After some time off of peak-bagging to, among other things, read those Stieg Larsson books that have sold so well, try to be a tourist, and make my tiresome way through Idaho, I decided to spend some time in Glacier National Park on my way to Washington. I use the phrase “on the way” loosely since, as I learned, Glacier is not a convenient side-trip unless you are going to or coming from Kalispell.
From the few pictures I had seen, I thought it resembled the area around Aspen, with lush vegetation and soft, crumbly rock. In some ways it is an extreme version of the Elks, with more greenery, more wildlife, and steeper, even more crumbly rock. But being a glaciated range, my friend’s description of it — like someone had gone at the rock with a huge ice cream scoop — is probably better. Rivers and streams have barely started carving the rock, so the range is full of steep, flat-topped fins and near-vertical bowls with cascades pouring down their sides.
If you see cars stopped by the side of (or in) the road in Montana, stop, grab your camera, and look around, because there’s usually something worth seeing. On my drive from the Many Glaciers entrance to East Glacier, I was clued in to the presence of both a bald eagle sitting obliviously in a tree, and (I think) a grizzly bear cub foraging by the roadside. Montana is teeming with wildlife.
Reynolds and Dragon Tail (class 3?)
I got to the park late, so I headed up to the Logan Pass visitor’s center early to find a map. Unfortunately it didn’t open until 9, so I chose a nearby easy peak for the day, Mt. Reynolds. The first part of the route follows a boardwalk that seems to be one of the park’s most popular tourist trails; it was swarmed when I returned in the afternoon.
I left the trail at the pass to follow a boot track and fainter trail around to Reynolds’ southwest ridge, then scrambled up the goat paths, scree, and class 2 steps, passing occasional cairns, to the final, steep summit cap. With the cairns, this is no worse than easy class 3, but it must have taken some time to find the route through a maze of ledges and breaks. The summit is a long, narrow, flat sidewalk with 2000 feet of impressive exposure to the north. I opened a giant register canister to discover a quart bottle with… scraps of paper inside. Oh, well.
After lunch, I made my way back to the saddle and, the weather looking decent, decided to try climbing the long, narrow ridge to the south that had caught my attention on the way up. The ridge consists of three parts: a medium-length section with a broad, flat top, a long section with a jagged top and one vertical side, and a short section with a rounded top leading to the summit. After some experimenting, I found that rather than proceeding along the ridge, it was best to drop down to a goat path on the eastern side after the first, flat section. The improbable ledge bypasses the impressive middle section, and leads to a section of broken class 2-3 rock that can be climbed to reach the final section.
After about an hour of scrambling and backtracking, I reached the summit. Fortunately the peak had a register, so I learned that it was called Dragon Tail. The guidebook back at the visitor’s center said it was 3rd class, but I managed to add a bit of difficulty by not knowing the route.
The tourist trail was a circus by the time I returned, with people wearing all kinds of clothing and footwear having all kinds of trouble with the slushy snow. The chaos did not, however, disturb a mother marmot nursing her young 30 feet from the trail.
A long hike to nowhere (class 4, 28-30 mi)
The original plan was to climb Mt. Merritt, the second-highest peak in the park, by Norman Clyde’s northeast ridge route. After reading in the guidebook that I would have to drive 40+ miles up to the Canadian border to start a 36-mile round-trip, I decided to try something else. The new plan was to do the standard glacier route with an approach through Ptarmigan Tunnel, which would involve less driving and hiking distance. Also, it would be in a more popular part of the park, so the grizzlies would have other meal choices.
I got a late start around 8 (which is more like 7, since Montana stretches the mountain time zone west), but by running the flatter stretches, made it to Elizabeth Lake before 10:30. Things went downhill from there: First, a party heading the other direction mentioned that a grizzly had been seen earlier near their camping area. I set up a crampon to chime against my axe to warn the bear, and warily kept going. Then a Swiss backpacker, trying to be helpful, gave me a variant of the usual “go not unto the glacier alone, or surely ye must die” speech. There are glaciers and glaciers, and the one on Merritt is relatively small and tame, with little crevasse danger, but scoldings never help my morale. When I couldn’t find a usable path up the streams where the route leaves the trail, I decided to do something else instead.
I got to Helen Lake around lunch, soaked myself in DEET, and tried to eat lunch in the campsite’s “food preparation area.” However, the mosquitoes were thick enough that I probably would have had to apply bugspray to my eyes and tongue to be able to eat, so I ate quickly in a slightly less infested area, and set out to find the path up Ahern Pass.
There is a faint trail along the lefthand side of the lake, but it gives out in scree and snow, and I wasted much time and energy trying to find it in the brutal midday heat. After having a snack and, taking a chance, replenishing my water from a snowbank, I decided to just head up the flatter lefthand wall to see what I found. I finally found a well-established goat track; I could tell by the tufts of goat hair where it passed through stunted pine trees. The trail one again disintegrated near the rocks to the left of the pass, but I forced my way through the broken cliffs and along the ridge, and back down to the pass.
I found three women at the pass (and some sheep, but alas, Mr. Colbert, no gold). They had turned around part-way up Ahern Peak because of the approaching storm, and I didn’t bother to try for the summit, but ran on ahead of them toward the Granite Park chalet and the pass back to my car. The storm came in quickly, and while luckily the trail was well below the ridge, I had to endure a mile or two of hail before the chalet. I considered dropping in to wring out my socks and refill my water, but instead took advantage of a break in the weather to hurry over the pass. As I found out later, the useless chalet doesn’t even have water for mere backpackers, so I didn’t miss much. I dried out on the hike back, anyways.