WEST GLACIER – Climbers often liken the pinnacle-studded summit routes of Glacier National Park to a puzzle box, which must be unlocked through a secret series of manipulations before its labyrinthine passageways and hidden delights are revealed.
Recently, while riding a shuttle bus on Going-to-the-Sun Road, several visitors were scanning the mountains above Logan Pass when I overheard them dismiss a group of frequently climbed peaks as impossible summits. The previous summer, a group of friends and I had dispatched the whole majestic circuit in one seven-hour push.
Rather than attempt to demystify the park’s arcane riddles, I kept silent. It wasn’t my place to explain that beyond the alluvial fan and high above the daunting scree basins rose steep, limestone chimneys and vertical gulleys that led to the park’s highest, snow-crowned points. Only to the determined climber do the mountains betray their brilliant ledge systems, expansive goat trails, the shelves and ridges and rock staircases that seem to materialize out of nowhere, as though in an M.C. Escher lithograph.
With over 200 named peaks, the climbing opportunities in Glacier are endless, and their difficulty levels range from simple scrambles to class 6 technical horrors.
After just five years climbing in the park, many of its routes still strike me as impossible. But teasing out the intricacies of a summit route and solving its problems in the face of danger and extreme physical exertion is among the most intriguing, life-affirming sensations, and the mystery – the not knowing – is what makes the challenge so rewarding.
And so I kept silent, thinking instead about the secret world that climbing in the park had opened up for me like a locket.
Of course, the “secrets” of Glacier are relative concepts, as evidenced by the scores of names and dates inscribed on the scroll-like summit registers concealed in rock cairns on many of the park’s highest peaks. But for the individual climber, every summit is the discovery of a new world, where jeweled lakes pepper the alpine landscape beneath glaciated cliffs and hanging gardens, and rock-spangled spires loom like melting candles.
When I moved from Missoula to the Flathead Valley two years ago, I was most excited about my sudden proximity to Glacier. In Missoula, I had developed a passion for trail running, and I found solace on the sprawling network of buffed single-track just outside my backdoor in the Rattlesnake Valley. A steady diet of high-mileage trail running, nurtured by Missoula’s supportive community of runners and mountain athletes, quickly segued into an obsessive interest in ultramarathon races, and I soon learned that my body was capable of covering distances of 50 and 100 miles.
In search of a similar community in the Flathead Valley, I was introduced to a few local runners and enthusiastically invited myself along on their next foray into Glacier.
On the weekdays, their running schedules looked similar to mine – a daily regimen of padding along rolling single-track or up steep but runnable grades for a couple of hours.
But on the weekends, the time most often reserved for a “long run,” the sport grew into something else entirely.
Being relatively unfamiliar with the park, I gamely deferred to the expertise of my new friends and, with my hydration pack stuffed with energy gels and a light shell, we trotted away from the Logan Pass visitor center and toward Mount Oberlin. The plan was to summit Oberlin, then Clements, Cannon and Reynolds mountains, an enchainment of peaks situated atop Logan Pass like a jewel-studded diadem. We ran the ridges, power-hiked up or glissaded down the steep scree and snow fields, and carefully climbed the class 4 and 5 pitches.
In seven hours, we were back at the parking lot, noshing apples and kippered fish, and my life was changed. The long-distance running had enabled me to move farther and faster in a rugged mountain landscape than I thought possible, and the realization awakened something primal inside of me.
Back at home in Whitefish, I began poring over topo maps, trying to construct other equally ambitious loops and peak circuits.
The next weekend I parked my car east of Logan Pass and shuttled up to the Highline Trail, with the aim of running over Swiftcurrent and Piegan passes, then summiting Pollock Mountain before descending back to the Sun Road. The trail at Feather Plume Falls had been closed the previous week because a hiker from St. Paul, Minn., startled a grizzly bear and was attacked. The trail had reopened the day prior, but the attack lent an ominous feeling to the final leg of the journey.
Nibbling on a granola bar atop Pollock, I was struck by the combination of emotions throughout the day. At various points I had been overcome by awe, exhilaration, fear and exhaustion, which all gave way to intense satisfaction after reaching the car.
I’ve enjoyed numerous other mountain enchainments since my introduction to the hidden delights of Glacier, and continue to learn more and more about the art of climbing and how to find reasonably safe routes through the cliffs thanks to the experienced mountaineers who have graciously invited me along.
Although the elevation of Glacier’s peaks isn’t particularly high, the vertical expression of the park’s mountains – the elevation from base to summit – is among the most extreme in North America. It’s not uncommon to be standing on the edge of a 3,500-foot cliff. The iconic north face of Mount Siyeh in the Many Glacier area exceeds 4,200 vertical feet, and Mount Stimson is 6,000-plus feet from its base on Nyack Creek.
The effect is breathtaking.
But the billion-year-old sedimentary rock that characterizes Glacier’s rugged landscape makes climbing a risky pursuit. Because much of the rock won’t hold protection like cams, and pounding pitons into the rock is discouraged, the climbing is most often unprotected, with success hinging on a climber’s ability to identify the safest routes both up and down the mountains. J. Gordon Edwards’ classic tome, “A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park,” has the most definitive catalogue of climbs in the park and has counseled scores of climbers to the highest summits.
Other guidebooks have cropped up and websites like SummitPost.org include route descriptions and photos.
And while solo climbing is extremely satisfying, for me, an enthusiastic if overeager proselyte, nothing rivals the company of a good climbing party. Each weekend I remind myself of how fortunate I am to be invited on treks through the mountains by architects of peak enchainments whose idea of a “walk in the park” entails seven summits and an elevation gain upward of five figures.
The blueprint for one of the most memorable trips came from Brad Lamson and Erich Peitzsch, with whom I climbed Ahern, Ipasha, Iceberg and Swiftcurrent Peaks over what remains one of the most jaw-dropping routes I’ve experienced.
Another recent Lamson special, undertaken by a clutch of ultrarunners, including elite athlete and recent Flathead-transplant Emily Judd, took us from the entrance station at Two Medicine and over Spot and Red mountains, then along a ridgeline that ascended five other unnamed piles of rock before spitting us out on Pitamakan Pass and back to our car.
The summit register on Spot Mountain showed only a few names from recent summers, and most of them were familiar.
There’s a kinship that grows out of climbing in the park, or in any mountain environment, which is difficult to find elsewhere. It is born of sweat and concentration, of fear and the invitation of danger. It comes from confidence and strength.
And at the end of a long day, when the final summit is reached and a safe descent is completed, and the beer and pizza has been ordered, the exhaustion yields to excitement and the conversation turns to talk of the next adventure.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at email@example.com.