Having Vulture and eating Granite too: a Glacier Park refusal to compromise

Back in the third week of May, just after I returned home from the PNW, I found myself in the midst of a three part vortex of scheduling. Great weather had me all hopped up on any number of good ideas. Then, the details wouldn’t mesh. I had a couple days of misfires spent at home or taking a last-ditch afternoon trail run to make up for a perfect day more or less wasted. So when Ben suggested a three day trip to ski Vulture Peak, I was in. Then, I realized that some friends were going into Granite Park the last day of the three we’d planned. It seemed like I was going to bail on the Granite crew for the bigger, wilder trip. Then, I reconsidered. Since the trailheads were close, I’d be able to switch trips and stay out for three nights, four days. At the time, it occurred to me that the transition would be a little wild. But it was my chance to do both, rather than pick. And if you can have your trip and eat it too, why not walk a bit further?

Vulture Peak, tucked away in the southern portion of what I consider the North Fork area of Glacier, offers three approach options full of bushwhacking. You can go in from Logging Lake, and brave the beaver ponds and scramble out of the sheer Grace Lake basin. Jefferson Pass to the north offers a long approach option as well. Our route, Packer’s Roost to Flattop Mtn to West Flattop to Trapper Peak to camp, seemed the best for the conditions: we’d take advantage of snow above the shrubberies, be able to ski more, and it would connect me closer to Granite after. However, a couple factors made it worse: the road was gated at Avalanche, so we’d have to ride bikes for nearly seven miles before we’d even start the walk. The Mineral Creek bridge probably wasn’t in. In summer, it’s nearly twenty miles of walking to camp via the route we took. Skis would cut that down, but as we set off from Avalanche, our bikes loaded down, 4:30am on May 21st, I felt like the trip was off to a sufficiently insane start.

It didn’t make sense to bring the food and clothes that I’d want at Granite all the way to Vulture and back, so I devised a genius cache method using a bear keg. Trouble was, the keg has no outside attachment points, which I can only assume it so keep it from being more easily handled by no less a creature than a bear. It toppled off my bike rack twice en route to Packer’s Roost, which didn’t even concern me as we stashed our bikes and started the walk, but would come back to haunt me two days later.

Downfall kept things interesting in the three or so miles to Mineral Creek. Once there, it became pretty apparent that the spring runoff that started so early this year wasn’t quite fordable. Stacks of planks to be installed sometime later this summer left our crossing option as the four bridge cables the dangled over the swift moving current. I don’t think he liked the idea, but Ben volunteered to go first. Feet on the bottom and hands on the uppers, he made a series of weight shifting moves, sliding hands, then feet, then hands across the gap. I shuffled across next. Zach takes to the trapeze:

Typical stream crossing etiquette is to unbuckle your bag in case you fall in. Given the moves we were making, it seemed like a loose bag would prove a bigger balance hazard. So they stayed ratcheted on. It’s a good thing none of us toppled in. From there, the Flattop Mountain trail climbs up switchbacks along a nice gorge with a waterfall. Somewhere about the 5500ft mark, we ran into snow. Morning air made for solid walking, so we booted for a while before switching to skis somewhere past the Flattop Mountain campground.

We then had some decisions to make. The trail continues across Flattop, eventually dumping you out at Fifty Mountain campground. On the map, it seemed to make a nice, even line across. But ski touring is different, because the opportunity to take advantage of gravity can cut a lot of effort out of traversing cross country. We ditched the trail, electing to head up to the summit of Flattop, then ripped skins and used the downhill to cover a few miles of contouring on the west side. The aim was to find a way to get down to Continental Creek and cross. Ben drops in on a wind-drifted gully that took us perhaps half the way down.

As you can see, Ben did solid work on his tan this trip. More on that later. Shrubs and dirt forced our skis back onto our packs, we dropped to valley bottom, and bushwhacked up the other side. For future reference and route planning, it’s worth noting that the pass at the north end of the Continental Creek drainage is the highest point of the valley. So the further north you go, the less elevation you have to drop in the transition to West Flattop. There’s also a spectacular waterfall in there, on the southern end, probably well over 150ft high, that I’ve never seen photographed or heard about. Next time.

Once atop West Flattop, the skinning was easy. The tops really are quite flat, and go on further than you’d like. Trapper was our next objective, and we had to rip skins then put them back on because of a dip en route.

On our return, we skied from the saddle to the right of the summit and debris. But to keep things easier with our overnight bags, the ridge to the left was our approach option. By this point, we’d done a lot of walking. I was feeling the pack, and the effort. Thankfully, the views, with the stark contrast of the snow line, were worth it. Zach and Ben making their way up with Flattop behind them. On the far right, below treeline, you can see the cut of the Going To The Sun Road on the Garden Wall.

