Gary, Bruce, and I planned a bucket list trip to Glacier National Park that was practically last-minute. You really should start planning a year in advance but we put it together only about 6 months prior mostly due to Gary’s expert planning skills. The park has some of the best hikes a hiker could want to do, and we targeted as many as we thought we could realistically do.
Our first hike was going to be our longest – the loop trail up to Dawson Pass, across the spine of the Continental Divide over to Pitamakan Pass and then back down again. Even using a boat across Two Medicine Lake for a shortcut, it’s still a good 17 miles. The trail is one of the most spectacular the park has to offer and was our most anticipated hike. But it was not to be on this day, however, as the weather would conspire against us.
It had rained the previous two days or so, and we were so focused on the fact the rain had stopped for our planned hike day that we didn’t stop to think that all that rain down here would be snow up there. The high would only be in the 50s which in hindsight would make this a very unappealing day to do this particular hike due to the fact that you lose about 5 degrees for every 1000 feet of elevation (we were gaining about 2500) and that the wind at the top is fierce. We didn’t realize what lay in wait.
We had read about the wind at the top and had planned on it being chilly (emphasis on “chilly” and not sub-freezing). As it was, we all took several layers of clothes though I was the only one who hadn’t brought gloves, but I stopped at the East Glacier Trading Co. and picked up some light ones that I would soon regret. Gah, why did I get the light ones? I can still see the heavier ones I wish I had bought!
We took the boat across Two Medicine Lake and got on the trail around 9am if I recall correctly.
The calm before the storm.
This was our first walk in grizzly country and with bear spray so I remember feeling wary in a way that I normally don’t feel on hikes back home in PA. The vegetation was lush and green but it was a chilly, grey day so I wasn’t in my usual bright, “happy to be in the woods” hiking spirits. Plus, I knew I had a big climb ahead of me and I was out of shape after recuperating from a knee injury the previous six weeks.
See, this hike would be my first exercise in over a month as I had been resting a sprained knee (stupid disc golf), and I had picked a doozy, for sure. Consequently, I was having trouble keeping up with my two friends. I’m normally out in front on our hikes but here I was laboring early and often.
That’s the lake where our hike started. That’s me in business mode.
Snow covered Sinopah Mountain that dominates the view. On a good day there might be bighorn out but they had better sense than we did.
Early on in the hike I realized I was overdressed and was already in a full sweat; not good. I didn’t want to get cold so I was, ironically, shedding layers. I dressed in a t-shirt with a long-sleeved thermal shirt underneath and had a fleece, windbreaker, and hoodie as well. I also had a toque for my head.
In hindsight, I needed every bit of all that on the hike (up at the top) and only messed up on the gloves.
I remember us seeing the snow up higher on the mountain and saying we certainly wouldn’t be going into THAT so the trail must reach the pass before we get up there. But after a few miles in the tree line, we went from seeing snow next to the trail to walking in snow and slush on the trail to walking in three-foot snow drifts. How the hell did that happen?
I didn’t sign up for this.
I just checked the trail description and it says you clear the treeline at about 3.9 miles and then go up to 4.7 to the summit. That’s stunning to me because it must’ve taken us a good hour to do that last 0.8 mile due to the snowdrifts. I’m not the tallest guy and I was in snow up to my thighs in some parts. My feet were slipping from walking on fresh snow and I was having to redo the same steps which made things more taxing.
Don’t think this was all it was; I got no photos of the snowdrifts as I was laboring too hard. This was the “easy” part below the treeline.
If you asked me to describe this hike in a word, I would say: court-ordered.
The footing, in general, was treacherous. Not that a fall would have killed you, but a slip could lead to you sliding 100 yards or more down and then having to labor your way back up. I made sure to lean to the right so if I fell, I would at least remain on the trail. Gary was pushing double digits on falls that would lead to some bruises but fortunately no rides down the slope.
Oh great, on top of snow I have THIS to worry about too?
In some parts, due to both the difficult treading and my being out of shape, I was walking one foot directly in front of the other. I mean, I was having serious trouble catching my breath. Don’t get me wrong, on a normal day, this is a fun, challengingly steep hike, but the snow — and elevation gain — made it downright exhausting.
At one point, I started seeing stars, little green and red “jimmies” floating in front of me, and I reached out to grab them. Gary saw me and asked if I was OK and I said something to the effect of I knew I was hallucinating but was just going with it.
Kinda like this.
I really was in no shape for this trail this day with this weather, but my stubbornness, er, internal fortitude, can be pretty strong so I pushed on ahead. Unfortunately, I had no energy for pictures any longer.
[PICTURES STOP HERE UNTIL THE RETURN]
Now, I hate the cold. I’m resolved to retiring somewhere where people complain about the heat and being perfectly happy, so hiking in these conditions is just about my worst nightmare, and I was questioning what the hell we were doing before we got to this dreadful part. Afterwards, we would all say that had we known these were the conditions, none of us would have wanted to do this hike on this day, but I think we fell into the phenomenon of “let’s just go a little farther / oh well, we’ve come this far, let’s just go on” that is a standard element of disaster stories.
