45 Miles By Foot
I'm back from the land of the Big Sky, and man they're right, the sky is bigger out there. Not sure how they do it. We had a good vacation in Glacier National Park. I did five days of hiking. Two days were quite grueling, but the sights were good. Monday and Wednesday were the most interesting. Wednesday more so.
Saturday, July 8 - South Dakota to Glacier National Park
Today we drove straight from northeast South Dakota through to St. Mary, Montana. Something like 16 hours (7am to 11pm) of driving. We made a fuel stop in Circle, MT just like ten years ago. Well, not quite like that time, since we didn't run out of gas a half mile out of town this time. Visited the same service station as before though, but it looks like we may not be able to repeat that stop in the future as there is a "For Sale" sign in the window and the guy looks ready to retire.
Cute little station though. The rest of crossing Montana was about as exciting as you'd expect. Lots of desolate land punctuated by wire fences supported by random sticks and branches. Definitely different from southeast Minnesota, but we made good time. Our accommodations were three little one-room cabins for the six of us.
Sunday, July 9 - Grinnell Glacier
Our "warm up" was something like a 13 mile hike from Many Glacier Hotel up to Grinnell Glacier.
I think this must be the third time I had hiked this trail, still haven't actually made it to the end, this time getting cut short when my mom tripped and sliced open her arm. She went to the emergency room, but it had been too long for stitches. We did find out that there is a nasty strain of penicillin resistant staph in the area, so if you get injured out there you might want antibiotics. Despite cutting the hike short, we were able to see the glacier, which has shrunk noticeably since our first visit in 1993.
Monday, July 10 - Granite Park Chalet
Today was insane. We planned to visit Granite Park Chalet, a minimum-service lodge up in the mountains. The chalet has quite a few rooms, in a few buildings, but minimal concessions facilities so you pack in and out all your food, sleeping bag, and other supplies. We weren't staying there, so it was just a day hike for us. We lucked out with the Highline Trail being open so we could hike from Logan Pass to the chalet with minimal altitude gain rather than up 2300 or so feet from Swiftcurrent. Our total distance ended up at 15.5 miles.
The Highline trail starts with a fair stretch of narrow ledge, with a sheer vertical drop on one side and wall on the other. After a little distance it switches to a narrow trail across a steep open hillside which brought back memory of the effort it took to climb the steepest hill at Welch Village when I left one ski near the top of the steepest part and slid the rest of the way down. Don't think I want to fall off the trail
Baby Mountain Goat
The hike to the chalet continued well, through some nice vistas, mixed terrain, and past fuzzy baby mountain goats until we were three or four miles from the chalet. By that point we had noticed thunder, and then saw lightening on neighboring mountainsides, then a few rain drops followed by heavy rain, light hail, and closer lightening. I donned my rain suit and appreciated my hat as sufficient protection from the light hail. The storm passed before we reached the chalet, where we had lunch in the crowded gathering room full of people waiting out the rain.
From the chalet, we hiked over Swiftcurrent Pass and down the steep trail to the Swiftcurrent cabins/campground, where my mom waited for us, taking a rest day for her injuries. The sun came out and made for a nice hike down into the valley by switchback after switchback, some down narrow ledges with more sheer drops. My uncle set a fast hiking pace down in the valley that I tried my hardest to keep up with, but he'd keep getting ahead of us. My dad and I took the lead while the others stopped to look at a moose across the lake. Keeping a fast pace we hurried along with about 45 minutes to go, trying to not keep my mom waiting too long, when I rounded a slight corner to see something large and furry on the trail probably fifty feet ahead. I quickly backtracked about ten feet to where my dad was. The large furball turned out to be a mama black bear (colored brown) with two cubs just up off the trail. Not cool. We talked loud before coming into sight and as we came back into view. She just kept eating at the side of the trail. Finally, after talking and banging our hiking poles had no effect, we resorted to throwing stones. That got her to move and one of the cubs went up a tree (oh, great). We kept talking loud while trying to radio the others to hurry up. By the time the others joined us, she and the cubs were far enough up the hill for us to pass by. Motivated by tired feet, increasing mosquitos, and the lack of desire to be near bears, we hiked quickly to the trail end, perhaps a little too quickly as I felt something strain on the back of my right knee, but I didn't want to slow down.
Tuesday, July 11 - Rest Day
Today ended up being a lighter rest day as we were all feeling the effects of Monday's long hike. I was walking funny at dinner on Monday night, with every leg muscle aching, but I had Weinhard's root beer so it kind of made up for it. Only 1.8 miles over a couple of hikes on Tuesday, and even that felt like hard work.
Wednesday, July 12 - Gunsight Pass to Sperry Chalet
We hit trail at 8am, thankfully feeling fully recovered since this day had a long hike to an overnight stay at Sperry Chalet, a full-service hike-in hotel in the mountains. There was a short bit of rain before we hit trail, but it had stopped just leaving us with wet foliage to brush water all over our pant legs.
We planned to hike 13.5 miles from St. Mary Lake, up the Gunsight trail and over Gunsight Pass to the chalet. Many people might call us fools for doing this hike, and in fact a few people who we met on our way up told a park ranger coming behind us that four people (our group) were going to try the pass and didn't look prepared. The trail report still says that crampons, ice axes, and experience using them are recommended. All we had was trekking poles and Vibram soled boots and my dad didn't remember seeing that information on the last trail report before we left Minnesota.
From the Gunsight campground we trekked up the steep mountainside by switchbacks. My nerves were up just at seeing the trail up above snake along on a ledge with hundreds of, or maybe a thousand, feet straight up and straight down on the sides. Fortunately, the ledge turned out to be reasonably wide and even had a small stone wall on the outside side. All was looking "ok", and just "ok" because we were way up on a mountainside, until we reached the first place where a snowfield crossed the trail.
The already steep hillside had a 60ft wide snowfield running down it at a 50-60 degree pitch and no trail was even slightly cut into it. Looking hundreds of feet down the slope of snow, the bottom looked like it might, maybe, catch you instead of dropping you off the end to several hundred more feet straight down. Not that being "caught" by a bunch of rock at that speed is going to increase your chance of survival.
My dad slowly made his way across, kicking footholds for the rest of us as he went, and we all safely followed, using our trekking poles to anchor ourselves and fighting strong wind gusts down the slope. Our ascent to the pass included two more similar but shorter snowfield crossings, the first looking like a fall would be terminal and the second being much shorter down so it would only be a world of pain. Finally, we took shelter from the wind for lunch in a little old stone cabin atop the pass that had long since lost its roof. It was quite a welcome change from the treacherous terrain.
Shortly into our descent of the rocky switchbacks to Lake Ellen Wilson the park ranger caught up with us. She and her friend had watched us cross the snowfields from the campground. Turns out they didn't have crampons or ice axes either, just one pair of trekking poles between the two of them. The ranger was out assessing the trail condition, and said that with those snow patches the ice axes are still highly recommended. She was also checking on reports that the trail was washed out in the area we were currently descending. Indeed it was, but we were lucky enough to have a ranger on hand to guide us about fifty feet down the slope to an "ok" but not great place we could cross the ten foot wide river going down.
With all that excitement behind us we finally reached Sperry Chalet to spend the night. It was definitely a welcome sight for tired feet and tense nerves. It was one of those things that in retrospect seems like it was perhaps a bit stupid on danger level and just kind of scares you to think about. I think my dad still thinks it was fine, but I'll wait for ski/snowshoe season before I follow him across snow again.
The chalet was a delightful little place which hearkened back to the feel of summer camp.
View from Sperry Chalet
There was a two story hotel with twenty or so rooms, a dinner/gathering building, and a toilet building. Dinner was served to all guests together at 6:00. Groups were combined together at tables and all groups introduced themselves, creating a strong community feel. After dinner strangers would stand out on the rocks together, enjoying the sunset and getting to know one another before gathering again in the dining hall for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. The chalet had to be the most fantastic part of the trip. Certainly a gem in the mountains.
Thursday, July 13 - Out from Sperry Chalet
Today we hiked back out, but by a different way. Despite the squeaky floors and beds of the old hotel, I slept quite well. There was no water or electricity in the hotel building, but that wasn't a problem. The bathroom building, like at Granite Park Chalet, used pit toilets like a normal outhouse, but somehow, far from modern civilization, the park service has managed to make these facilities have really no odor or unpleasantly like would normally be associated with such facilities. This is something I have never seen matched. The Sperry facilities added a couple sinks with running water, making for quite a pleasant stay.
Breakfast, like dinner, was very filling and enjoyable, meeting more new people.
We took the easy way down, descending something like 3000 feet over easy terrain and fairly sheltered trail, occasionally bumping into people we had met at the chalet. Even with only six miles, we were beat by the end. The last mile or two was a rather steep descent, which is just as hard as going up hill, except that the burden is on your joints rather than your cardiovascular system. My mom and uncle were hiking on blisters, which I was lucky enough to avoid, but my feet were just tired from all of the pounding.
Friday, July 14 - Rest Day
Friday was a welcome rest day for my mom and I, while my dad led another hike for the two who hadn't gone to the chalet with us and his brother, who hiked despite blisters so he could get his mileage goal, though he could barely walk the next day. Their hike did get a little excitement when at a hoary marmot stole one of my aunt's trekking poles. Despite 45 minutes of searching, they never found it. Those marmots love the salt that gets all over human's boots and gear from sweat.
Saturday, July 15 - Glacier National Park to South Dakota
Saturday was our return trip to northeast South Dakota. Throughout all of Montana we saw very many handmade murals and other anti-meth public service campaigns, including wrecked cars with messages painted on and a painted bus. They must have quite a problem, which is unfortunate, but hopefully the campaign is having some effect. We made good time on our drive and all went well aside from occasionally having to bleed heat off the overheating engine while we kept driving. Outside temperatures got up to 103 degrees.
It's good to be back to life as normal, no longer standing on a thin shelf of rock hundreds or thousands of feet above flat ground. Though it was nice to get away for a little adventure and scenic views.