Vulture itself had been growing steadily larger all day. Atop Trapper, I got my first really good look at it. Red line was our descent the next day, with camp at the bottom of the line.

Bottom was the key too: From Trapper to camp, it was pretty much downhill. Much to our surprise and delight, the NW side of Trapper delivered perfect corn. I dropped in first, and by turn number three, was yelling with sheer, all-out happiness. Zach does his rendition of “heavy pack in great corn”:

This winter, I didn’t spend much time camping in the snow. Since spring, though, I think I’ve made up for that. We made camp with proper distance to the small lakes in the bottom of the basin, complete with a couple scraggly hang trees and nice warm rocks to sit on. Clothesline with a view of Cleveland:

Looking up towards Vulture:

Given that we didn’t want to ski ice, the morning was a casual start. 3400ft of gain with light packs felt like cake after the heavy long day of approach.

The route we followed goes up through the Gyrfalcon Lake basin, then hangs a left to the south to pass over into the Vulture Glacier basin before then heading up the summit snowfields to climber’s right, or the north. There’s a summer option up the direct summit ridge discussed in the Edwards climbers’ guide. Ben took the lead up the final snowfield:

I’ll admit: the summit didn’t feel like much compared to the day of approach, or the looming trip back out. Really, many summits feel pretty dang similar: stratospheric, somewhat sparse and stark between blue sky, white snow, black rocks, with the wind blowing over it all. Of course, the view is always different. But for me, the summits themselves are increasingly less interesting compared with the company you have while you stand on them. I’d spent only a day of inbounds skiing with Zach before, but got to know him way better while we were out there. Ben and I spent some time on Appistoki this spring, but again, three days out gives you some awesome time to see all of someone’s range of ability and emotion under the duress of a hot sun and a heavy pack. These are some seriously awesome gentlemen, and it was an honor to stand with them on such a remote summit.

And as I mentioned, Ben kept working on his tan. He left with burn lines from both the backpack straps and his beacon harness, which I can only say made him look even more attractive.

Looking over towards the South Vulture summit.

Quartz Lake and the northern Whitefish Range:

Then, we got to ski down. Thanks to Ben for grabbing this shot of me dropping in off the summit into the double rollover that ends in the Vulture glacier basin.

Ben and Zach make their way down.

It was good enough to go again, but with the sun beating down, more food back at camp, and our general idea to ski Nahsukin that afternoon, we kept going on down. View of the W face of Nahsukin that we’d ski later in the afternoon:

Zach and Ben lead the way back out of camp after lunch.

Looking back up towards Vulture during the mellow climb up the ridge of Nahsukin. Gyrfalcon Lake isn’t quite fishable yet.

Summit creatures of Nahsukin. It’s worth noting that there is a summit register out there, and if you go, be sure to find and sign it.

Descending the face was a mix of rock dodging, isothermal mush straightening, and making sure we didn’t end up over a cliff. That said, it was a damn sight better than walking back down, and we even enjoyed ourselves. A bit less high fiving and excitement than Vulture though.

Afternoon sun had cooked the traverse back to camp, making it a slow affair. However, this has to be one the prettiest places to be moving slowly. Zach makes a turn or two on our way back to camp. Peak in the center is Trapper.

Dinner for me was some random mix of curry and whatever else I brought. Zach and Ben created a mix of macaroni, hot sauce, ramen spice packets, and instant potatoes that really did taste pretty good. Important phrases like “special cheese sauce” were repeated, to much hilarity, and it seemed like we’d been out a good deal longer only two days. We dug some walls for the tent to prevent doom-by-wind in the night. I fell asleep thinking of the massive day to come.

Up by 4, moving well by 5:30. Clearly, these are some stoked, sunburned guys.

And our 6:45am turns down Trapper. Given the massive debris, I wouldn’t have wanted to ski this at any other time of day. Our early rise made it worth it though, because we got an inch of slush atop refrozen stability.

Back across West Flattop. Across Continental Creek. Up Flattop, and skiing down the south ridge from there towards the Flattop campground. It drug on. We were all tired by that point. The view into the Sperry Basin is terrific from up there too. Only from Heavens Peak have I see it so nicely before, so that’s cool. Somewhere before this shot, I’d eaten the last of my cold mashed potatoes, with only a bar remaining for food before I restocked at Packers. In my food there were some burritos, another mac n cheese, and all kinds of other delights. It was good motivation.

Did I mention that we were tired?

And it continued. Down Flattop, across the bridge cables again, and plowing through the downed timber to get on back. I tried to stay hydrated. My stomach grumbled.

The same urgency that I’d had to get to food carried Ben and Zach along too. Once we reached Packers Roost, they grabbed their bikes, said their goodbyes, and headed out. I was all excited about the food in my bear keg, but upon opening it, realized that something had gone seriously wrong: a cloud of white gas vapors slammed into my face. It seems the extra bottle of stove fuel I’d stashed there had leaked, probably caused by the falls off my bike on the way in. Almost three days of marinating later, the stink made my dry clothes pungent. I couldn’t quite tell if it had gone through the plastic bags that housed my precious burritos and the caramel roll I’d brought for breakfast the next day. But I was ravenous. Smelling the burritos, they seemed ok. So I ate one, as it started to rain a bit.

It’s a downright miracle that my bike and gear all made it from Packer’s Roost to the Loop. Skis, boots, overnight bag, and bear keg were all mounted onto it, hanging off the back in a crazy cantilever that would make the bike wheelie if I didn’t have a hand on the bars. I chugged along in my granny gears, tired. It rained some. All I could think was that if insanity was contagious, I was admiral of a plague ship full of it. Twenty plus miles in, skis on my bike, headed to carry more of all that uphill for yet another night out…

Once at the Loop, I stashed my bike, grabbed the white gas smelling food, put my skis on my pack, and started the final four miles/2500ft gain of my day. There were a few burps, after each I’d smell white gas. Which convinced me: the white gas had seeped through the plastic bags. In my hunger, I’d eaten some. Gross. My lunch for the next day was ruined. Hopefully the breakfast wasn’t. My food was three gels, three bars, and maybe a caramel roll. Perhaps the gents I was meeting up with would have some extra.

Around 5500ft, the snowline reappeared. I put my skis back on, and trudged up to Granite Park to meet the rest of the crew. Facebook had deceived me into thinking that a whole cadre of chalet folks would be in attendance–turns out a poorly timed nap (cough cough LARS) prevented most of them from even getting in the car. Instead, Zach, Breyden, Will, and Sam were all there, having just finished some afternoon naps. I pulled my gear off and started dinner as the first three headed out for an evening lap. I don’t have much in the way of records of difficulty, but the whole trip had left me pretty dang drained. For some sense of scale, this it the Move and map:

But as usual, all the distance was worth it. Granite Park is probably the easiest-attained Best View in Glacier. The whole summer of 2012, when I worked at Granite, I stared at Vulture. It was nice to stare into the sunset and know I’d been over there only that morning.

The next morning, I woke up pretty early. Hungry. Excited for my caramel roll. I got all situated, took a bite, and smelled white gas again. So my breakfast was hosed. I stuffed it back in my pack, muttering. Thankfully, the guys had overpacked a bit, and found some extra food to spare. They saved my day with that, and it was a good thing, because our plan was to go and ski Grinnell Mountain. Zach, one of my coworkers on that Granite summer of 2012, had already been up there. For the rest, it was a new trip, and I’d never brought skis along.

We crossed the divide, dropped across the south Swiftcurrent Glacier, and booted up to the summit ridge of Grinnell. Zach and Breyden leading the change:

They elected to ski more towards the glacier basin, while I went up towards the summit and picked a line through the rocks. Northwest facing made for great turns unwrecked by morning sun. I got to watch all three of them shred down, and the stoke was high.


As we walked back up to the divide for the quick ski back to Granite, I considered how cool it was to not only switch trips, but also get to see old friends and meet new ones twice in the same time out. The beauty in Glacier draws cool people, and the folks I’ve been able to meet doing all this hanging around here are salt of the earth. Another blessing to be counted.

We then headed back down. It felt longer than it actually is. Despite more donated food from the gents, I was really hungry.

So when we hit the Loop, I rerigged my gear and bolted for Avalanche. Thankfully, they hadn’t towed my car. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to buy some snacks. Thankfully, some nice guy took our group picture. Somehow, they managed to pack all their gear and bikes into only one 4runner, and they headed off. I drove back home, thinking that it really had worked out pretty dang well to have my Vulture and eat Granite too. Maybe I’ll try this stuff more.

Big thanks to Ben and Zach for the time on Vulture, Justin for hosting us at Field Camp prior to departure, Zach, Breyden, Will, and Sam for the good times at Granite, and the good people at Glacier National Park dispatch for handling my backcountry reservations for two separate trips while the actual backcountry office was in training.

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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.