Glacier National Park


There were a few months of my pregnancy with Howard that I was literally unable to walk up a simple flight of stairs without resting.  Those were not good days for me.  Whether it was the IVIG or my severe anemia we don’t know, but each time I paused to breathe on the stairs to Maggie’s room, I thought about the mountains I had climbed in my pre-neonatal alloimmune thrombocytopenia existence and wondered if I would be able to do so again.

I haven’t reached a summit in the 12 weeks since Howard’s arrival, but I did carry him up to Iceberg Lake last week, and I felt just as joyful as I did the morning I first reached the top of Divide, in 2000.

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Thanks so much to my sweet friend Suzy for going with us.  Glacier, it’s good to be back!

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2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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At long last, the road to Many Glacier is not only plowed but open!  As I mentioned in my latest post, last weekend I got the medical go ahead for four days near Babb, the longest I have been home since January.  To say I was thrilled is the understatement of the decade, and I was also protective of my time with Honeydew and Maggie Rose.  I didn’t even tell my best girlfriends in Glacier County that I was eastbound.  I know they understand.

Saturday morning brought sunshine and sparkle, so we headed for our favorite spot: Many Glacier.

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After our arrival, we wandered down to the water’s edge, and gazed at Mt. Gould and the Angel Wing.  You can’t see it from this picture, but I wonder about the snowpack in the Grinnell Glacier basin – the Salamander Glacier is already clearly defined, and I feel like it should still look like it’s merged with Grinnell.  Hmm.

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We continued our gawking, pausing to admire the Swiftcurrent complex and Mt. Wilbur/the Heavy Shield.  I love the Blackfeet name for Mt. Wilbur, and am bringing it back, people!

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The water is gushing out of Swiftcurrent, by the way.

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Of course, Maggie Rose wanted to climb all four flights of stairs at the hotel.  Celebrating my 33rd week of pregnancy, I passed on that particular adventure.

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“What do you want for Mother’s Day?” Honeydew asked me on the way home.  While I was laughing at this clear admission that he had no plan, I replied, “To see a moose, of course!”

And of course, not thirty seconds later, what did we see on the side of the road?

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Hi, buddy.  Those are some nice antlers you’re growing there.  Have a nice summer.  I’ll be back soon, with another baby who will love your backyard, too.

2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

The winds didn’t howl without ceasing, and the snow didn’t fall at anywhere near the rate of winter 2011.  The satellite dish stayed affixed to the roof, as did the stovepipe.  I didn’t have to dig myself out of a ditch once.

But still, winter in Montana is Winter.  And I’m glad to see it go.

Yesterday, Pseudo Sista, Maggie Rose, and I bid winter a fond farewell by walking up the Going-t0-the-Sun Road from Avalanche a few miles.  It was cool in the mountains, and especially in the shade, but we felt downright celebratory as we examined the buds on the trees, the liquid cerulean of thawed McDonald Creek, and the other assorted minutiae of spring.

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Arriving at a bend in the road that afforded us a staggering view of the Garden Wall, we observed the massive amounts of snow and ice and sent our warmest thoughts to the road crew faithfully digging out the upper reaches of the Sun Road.

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Maggie rode in her stroller at times, pushed it at others, and at one point put her full heart into running pell mell down the center of the Sun Road with her Nat Nat/Pseudo Sista.

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Her unbridled energy and enthusiasm cemented spring’s arrival for me – it’s not just about the big melt and warm sun on aging bones and chilled plants.  Spring is about young things.  And as the sun and the road crew chip away at winter’s fingernails, dug so deeply into the high country, I will revel in showing my oldest all the delights of the tiny border between spring and summer in Glacier National Park.

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2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

A guest blog giving y’all a glimpse of Glacier National Park from Brother Dear:

It’s that time of year.

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It’s muddy.  Sometimes it feels like spring, but that sensation is camouflaged by 70+ mph winds. snow flurries, and  days below freezing.

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But things are coming back to life all the same.  Mom’s flowers are poking up wherever Bingo declined to bed down from the wind.  My hop plants are poking their first green tendrils through the snowdrift by the cabin.  The loons just arrived to retake control of Gretchen’s Mirror from their most hated enemies: every other living thing.  Seriously, they are are very serious about being the only birds on the water.  That’s okay because waking up to the unmistakably haunting and warbly cry of the loons is far superior to walking through clouds of goose poop.

Despite these telltale signs of the slowing evolving spring, there is something missing.  A right of passage every decent Babbylonian anticipates all winter long- an event pined for up till the moment of its inception.  I speak, of course, of the first annual trip to Many Glacier.

