Yeah, RightThis trip report has no riveting tales of death narrowly avoided and no valuable route information. Created mainly to share with my wife and relatives, it also showcases the unbeatable scenery of Glacier National Park, which, even in poor weather, is still stunning. For the merely curious, I hope this reads well and elicits a laugh or two and maybe even allows them to commiserate a little, and I thank them for their interest.
People from wetter parts of the country where rain is more a season than an occurrence will read this and think I'm being a big baby. Let them. I hate rain. Hate it. Especially a cold rain on a depressingly dreary day. We need it, I know. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But let it rain only at night, not when I want to do something outside. Thunderstorms are okay; at least they can be beautiful and pass quickly. But a gray day of steady rain is just an affront to me; it makes me want to demand a refund.
It was June 1999, a few days before the start of summer vacation. My boss asked me where I was going this year, and I said I would be venturing into the Sierra Nevada with my brother to do some backpacking. I knew better than to believe it but still wanted to when she, who probably never has been backpacking or climbing in her life, told me, "It never rains in California in the summer."
As we endured a floating tent, rained-out views at Monarch Pass, a thunderstorm that spurred us down the Mount Whitney trail in what might have been record time for non-runners, and other wet delights, I thought about those words, and cursed them, a lot.
Just as I expected, it does rain in California in the summer, and it does it not at night when you're in a motel getting some rest before the next big outing but rather when you're trying to enjoy the mountains. (To be fair to the Sierraphiles here, I must acknowledge that over about two weeks I spent in the Sierra that summer, we only experienced rain on four days and had gorgeous blue skies on just about every other day.)
But it's not supposed to rain in Montana in August, mind you. There's not supposed to be any bad weather at all. August is mountaineering's finest season in the Northern Rockies, for the snow hazards are mostly gone or much diminished, the mosquitoes have become tolerable, and it's sunny and warm every day. Well, that's what they say, anyhow, and that's what you always see in the pictures.
Also, I'd always had good luck with Glacier weather, be it in July or August. There had been some spots of rain, but no rainy days.
Good thing I packed the quick-dry pants and the waterproof jacket anyway.
The year before was to have been our tenth-wedding-anniversary trip to Glacier National Park. Rather than go our usual route and try to economize as much as possible given food and lodging costs in the national parks, we reserved an expensive lakeside room at the Many Glacier Hotel and would just enjoy it and being grossly overcharged in the restaurant there as well. My parents were going to watch our son and daughter, and it would be like two weeks of the kid-free days again.
But an unplanned pregnancy changed those plans. Tom, our third child, was slated to begin his sentence in August, making a July trip to the mountains seem much less enjoyable and probably inadvisable. The silver lining, though, was that I had already bought my plane ticket, and my wife told me I might as well still go, so I got three weeks in Montana to myself! (I had already planned a solo week in addition to our two together.)
So it was Try #2 in 2009. My parents were still happy to keep the older two children, but Tom, who had just turned one, was all ours. Not quite the same as going sans kids, but one kid in Glacier is better than three kids at home, I say. Someday, when Tom complains that he never gets to go anywhere or do anything, I will tell him that he got to go to Glacier National Park for his first birthday. We'll see if he falls for it.
Signs were bad from the start. Our plane touched down in Great Falls in cool temperatures and under overcast skies. Our first stop was Choteau for three days in the Rocky Mountain Front. Discussing what to do our first day out there, I suggested taking advantage of the weather, which, though overcast again and looking like rain, was for the moment dry, and hiking to Our Lake, from which I then planned to make a climb of the unnamed peak forming the lake's northern backdrop. This turned out to be a good idea, for although it did rain a little that day, it rained hard and constantly most of the next day, allowing us just a short escape in the late afternoon, which we used to do a little scenic driving (and birdwatching for my wife at Freezeout Lake). I'd been rained on in the Front before, but not as long and as much, and it had been during a wetter time of year-- late June.
Things improved for Glacier Part 1-- three days at Rising Sun along Going-to-the-Sun Road. A nice day in the Front continued so into Glacier. The next day, we hiked the Siyeh Pass Loop; winds were brutal up high, and there were constant battles between blue skies and overcast ones, but it was dry and, on balance, a good day. The following day was even better-- windy again, but nice and sunny, a great day for climbing the Dragon's Tail with two other SP members and getting a sunburn while doing so. It seemed the real Glacier August had finally arrived.
And then it all went to hell. Rain, and heavy amounts of it, was forecast for the next day. As they usually are when predicting bad weather, the forecasters were right. Early in the morning, I dashed up to Logan Pass for a quick climb of Mount Oberlin, and although it was already looking nasty, I escaped with just some light rain when I was almost back to the car. Back at the lodge, I even proposed going back up there to hike to the Clements-Oberlin saddle, almost within spitting distance of the uber-popular trails at Logan Pass but without their traffic, but by the time we got there, which was about noon, there was just cold, pounding rain, the kind that you can barely see in and which nobody wants to do anything in.
Not having anything to do, then, we headed for Many Glacier Valley and Glacier Part 2-- five nights in a lakeside room at the Many Glacier Hotel. Knowing how ridiculous it was, we still hoped the weather was maybe nicer over there or that the storm would pass by the time we arrived. What's the harm in a futile dream as long as you don't take it too seriously?
For a moment, it seemed the mountain gods had smiled upon us. In Many Glacier, the clouds started parting and the sun showed up. And then I jinxed it. After checking in, we found our lakeside room to be one with a tiny window overlooking the lake and next to a noisy common area. Many rooms at the hotel have walk-out balconies, and though there is no guarantee of one at reservation time, it was that type of room we wanted.
Normally, I am not one who complains about accommodations, food, and services and haggles over them. But this time, I went to the desk and made a complaint/request for another room. Maybe I seemed agitated enough or maybe the clerk was just nice, but we did get a room we wanted.
And that was probably what did us in. The clerk probably cursed us for the hassle we made for her and wished us rain for a week, for that's what we got. So much for enjoying that balcony over the lake unless you call shivering with a blanket around you and trying with trembling hands to sip wine during the occasional 20 minutes of sun in the evening enjoyment. Yes, each day had its empty promises, usually a short spell of glorious sun in the late afternoon or around sunset, or both.
I shouldn't have been too surprised. Earlier in the summer, I'd spent two weeks in Wyoming, and there had been rain more than half of the days, though no day was a total washout. This was unusual weather for Wyoming in July. And when I climbed with a Montana native on the one truly nice day of our Glacier trip, he told me that it had been a cool, rainy, and cloudy summer and not a very good climbing season at all. Staff members at the hotel confirmed this.
Late August saw a return of more Montana-like weather, but I really don't want to hear about it, thank you.
But you can't change the weather, and you can either sit in the room or the tent and cry about it or you can get out and do something in spite of it. So we did the latter.
A brief recap:
August 12: Arrival at Many Glacier, much ruing the weather and hoping it would improve even though the forecast was beyond discouraging and got worse each day; by the end of the stay, there were winter weather advisories, and there was fresh snow on the mountains that didn't succumb to the standard one-day melt.
August 13: Friends from Corvallis, probably wishing they could have found a way out of doing so, met us after driving a day through cold and wet western Montana. With Tom on my back, we hiked in light rain past Redrock Falls to Bullhead Lake. Although we rarely saw the mountaintops, we did get some nice looks at Swiftcurrent Glacier. Hot lunch back at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn was probably the highlight, though.
August 14: There was some clearing at dawn, and things looked promising for a solo outing that would involve about 16 miles, Class 3 and 4 conditions, and lots of exposure; I wanted to climb to Iceberg Notch and traverse from there to Ptarmigan Tunnel via the spectacular goat trail hugging much of the Ptarmigan Wall. Not wanting to get fooled by yet another lull in the rain, I waited almost two more hours to see if the decent weather was for real. It seemed to be, so I went out for the climb, even enjoying some real sunshine on the way to Iceberg Lake (and maybe the improving weather made the grizzlies happy, too, for the one foraging above me along the trail paid not a bit of attention to me). What a surprise-- along the most dangerous part of the route, the weather turned to crap and the day turned into a minor epic.
August 15: We'll just hope Tom doesn't remember this day. The rain wouldn't let up a bit, but we had to do something, so we took the boat shuttles across Swiftcurrent and Josephine Lakes to hike to Grinnell Glacier. What began as a chilly drizzle got worse and worse, and our best efforts to keep Tom dry ultimately failed. As we got higher and the rain got harder and the air colder, the poor kid was wet and shivering. With the glacier in sight and less than a mile to go to reach it, we decided it just wasn't worth it and turned around.
August 16: Since I was allowed my free day for the Ptarmigan Wall, my wife had to have hers. She chose a trail ride to Cracker Lake, a blue glacier-fed beauty that is one of the most beautiful hiking destinations in the park. Shocking as this will seem, it rained and snowed on her just about the entire time. The upside was that she was the only rider beside the guide.
While she was gone, I took advantage of a break in the weather to stuff Tom in the backpack and start up Altyn Peak by the South America route, a short but very steep way up the mountain, mostly Class 2 but with a little Class 3. But we encountered two black bears just minutes after starting out. One was maybe 20 yards off to our left, and it didn't seem to mind us, so I kept going. But the second was right on the climber's trail just a short distance ahead, and it was standing up to check us out. Considering the kid on my back, I figured it might be a good idea to leave the mountain to the bears that day. Another shutout.
Those bears deserve some thanks, though. After turning around, I decided to hike the easy trail around Swiftcurrent Lake instead, just to get some fresh air and movement. Maybe half an hour later, it started to-- you probably can't guess-- rain. And hard.
There was real clearing in the late afternoon, though, and an honest-to-goodness nice sunset. For the first time in days, I felt confident the next morning would be a nice one. Another reason I felt so was that we had to leave the next day.
August 17: And wouldn't you know it...it was a beautiful morning! Almost no clouds, haze-free skies, the striking reds of Glacier's peaks in the early-morning sun. Once again, there was proof to the notion that to change the weather for the better, all you have to do is turn around, leave the park, put on all kinds of restrictive, suffocating protective gear, etc. Not willing to let the weather gods have the last laugh, though, we got our tails in gear, checked out, and drove to the Iceberg Lake trailhead. My wife wanted to hike to Iceberg Lake since she had last been there in 1998 during our honeymoon; I had been to the lake three days earlier and had looked down on it from Iceberg Peak the year before, so I didn't really want to hike to the lake again so soon; what I wanted to do was hike to Ptarmigan Tunnel and, with the better conditions, solve the problem I couldn't during my minor epic three days before. Therefore, we made a deal: we would hike together, with me hauling Tom, to Ptarmigan Falls, after which I would take off solo for Ptarmigan Tunnel and my unfinished business and she would continue with Tom to Iceberg Lake. That worked out pretty well since we both got to go where we wanted and I did the kid-carrying for the steepest part of the hike to Iceberg Lake.
So that's exactly what we did. Both of us had a great time in sunny, reasonably warm weather, and on the way back, I actually caught up to Tom and my wife about about a mile from the trailhead, sparing my wife the customary hour or two of waiting whenever we do things like this. So yeah, that made it a little easier to drive back to Great Falls.
Plus, as we were driving out of the park, things were clouding up again. I couldn't help the little grin.