Some mountains manage to cast a mental shadow that dwarfs their physical bulk. Maybe they tap into some strange, specific foreboding that we harbor. Perhaps they tie into a wild story we heard told by someone we respect. Sometimes they live a legend all their own, and to climb them is to weave your own rope and route into all the chaotically braided others.
There are perhaps a dozen truly technical major summits here at home in Glacier National Park; mountains where you really do want a rope and protection and the knowledge of how to use them. But because the vast majority of the high points force climbers to focus more on route finding up ledges and chimneys of first-rate choss, the few where the rope makes it into my pack seem to stand out a bit more.
Split Mountain is one of those technical peaks. It cuts an imposing profile from any angle, especially its most commonly viewed direction from the St. Mary area. From Almost A Dog Pass, the view is triangularly similar: steep, layered cliff bands forming a pyramid that’s crowned with the titular, halved summit block. I’d heard reports from friends at the Park Cafe a few years ago about the upper section and more recently, Ben Darce has been up there more than any normal climber should be.
Any one of them would have been happy to give me their thoughts on the climb and what to bring. However, the aforementioned mental shadow it cast merited a bit of a more sporting sort of trip. I’ve been lucky to learn a lot more about placing trad gear and alpine route finding in the past couple of years—it was time to test it out. Time to see if what I’ve learned would hold up without the beta from others, even in the shadow of how I thought about Split. I did manage to track down the partially helpful info on Split in the Edwards guide, put together a light alpine rack, and Beth and I took off from the Cut Bank trailhead at 9am without much idea of what exactly we were getting ourselves into.
It’s worth noting that this trip report will totally ruin some of the surprises we found and the same sort of exploratory spirit I wanted to have up there. If you want an interesting experience without the benefit of the photos/info to follow, here’s the bare basics:
-Approaching from Triple Divide Pass is closer, and probably easier.
-Bring a light alpine rack and longer draws
-Bring a skinny 70m rope.
-Bring 20-30ft of tat in case you find the anchors wreckaged or lacking.
Ok. Spoilers ahead.
Things were smooth in the Cut Bank valley, and Beth and I kept the pace brisk up to Triple Divide Pass on a trail that wasn’t as massively muddy or filled with bear sign as the last time I went in. I’ve never actually been to Red Eagle Lake, or approached the pass from that direction, but the long flats in the beginning turned me off from heading in that way. Triple Divide offered more up and down, which appeals, you know? Plus, as the name indicates, Triple Divide Mtn divides the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay watersheds from its summit. The whole Continental Divide thing is a bit less cool when you live and play on it constantly, but it’s neat to note.
We dropped down a few switchbacks on the north side of the pass, then glissaded the rest of the way until we were in the meadows near the moraines on the west side of the basin. It’s pretty easy to visualize the whole basin traverse from the pass—another reason to go that way.
From the slopes above Blueing Lake, talus and scree slopes plus some very minor vegetation offer access to the algal reef, a grayish band of rock that you can’t miss because you’ll need to find one the better spots to ascend/descend through it.
Beth and I hit the top of the ridge and traversed towards the major castle of Split, climbing the loose ledge 3rd/4th class scrambling so classic to the upper sections of many of Glacier’s peaks.
Once we traversed around the south side of the upper castle and entered the big, eponymous slot, the climbing got real. Beth and I both soloed face/stem moves (5.8?) instead of removing packs to worm up the two sloping chimneys (probably 4th/5th), which proved attention getting with the way the slope drops away to the meadows below Red Eagle Pass. The “chockstone” mentioned in the Edwards description is above both of these.
Quotation marks, in this case, indicate that the chockstone is more like a giant pile of debris wedged poorly into the split. Somebody slung the biggest chunk a while back, but it makes for a dodgy rap anchor and even more questionable as a belay point to bring somebody up from below. Some knifeblades and angles in the wall above could probably be donated to the cause, and if I head up there again, I’d improve it a bit.
I racked up on the “chockstone” while Beth did a bit of shivering—it’s a wind tunnel in there. For me, the expanded ability to protect 5th class climbing in the alpine comes from the cragging and trad climbing I’ve done over the past couple years. I’ve little doubt that a properly strong climber could free solo any of the technical routes in Glacier, but I want a bigger safety margin than that. Thus, it’s pretty amazing to take familiar climbing tools and apply them in our local alpine environment. The rock leaves a ton to be desired if you grew up on anything igneous—protection can be sparse and creative (or just plain bad), but I really do love the process of piecing it all together. It’s home. It’s funky. It’s ours.
It was also a good moment to take stock of how the climbing, in its physical actuality, stacked up against the mental thing I’d made of Split. Once there, in the moment, connected to rock and solving the problems of getting from A to B in little successions, the large problem of climbing a mountains becomes a series of small problems. Pulling out the microscope, I’ve heard it called. And in those moments, where the world is no bigger than the little bubble of what do I stand on now and what is next, focus blurs out the rest of the questions and its just one small solution stacked atop the next until a mountain mostly stands beneath my feet.
Edwards speaks of traversing out above 1900ft of exposure while climbing the upper section, which has to mean that he traversed out onto the NE face. Pretty bold. I skipped the exposure, and opted to climb up the right side though the slot, stemming and then pulling face moves up some broken silliness while placing a red c3 and #1 c4 (both solid) on long slings. There’s probably more options for protection there, but by then I was at the upper rap anchor. A pile of choss and a .5 c4 provided a top anchor, and I brought Beth up to the summit block.
The views are pretty dang neat, especially of the smaller lakes beneath the sheer drop off the NE face. Beth and I looked back at Almost A Dog pass, where we’d been a couple weeks previous. Perhaps the wildest thing about the summit are the numerous large cracks and slots in the major rock itself—the whole thing feels like a big house of cards, and just sitting around doesn’t inspire much confidence in that part of me that wonders about the whole dang thing falling apart.
As I’ve written before, it’s such an honor to get to climb with my sister. Some people do family dinners, or reunions, or get together for a weekend, but the best thing about these sorts of adventures is that they offer even more time to think, talk, and build incredible, shared experiences in life. Beth pushed through a bunch of fear to make it up there, pulled some hard moves, and given that it was her fourth summit in Glacier, she’s off to a killer start. It’s a wonderful thing to get to combine the outdoor things I want to do with the people in my family.
We rapped off the double anchor on the E side of the split, and then again off the “chockstone”, but kept our feet on the walls most of the way for the second one. Both rope pulls went smooth, and we saw success retracing our route through the upper cliffs and algal reef.
From there, the traverse back to the trail went smoothly. It’s not proper screeing, but the footing is generally fine and there’s probably water there year round so you can fill back up for the hike back out. Once back on the path, the late hour meant that we kicked into high gear, blasted over the pass, and then down the other side and out the flats with no bear sign and even more good conversation to pass the quick miles.
Beth tried to change one of my car headlights at the trailhead, we couldn’t get the old bulb out, but just jiggling the apparatus made it come back on. Then, we missed closing at the St. Mary grocery store and I cursed all available malevolent deities for the lack of the Park Cafe. Seriously, St. Mary is badly in need of a food renaissance.
All told, our day was just over 21 miles, and in the neighborhood of 6300ft of gain/loss. Thanks again to Beth for coming along and crushing it, and also to Ben Darce for making me want to make it up there.