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Unfortunately, the National Park Service has not yet opened the road.  It is one of my biggest pet peeves that they do not release any useful information regarding the status of opening the road.  It is my understanding that there are internal rules requiring the gates to remain closed until the third weekend of April in order to allow the elk unmolested access to the returning vegetation as they recover from a long winter.  That’s fine (although apparently the elk on Two Dog Flats don’t get such royal treatment).  I walked the road (what is left of the poor thing, anyways) yesterday with three stalwart friends and ran into a fellow who is working on the Many Glacier Hotel.  He informed us (from the warmth of his pickup truck) that the park service was delaying the opening of the road (to us tourons) due to “forecasts of snow” in the next week.  C’mon.  It snows every month of the year here.  Open the gates!  Or give us a date that you will!

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Or at least give just me the code.  I won’t share.  Promise.

Update: The road to Many Glacier opened late yesterday afternoon, not long after Brother Dear emailed us this blog.  I thought it was too good not to share, regardless.  And yes, it snowed another 6″ last night near Babb.  See you on the Many Glacier Hotel porch for cocktails soon!

2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All rights reserved to Sanford Stone.

It is a tragic but unescapable fact that country ham, eggnog, and those ridiculously delightful saltine crackers slathered with chocolate and sea salt will eventually migrate to one’s thighs, despite the fact that the holidays would simply be cancelled without them.

Or at least not very festive.

At any rate, the day after Christmas, Nan, Chuck, and I took ourselves down to Glacier National Park, to the Going-to-the-Sun Road and Rising Sun, to preserve our thighs for hiking season 2013 … not that we’re counting to down it in these dull mid-February days.

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On the Rose Creek bridge.

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In July, when I hike my favorite trails, my head rings with the glorious cacophony of summer: Clark’s nutcrackers drilling, snow avalanching off Many Glacier’s exquisite hanging cirques, tourists’ bear bells jangling, marmots whistling, the swooshing of my blood through my brain as my lungs try to keep up with my legs.

The day after Christmas, our snowshoe was defined by the utter silence of Glacier in winter. The only constant was my ever present pulse as my lungs again tried to propel my legs as fast as they wished to travel.

In the brilliant sunshine that turned the fresh snow into a fantasy land of diamonds, my eyes strained to understand all the different depths of sapphire and silver, and my mind to give them each a name. I thought about how the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow, and as I pulled my body through the deep drifts, I challenged myself to think of all Glacier’s shades of blue, the color that defines the park for me.

There is, of course, the world renowned shocking Carribbean cerulean of Glacier’s more famous lakes, like lower Grinnel. But there is also the cobalt of a cloudless October sky that only looks deeper against the cafe au lait tones of a bull elk’s rack, the ultramarine of the fingers cascading off Sperry Glacier, the periwinkle glow as the longest day of the year finally fades to starlight, the indigo of blooming lupine, the violet-blue of luscious huckleberries lining the trail to Ptarmigan Lake, the smoky haze of an August forest fire, and for me, the royal bruises tattooing the legs that carry me up mountains and through the stands of cursed alder.

Glacier, it was good to see you.

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2013. Glacier County Honey Co. All Rights Reserved.

Hard to believe that we were still climbing big mountains two weeks ago.  The snowstorm that dumped about a foot of snow on the Warehome this past week has shut down the high country, and I believe winter is on its way.

At any rate, Sunday’s dawn found the mountains encased in ice, glimmering in the pure October sunshine, a mighty west wind pluming snow off the peaks.  Neither Brother Dear nor I really felt like hiking, but what with the sunshine and the sparkle and the late date and the fact that I had a babysitter (not sure if it’s Honeydew or the NFL, but I’m grateful either way for fall Sundays), we decided we had to do something.  And it turned out that something was driving to the end of the Many Glacier road and heading up the Swiftcurrent Pass trail.

It’s funny how a pair of neighbors can still find plenty to talk about, ambling down a trail.  Our daily conversations generally revolve around whether or not Brother Dear wants to come to my house for lunch, if we’ve seen each others’ dogs, whose turn it is to go to the post office, and if I want to come to his house for dinner.  On the trail, we caught up on each other’s college exes and law school roommates and high school buddies and mutual Montana friends — although we attended different universities and law schools, we’ve been lucky over the years to meet and befriend each others’ friends, and I love how many pals we have in common these days.  Anyway, I enjoyed the quiet rhythm of our steps and our conversation as we walked up the valley.

About a half hour after our departure, we arrived at Red Rock Falls, a mighty pretty spot about 2 miles from the trailhead where my younger self drank plenty of cold beer, and where Maggie Rose’s mom now accompanies many neighbors and guests and their small children.

The trail, already more icy than not, turned into an ice skating rink after Red Rock Falls, and we decided to turn around and get on with the day.

It was Sunday, after all – football to watch and weekend Glacier County Honey orders to prepare for Monday’s mail run.

The return trip was over in minutes, and I wondered when we would be back.  In two weeks or in July?

As we drove out of the Many Glacier valley, I kept making Brother Dear pull the truck over so I could take just one more picture … it’s so hard to say goodbye.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

I woke at 4am on Saturday, September 22, my heart in my throat.

For years, Brother Dear has talked about doing the biggest off-trail “day hike” I know of in Glacier National Park – the route from Little Chief to Mahtotopa to Red Eagle – summitting all three.  He thinks the route involves about 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gained and lost, and about 25 miles, but he’s not really sure.  We know a couple of people who have done it, but they don’t really know the stats either, just that it’s a phenomenal day, and for those physically able, an awesome accomplishment.

I’ve never really worried about Brother Dear attempting such a feat, as he’s already done plenty of other huge “day hikes,” like the Skyline Traverse, which links Siyeh, Cracker, and Wynn, from Many Glacier to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

I’ve climbed a fair number of peaks in the park, and been on some awfully long “day hikes,” but I’ve never even considered doing Red Eagle-Mahtotopa-Little Chief.  At least until this past week, when Pseudo Sista was convinced to go along with Brother Dear, Keith, and Neil.  Upon hearing that Pseudo Sista was in– and despite the fact that Brother Dear had not invited me along — I decided I was, too.

Why not?  Howard climbed Little Chief, and I promised myself I’d climb everything he ever climbed.  Plus, I’d just summitted Rising Wolf without issue.  Finally, a thought that frequently crosses my post-30 mind when weighing Glacier National Park adventures kept drumming through my head: I would be younger on September 22, 2012, than I ever would be again.  With strong, smart climbing partners and a perfect forecast — high of 74, sunny, winds of 7-9 MPH — it was now or never.

But I woke at 4am filled with doubt.  I tiptoed to the Warehome living room and tried googling everything ever written about the traverse.  Pretty much, there’s one reliable entry on summitpost.org, and while inspiringly written, it’s thin on detail.  Deciding that ignorance was probably bliss, and trusting Brother Dear’s guiding abilities completely, I made a pot of coffee at 5am and was in the truck with the rest of the crew at 6am, headed down the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Virginia Falls trailhead.

At 9,541′, Little Chief loomed over us in the pre-dawn darkness, quickly broken by a smoky red sunrise over Red Eagle, our final destination for the day:

We flew down the trail, passing St. Mary Falls in first light, and Virginia Falls a few minutes later.  The one thing we did know about the day before us: every minute of autumnal daylight counted, and there was little time for photos.

The bushwhack up to Little Chief begins shortly after the Virginia Falls trail merges into the trail ringing the south side of St. Mary Lake.  A glance at the sign was sobering: even hugging the lake shore, more than 15 miles stood between us and our final destination, and we were headed up, up, and far away from said shoreline.

As we began the bushwhack, a bit of trail magic appeared before our eyes: the route through the overgrown underbrush and downed trees had recently been marked, and marked well, by some rogue climber with a roll of hot pink ribbon.  No, this is not legal, nor will it last through the next windstorm, so if you’re reading this post anytime after September 2012, don’t count on finding it.

But that doesn’t mean we weren’t tickled by our good fortune.

With fresh legs, we tromped right up the side of Little Chief, emerging into a dry waterfall at the base of the first tiered basin of scree and boulders that we would need to ascend.

Eye level with Almost-a-Dog Pass at about 9:30am.

Neil, foreground; Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, background

For the first time all summer, smoke from the many neighboring forest fires began to fill the St. Mary Valley, and we lightly cursed our misfortune while still mostly bubbling over with joy at the very fact of the day: no one was working, and everyone was doing what they like best — climbing in Glacier National Park.

After getting through the first big slog up Little Chief, we welcomed the more level goat trail that would lead us around the base of cliffs blocking the north and west faces from ascent.

At last, we came to a fun little chimney that led into the next big scree slog before the summit ridge.

But after the chimney … I don’t know if my knee had swollen up without my realizing it, or if the smoke was getting to me, or if overall I’m just not as strong as I used to be, but I did know one thing as I slowly picked my way up: just about everyone was far, far ahead of me, and getting further away.  The oldest ones on the trip, and the Hot Buns, Pseudo Sista and I brought up the rear and stuck fairly close together, shouting occasional words of encouragement to each other as we alternated losing purchase in the steep, rotten talus and shale, and tearing our hands to shreds in the process.

