The east and west faces of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain (below, respectively) and their visibility from the Going-to-the-Sun road gave us the desire to make it our first climb in Glacier National Park.
Going-to-the-Sun Mountain (GTTS): Its proximity and visibility from the road of the same name (the main thoroughfare in Glacier National Park), its impressive profile from both the east
and west, and its easy access made it the peak of choice for my wife Karissa and I to attempt on a 1.5 day trip to Glacier in midsummer. As we drove over the Going-to-the-Sun road we were treated to great views of the peaks of glacier such as Oberlin. We arrived at the St. Mary campground a few hours before dark the day before our intended climb. Rising early the next morning, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over St. Mary Lake. In almost no time we were on the trail at Siyeh Bend. The rising sun began to illuminate the upper slopes of Piegan mountain as we walked beside Siyeh creek. As we abruptly turned the corner to head uphill we encountered something large and brown in the middle of the trail that gave me quite a wake-up jolt. Fortunately it was not the grizzly bear I was expecting, but instead a cow elk.
Fortunately we encountered an elk at close range instead of one of these, or its bigger cousin. We saw this bear on the south slopes of Going-to-the-Sun Mountain a few months later by the road. On that same trip (in October that is) there was also a grizzly higher up on the mountain, so when making a trip in Glacier be bear-aware.
After a brief bit of morning sun, the clouds increased, so it remained dark for our walk through the forest. Our previous close encounter with the elk had us making lots of noise and singing loudly to warn any nearby grizzlies of our presence. When the saddle between Mataphi and GTTS became visible we left the trail, and bearing slightly to the north, made our way through the lower cliff bands up to the saddle. We were making good time and had less than 1500 vertical feet to go, so we enjoyed the views of the precipitous east face of Matahpi, and the Sexton Glacier as we stopped for a bite to eat.
Next, we needed to make our way to the Diagonal Chute (Nasty Gully). Instead of going up and finding a game trail (which, as I found out on the way back, makes things much easier) I decided to set off at an angle moving up and south towards the Diagonal Chute. It was remarkable hard to gain or even retain elevation moving across this steep loose scree field. After what seemed like a ridiculous amount of time, we found a goat trail, and from there the going was easy. I made the decision to try and go up the Diagonal Chute instead of continuing around and trying to find an alternative way through the cliff band onto the scree field above (Described in more detail in A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park ). 2005 had near record low snowpacks across much of western Montana, and there did not appear to be snow and ice that we could not maneuver around in the lower reaches of the chute. However, before long we came to an impassable section of snow and ice, at least for us not being equipped with ice axes or crampons. Since we had not gone very far the logical and safest choice was simply to turn around and proceed on around by the other route. However, I convinced myself and Karissa that the ice wouldn’t last long and we could just climb up out of the chute, bypass it above, and then go back down into the chute and continue up. After some considerable scouting I found a route that made it plausible to do this (By this time we probably could have already been on the scree field above the cliffs heading for the summit). We climbed up on the North side of the chute and got a close-up view of a family of Ptarmigans. After carefully finding our way back into the chute we continued up taking care not to knock rocks down on each other. However, before long we came to another section completely enclosed with slippery steep ice. A quick scramble up the side of the chute indicated that this time it did not end for a while if at all before the top. Our choices were to descend the way we had just spend so much time coming up, or try and climb out of the chute and head south and up across the steep lose west face until we got to the scree field. I managed to convince Karissa to take this second option. We slowly made our way in that direction, and after a considerable effort made it to where we could see and easily stroll to the main summit block.
Although the summit block was easy to reach, it took a little more route finding to gain those last few feet to reach the true summit. From there we could look down on St. Mary Lake and across at Little Chief Mountain, and down several thousand feet to Going-to-the-Sun road. As we approached the upper cliff band on our descent it began to rain, as it had been threatening to all day. Since we had not come up that way it took us a long time to locate an acceptable passage back to the scree slopes below. As we neared the trail for our last stretch of the day, the rain cleared and the sun came out. It illuminated the west face of the mountain. Views of a great diversity of wildflowers and the mountains surrounding Logan Pass made a great ending for an exciting day in which we did not encounter a single other person.
The wildflowers near tree-line on Going-to-the-Sun mountain put on a spectacular display in mid-summer (including beargrass, valarians, lupine, paintbrush, elephants head, arnica, alpine asters and many more).