I'd been telling myself this was going to be a good day, and maybe even better than that: one of those days singularly standing out in the life-catalogue of events. It was a greatly-looked-forward-to excursion up and through cliffs to the top of something quite special, a peak summit from which could be seen three oceans.
Of all the mountains in which I've climbed, Glacier National Park seems to have the most omnipresent wind, yet this morning was calm, the sky cloudless (most assuredly not a given!), and even though early, the morning manifested all the symptoms of evolving into a very nice day. Hiking in this place is always good; many of the trails, at least for a while, work their way alongside water, and, not to make too big a deal of it, but the surrounding countryside will inevitably hold your attention and inspiration. And this day was not about to be different. A seven-and-a-half mile jaunt on a good trail through Paradise to a relatively small mountain just happening to be a world-class geological/hydrological wonder. Hiking is good. Climbing is even better. I was going to do both. The trail takes off directly from the Cut Bank Campground, proceeds immediately through meadows and forests, manages for a while to partner with a stream, and on this day of anticipation it is good to be alive!
Approximately two-and-a-half miles from Triple Divide Pass the peak came into view for the first time, at which point the origin of the well-known "prow of a ship" description was obvious, and also, the graceful ridge running the mile (peak to peak) between Triple Divide Peak and Razoredge Mountain could finally be seen in its entirety. High on the shoulder of this ridgejust below the sheer cliffs of Razoredge Mountain's east faceis a permanent snow field, one of the sources of Atlantic Creek, and the first thing this creek does in anticipation of its upcoming long trek to the Gulf of Mexico is plunge several hundred feet down the mountain, a beautiful falling thing, ending in the chilly blue-green waters of Medicine Grizzly Lake. At this point the lure of what I was seeing became something alive within me, and even though the trail had been rising steadily to meet the pass, my pace increased. Soon, right at the base of the mountain (and oh my goodness those cliffs look nice!), the pass itself can be seen, and I was close enough, and the line of sight is such, that coming into view directly across the saddle is Norris Mountain. In A Climber's Guide to Glacier National Park, J. Gordon Edwards doesn't even give Norris Mountain its own entry, except to describe it as something only done as a traverse from the summit of Triple Divide Peak, so upon approaching the saddle I was a bit unprepared for the looming grace and beauty before me, and intuitively, at this point I knew I'd be coming back, to do not only Triple Divide Peak again, but also Norris and Razoredge, and the huge Mount James, which is the other end of Triple Divide Pass (and upon whose south flank the trail had been working around and up for the past two or three miles), and the highest summit in the immediate area. But that was for another time; now, immediately before me were the cliffs of Triple Divide Peak, and the day was about to become intense. This was the crux; this was what I was here for.
There are two ways up this mountain, but I had never seriously considered the way not involving the cliffs, which rise abruptly from the pass. Six-hundred vertical feet to the summit! Certainly not a world class effort, although at times admittedly pushing the envelope (my envelope, anyway!) for free climbing, but with care (and, I reminded myself, good weatherof which today there was an abundance), no rope needed. Edwards intimates the cliffs to be impassable with anything other than a small pack, and while mine is in truth more "medium" than large, it is not small, and it didn't take long to realize the pack wasn't going with me. So I built a cairn to mark the spot, strapped on a water bottle, grabbed a light jacket, and the climb began in earnest.
What I've always enjoyed about climbing without ropes is the absolute concentration while on the face (although it is only fair to say that climbing with ropes certainly has its share of concentration as well). Nothing else exists but what you are doing at the moment, and at such times a description of life can be succinctly narrowed to the climb. And thus it was on these cliffs of Triple Divide Peak. No ropes, and I was alone; nothing existed but up through Glacier Park sedimentary rockon cliffs crumbly enough to most definitely get my attention, and test, test, test those hand-holds! So up I went, searching out a route, occasionally moving right or left a bit, or backtracking to a better purchase, then moving on, always up, never moving far from the mountain's edge because the rock seemed a bit more reliable there than elsewhere. One point, however, gave me an unexpected rush. I had gradually but steadily been guided to my right by the lay of the rock, when upon reaching for a hand hold, and stepping for a more secure balance, suddenly found myself confronting, and about to step out on, the sheer thousand-foot north wall of the mountain, which was decidedly NOT someplace I was about to go without a rope and partner (and maybe not even then)! I'd worked myself just a few feet too far the wrong way, and the air around me was showing, well, a long way down. Fortunately, hands and feet were secure, so it was a relatively easy and simple matter to scamper back (although to be honest, "scamper" might be stretching the actuality a bit) on route, which by this time had me not far from the summit. Continuing upward, I soon came to a diagonally running ledge, and was easily able to walk across the top front of the mountain, then double back to the peak itself.