But I kept glancing at the watch I had worn for the sole purpose of making an intelligent decision about summitting and returning safely to my Maggie Rose and my Honeydew — after ascending the first basin, I had thought we’d be on the summit of Little Chief by 11am, maybe 12.  That would give us seven hours of daylight to navigate the gorgeous ridge between Little Chief and Mahtotopa, and then on to Red Eagle, and down.  From my limited research, it seemed to me that getting up Little Chief was the bulk of the day, and so that time frame seemed reasonable to me.

Except that it was 1pm when I glanced at my watch, and the tiny figures of Brother Dear, Nancy Reagan, Neil, and Keith kept getting tinier.  They were keeping a careful eye on us, and leaving good cairns for us to follow, but they were a little too far away for a discussion about aborting the mission.

And so we kept going, Pseudo Sista and I finally making the nearly-smoked-out summit around 3pm.  We did not even sign the register, so great was our exhaustion and anxiety about the balance of the day.

Looking north and east from the summit, high above St. Mary Lake, Mahtotopa, and Red Eagle.

South, at a sea of smoky peaks.

West, at Almost-a-Dog, Mt. Jackson, Dusty Star, etc.

It was, we knew, far, far too late for a late September ridgewalk to our intended destination, though we did, in all our enthusiasm and depletion, discuss the possibility, and even head in that direction before making the right call: to descend Little Chief the way we’d come up.  Even with this decision, we knew we’d be hiking out in the dark.

Though it was his dream trip, Brother Dear took the change of plans in complete stride, gallantly leading us down exactly the way we’d come, picking out the easiest routes for Pseudo Sista and I, singing Corb Lund songs, and passing around salami and crackers at our brief breaks.  He is very fine company in the mountains, as were all of our companions.

The sun slipped behind Dusty Star at about 6:30pm and I got frustrated in the loose scree for a moment and promised to come back in my next life as a glacier and PULVERIZE the rocks the previous glaciers were too lazy to finish off.  Everyone laughed, and that powered me through the next big steps down through a dry waterfall, steps I took on my rear end.

When my feet finally touched the spongy, alpine vegetation edging the rocks at dusk, I wanted to kiss the ground, but didn’t think I could get back up if I tried.  We continued as quickly as we could until we found the start of the pink ribbon trail, where we paused to chug water, inhale the last of the guacamole and coconut macaroons, and strap our headlamps onto our foreheads.

Scrambling through alders and false huckleberry, twilight tumbled down the mountain, and we were in the full on dark before we even thought to turn the headlamps on.  To ensure that we’d woken up every bear in the area, we sang:

Almost heaven, Little Chief mountain

Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park

Life is old there, older than the glaciers

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Pink Ribbon Road, take us home, to the place we belong

Near Babb, Montana, Mountain Mama

Take us home, Pink Ribbon Road

and

Day-o, daaaaaaayooooo

Daylight gone and we wanta go home.

Oh, did we.  Even with the ridiculously closely placed pink ribbon ties, we lost ’em more than once, and were happy to have 6 headlamps to catch their flourescent flutter.

When we finally staggered out onto the actual trail, every critter in the park surely heard our cries of delight, and again, when we hit the impossibly smooth pavement of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  It was 9:15pm, but the smoky red moon cast the park in an eery, midnight glow.

Too tired to even lament the beer cooler, waiting 15 miles away at the Red Eagle Lake trailhead, we headed for home.

The next day, I marveled over the fact that I was able to get out of bed, and on a lighter note, that my two week old Shellac manicure had survived the hand-over-hand, digging-for-purchase, at-times-hanging-onto-the-side-of-the-mountain-by-literally-my-fingernails adventure.  A little off topic, but for the one-special-occasion-per-year that calls for a manicure — I officiated a weddin’ on Lake McDonald two weeks ago — I’m a Shellac devotee!

The day after that, my right knee resembled a cauliflower, and I really almost couldn’t get out of bed.  As a result, I am at peace with the knowledge that I will admire Little Chief for the rest of my life from the valley, and from the tops of other, less worthy mountains.

If your knees are strong, your lungs are deep, your companions are solid gold, and your Glacier National Park abilities tested and primed, go do Little Chief.

Before you turn 30!

photo credit to Jim Egan/SummitPost.Org 

And take climbing helmets when you go – we keep meaning to buy them, and we keep forgetting.  They would have made our ascent/descent of Little Chief a little bit less stressful.

This has been your occasional public service announcement from Glacier County Honey Co – have fun!

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  Some photo credits to Sanford Stone.  All Rights Reserved.

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