Anyway, somewhere near the top with winds whipping around me and nothing but deep snow in front of me, I was past discomfort and into pain in both my lungs and my hands, and I decided to turn around and stopped to tell Gary when a guy coming down the trail from the summit told me I was only 5 minutes away from the top and I could make it. Those words of encouragement from a stranger were the extra juice I needed. I pulled my hoodie on tighter, gripped my pole as hard as my frozen fingers would allow, and pushed on up. In a few minutes of high steps in deep snow, I made it to the top where Bruce was already waiting. I exhaled a sigh of relief so hard that turned into a half-laugh, half cry.
I took a look down into the Nyack Creek area far below and the looming peaks of Mount Stimson (one of the tallest peaks in Glacier National Park), Mount Phillips, and Flinsch Peak, but the incredible wind gusts and dark, foreboding sky didn’t put me in the mind to appreciate the view as much as I would have liked. You’re on the Continental Divide at this point which is pretty unique and have views of two different valleys. It’s something you would normally like to sit and absorb.
The fingers of both hands were stiff but I managed to get my iPhone out for a panoramic video of this special view. I wanted to take a few photos too but … was just too cold so I shoved it back in my pocket, rushed my gloves back on, and started heading down. I’d had enough.
With the temperature and wind gusts, the wind chill must’ve been in the 20s or lower. Unfortunately, I would later discover that my video did not come out nor did Gary’s. It’s easy to think it was operator error but I remember seeing the timer recording. Gary’s video at least starts but then just cuts out. We presume it was due to the extreme temps. At least Gary got a single picture that came out so we have some record of having been to the top.
I’m on top of the world, Ma!
We were at the top for less than 5 minutes. Even if we were in the mood to continue our plan across the Divide over to Pitamakan Pass, the trail itself was covered in snow and unfindable. We had seen three guys pass us on the trail earlier and we never saw them come back down. Did they endeavor to go across the Divide? Had the snow covered their tracks already or had they turned off somewhere we hadn’t seen?
On that note, we passed two young girls, not heavily dressed, heading up on our way down. One of them didn’t even have any gloves. We told them what was waiting for them up top but they were insistent on making it up. We never saw them on the 5:20 boat so I can’t help but wonder about them. I didn’t hear of any missing hikers so I presume they came down later and walked around the lake back to the dock.
I guess I’ll never know, but I do know I was happy as hell to be heading down. I carelessly allowed myself to slide down the trail in an effort to make some speed and get back to the treeline as quickly as possible.
We finally reached a switchback where some rocks sheltered from the wind where we’d stopped on the way up to refit ourselves and stopped for lunch. I was ravenous and practically inhaled my PBJ and coconut water. Looking at my pictures I realize they stop before the worst of the snow on the way up and don’t resume until right here. It’s like there’s a whole deleted scene from the pictorial record of the hike.
PBJ to the rescue!
Soon enough we were back in the treeline with the sun occasionally shining on us and 55 degrees feeling downright balmy and we could laugh at what we’d just done. We even had enough energy to sidetrack over to No Name Lake were we stopped for another snack.
Mood = lifted.
We made a push back to the dock for the 3:20 boat but were too late (which prompted me to rename No Name Lake to “Miss the Boat Lake”). I decided to wait in the shelter while Gary and Bruce went back out to Twin Falls. I stretched out on the thin bench and had my bear spray next to me within reach.
I had my hoodie over my eyes and think I could’ve taken a nap but was soon startled by a low growl just a few feet away. I jumped up and lunged for my bear spray just in time – to realize it was simply the moaning of the dock in the water. I had a much needed laugh at myself and the sun suddenly broke through as if to join me.
Don’t forget your dock spray!
I got some great shots of the late afternoon sun on the mountain across the lake then stepped out onto the dock and laid down in the warm sunshine and waited till the boys got back.
Side note: I chatted with a young guy from Wilmington, DE. Think he said he was 22 and too young to rent a car so he drove his car all the way to the park. He’d spend the last few days in dreadful weather with high rain. He’d attempted the pass once previously a few days prior when the snow was coming down and had to turn around. Today he made it up the top finally but was unable to find the trail to cross over to Pitamakan. Nice kid; hope his trip home was good.
After all that, I was simply content to sit in the sun and enjoy the view.
- I need to go back to the park and do this hike on a warm day. A good 70+ degree day should mean the top is cool though I’d still take extra layers. I would definitely pay attention to the weather in the preceding days and be sure you’re not heading up into snow the way we were.
- On that note, we weren’t the only ones unprepared for the snow. The other people we talked to were similarly surprised by the snowdrifts (so we weren’t the only n00bs).
- We would bump into Mark, the guy who encouraged me to get to the top, and his wife, Rebecca, three more times during our trip at various places and realized we must’ve been meant to meet up so we made plans to hike Grinnell Glacier together which we did; see that post for more.
- I would bring heavy gloves just in case.
- Note that the boat on Two Medicine stops running a week before the boats on other lakes (our boat ride was the last of the season).
- This hike was the only regret I have from the trip because I didn’t get to walk along the top of the Divide and see the spectacular views nor did I get to experience the Pitamakan Overlook, one of my most anticipated features on our agenda. Oh well, I guess it’s good incentive to get back to my most favorite park ever.
Elevation Gain: 2450