Glacier: An Alan Adventure

Our adventures in Glacier National Park started by driving to Whitefish, Montana to meet up with Alan and his wife Fran. Alan is leading our rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in November. He and I (Darius) met on the Grand Canyon in December of 2012. Alan and Fran are avid explorers and spend their weekends bagging Glacier National Park peaks, backcountry skiing and being awesome.

To kick off our Glacier experience Alan planned a backcountry hike that would get us up high to get some good views. Let me start by saying that these trips are called ‘Alan Adventures’ because Alan goes hard in the paint when it comes to planning epic adventures. Our last hike together took place in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina and it involved 4,500 feet of elevation gain over 10 miles. Luckily this was 2 days before my first marathon so around mile 18 of the marathon my quads just gave up and I hobbled my way to the finish through the freezing temperatures.

Our party on this trip consisted of Alan, Fran, Lindsy (Fran’s physical therapist friend from the area), Trevor and myself. We woke up early and filled the car with backpacks and our hands with homemade breakfast burritos and Lumi juices from Charlottesville.  We drove up and over Logan Pass to the St. Mary entrance station for our backcountry permits. I will cover the drive to Logan Pass in another blog; just know that it is a necessary part of any Glacier NP visit.

Our hike would be 40 miles over 3 days and 2 nights.  We started about 100 yards from the Canadian border and as the rain was sprinkling we put on rain jackets and began with a descent into one of Glaciers many valleys. After about 6 miles we stopped for a lunch where we huddled under trees to avoid rain and wind while enjoying peanut butter and jelly burritos. Our little lunch spot overlooked a backcountry ranger station that looked like a western novel. There was a log cabin building and a lush green pasture for horses surrounded by a massive log fence.

As we continued our hike we passed numerous people covered in rain gear and got, ‘oh, that’s far’ when we told them that we were camping at Sue Lake. We passed a camp with 4 college-aged dudes sitting around a fire drying out wet socks and wondered if we should call the day early. The rain hadn’t let up for 4 hours and we still had some significant distance and elevation to cover. We decided to trek on. It was unpleasant, but we weren’t cold.

The next several hours were breathtaking. We were hiking on a trail that zig-zagged up the mountain next to a waterfall. We reached the crest, crossed the creek and discovered two more waterfalls that were flowing from the top of the next bluff. We zig zagged up the mountain again, reached the crest and discovered 3 waterfalls dropping from the next bluff. Glacier is like that; you say to yourself that you have just seen the most magnificent thing. Then you cross a ridge, or look in another direction and discover that there is something even more magnificent.

The problem though, was that it was continuing to rain, and we were going higher and higher in elevation. We went from being wet and warm to being wet and cold relatively quickly. I don’t mean like, ‘oh, I’m cold, I’ll just turn up the heater in the car.’ I mean like ‘I’m cold, my whole body is shivering and I don’t know how to get warm again.’ Wet and cold is a very bad combination. It is the combination that can lead to hypothermia. Luckily we were about 1 mile for Sue Lake and there was no more elevation to gain. The kicker though, was a wind that whipped across the ridge as we were crossing some unmelted snow on our way towards Sue Lake.

The mood changed quickly and it was time to find a place to put up our tents, put on dry clothes and warm up. Alan and I ran ahead looking for a place to put up tents, he pointed out some stramatolites, which are some of the worlds oldest organisms are and basically big single-celled cyanobacteria masses. I took note to check in the morning and we scouted out a place to put up tents for the night. Alan jetboiled some vegetable bouillon and the live giving fluid provided warmth and salt. We sat in our tent and waited in sleeping bags as we hoped that the rain would break and we could cook some dinner. Our dreams came true. The rain stopped and the clouds parted. We were in a mountain meadow of yellow flowers and a pink, purple and orange sunset that would obviously be surpassed by rising of the sun the following morning, because remember, we are in Glacier.

The morning was the exact opposite of our previous day’s hike. It was bright, sunny and we laid out our gear to soak up the rays as we went through a series of sun salutations to celebrate. Our agenda for the day was simple. Bag some peaks, hike over a ridge and drop in on our campground.  Before I continue, you need to know two words. The words are scree and talus. Scree is a mass of small loose rocks; imagine rocks that are generally between the size of a baseball and a marble. Most of the rock is not circular but rectangular and flat. Talus is a mass of larger rocks, think softball to basketball and much larger. The distinction in my mind is that scree slides under your foot. When you step on scree your foot sinks in and you feel like you are sliding down the mountain. Talus does not usually slide as the bigger pieces have settled. You will also need to know the word saddle, when you have two peaks next to each other they will often form a huge U. The saddle is the lowest point on that U between the peaks.

This video shows you what SCREE looks like. It is very easy to run down and most of the rocks are smaller than your feet.

This photo shows you what TALUS looks like. Notice how much bigger the rocks are. You cannot run down this as easily.

This photo shows you what TALUS looks like. Notice how much bigger the rocks are. You cannot run down this as easily.

We made our way to the first peak with light bags. The point at which I got nervous is when we spotted mountain goats, below us. Yes, we were higher up on this mountain than the goats that live on high alpine peaks. We hiked across a scree-covered saddle and began scrabbling up some scree that would take us to the peak summit. A slip here would take you over the edge and down hundreds if not thousands of feet. I started to get dizzy and decided it was best to turn back. I photographed the rest of the crew from afar and they returned with pictures of a 2,000 sheer drop and some amazingly blue and aquamarine lakes.

We returned to our bags and moved to beginning hiking to our next camp. We descended into the valley with the 3 waterfalls and made our way on the trail until we got to a massive talus field that would be our route to camp for the night. Again, I was less than comfortable with the heights and slant of the ground that we were traversing.  If people were above you and they dislodged rocks they often came tumbling down. I opted to hike at the bike and moved with the speed of a tortoise. 

We were aiming to cross a saddle, the other side of the saddle would take us to our campground for the night. We began hiking up a massive talus field that felt like we were hiking straight up. As we came to a cut in the rock there was a 10 foot tall section where we had to climb hand over hand to continue up the talus field.  As we approached this cut we heard a high pitched REEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Alan was at the head of the group and we observed a marmot barreling down the mountain towards the cut in the rocks. Alan was an arms length away from the cut and the marmot ran to the edge of the rock, where it was nearly face to face with Alan and issued another war cry REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Alan put up his hiking poles and prepared to defend himself. The marmot jumped down the rocks and continued down the slope. Was it a marmot scout? Would we be continuously attacked as we continued our climb?  We hiked on and escaped any more close encounters but consistently saw marmots hop out and hide in the rocks. As we got to the top of the saddle we celebrated by eating a snack, and taking jumping pictures.

Alan crossed the saddle and told me that I might be mad at him. Then I crossed over the saddle. Ugh. Scree fields that ended in 10-foot drop off of cliffs. Where were we supposed to hike?! We scrambled and slid our way on scree as we hiked found cuts in the cliffs to scamper down little scree chutes. We continued this for far longer than I would have liked before the scree turned to talus and we were able to hike down somewhat regularly. It’s a good thing that I had recently seen a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that said ‘Do something every day that scares you’. I just kept reminding myself that I was trying to do something that would scare me.

In Glacier National Park you do much of your cooking at a shared communal space. You don’t cook near your tents, because you don’t want bears coming by your tent for food. You also put your food and toothpaste, soap, deodorant into bear bins that are bear proof. In our communal cook space sat one dude. He wore a large black puffy jacket and had clean cut salt and pepper hair and a wispy 8-10 inch beard.  He wasn’t eating, just siting. He was supposed to go hiking with his ‘lady friend’ but she had bailed on him. I felt bad for him, but was also not surprised by his circumstance given that he just sat in the communal space watching us eat without really talking to us. We enjoyed a dinner of spaghetti; sun dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and cheese and headed off to bed to rest for the 20 miles we needed to hike out to Logan Pass.

Our final day was a slog. Wake up early and hike.  The final part of our hike was spent on the Highline. The Highline is one of the most common hikes in Glacier National Park. It leaves from Logan Pass and with relatively little elevation gain or loss takes you on a hiking tour that provides you incredible vistas of the surrounding mountains.

When you are nearing the end of a long day of hiking you car very little about the views. The end of hiking is all that matters. Being able to put you pack down and relax is all that matters. We slogged our way through it and arrived at Logan Pass! Fran, Lindsy and Trevor hitched a ride to one of our cars that we left at the western entrance to the park. Alan and I hitched our way back to where we had started several days before. After stopping for a beer with one of our rides and nearly hitting a bird in our 3rd ride we arrived back at the car only a couple hours after leaving Logan Pass.

We drove home and slept hard. We had survived the cold, the mountains and the weird people that you occasionally run into out in the wild.

Glacier National Park Gallery