while skiing down something, but on the uphill.

Greg at the top of the third pitch.

As I mentioned, we got off route to start the fourth pitch. Greg started up a small dihedral on the south side, got a ways above a hex, and then spent a bit trying to find a way to protect himself. Finding nothing, he decided to “retreat upward.” His voice floated down from around the corner: “If I fall here, I’ll definitely deck out.”

Twenty seconds later, I heard a snap, and Greg flew down into view, landing ninja-like in the rocks of a small outcropping. My catch had done nothing because of the low hex, and seeing the loose rope across my lap, my right hand abandoned the useless device, shot out, and pulled the rope taught. Fixing the belay with my left hand, Greg stood.

“My ankles might be broken.” He shuffled towards me as he said this, and I wondered how one would walk in that sort of condition. Or how we’d rappel. Or all that approach, with the fire swamp and creek crossings to manage. How could we get out? It’s one thing to be committed to the rock, but another altogether to be so deep and so deeply screwed. But he stood there, checking his ankles.

“I landed in a bush. Some moss or something. I think it saved my legs.”

“You ok?”

“Yeah. I can’t believe it. I had a whole handhold just snap clean off. It didn’t hit me. And right after I mentioned hitting the deck.”

And aside from one sore ankle, he was fine. To boot, he took thirty seconds, then climbed right back up the thing that had just bucked him off. Run out, over a big, exposed face, he shut down his fear and channeled the adrenaline of the moment into a lead that I nearly fell on while following. Super impressive work, when only a minute prior I’d been wondering about cell service and rescue plans. And such are the moments upon which difficult mountain endeavors hinge–if Greg had wanted to bail, I’d have been with him. Bummed, but understanding the reasons. It takes so very little for things to go so very wrong in the remote places we frequent–so my conclusion is that Greg has massive, brass balls to deck on a lead fall from the mountain falling apart and keep pushing up. Not only do I owe all the leads to him, and the fact that we made it, but that courage to push through when shook. Truly an honor to climb with such a strong man of the hills.

The next two pitches breezed by. I knew I was a ways up, but it didn’t matter–right there, right then. Nothing else. So far out of what I’d say is my element, but so at home in the familiar bubble of concentration that comes from ignoring the jeer squad of detracting worries.

Stacking ropes atop our fifth pitch.

Greg, on the last pitch (which we scrambled, then single rapped for the descent).

With some last scrambling, we were on the summit.


Looking north: Doody and the Cloudcroft, Eaglehead and Pinchot, Stimson, and Jackson in the back left.

Looking east: Flinsch, Red, Rising Wolf, Rockwell, Appistoki, Henry, Ellsworth in back. Lone Walker, Caper, Battlement, Vigil in front. Our campsite was left of the large patch of snow in the foreground.

Typically, the summit is a place of rest, and somewhat ease–the route is known, and unless a different route is to be descended, the obstacles that are really going to be issues are already there. However, as Greg’s drop had proved, it only takes a ledge with no moss on it to turn things on their head. I felt exposed, raw, way far gone from the comforts and capabilities of the world. It was exhilarating to know that I could climb up such stuff, following Greg’s lead. Freedom, for me, comes with the swelling sense of possibility when my boundaries are successfully pushed. What a way to get into multi pitch trad–and if I could make this follow, what of the future? What else could I do? How many other great climbs had just been opened, the possibility now a crack in what had been a blank wall of no? That excitement whirred alongside the fear of where we were, and as we started down, I thought that the rappels might be simple. 

Of course, they weren’t. All the blocks and lack of verticality that kept me happy on the climb made for really sketchy raps. Not only was it hard to find some of the rap stations, but the blocks meant that the rope threaded over multiple edges, see sawing back and forth with every weight and unweight as I moved over further edges. Greg would throw the rope down, get set, and head off to untangle the ends from the rocks. I’d be there, waiting. Nobody to talk to, nothing to do but swallow the fear and head down. I actually took ten deep breaths above the third pitch–but it didn’t do much to cut the most constant wave of fear I’ve felt in the mountains in quite a while.

On skis, you can block out the terror by falling into the trance of downward movement. Climbing up, the rope is a precaution, not a taughtly stretched single thing holding you to the world by the weight of a boulder. Pulling the rope wracked the nerves–every little hitch or tug seemed to suggest that we’d be stuck. The knot tying the ropes together seemed to grow in size, always threatening to lock up on something and send us into solution mode.The down was scary, and towards the bottom, I just started going faster to get out of there. It seems dramatic given that people do much more difficult stuff in way more harrowing conditions, but was I headed down, thinking of the thin ropes over all the rock edges above me, I actually thought, “Man, this would be a really lame way to go out.”

Greg looks up from the Great Notch as I prepare for the last double rappel.

It’s been a while since I’ve been that excited to be back on chossy, steep scrambling. The rappels were exciting, terrifying, and over. Grabbing our stuff, we started the race against the darkness to descend the 5000ft from the Notch to Coal Creek.


I don’t think it right to call a mountain a canvas, because the marks we make on them aren’t important to see in the big picture. Arena seems better, because when we go to these places, it is the climber that comes home so changed–the possibility that I keep coming back to, the ability to fire ourselves in their crucible and come away that much more clean, simple, pure.


Of course, we lost the race. Darkness crept over us as were nearing the creek. Stumbling through headlamp lit marsh grass, I watched Greg fall into a grassy hole between two logs. He then fell in again, and his headlamp beam completely disappeared. Once at the creek, we used map and GPS to arrive at the not-so-significant conclusion that we were perhaps a mile upstream of where we’d crossed before. Any excitement I had evaporated.

Greg, however, was totally into it. Twisted ankle and all, he waded in.

And quickly, everything changed. As the current pulled into an pool much deeper than our hip belts, we got on a log.

“No way. I know this place. This is where we came across three years ago!”

In the dark, with nothing to guide us, we’d found the route that had eluded us in broad daylight before. No fire swamp. No doom by devil’s club. Just a gentle flow, to a log over the deep part, and we were on the hillside. It was another stroke of brilliant luck when we needed it most. An hour or so later, it was near 11:30pm. We were almost to the Coal Creek campground, and with another major river crossing and six miles, sleeping was the better part of valor. We grabbed a spot in the name of tiredness, and conked right out.

Rope makes for a stiff pillow.

The morning dawned overcast and dewy. My bag had water droplets all over it, and the biggest saving grace was the mix of cheese, powdered milk, and instant potatoes at the bottom of my food bag. Breakfast turned my morning around. It was time to head out.

Greg crosses the Middle Fork.

Huge thanks to Greg for inviting, leading, and doing it all with panache. And thanks to Dave for letting me skip out on the fence–I went back and finished it later in the week.

Invading Cana-duh

In recent years, the area I live has occupied by a friendly invasion. On any given weekend of summer or winter, a contingent of RVs, fifth wheel trailers, and pickup trucks can be found heading down Friday night from the Canadian border. They drive the seventy miles or so to Whitefish, or Glacier Park, and proceed to enjoy their weekend free from the depredations of sales tax, the metric system, signs in two languages, and the higher Canadian prices for liquid commodities (beer and petroleum). Hey, Montana is all about freedom and liberty and such. Come Sunday, they all head back north, presumably until the next weekend.

Comparisons are frequently drawn by locals both accepting and irate between Whitefish and Tijuana–south of the border towns with cheap beer. But they keep our tourism-based economy going in the process. And like any group of people, there’s a ton of great folks just here for a good time to balance out the jerks that spoil their reputation.

Personally, I’m stoked they’re here. As a kid, the favorable exchange rates saw my family in Canada for lots of our trips. That’s since changed, so I don’t blame them. Our ski hill wouldn’t survive without their visits. They money they spend here is as good as anybody elses’. For tourists, they’re a jovial, usually polite, group of people.

As a skier and mountaineer, it should be nearly impossible to ignore Canada. Especially with so many of its citizens playing in my own backyard. However, I’ve been pretty good at it for quite a while, if by no other reason than just putting on the blinders and playing at home. That all changed last weekend.

Back in the 1970s, my dad headed north from Colorado towards the area in Montana where I was raised and live. His reason was simple: there was a big lake. Once here, he kept going into Canada with “no idea, no plan where I was going.” The mountain lust that had developed in Colorado found a bonanza in the Interior Ranges. I can only imagine him heading up the behemoth, glacially carved valleys, rubber-necking out the window of his red VW Beetle.

As we drove north (albeit in a much less nostalgic vehicle), I did plenty of staring. On either side of the river valleys, peaks reared up sharp and unknown, whole ranges of boundless potential wandering that I might have successfully ignored for who knows how much longer. There was a knowing gleam in my dad’s eye–when he suggested the trip for a summer outing, he was already plotting to turn me onto the scent that so filled his nostrils those years ago.

Our first day was spent heading up the Abbott Crest in Glacier National Park of Canada. Snaking north, west, and south through the avalanche sheds on Rogers Pass, the Transcanada Highway makes a quite an impression as you drive through the park. The control work they do in the winter also means warning signs in, you guessed it, two languages.

My dad’s first mistake was to let me make the decision on where to go. He’s been out and about a bit this summer, but like most people, enjoys some flat on his trails. Especially for a warm up. Instead, the Abbott trail takes to switchbacks with abandon, climbing aggressively right out the gate.

Most of the trails here were created by mountaineers trying to get to their goals as quickly as possible. This sort of thinking is absolutely refreshing to me, but that will probably change by the time I’m older. So while I’m not sorry for my trail choice (the most vertical gain of all the options), it wasn’t perhaps the best way to start the weekend.

The loaf of sandwiches is a recurring theme on our trips together. Sometime before we leave, my dad will take a whole loaf of bread, spread peanut butter and jam between each pair of slices, and we’ll eat on it during those snacky moments that inevitably happen. Here’s the loaf in action.

Rogers Pass has been on my radar as a touring destination, but I’ve since realized that it’s sort of essential that I make it up there.

The trail did eventually flatten out, and then started going up again. Having gone far enough, my dad sent me on to climb things and move fast. We’d meet up at the car later, but I wanted to get a higher viewpoint to see what was around.

So I made my way around the bowl, and scrambled straight up to attain the Crest. A nice couple from Quebec told me some history of the area, and confirmed the hut sighting I thought was right.

The Crest was a total blast, with little bits of scrambling and some exposure here and there. Falling away into glaciated basins on either side, the map was my only way of sorting out the peak names around me.

There’s a comfort and familiarity to the peaks in my backyard. Climbing there, each summit presents plenty of places I’ve been before, just from a different angle. The crumbly rock, the strange bushwhacking, the huckleberries, the place names–they hold the significance of home. And as I walked up onto Mt. Abbott and sat in awe of the place that surrounded me, it occurred to me that I’d been at home too long. The comfort had become a droning noise in the background. It didn’t feel as fresh. And of course, that’s the whole point of travel–to shake up the stale-ing perspective that comes from seeing the same place through the same eyes. Everything I didn’t know, all the strange peaks and their beckoning ridges, they opened the doors to new perspective and the joy of expanded possibilities.

The trip back down the ridge was the ease of downhill. Across the way, couloirs in the Mt. Rogers area were still skiable.

And also across the way, Mt. Sir Donald made quite an impression. The Northwest Arete (left side here) is on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and it’s certainly the stunner in the area. Here’s coming back with the trad rack and some good partners.

One other reason I love Canada: terrific facial hair. AB Rogers puts on an impressive display:

On our second day out, we skipped the switchbacks and took the gondola to the ridge crest of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. While I wouldn’t condone this sort of activity for everyone, it was really fun to spend some time in the upper alpine with my dad.

They’re in the process of extending the trails to the ridge south of the gondola, and it lead to a neat little meadow overlooking the valley. The headwaters of the Columbia were below us, and that was pretty neat to see.

The feeling of not knowing was wonderful. After a bit of time on an old map, we located the peaks I’d been staring at over the glacier the day before, completing just a small part of the huge smattering of terrain up here.

I came to the mountains via my family. To get to experience such cool places with them still is a huge blessing, and it’s a huge honor to wander around stomping grounds that my dad once and still passes through. I’m not big into lineage, but the baton has very clearly been handed off.

The baton of great selfies, that is.

Big thanks to my dad for a wonderful weekend, the maps, and most of all, the parenting that has lead me to find such freedom in the mountains. And to the Canadians–I’ll be back.

Vaught did you say?

In the madness of life, there come moments where it’s possible to suspend our bother with the goings on around us, such that our true position gleams as if amidst a dull wreckage. Clarity comes. And with that, a gratitude to simply be alive to survey the life being lived. 

Either that, or the huckleberries were really good after a week spent at summer OR. Whichever proves more accurate, I took a break from the Continental Divide climbs last week to wander up Mt. Stanton and Mt. Vaught. 

,

The approach was of the the fruit stand variety–teeming numbers of huckleberries bracketed the trail, interspersed by patches of thimbleberries. I’d credit the speed with which I hit treeline to the trail snacks. 

Like many peaks in Glacier, Stanton features a fairly worn game trail/climbers’ trail in some places. The entrance was obvious, and covered in deadfall, so I crashed around in the brush for a bit before finding it. I don’t know if it’s just me, or that climbing has become more popular in the past five years, or maybe that I’ve been doing some peaks that see more traffic–but they’re more worn in than I remember. 

Wildfires in some nearby vicinity (Idaho, Alberta, Washington, other parts of western Montana) giving a bit more gravitas to the SE summit views from Stanton. Flying ants had completely mobbed the summit prior to my sweaty arrival, and they managed to get all over me and my gear, some of them doing so even in the act of procreating. Pretty impressive little buggers. 

I’m still new to this mountaintop selfie sans timed shutter thing. So that discomfort comes out in the humor of upside down sunglasses. Believe it or not, they work just fine this way. 

The route leads over the summit of Stanton, and then down the ridge to connect with Vaught. From here forward, a few cairns were the only signs that somebody else had passed this way. 


Along the ridge, one particular spot falls off enough to deserve the seldom mention of a rope in the Edwards climbing guide. These sorts of thoughts are always complicated by the amount of time that has passed since Edwards compiled the route info, the natural erosion of these peaks, and made still looser by the varying levels of acceptable risk to any given climber or party. I’ll often shortcut the full discovery by talking to friends or family for their thoughts. In this case, Carl Kohnstamm told me that a chute on the east side afforded a spot to descend and traverse beneath the step. Still, it’s fun to visit these things that leap from a few words in a route description to grow large in the vacuum of the mind. My own estimation was that it looked no worse than 5.6, but the twenty feet of fall would make for a difficult down climb. Probably fine to climb up. And with the lore inspected, I traversed the rest of the ridge. 

A light breeze and another cloud of flying ants greeted me on the summit. 
Views to the west, with Trout Lake in the foreground. 

To the East:

A ptarmigan stays cool on the summit snowfield with Sperry Glacier behind:

And the most inspiring view is easily to the north, with McPartland and Heavens Peak rearing up along the ridge. Apparently, the W face of Heavens has been skied before, and I’ve a newfound respect for that feat. 

Atop the summit, the thunderheads built, but didn’t do anything more than threaten and look on. The ants flew everywhere. It was still. Peaceful. A quiet serenity pervaded the whole scene, the largeness of space and the towers punctuating it serving to dwarf me–to make me small yet again. Perhaps it is the lightness that comes with the shedding of cares. Perhaps it’s truly fresh each time, if one is open to receive it. But in that exposed place, so naked to the volatility of nature and everything that could possibly go wrong on the rocky descent and in the bear-food infested woods alone, the clarity that started this post enveloped me. Maybe it’s something hokey, or maybe the endorphins talking. But there was a burbling geyser of joy to just be there, flying ants and all. Joy to be able to feel that joy. To live out the life I have, I am given, I make. 



Showy asters on the straightforward descent. 

Crossing the ridge for the second time, I took note of the ledge that cuts across the west side of the summit block. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the climbers guide, but seemed a reasonable thing to try. A faint game trail lead me across, saving the up and down of revisiting the flying ant orgy that was doubtless still in full swing up top. 

Somewhere right after I took this shot, I ran out of water. This time of year usually spells dry alpine conditions–most of the snow has gone down to be lakes and rivers and flush toilets. Thankfully, I found a source of water with some serious sugar in it too:

It went on like this. A stomach ache replaced the thirst, but I kept eating until I hit the stream, and eventually the lake. Where I took off my socks to find the full proof of the full, delicious day.

Over the Rainbow

Whatever they may say about the age of modern convenience and connectivity, it hasn’t yet managed to efficiently bridge the wildly diverse array of places that my friends call their summer homes. Several examples: Steven with a cell phone and iPad, but no texting/messaging options, leaving a bizarre gulf between phone calls and emailing back and forth. Dan, with no cell service up the North Fork, so I call him on the phone where he works. Often though, we’ll talk via Facebook message. Another gulf.

Don’t try to tell me there’s an app for these sorts of things. App existence doesn’t sway these people.

And still another, Tyler McCrae, who is also out of cell reception. So when I called last week to confirm the loose plans hashed out in a chance breakfast encounter the morning prior, the landline went straight to voicemail. An hour later, it was ringing, but nobody picked it up. But then, at 10:30pm, my phone starts making those bizarre noises that now signal that someone is calling. It’s Tyler, and he wants to know if I’m still in for the next morning. Tenish minutes of considering my 4am wakeup that morning, the climb we’d done that day, and whether I really wanted to switch my gear and load my mom’s kayak onto the car.

I’m not good at indecision. Several years ago, when I started making a more concerted effort to achieve the mountaineering goals I wanted, it became a mantra: why not now? What are you really waiting for? Despite the six hours of sleep I’d get, the gear to switch, and the tiredness I already felt, these are the moments split by only a hairsbreadth difference. Feeling that echo of motivation, I fell into its tug: it was on. I’d go.

Six short hours later, I hopped in the car. At Big Creek, I met Tyler and Quinn. We moved the kayak, stopped at Polebridge for more food, and made it the Bowman boat ramp by the early time of 9am.

Because it so dominates the south shore of Bowman Lake, Rainbow Peak has always been on my radar. The climb didn’t seem too difficult on paper, but the approach features five miles of dense, lakeshore bushwhacking or a swim or a boat. We chose boats, because we’re bright, young gentleman who were probably going to find other ways to make our day difficult–pick the low hanging fruit, right?

Sea kayaking reminds me of ski touring–there’s the glide, the closeness to the element you’re using, and the silence of swift movement. I was a sea kayak guide for the summer of 2011. The enjoyment comes right back, and it was fun to glide down the lake. Tyler and Quinn had to fight their borrowed, decidedly non-sleek canoe up the lake. It didn’t seem to phase them. The walk up starts at the creek that drains the whole face that we were to climb. Landing, with Numa Peak in the background:

Out of the boat, and right up the slope. Some relatively simple bushwhacking through loam and deadfall gave way to a steep elk trail that barreled up the hill near the stream. My quads discussed the poor planning involved in a big mission like this after a decent day before. I told them to stuff it.

They stuffed through the forest, then avie debris cast helter skelter against some groves that withstood the onslaught. They stuffed through nettles and brush in the middle of the chutes. Tyler found a trail along the margin, and they stuffed up that too. Below us, the view of the lake got better and better until we could look back to see the boat ramp and all we’d covered.

Then they were tired, so it was break time. Quinn wields his sword in compression shorts.

Did I mention that this was his second climb in Glacier? Super impressive. The dry creek bed started splashing at us, which was nice, because the sun cooked down and we’d be lacking water further up. Less than a hundred yards from our break, we stopped to filter water.

Tyler, moving again:

The stuffing slowed to huffing and puffing. Though moving upward at a solid clip, the chute went on and on. At some point, we were supposed to roll over the edge and into a cirque that would spell the halfway point. My mind chased possibilities between a shaky altimeter (and I was wrong about that that) on my Ambit2 and a route description gone haywire. When we finally cleared the gully, it was nice to look a long ways down into the cirque we’d been trying to find. We’d been off route, but at least we were higher than we thought.

