Sunday, March 06, 2005

Glacier backcountry peaks

With Eric Newhouse on his 60th birthday, a climb of Scalplock Mountain in Glacier Park
The south end of Glacier Park near Essex has it all --- a great combination of isolation, high peaks and a great river --- the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
So, when a former colleague of mine, Jackie Rice, offered reservations to the Izaak Walton Inn in the midst of all this, I felt like I was to be deposited into the best of all places.
But unlike most folks who might treat the place like a retreat, I found myself frantic, trying to sample everything the area has to offer, and that’s a lot.
The Izaak Walton is a trip in itself. It is a lodge built on the edge of a train-switching yard where engines are added to help boost trains over nearby Marias Pass on the Continental Divide.
This historic inn was constructed in anticipation of a planned major gateway to Glacier, which was never built.
During the winter it is a cross county skiing Mecca. The rest of the year, it’s a great jumping off point for the abundant hiking, fishing and rafting in the area. Amtrak delivers guests to the inn’s back door where they are treated to an old-fashioned backcountry lodge experience.
Upon arrival, I immediately set out for the cross-country ski trails, but was disappointed by the lack of snow and warmth, which made the groomed trails icy and unfriendly to a diagonal skier like myself. It didn’t seem to bother the skate skiers, though, who were having a great spring skiing experience in short sleeves.
I quickly high-tailed it out of there, laced on my climbing boots and headed for higher ground. I had spied Elk peak, 7,835 feet, on my way in and noticed that its summit shoulder was bare of snow, offering an inviting route to the top.
I parked my car at the Autumn Creek Trail terminus and headed up, working my way through the forest to that shoulder.
It was a tad windy on the exposed ridge, but the exceptionally warm winter weather (in the 50s) made the climb enjoyable. There was snow on the ridges and on top, but it was the kind you could get your boot into without sinking to your kneecaps.
The highlight of this climb was passing three grazing Bighorn sheep that viewed me as a curiosity.
The climb offered tremendous views of the Great Bear Wilderness high country to the south.
My goal in climbing Elk was to scope the area for a climb on Saturday to celebrate Eric Newhouse’s 60th birthday. Eric was a colleague of mine at the Tribune and we’ve had a standing trip every year to celebrate his birthday. We’ve had several of them in the Essex area; all have been cross-country skiing.
But this year’s weather made that impossible, and that is why I turned to climbing.
Hovering above the inn, and across Highway 2 is Scalplock Mountain, 6,919 feet, which is a manned lookout in the summer.
There is a great trail which switchbacks up the south face of the mountain to the ridge top.
For about 1,000 feet the trail was clear of snow, but there was ice in quite a number of spots, which made the going treacherous.
Above that we got into snow, particularly on the ridge, where it was deep and we found ourselves sinking in above our kneecaps. We could have used snowshoes in spots, and saw evidence that others had used them.
While the climb across the face was in pine, fir and larch forest, the ridgeline is open, offering tremendous views in all directions --- the park to the north, the Great Bear Wilderness to the south, the Flathead Valley all the way to the Mission Mountains on the west, and the Bob Marshall and Rocky Mountain Front to the east. The Middle Fork is a loud presence below.
With some potholing we reached the lookout in time for lunch. The spire of Mount St. Nicholas in Glacier is the most imposing peak in sight. However, the snowcapped peaks of the Great Bear to the south were also awe-inspiring.
We followed the ridgeline down, and instead of dealing with the icy trail, we bushwhacked down through the trees, cutting the switchbacks --- having covered the 3,200 feet in elevation gain and loss in under six hours, breaks and all.

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