September 26, 2013

Lost in the Swans

(The GPS of our route - affectionately named Tyson's Holland Peak Loop)

It is strange how forays into the backcountry begin.  They usually start as an idea thrown out when we are all sitting around together.... or browsing  This particular trip began when my coworker Chris Dundon started emailing Justin Angle and I pictures of Holland Peak.  Justin was immediately in and so was I.  Despite living in Montana for two years, I had never ventured into the Swans.  Then the night before left - plans changed.   Justin was now out but Chris and I were still in.  So I was a little surprised to see Justin waiting inside the Eurovan as I crept through the early morning shadows of the Ace Hardware parking lot.  Through a series of events during the night, Chris was now out but Justin was in.  The scenic 90 minute car ride north on 200 and 83, past Seeley Lake to the Rumble Creek trailhead, flew by.  As each mile passed by, I patiently waited for the smoke from the Idaho forest fires to lift and allow us to see the towering Mission mountain range to our West.  The smoke never did clear.  We rumbled into the Rumble Creek trailhead parking lot, just after 7am, where we met Tyson, Dan and Dan's brother from Tennessee.

(Rumble Creek Trailhead) 

Another small group hit the trail a few minutes before us.  They were heading up to Holland Peak as well.  So we set out towards the summit with the confidence that Tyson had hiked this trail twice before and we had a group in front of us to lead the way.  What could possible go wrong?  Easy out and back, tons of trail experience between us, we got this.

(Tyson staring at Dan's iPhone in disbelief!) *Photo by Justin Angle

Tyson was 100% certain that we shouldn't cross the South Fork Rumble Creek drainage.  He recited how he and Mike Foote ran past the trail and had to retreat back north of the drainage to hit the correct trail.  So walked up to the bridge over the drainage and turned around.  Justin and I would later find that we were no more than 50 feet from the correct trail when we turned around.

So we back tracked, found a "climbers trail", with two logs laid a-crossed it (first warning), and up we went.  This particular stretch of trail was very steep and we started to string out across the mountain.  Then in mid sentence - the trail disappeared.  I was leading at this point and stopped.  We debated whether we should go up the mountain or continue on alongside the mountain.  Tyson was still convinced we were on the correct side of the drainage, so we headed straight up the mountain.  At this point we all knew were were lost but we continued on anyway.  Who likes to admit they made a mistake and turn around?  Tyson, in a last ditch attempt to find a.. I mean.. any trail, tore off up the mountain.  From this point we mostly followed game trails and wandered aimlessly through the back- country of the Swans.  Our movements were now being dictated by Dan's iPhone and cellular data plan.  What had happened to that group in front of us?  We joked that they were probably across the drainage and nearing the base of Holland Peak at this point!

    (Looking South towards the South Fork Rumble Creek drainage and the Holland Peak trail)

Dan and Google Earth lead us to a clearing where we scrambled across rocky, side slopes while ingesting some much needed calories.  It was amazing how our attitudes had changed, for the better, since we had left the forest canopy and entered the open grassy meadows.  The views looking back into the valley were incredible, even with the thick gray smoke still blocking any view of the Missions.  At this point we were all concerned that we'd hit a ridge and be forced to return on that horrible route we had taken up the mountain...  Dan's iPhone indicated that a small alpine lake was not too far north from where we were cutting across the mountain.  There was still slight hope that we'd gain access to Holland Peak.

(Tyson disappearing into the shrubs and grasses near North Rumble Creek Lake)

We eventually ran into a dried-up creek bed and followed it up to North Rumble Creek Lake.  The jagged rocks surrounding the lake were incredible!  Tyson dove into the chilly, clear water as Dan and his brother caught up to us.  Spirits were high again as we climbed up another creek bed towards Upper Rumble Creek Lake and the base of Holland Peak.

(Dan and Tyson climbing up from the north Rumble Creek Lake)

(Me scouting a route to the base of Holland Peak)  *Photo by Justin Angle

The creek bed abruptly ended and spit us out into a beautiful meadow full of wild flowers.  Out of sheer luck we had managed to hit the base of Holland Peak.  While skirting South along the lake, we could hear that other group making their way up to the summit.  Every few minutes we would hear loose rock crashing down the ridge towards us and the lake.



Before I could get my pack off, Dan and Tyson were already fishing.  We could see several trout swimming lazily near shore.  Watching Dan and Tyson cast into this beautiful, blue alpine lake was surreal.  Minutes later Dan and Tyson had caught their dinner and were projecting the glow of kids on Christmas morning.  At this point none of us were interested in summiting.  The intoxicating atmosphere created by Holland Peak and Upper Rumble Creek Lake was reward enough for our early efforts.

(Dan posing with his freshly caught cutthroat trout at Upper Rumble Creek Lake)

After absorbing the beauty of Holland Peak and Upper Rumble Creek Lake, Justin and I decided to head back down via the actual Holland Peak trail.  It is always difficult to leave such beautiful places. Fortunately, Montana has so many!

(Holland Peak - 9,356 ft)

Justin and I quickly down climbed the steep, rocky trail towards yet another rumble creek lake.  By this point, the clouds had slid north leaving us to bake in the afternoon summer sun.  The temperature had to be hovering around the mid 90s.

(Lower Rumble Creek Lake with Holland Peak towering in the background)

Alas, we finally stumbled upon our first wildlife of the trip.  A family of mountain goats had congregated on some rocks just off the north shore of Lower Rumble Creek lake.  It was strange that we didn't see any wildlife while off trail for two and a half hours but only during our short stint on trail.  


Looking back I find it comical that we turned this simple out and back into a loop but I guess that is what makes being out in the wilderness so much fun.  Montana's backcountry is unpredictable,  unrelenting and exciting.  This particular trail is moderately difficult with some steep early climbing and exposure near the summit.  Our route ended up being around 8 miles long with 4,500 ft of climbing.   Holland Peak makes for a great day hike for those who start early.  My first experience in the Swans really impressed me.  The Swans have a different feel than other mountain ranges near Missoula.  I look forward to spending more time exploring them.

September 13, 2013

Glacier from 9,553 Feet

After my scenic bike ride up to Logan Pass, I locked up the bike and took off on foot.  Bikes aren't allowed anywhere off road in U.S. National Parks.  The hiking was a good change up after being in the saddle for two-plus hours.  From Logan Pass I headed North, along the garden wall, on the highline trail.


The highline trail follows the continental divide all the way into Canada and Waterton National Park. Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks combine to form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a biosphere reserve and world heritage site.  Translation - they are biologically diverse, protected and jaw dropping.


Late Spring/early summer is a great time to be in Glacier, no crowds and full blooms! (check out the bear grass above)  I had never been to Glacier during this time of year and it was completely different than my winter and late fall experiences.  Glacier has a way of making you feel like you have never been there before!


A few miles into the highline trail you begin to see the Bishop's Cap (9,127ft) towering to the west and Haystack Butte rising subtly from the east.  I had the perfectly cut single-track all to myself - no animals or people.  I really have trouble leaving this place.


After about 45 min I made it to Haystack Butte and took a hard right.  From there I could see the mountain that I wanted to climb.  Mt. Gould stands at an impressive 9,553 feet, smack dab in the middle of Glacier National Park.  The climb up gains more than 2000ft!


Climbing Gould was tricky.  After a steep, steep climb up past the initial border field, things only got worse.  The section everyone warns you about is the diorite sill which is the scientific name for wet, slippery, eroding cliffs.  You literally have to climb up a slot that running water has carved out to gain access to the upper pitches of the mountain.  My heavy backpack, from the bike ride up, swinging side to side really didn't help.  Neither did the 1600 million year old rocks sliding out from under my feet.  My bike helmet was put to the test on this eroding mountainside.  Thankfully I was the only person on the mountain.


Rock cairns are great for finding your way up mountains that you've never been on.  The only problem is that people build rock cairns just to stack rocks really high and not necessarily to guide curious climbers up the correct path to the summit.  I chased cairns up the mountain and had to turn around at several steep and sketchy dead ends - very funny....  What is it about cairns that you make you feel so confident and relaxed that you are going the right way?!


With tired limbs and ripped up hands I criss-crossed my way up and up.  A few hundred feet from the top I turned a corner and came face to face with a large male mountain goat.  The goat was shedding its wooly white coat; it was literally dragging behind it as turned and ran away from me.  Then I started to notice just how high up I had climbed.  Haystack butte looked so small and defined now.  You could trace the windy park road all the way back through the valley and to the west side of the park.  The higher elevations were still desperately holding on to the last of their winter snow drifts.


After two hours of mindless switchbacks and feeling lost, my eyes finally rose over the peak.  The reward was incredible.  Looking south towards Many Glacier Lake you can see almost 5,000 ft of vertical relief!  Not a good spot for people who don't like exposure... good thing I love it!   It was amazing to see all the little alpine lakes tucked away amongst the higher peaks.  Most visitors would never even know they are there.


One of the reason I chose to climb Mt Gould was to get an aerial view of Grinnell Glacier.  I had gotten a glimpse of it before with my brother Dave a few years back but we didn't get this close!  It was nice to see one of the few remaining glaciers in the park and the inspiration for the parks name.  The sun glistened on the teal blue proglacial water which itself stood out against the white snow and crumbling sedimentary rock shelves.  I spent 45 min just taking in the most beautiful views you could imagine.  The only thing that kept me from staying up there was my body's unrelenting requirement of calories, water and rest.  I still had to down climb, hike the highline trail back, bike to the St Mary entrance and drive 4 hrs home... worth it!

On the way down I met some people playing in the boulder fields below the diorite sill.  Even from a few hundred feet above I could see them contemplating the effort it would take to reach the summit.  These were the first people I saw all day so I stopped to enjoy my peanut butter sandwich and encouraged the two guys from Canada to just go for it.  They were headed up when I left so I hope they made it.  It was almost 2pm at that point and last call for safely getting up and down in day light.


It was now mid-afternoon and the highline trail was buzzing with people and goats... everywhere.  I passed multiple sets of female goats with offspring.  The adult goats would walk nonchalant right past you but the younger goats would panic and dive off the side of the trail.  I'm always amazed at their ability to stand upright on those steep slopes.  Towards the end of the trail, an adult female passed by me on a very narrow section of the trail. I literally climbed up off the trail onto a rock to get out of its way.  The goat walked up to me, turned its head and just stared for a minute and then just kept on going.  By then, the whole wait for the goats to pass routine was getting old but it was nice in a way.  While out in the backcountry your movement or travel is affected by the wildness of the area and not your stop watch or sense of immediacy to get home.  Sometimes it is just nice to slow down!

On Tuesday, I'm heading back home to see my family in Cleveland so I spent the weekend in Glacier to take in as much of Montana as I could.  While stuck in traffic around the strip malls of midwest suburbia I will be dreaming of the stillness and openness of my new home - Montana!


September 8, 2013

Going to the Sun Road via Mountain Bike

With all this new free time, I decided to make the drive up to Glacier for the weekend.  Last year it was pretty smoky so I was worried about visibility.  This time it was perfect!  No smoke just a few puffy clouds strolling across the sky.  


I left Friday after work with my tent and my mountain bike.  The sun was just setting as I pulled in to my campsite.  It has been a few years since I've been to the East side of Glacier.  The major access is on the West side of the park and a trip over there usually involves the normal tourist hysteria of major national parks.  


On the east side of the park there was very few people at all.  Nice and quiet!  I cooked up some freeze dried beef macaroni and fell a sleep to the buzz of the forest instead of the city!  Tomorrow was going to be a long, long day.


I woke up early, had some coffee and pressed on to the Saint Mary entrance.  A few other bikers were prepping their expensive road bikes while I hopped on my trek mountain bike.  Going to the Sun road is absolutely amazing.  The scenery is breathtaking and the chances of seeing wild animals is better than other national parks.  


The morning son casted reflections of the granite mountains in to the lake for me.  On bike I was much slower than I normally would traveling through the park.  It gave me time to appreciate every view for longer periods of time.  Traveling by bicycle was a completely different and new way to experience the park.



(Wild Goose Island on Saint Mary Lake)

The morning temperature was really cool and climbing wasn't as tough as I had hoped.  I wasn't moving fast and was passed by a few road cyclists who were pumped that I was riding a mountain bike.  Slow was the best speed to enjoy the mountains and scenery.  


(Citadel Mountain - 9,030ft)


(Heavy Runner Mountain 8,762ft)


(Looking West towards Clements Mountain 8,760ft)

The entire route to Logan Pass, which was about 15.5 miles with 2,400 ft of climbing, only took me an hour and half.  It felt much longer though!  


The atmosphere up at Logan Pass was completely different than my first few hours in the park.  I had seen a few cyclists and cars but for most of the time I was isolated.  After a while you get used to the quiet and it is a big change to see the hustle and bustle of humanity.  I am reminded of that concept every time  I venture outside of Missoula and through major cities.  The change of pace, noise and  surroundings makes me uncomfortable.  I get migraines and become disorientated.  In the end I accumulate to city life but learn to respect and appreciate my ability to disconnect on a daily basis!  

Check out thetime lapse of my ride below and enjoy Glacier National Park in under 90 seconds!

Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.