Following some stiff Class 4 moves up a gully, then a traverse out onto the face, we steered clear of the scree that coats the slopes on the south side. Not too difficult, with easy options on the sides for the cruxes, it was fun climbing. Cruisey. We made good time, pushed forward by the cumulus clouds that were building up into thunderheads to the west.

Eventually, we reached the ridge. I think we were all tired, but the weather seemed to be holding.

Just below the summit. The crooked horizon line can interpreted as tiredness.

A hundred feet more, and we were up top. Sometimes the goal of reaching a summit seems so arbitrary–in abstraction, any other point would work as an agreed upon place to stop and turn around. But beyond the goals we set for ourselves or the silly notions about “conquering” mountains just because one has stood atop them, there’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at the top as a stopping point–the views are better.

Looking northwest at Kintla and Kinnerly.  

Across the ridge to Carter:

Southeast over the Rainbow Glacier to Vulture:

And panoramically from the summit.

To the north, things were beginning to rumble as a massive cloud stacked itself into the heavens. I’m not petrified of lightening, but it didn’t seem like a good plan to risk later storms, especially since we’d have to travel back across the lake. It was time to head down.

Because the loose footing would allow for some scree sliding, we wandered over to the south slopes that we’d avoided on our ascent. A small patch of snow provided some sliding entertainment. A gully lead down and then we followed the bottom of the cirque back over to catch the south fork of the chute we’d ascended.

Looking up into the cirque. Our route followed the darker slot in the center right of the steep stuff.

Pushing to make the summit and get down out of the lightening range had taken its toll. A long break ensued, so much so that it was a bit later by the time we got rolling down the hill.

Going down, if you’re following the up track, has the nice quality of the known to it. It’s easy to make the right moves if there’s a trail, or if I can remember things well enough to use that. Balance against the previous uncertainty of where to climb is achieved, such that it feels sweeter to have sorted the route finding. There’s the sense of plunging back down–even though it’s part of the climb, I’m usually ready to be done.

Instead of the giant lightening rod that I’d feared crossing, the lakeshore proved a great chance to jump in and cool off. We all went into the water. And man did it feel nice after the sweatiness of the climb through the heat of the day.

To top that, we had a tailwind. On a lake that seems to grow two foot waves and headwinds, it blew from our back and caressed us back down to the foot. Some sort of concession it seemed, like an acknowledgement that we’d done something cool. Though if it had been a headwind, I’d probably cast it as yet another epic challenge as part of an epic day, man. So who knows if it actually was a gift. We were happy.

As I paddled along, the sun cut down below the ridge, painting the scree we’d partied down into alpenglow. Calm water took us into the boat ramp, where we made an important discovery: melted chocolate bars make for great dipping on fresh cherries.

Thanks to Tyler and Quinn for a great day. Check out the stats of the trip on my Movescount.

Fast and slow into Spyder Bowl

A couple of weeks back, Clay, Jonathan, and I (that’s right, I used the Oxford comma) headed up to the Swan Crest. Conflicting motives of practicing crevasse rescue, finding fresh snow in high pressure, and getting some photos all conspired to see us skinning up the refrozen slopfest that was the Strawberry Lake access road with glacier travel and camera gear while Baloo loped along ahead of us.

The last time Clay and Jonathan came up here, they spent most of their day being stuck in a ditch and getting the car out of it. So parking before the turn that sunk them was a victory in itself. I’ve heard stories from friends about a guy with some old jeep on tractor tires that romps around up here. Instead, the tracks we followed were those of four wheelers–not quite wide enough for both skis to comfortably slide past each other as the scrapey mess hooked into our skins. I couldn’t really find where I wanted to skin for most of the two miles it took to reach the Strawberry Lake trailhead.


Clay navigates the first crux.


Thankfully, the creek was drifted over further up.

Previous days of sun left the surface crusted as we made our way up. The route we followed goes up the creek bed into a sort of mudslide canyon that triggers feeling of “oh my, terrain trap” as you skin up. It’s most likely that the ravine walls are eroding through a particularly loose layer, but the trees piled in the bottom seem like the kind turned to pick up sticks by avalanche. Thankfully, we followed some old tracks up to the right as it started to become a real pocket.

Cutting switchbacks up the ridge, snow quality slowly improved. Nearing the top, I was getting really thirsty, and just tired. With a rope, axe, picket and other hardware that we certainly wouldn’t need to make turns, my daypack felt heavy. Perhaps the prudent thing to do was stop, but I wanted to finish the track onto the summit. This made the shoulder feel like it was going on forever. And ever. And when it did arrive, I was greeted by a flat to the real summit.

I still don’t know the name of the mountain we were on. And really, that’s not too important, because as we crested the top, the view swept away: Great Northern in the foreground, with Glacier rearing up behind, Jewel Basin to the south, yada, blah, gorgeous, remarkable, woooooo.

Wind whispered by on its way down to Wildcat Lake, and as we took in the scenery in all its serenity, a helicopter buzzed towards us from the north, flying low along the crest. We struggled to properly salute in time, but I think we got the message through:

I really don’t like helicopters. And I guess there’s no way for them to know we’d be up there until they were too close to have already wrecked the silence, but the fact remains that I like to check out when I’m in the wilderness. Turn my phone into a camera only. Leave the clatter and motors and internet behind for a while. To have all those burst in during the little quiet revelry left on this plant is rudeness in the tune of a turbine engine.

Once it buzzed away, I pulled my skins and was munching before we realized that we didn’t quite have a read on how we’d get down to the Wildcat–cornices were blocking our view. The two more sensible portions of our party headed off in opposite directions to check things out while I let down the team and pulled out the Cheezits.

Once regrouped, we made the call to head south to a sort of saddle and drop in from there. Stashing the glacier gear, the first turns over wind drifts were scrabbly. Clay took the first line, shooting out onto the lake while his unintelligible exaltation echoed up to us. “I guess it’s pretty good down there?”

Photogs have to get their shots too. Jonathan.

Despite the minor hiccup of one tomahawk, the face was fresh and fast. Standing on the lake, the breeze from before was gone. Sun reflecting off all the walls around us cooked down, making me feel like the proverbial ant under the magnifying glass.

“We could be in tshirts right now.” Jonathan was right. The heat was crazy, and worse still, all the snow was getting cooked alongside us. The snow that we’d need to ski down to get out. The snow hanging above our route out. The cornices hanging above that snow. Clay took off and broke trail across the avie paths, while Jonathan and I followed at a distance, going from one stand of dubious looking trees to the next.

The sun beat down. Some small roller balls came down from the trees, but once in the safety of the valley side, nothing remarkable happened. Regaining the ridge, the snow would switch between wind affected, sun protected pow and schmoo above the large bowl we’d earlier crossed in such haste.

Back at the summit, it was lunch time again. Nap time struck after that, and I snuggled into the plush of my skins for about thirty minutes. Jonathan tried to do the same, but even though he’s on 195cm skis, he doesn’t quite fit.

After nap time, it was crevasse rescue time. Clay would be heading up to the Wapta traverse shortly, and it’s always a good idea to review. Taking turns to function as rescuer and ballast, it’s quite possible that we accomplished the most scenic crevasse practice that’s happened around here for a bit. I have no data to back that up, but, I mean, look at it (including my nice finger blur):

I think being the ballast is the fun part–you’re tied into your buddy, and then you jump downhill to yank him off his feet to simulate the crevasse fall. Uphill, he’s groaning while fumbling with all the stuff to do, but instead of a crevasse, you’re just sitting there and enjoying yourself in the sun while keeping weight on the rope.

And in slacking fashion, I don’t have any photos or video of our ski down. It was really really fun. Protected semipow in nicely spaced trees turned into an avie chute of rip able corn, a little drop into the mudslide valley of probable doom, and we rode our skis all the way back to the truck. Clay demonstrates proper nordic dog racing form:

Thanks to Clay and Jonathan for a great day. Extra special thanks to Jonathan for his pictures.

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.

