Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Summer's summit trip

Mayr and Jim Tarvin of Chicago at the Iceberg Notch high above Iceberg Lake
I've just finished the summer's big trip, a six day, 60+miles backcountry trip in the northern part of Glacier National Park.
It wasn't something I had planned, but came from my brother Dan's neighbor and friend Jim Tarvin, a Chicagoan, who had patiently waded through the permit process and scored this treasured route for our group.
Every day was eventful, and the weather cooperative (if smokey with forest fires).
We started a Many Glacier and went through the Ptarmigan Tunnel to the foot of Elizabeth Lake the first day, stopped at Mokowanis Lake via the Belly River Ranger Station the second night, through Stoney Indian Pass after a stop at Mokowanis Falls and a night at the Stoney Indian Lake campground the third night, a slog through the Kootenai valley and up to Fifty Mountain the fourth day with a side trip to the Sue Lake Overlook, the magnificent alpine stroll on the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet with a side trip to Ahern Pass and the Iceberg Notch before settling into camp at the Granite Park campground for the fifth night, and a final day back to Many Glacier via Swiftcurrent Pass, the chalet and a climb to the Swiftcurrent Lookout.
A Glacier backcountry trip is far different than a Bob Marshall Wilderness trip.
Mayr Tarvin at Swiftcurrent Lookout
In Glacier, permits are mandatory.  In the Bob you come and go as you please, and at no cost.
Those Glacier permits are so popular that applicants are subjected to a lottery and must put their money up front.
We met people on this trip who had been trying for this particular route for six years.
Jim Tarvin and my brother had put in for this route four years ago and got only a portion of it.
Normally, I wouldn't subject myself to this sort of process, but since Jim was successful and offered me a spot I grabbed it.
It also allowed me to complete a portion of that stretch between Logan Pass and Waterton Lake I hadn't done --- the trail between Stoney Indian trail and Ahern Pass.
My sister-in-law Kristin takes a lunch break on the way to Stoney Indian Pass
Glacier backcountry camping is much more social than in the Bob.  You are forced into campsites of roughly two to six sites where there are mostly no campfires allowed and food is prepared and eaten in a communal area.  There is a pit toilet, usually an open-air throne and either poles or a bear box to stash food away from those ursine creatures.
In the Bob you camp where you like, find your own food hanging tree and go to the bathroom where it is convenient.  It encourages a solitary experience.
I like that.
Les, John and Ron, our "3 Amigos"
However, I grew fond of the people I met along the way, particularly three Illinois hikers who had the exact itinerary we had.  We referred to them as the "Three Amigos."
One of them, Les, has an arthritic knee and courageously made this long trek that included as much as 12 miles and 2,800 feet of elevation gain in a single day.  On the Stoney Indian Lake to Fifty Mountain segment he fell far behind his two partners and gave up as the sun began to set and put up a tent for the night.  His partners hiked back to him in the dark, loaded up gear and got back to camp about 12:30 a.m.
We were all concerned, and quite happy to greet him at breakfast.
The next day all three stuck together, but again, didn't arrive in camp until nearly midnight.
We don't know how the final segment turned out.
Our unexpected dinner guest. (Compliments Gene Prudhon)
The night Les was AWOL, a young grizzly bear wandered into our food prep area with about 10 of us present.
He began turning over rocks looking for insects about 50 feet from our area. Occasionally he would look our way and make a half-heated move in our direction and then return to his search.  He wasn't threatening at all. After a few minutes of filming and photographing him several of us shooed him off with a "Git."  We never saw him again.  Unfortunately, I hadn't brought a camera to get a photo.  When Ron sends a photo I'll post it here.
At Sue Lake Overlook with Chaney Glacier.  Mount Merritt in background.
The scenery on this trip is sensational.  Segments are alpine, others are stream bottoms. There are lots of stream crossings on swinging bridges.  The Stoney Indian Pass area is a gorgeous 360 degrees with waterfalls, high mountain lakes and high peaks in all directions.
I liked the Fifty Mountain campground the best because it was the most open and flanked by a large meadow with easy access to a great side trip, the Sue Lake Overlook.  There we could look down on the Stoney area dominated by Pyramid and Merritt mountains and the Chaney Glacier below us.
Of the side trips I liked the Ahern Pass/Iceberg Notch the best.
Ahern Pass is the destination most would be most familiar with.  It is .3 of a mile from the trail and the overlook is high above Helen Lake at the base of Mount Ipasha, with waterfalls streaming down Ipasha's flanks to fill the lake with its turquoise glacial till.  Above it 1,000 feet to the east is the wall flanked by the B-7 Pillar and Iceberg Peak.  Between those two spires is the Iceberg Notch that rises a couple of thousand feet above Iceberg Lake, one of Glacier's top attractions.  From the lake, the thought of climbing to the Notch is terrifying, although for experienced climbers a real treat.  I've done it three times.
From Ahern Pass it is a much easier scramble through scree to a feint goat trail. Jim and Mayr handled it like old, experienced hands.
Typical scenery on Granite-Swiftcurrent segment

They were game enough to try the scramble and were rewarded with the sensational view of the ice-filled lake far below.  I yodeled down and a yell was returned from the ant-like people we could barely make out on the lake's shore.
Another must-do side trip is the climb to Swiftcurrent peak's lookout tower, which Mayr and I did while Kristin and Jim finished the hike down to Many Glacier.  It rises 1,700 feet above Granite Park chalet (another must-stop side trip) or about 1,300 feet above Swiftcurrent Pass.  You can't drop your packs, so we humped them up to the top in 45 minutes.  The views were well worth it.
Montana is a small state, and of course we met folks we knew on top ---- Beth Ikeda, a Missoula physical therapy professor and her mother, Enid, 80, a retired Great Falls teacher.  It was inspiring to see Enid reach the top.
Enid Ikeda, 80, reaches the top of Swiftcurrent Peak.
On the way to the top Mayr spotted what looked like a bear.  But, I noticed it had a tail and immediately recognized it as a wolverine, only the second I had ever seen in the wild.
On the Fifty Mountain-Granite section Mayr thought she had seen a marmot in the distance after I had identified a marmot whistle.  Off in the distance we observed a grizzly bear grazing.  Quite a thrill.
Three goats on a snowfield
Other notable wildlife spotting included three pairs of ewe/lamb bighorn sheep on the side of the Iceberg Notch climb and three mountain goats on the Granite-Swiftcurrent segment.
Bighorn sheep ewe and lamb near Iceberg Notch
Huckleberries and thimble berries were at their height and we gorged ourselves. The high trail through the grand bowls like Cattle Queen or Ahern Creek were mind-boggling scenery.  There were waterfalls everywhere. The mountains and their glaciers in the Lewis Range provided an amazing western horizon.
I'm sure I'm leaving out plenty, but I can tell you this was a trip of a lifetime.
Our team from l to r:  Tom Kotynski Jim Tarvin, Kristin Kotynski, Mayr Tarvin at Ptarmigan Tunnel on first day

Other notable hikes

These included hikes along Folsom Lake near Loomis, CA and the 12 mile Piegan Pass to Many Glacier walk through with my wife, and finally, yet another climb of Mount Baldy in the Highwoods.

Katie Kotynski on the Piegan Pass/Swiftcurrent walk through July 26

No comments: