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
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.