BackgroundMount Cleveland (10,466) is the highest mountain in Glacier National Park, Montana and it has several really great scrambling routes to the top. Each of these routes offers a very different experience, and they all culminate in a long, high, beautiful ridge walk to the summit. This mountain has a lot to offer for climbers of all levels and it is my favorite climb in the park.
In July 2005, my dad and I decided to try it by the west face route, described in the Edwards guide. We took the touristy boat from Waterton Lakes village to Goat Haunt and set up camp at Kootenai Lakes. That afternoon, we tried to find the mysterious elk trail that would shoot us into Cleveland’s west bowl, per the guide. However, after three hours of searching without finding, we decided that we’d have a better chance if we got up really early to do the Stoney Indian traverse from Kootenai Lakes.
This route starts by getting the climber above the trees on the Stoney Indian Lake trail. We got to the lake at around 5:30 am and it was incredible. The lake was as calm as glass and the back country campers hadn’t woken up yet. On one side of the lake, there’s a high vertical cliff dropping directly into the water. The trail curls around the lake and then walks directly beneath the cliff. On that passage, the trail is about 1 ½ feet wide: cliff on the left and lake on the right. The silence made me feel as if my footsteps were the only sound in the entire valley. This trail is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been on—an incredible way to start a climb.
June 3: 105 inches. June 7: 89 inches. (“Great! The snow is melting quickly during the day. With any luck, all of that sun will help consolidate the snow nicely and we’ll have safe, easy walking.”) June 14: 115 inches. Big bummer. 2 feet of that snow fell in one night. Loose, wet, spring snow sitting on a hard old snow pack just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. On top of that, the St. Mary web cam had looked dark and rainy for about a week straight before the trip. A lot of the time, I couldn’t even see St. Mary Lake when I went to sneak a peak from my office desk. We were looking forward to a hard trip.
At Goat Haunt, the border officer was very nice to let us back into the US, considering that I look stoned and drunk on my passport picture, I incorrectly told him that I was born in Minnesota, and my dad quoted the wrong month for his birthday. Thanks guy.
He also gave me the “you’re crazy” look that I got from the gal at the ticket booth. “You know that it snowed all last week, right? All of that new snow on top of hard snow pack makes for perfect spring avalanche conditions.” Thanks for the reminder. (Note: I didn’t feel nervous because I thought that we were going to be “forced” to do something stupid and dangerous; I just didn’t want to get to the mountain and realize that we would have to call off the climb. We were there to wrap up unfinished business, after all.)
After setting up camp at Kootenai Lakes, we again went searching for the elk trail. This year, I brought a GPS, some trail marking tape, and a good memory. After less than an hour, we did find the trail we were looking for and we followed it up for a couple of hours, marking the turns along the way. We did this until the trail started breaking out of the trees and then headed back for supper. At camp, the lake was gorgeous and calm. We saw three moose, including a bull, playing in the water beneath the snow-covered mountains.
Summit DayThe next morning, we got up at 4 am. I had argued for 3, but my dad convinced me that 4 was good enough, since the route is in the shadow of the morning sun. Following the elk trail was a cinch and it soon led to grassy shelves interspersed with short class 3 scrambling. The view back across the valley to Citadel Spires was bright with the early morning sun. At one point, I saw the tail end of a black bear running away from us as we crested a small rise onto a forested shoulder. I felt a little guilty for bothering it in its paradise and I thought that, if I were a bear, I would hope to have as nice of a home.
We had gained the first 2,000 feet and after about a half mile of traversing beneath the West face, the snow was prevalent, hard, and icy. We stopped to put on our crampons and surveyed the planned route. The couloir that cut into the west ridge looked very steep and choked with snow, but we thought that it might still go, so we planned to climb to the base of it to have a closer look. If it was too gnarly, we would traverse around the west ridge and try the face behind it.
We decided that we’d still check out the steep couloir and then try to find a way to get on the other side of that cornice. The couloir turned out to be the technical crux of the climb and was really fun. The snow was hard and steep—from 45 to 75 degrees—and it was hemmed in on both sides by vertical rock. At times, when it was really narrow and steep, it helped to stem between the rock and the snow. It made me think that I’d really love mixed climbing. This went on for about 1,500 feet.
I had taped a helmet camera to my helmet so that I could film this section. When I got home, I watched an hour of blank snow, punctuated by an occasional ax being planted. I’m still bummed about that one. My advise is to get a big SD card for your camera and stop to take films of your partner. Hands-free filming doesn’t ever seem to work out.
Above the top of the couloir, there was a steep, narrow band of snow angling up to the top of the west ridge. We rested for 10 minutes and tried not to think too hard about the possibility of a false horizon. My dad led up to the top of it and I faintly heard happy yells coming from over the crest. As I came around the corner, I could see what appeared to be a continuous, snowy ridge that went all the way to the summit ridge. The wind was strong and it was reassuring to see tiny pockets of rock sticking out here and there—the snow here was well-packed and relatively safe from avalanche.
After having lunch, we slogged up another 2,200 feet on the snow, keeping a healthy distance away from the cornice. As we reached the summit ridge, we realized what flat-landers we really are as a cozy AMS headache set in for both of us. My dad felt fairly nauseous as well. Since we would only be bearing that for an hour or so, I decided that our risk was not enough to warrant turning back.
We slogged on for the final half mile or so, gaining the last 200 feet on the way. As gentle as this slope was, I would consider it a second crux for a few reasons. The wind was howling more loudly than it had at any other point on the climb—there were cornices on the east side sticking out a good 15 to 20 feet horizontally. Mixing that with our sickness, we ended up having to rest about every 30 or 40 steps. A half-hour later, we hugged on the summit and shot movies on my digital camera until the batteries didn’t work any more from the cold.
The view up there is really something. For a rush, I lied down and stuck my head out over the north face and looked down through 4,000 vertical feet of air. Wind blew chunks of snow into my face from the base of the mountain. We took turns walking to the top of the snow pile at the summit. My dad figures that the snow was about 10 feet high and he entertains that we therefore stood 10 feet higher than anyone has ever stood in Glacier National Park.