Sunday, August 08, 2004

A fogged in Swan Peak

A fogged in, aborted climb of Swan Peak
I guess it’s a sign that the drought may be loosening its grip on Montana.
Four times this summer I’ve had to alter or abort climbing trips because of the wet or fogged in weather.
It happened to me again on Saturday when I went to the Swan Valley in western Montana to climb Swan Peak (9,289 feet) with a group from the Glacier Mountaineering Society.
Even in good weather this is a very long day trip, probably best off to be done in two days.
We were led by Jim Valentine, of Somers, who loves this area and has pioneered a direct route to the top by tending a trail in the otherwise nearly impassable tangle of Squeezer Creek.
He can show you a topographic map where he’s gone just a little further each year setting a path to the two alpine lakes just below the peak. He’s had the help of Plum Creek timber, which owns some of the land and has cruised and marked trees, and local outfitters who have used chainsaws to clear trail for their horses. Jim has also “tagged” the area with bright orange and shocking pink tapes that can’t be missed. They are necessary because the foliage here is so thick. Without his trail the bushwhack to the lakes and this direct route would be a hellacious experience.
Still, this is a very primitive trail certainly not built to Forest Service specs and it can be tough to follow as it snakes its way up the Squeezer valley.
There is no forest on the east side of the Continental Divide anything like this dense mix of trees and other vegetation. There are some areas where you can peer off into the tangle and can’t see beyond 20 feet because the trees and foliage are so thick and dark.
I found walking took more mental energy than I had expected.
On the east side of the divide you’ve always got vistas to marvel over --- the trees are sparse enough and short enough you can see through them or over them for miles.
It made me admire the mental toughness of the west side orienteers who put in the trails or go off trail to spots on a map.
This Squeezer Creek route gains about 1,000 feet in the first several miles and at the north fork juncture gains more than 2,000 feet to the first and then second Squeezer lakes.
At the clearing at the foot of the first Squeezer Lake we were treated to the sight of two mother elk with two calves at the head of the lake. They quickly scampered off and up to the upper Squeezer Lake, whose waters cascade over a waterfall into lower Squeezer Lake.
The headwalls above both lakes are quite striking. Granite, argillite and sedimentary rocks abruptly rise more than 1,000 feet.
Unfortunately, a dense cloud-cover and fog never lifted and temperatures plunged toward the 30s, with a brisk wind, and we decided that it would be folly to climb a peak we couldn’t see.
Now I know the route to the summit ridge and will come back another day.
Despite this being a high-summer weekend the traffic in the Swan Valley was sparse. Yes, there has been some subdivision and commercial development; this valley remains an isolated Montana jewel.

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