Sunday, August 22, 2010

Glacier: Red Eagle Pass and Norris Traverse

At Red Eagle Lake 
Crossing tributary of Red Eagle Creek

Split Mountain from camp at head of Red Eagle Creek 
Me, after cresting Red Eagle wall

Walking the traverse at steep angle

Old Park Service map showing where the trail went before being abandoned during WWII
This excursion covered two trips I’d been wanting to do for years: the search for the Red Eagle Pass via the St. Mary trailhead, and the Norris Traverse.
After reaching Red Eagle Pass we continued on east and did the Norris Traverse in reverse from the classic way.
This was my Glacier Park Centennial trip, and a very satisfying one at that.
The trail through the Red Eagle Pass was discontinued by the park during WWII, taken off maps and not maintained for nearly 70 years. It is now only a trace in spots, overgrown by alders, willows and other brush and further disguised by several wildfires.
At one time it had been a main thoroughfare through Glacier connecting Two Medicine to St. Mary via the Nyack and the pass. Horse parties regularly went through the pass on this trail.
Some of that part of the park is now seen on the trail between Cutbank Creek campground and St. Mary on a route now referred to as Glacier’s “Inner Passage.”
Just using the map measurements I estimated the Red Eagle Pass portion from St. Mary to be about 15 miles, but a very rugged 15 miles with hurdles such as fire blowdown, brush tangles, multiple game trails, extensive marsh and wetland with plenty of unpredictable and potentially lethal moose randomly patrolling it. The pass sits about 2,700 feet above St. Mary, but those are 2,700 hard-gained feet.
We encountered a seasoned Glacier mountaineer on the Norris Traverse who, when told that we had made it “up the Red Eagle gut,” said he hadn’t heard of anyone in recent memory who had done so.
The first traces of the trail can be found about a mile and a half south of Red Eagle Lake where Red Eagle takes a deep bend not far above where Medicine Owl Creek enters it.
The creek must be waded twice, once on the current trail. Off that trail and just beyond a heavily wooded section there is a second crossing, this time just east of where the first traces of the old trail can be seen in a burn. We followed it some distance past a triple headed waterfalls, down into a deep gully and back to a ridge of red argillite rock. Here is where you’ll lose the trail and see only pieces of it unless you get lucky.
We followed the band of red argillite toward the creek, picked up a trace and followed it to the first of what seemed to be a never ending series of large beaver ponds. We crossed the stream and followed its east side until forced to cross again, where we encountered even larger swamp ponds.
There were animal trails and traces for a couple of miles in and out of burned forest while we watched for two forks of the creek to come together, a sign that we were nearing a great valley that contains a gigantic waterfall that drops down a massive cliff face.
While we were now out of the burn and the blown-down trees, our biggest obstacles became willows, alders and thimbleberry bushes that were up to our shoulders and over our heads.
The massive cliff curves around the valley and culminates in a point just west of the valley.
Luckily, we found good game trails through the brush that allowed us to navigate to that valley using occasional glimpses of that point for navigation.
We had started hiking at 8 a.m., and began our slog through this jungle about 1 p.m., finally arriving in the valley at 8:30 p.m., with impressive views of Split Mountain to the east, the waterfall in front of us, with the massive cliffs wrapping around to the west with Clyde and Logan peaks on the plateau above the cliffs, but in full view.
Our reward was one of the prettiest campsites I had ever seen, at the foot of one of the small beaver lakes.
The next morning we were awakened by bugling elk and the alpine glow of sunrise on the peaks.
Our goal this day was to find where the horse trail breached the 1,000 feet cliff band. One would think that an easy task, certainly after looking down on the cliffs later in the day after we breached them with our own route. We could see in the dense brush from a far distance the faint 'former' switchbacks.
We sure tried to find the old trail and the switchbacks. That would have saved us the immensely hard and dangerous route we clawed out up the cliffs. Looking for the old trail we got sucked up into the cliffs. It became too late to turn around. My climbing buddy Mark Hertenstein kept reminding me not to look down as we struggled with tenuous hand-holds and incredibly steep pitches. I knew what the consequences were if we slipped and were hurtled downward with heavy backpacks fastened to our shoulders. We were fortunate to find another opening in the wall.
When I walked across I tried to find where horses had ridden a trail down this wall and once again found traces at the head. I’m not sure the route through the cliffs on that trail would be very pleasant for all the brush. Certainly, no horse could pass through now.
Once on top we were in the alpine basin below Clyde and Logan peaks that guard Red Eagle and Logan glaciers. It is a vast meadow full of alpine wildflowers and grasses, a meadow much larger than the one encountered at Logan Pass. My mind wandered about the great glacier basin just west of there on the other side of Almost a Dog Pass.
We dropped into the Red Eagle Pass meadows, a place of small trees, a couple of small lakes, lots of grasses and jaw-dropping scenery that included yet another spectacular unnamed waterfall cascading down from the alpine meadows.
After setting up camp we went hunting for the pass itself and within a mile found it in deep woods we cut through on what must have been the old trail. As the pass gave way to the Nyack and Mount Stimson to the south we could catch a glimpse of that massive 10,000 feet peak.
The third morning we began the Norris Traverse in reverse, mounting the rounded mountain that rose 1,400 feet from our camp. This began a day of mountain ridge-line rapture.
We were lucky enough to have strung three clear and sunny days together and our views were amazing along the ridgeline that varies from 6,500 to 8,800 feet from Red Eagle Pass to Norris Mountain in the Triple Divide Pass area.
It follows goat trails most of its 4-mile length and includes climbing Mt. Norris (8,882 feet) and Triple Divide Peak (8,020 feet) before dropping down a treacherous gully into a basin above Medicine Grizzly Lake.
Along the way we got marvelous views of Glacier’s remotest backcountry and glaciers no one can see from a car or from one of the popular trails. We also saw mountain goats and bighorn sheep. At one point I could see five of the six park 10,000 feet peaks with only Kintla out of view (or my identification capabilities). There were a number of high mountain alpine lakes, and powerful views of the Nyack-Coal Creek valleys that constitute Glacier’s “wilderness” portion of the park.
I found only one part of the traverse slightly tedious, and that was the stretch from the saddle west of Norris to the foot of Triple Divide Peak. It amounts to a slog across talus and scree and side-hilling below cliffs.
We encountered only one party of five hikers/climbers on our trip, a group from Kalispell/Browning/Cut Bank doing the Norris Traverse through the Gunsight Lake, but that was brief and pleasureable.
We finally got back to Triple Divide Pass about 7:30 p.m., and hoofed it out to Cutbank Creek Campground by 10:45 p.m., exhausted but exhilarated by the Traverse and the trip, generally.
The goats do this traverse every day!

A look at Split Mountain up close 
Did we just die and go to heaven? 
Split Mountain, the king of the hills in these parts

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