|Ted Cogswell nears the top|
|To the east, Sunburst Lake from the top|
|Finally, I reach the top of Swan Peak|
|It was a tough bushwhack up Squeezer Peak|
I had long heard how tough it is to climb Swan Peak (elevation: 9, 289) in a day hike.
Its distance from anything: the nearest settlement is Condon, about 15 miles south on Montana 83 in the Swan Valley, makes it a long destination for climbers.
I’ve heard of friends using the Lion’s Creek Trail No. 25, but that involves a backpack, as does an approach from Sunburst Lake in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
So, a couple of years ago when Jim Valentine of the Glacier Mountaineering Society, offered a day hike to the peak up Squeezer Creek, I jumped at the chance.
I had wondered about this route because Pat Caffrey in his 1983 classic, “Climbers Guide to Montana,” (Mountain Press, Missoula), wrote, “One of the most popular wrong ways (to this peak) is the Squeezer Creek approach, which involves a four-mile bushwhack through alder brush up a trail that doesn’t exist.”
That description is outdated largely thanks to Valentine, who over the years has cut and tagged a trail up Squeezer with red and orange tape on repeated climbs, and who has urged Plum Creek, which logs the area, to help clear the path. The climbers, hunters and elk have done the rest.
The trail is quite easy to follow and is tagged all the way into Upper Squeezer Lake where climbers then have to deal with steep rock.
I went with Valentine two years ago, making it only as far as that Upper Lake where we were driven out by a steady downpour of rain.
On Tuesday I was successful, accompanied by brothers Ted and Paul Cogswell.
To reach the starting point turn onto the road heading into the Swans at the Goat Creek state ranger station. At about a mile and a half take the Squeezer Creek fork another four miles where you’ll find a gated road. Park here and begin the hike, bearing to the left at the first opportunity. Not far from where this road switchbacks (after a slashpile) it becomes the trail you are looking for. It is 5 miles of cedar and hemlock forest, thimbleberries and dense alder thicket and some gut-busting uphills (without switchbacks) to reach the first lake. The route is to the right of the waterfall to the second lake.
At the second lake Swan Peak looms directly above you 2,500 feet. Look to the left where you’ll see a saddle. Head for the saddle, but just before reaching it start working your way toward a steep scree slope to gain the ridgeline. Once on the ridgeline gain and descend the first two small bumps. Then, stay below the third much larger bump heading instead for the saddle before the summit cap on the west face. There’s a snowfield and small tarn lake here full of fresh snowmelt, a good place to refresh before climbing the final 1,000 feet. That involves climbing a ridgeline to about 200 feet below the summit where you’ll encounter a chute that looks dicey, but isn’t. It has great hand and footholds and is easy to get up and come down. From there bear to your right through the rock as you climb upward to the final ridge and a short walk to a summit.
Although most of the climb is in dense forest, once you reach the lakes the views get increasingly better. I’ve seen elk and their calves at the lower lake. Valentine saw goats above the upper lake on Sunday. We saw several piles of bear scat on the trail in the forest.
The upper lake is much prettier and more alpine than the lower, and it has jumping fish in it.
The summit ridge above the upper lake reveals the amazing basin to the north, which also contains too smaller lakes, and a massive headwall to the top.
The views from the top are superb. There is Sunburst Lake directly below, fed by 11 small glaciers hanging off the east side of Swan Peak. Off to the west the Missions and their glaciers gleam in the sunlight. There are great views of the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the West, and more of the Swan crest folding out before you to the south.
There’s a register on top with names in it going back to 1979.
We took 14 hours from top to bottom, but had numerous stops. Valentine on Sunday said he soloed in 10-1/2 hours, including stops to fish the upper lake and 45 minutes for views from the top.