Denali dreaming, part 1

There’s an expectation, totally my own, that the words that I write about places are supposed to be equal to the places themselves. A theory that if this silly primate body I wander around in is barely able, maybe the words it strings together can compensate for sunburnable flesh and blistery toes. Ironically and obviously, it goes without saying that it’s hard to fulfill. Being a big mountain, certainly the largest I’ve ever sought to play on, Denali puts extra weight on that wish.

Grant Domer and I fly north to Anchorage on May 17th. A short trip to Talkeetna, a flight onto the Kahiltna, and we’ll be wandering up the West Buttress until we fly back to Seattle on June 17th. Grant’s been thinking of this trip since the summer of 2011, when we skied Mt. Baker.


Grant checking out a map on Rainier.

He envisioned building up to this climb two years later. At the time, it seemed about a lifetime and bunch of money I didn’t have into the future. Occasionally the thought would play through my head, but it didn’t feel serious–I’d wandered back to Montana and working through the summer didn’t leave much time for getting out on the volcanos.


A skinning day with Woody Dixon in the Cascades.

A phone call this last December got me back in the game. Grant was still on the chase, as excited as that climb a few years back. Plane tickets were the commitment to launch a several month scramble (on my part) to catch up.  Now, we’re less than three weeks away from flying north, and here’s the first part of some reflections on the process.

Most the climbing I’ve done in Glacier Park has been guided by J. Gordon Edwards’ quirky classic, <u>A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park</u>. Despite Grant’s guidance and general idea about what we were getting into, I was looking for a guidebook. Colby Coombs’ guide to the West Buttress has awesome route information and a solid section on gear to bring. There’s a lot of time devoted to common ailments from altitude and cold, both bountiful on Denali.

To add to the guidebook, there’s required reading to even get your permit from the Park Service. In the PDF is a code necessary for registration. I read through all of Wildsnow’s blog posts related to their trip from 2010 to get a more comprehensive idea of skiing the thing. Going on a tip from my father, I read an account of the first winter ascent of Denali,  -148 Degrees.

Most of the official tone talks of self sufficiency and preparation. Nothing promises an easy climb. Within the first few days of their trip, the winter ascent lost a member to a crevasse fall. The accident reporting from Denali last year does not flinch at the number of dead climbers. Between the vertical relief (13,000ft) between base camp and the summit, the latitude decreasing oxygen and making the mountain feel higher (more along the lines of 23,000ft near the Equator), and the timing of our trip seeing more spring weather, a serious tone is valid.

Still, I really enjoyed the moments of levity in what I read. These are mountaineers after all. A passage from Coombs:

“Perhaps the oddest animal encounter was with a red squirrel begging for food at 12,500ft. This is no less than 15 miles and over 10,000ft in elevation from the nearest spruce grove. Did the little mammal arrive on the glacier in someone’s duffel in a gorp-induced coma?”

Beyond all that I’ve learned on my own, I’ve been once again reminded of why mountain communities are the best ones. Conversations about my spring plans, once I mention Denali, have become a great outpouring of support for our trip. People have offered me their expedition weight long johns, mentioned friends who went before, connected through email to folks with experience, offered gear hookups, and in the case of my sponsors, pulled out all the stops to help with gear. In the piles of details and accumulating gear, the generosity of the people in my life is still the largest heap in sight. Thank you.

A few worthy specifics:
-To Grant. For spearheading this, helping with gear, and especially the booties. Arabianistas!
-To the family. To Mom and Dad for encouraging me, starting me on this path, and enduring the worry. To my grandparents for their support and employment. To my uncles  for their words of wisdom about avoiding chaffing and offers of loaned gear.
-Massive thanks to Woody Dixon  and Mountain Equipment for being onboard with the trip from the beginning. His help with clothing, equipment, and a new sleepsack made the difference between a cost prohibitive trip and a possible one.
-Thanks to Scott Andrus, Sam Caylor, and Rowen Tych at ON3P for keeping me in skis. The 186 Vicik Tours that I just mounted up will be perfect for spring assaults and slogging up the Kahiltna.
-Green thanks to SDot for transporting us in AK. Super stoked to see you.