Unexpected Winter Hike to Comeau Pass
If you're not familiar with Comeau Pass; The trailhead is at Lake McDonald Lodge, elevation 3200ft. The trail winds through the woods across the base of Mt. Brown and Mt Edwards following Snyder Creek and Sprague Creek for 6.5 miles to the Sperry Chalet junction, elevation 6400ft. From there the trail heads northeast for 3.5 miles to Comeau Pass, elevation 8000ft.
Wanting to get home at a decent hour, we all had to work the next day, we left town at 5am reaching the trailhead at 6am. Being late October, sunrise was well after 8am, there was no moon in the sky. It was a crisp fall morning; temperature was right around 32F; the ground was covered with fallen cottonwood leaves. The sky was clear; the stars were shining bright. We donned our backpacks and headlamps and started up the trail.
As we climbed in elevation the temperature slowly dropped, the trail slowly changing from damp; to frosty; to crispy frozen; to snowy. Several times as the trail passed clearings I would stop and turn off my headlamp and stare at the stars, they are amazing that far from any city lights.
We hit snow about 3 miles in, getting deeper and deeper as we went. By the time we reached Sperry Chalet there was about 9 inches of snow. This is when I realized I had come ill prepared for this hike. I had been out the previous two weekends to about the 7000-foot level, never finding more that a couple inches of snow. I had not considered that while it was raining in the valley all week it was snowing in the high country. Clouds had been obscuring the views of the peaks, so I could not see the snow up there; out of sight out of mind. Of course I was carrying enough of warm layers in my pack to handle any cold, but I was not prepared for snow. I had on light quick dry hiking pants and short scree style gators to keep any snow kicked up out of my boots. I could not have guessed that I would soon be trudging knee-deep though beautiful powder. It would have been nice to have high gators and baskets on my trekking poles.
As we continued up the trail we saw cliffs above us covered in ice, frozen waterfalls, then came to where a creek crosses the trail. Here there is normally a plank bridge over the 6-foot span of the creek. But to keep the bridge from being swept away during winter avalanches the park service had removed the bridge earlier that month. Between the snowfall and the freezing temperatures an ice bridge had formed, well more of a slush bridge. We tested it with a pole and it sank through to the hilt but pressing with the foot seemed solid enough, moving slowly and gently we were able to cross and continue our way up.
When we reached the basin below Comeau Pass I was a little disappointed. I had been through the basin on a couple previous occasions, both times were early in summer before Feather Woman Lake and Akaiyan Lake had thawed. These lakes in late summer are suppose to be a beautiful glacial blue, I was really looking forward to seeing them. But I was too late, they were frozen solid.
We continued through the basin passing a lot of alpine trees almost completely ghosted over with snow until we reached the headwall. This is a solid cliff wall about a hundred feet high at the back side of the basin. At the east side of this wall there is a cleft, partly natural and partly man made. Back in the early days of the park stairs were carved in this cleft. The stairs are very steep, at times they are something like a six inch run to a 12 inch rise, other times running at about 45 degrees. Not that the stairs mattered since they were buried in snow. There is normally a cable handrail on the side of the cleft, but like the bridge the park service had removed it for winter. It was a fun climb up, carefully kicking toe holds in the snow till one at a time we reached the pass.
The views from the pass were incredible all the peaks completely white across plains of pristine undisturbed snow. The winds at the pass were very strong. I finally had to put on the wind proof layer of my coat. My light pants, which had been wet and snow covered from the knees down, had now frozen to solid bells of ice. So I reluctantly put on my emergency rain/wind pants, which I hate because they don't breath and make me sweat, but in this instance they warmed me right up.
We had planned to eat lunch at the pass, but there was no way we were going to be able to enjoy it in that howling wind. So we headed back down in to the basin. The trip down the cleft was a lot more fun than the trip up. In snow, rain pants basically turn you butt in to a sled. Just sit down, use your pole as you would an ice axe to control your rate of descent, and enjoy the ride. What took about 10 minutes to climb up took about 10 seconds to slide down.
When we got back to Akaiyan Lake we sat down and had some lunch. Linda pulled out her stove, melted and boiled snow so we could all have a cup of hot chocolate.
For the most part the trip back down was uneventful, I did break the tip off one of my poles when it slipped between two rocks I could not see under the snow. Kind of weird though, experiencing seasons in reverse, being in full on winter and walking back in to Autumn.
Yes, That is me, the same day. (Photo taken by Linda)
After 12 hours, 4800feet, and 20 miles, we were back to the car.
All in all, it was another perfect day in Big Sky Country.