Nature has always seemed to me a bit more untamed along divides than elsewhere, and walking the final yards to the summit I thought of the three watersheds born here, wondering if a place this unique might not harbor wild winds, and geologic and natural forces beyond my control. But no, it was just a sunlit, relatively normal looking mountain top, and whatever wildness there was, was either asleep in the mountain, or out in the sky. Standing, turning in place, then walking around the peak brought the three watersheds into crystal focus, and it all looked so natural, so easy, it was hard to believe this was one of only three places like it on the planet. At 8020 feet this peak is less in elevation than any of its neighbors, but still the view was wonderful, the day kept holding its grace, I'd had a terrific climb, and all was right in that little mountainous corner of my summer.
Then I walked to the summit cairn, and right there at the very apex of the mountain saw something I'd never seen before. On top of the rocks was the body of some kind of rodentabout the size of a large squirrel, but no kind of animal I was able to identifybut what held my attention, kept my eyes rivited, is that the body was split open, and had obviously been there for maybe a day. At first it didn't make sense, then I remembered that certain birds of prey kill their victims by dropping them from a height. I think that is what had happened here, but what wasn't understandable is why the bird hadn't returned to feed, rather than leaving the carcass to rot. It was weird, almost surreal in this place, yet the feeling persisted thatand even now (and I understand the natural savagery of things in the wild) I can hardly bring myself to say ithere a murder had been commited. I walked around the summit, took pictures, soaked up the vista, enjoyed the daythe quiet, sunlit day with a shattered body in it!but didn't go back to that cairn again.
Then it was time to go, and from the beginning I'd not expected to retrace my ascent route. I mean it was doable (I think), but looked pretty difficult. Maybe with a partner, where we could guide each other, but I was alone, and like I've already said, GNP rock isn't the best. So I figured the best way down would be the alternate route described in Edwards' book. And to this day I think it was. Or would have been. High on a saddle between two mountains, where there really weren't all that many choices to begin with, me, with something like a lifetime of fooling around in mountains, took a wrong turn. Went left and back when I should have gone straight, then left, then down, and then back. And it wasn't my fault, either, I was mislead (and that's not a whine; I'm pretty sure I don't do that). You see, there was this arrow on the ground, pointing back (and just so no one thinks I'm making this up, there's a magnificent picture of the thing below; you can even vote on it if you want) towards the pass. The arrow was quite obviously man-made, and, to my route-inquiring mind, was gospel pointing to the easiest way off the mountain. So I followed the arrow...
...which almost immediately put me off the saddle ridge, and onto a goat trail and ledge which looked to traverse the cliffs about half way between top and bottom, cutting back across the entire east face of Triple Divide, and would eventually bring me relatively close to the pass. Now you have to understand something, that the goats and nimble-footed critters around here are really pretty smart, and usually get all "A's" in engineering school; in fact, there's a saying used by us all-too-human adventurers: "If you get lost, trust the goat trails." (Really. We do say that.) So I was happily on this goat-trail-of-a-ledge, the pass clearly visible only a half-mile or so distant, singing self-congratulations on how smart I was for finding this route so easily, and how could I have ever been apprehensive (even a little) over getting down in the first place...
...when I noticed my way approaching an overhang in the cliffs, and sure enough, proceeding directly beneath it. The pass still beckoned in the distance, and even though my ledge was lost from sight as it curved around a corner, I could see it again, coming back into view a hundred feet or so further across the cliff face, continuing on its way. Upon reaching the overhang it became immediately apparent that it gradually but steadily became both more pronounced and more confining, but because the trail remained in sight across the way, I moved ahead into the dwindling space even though it became necessary to crouch down so as to avoid banging my head on the rock. The ledge never let up wrapping around out of sight to my left, always remaining perfectly traversable, and anyway, by then I had enough time invested in this crossing so that when trail and overhang came together such that I had to sit down and scootch along on the seat of my pants, legs dangling over the edge into a growing sheerness, well…that's what I did. After all, the trail obviously continued, because I could still see it in the distance, sans overhang even, beckoning, heading for where I wished to go. I did, however, begin to suspect that maybe the goats using this means of crossing these cliffs weren't very tall. Anyway, I scooted on a few more hunched-over yards, came around the corner...
...and the ledge ended. Actually, it didn't really end, as in cease to exist, but continued after a gap of a couple yards. No overhang over there, either, but in the meantime the immediate and uncompromising drop of 30 or 40 feet directly below my perch was beginning to move towards the forefront of things to which I should pay attention. It was just silly, running that trail beneath the overhang, with a gap located so that no one could possibly stand and get enough leverage to jump the thing. Jeez, you'd have to be part mountain goat! The situation was such that going forward was impossible (thanks, stupid goats!), and the overhang was still banging away at the back of my head, so the only option was to slide back the way I came. But to do so required turning a bit, and there really wasn't an abundance of room in which to do this, plus if I slid off the ledge while squirming and flailing about, the 30 or 40 foot drop to the rock below seemed considerably more than it needed to be.
Pondering the situation didn't make it any better, and sitting there doing nothing made me feel all small and vulnerable (and very alone), so, slowly and carefully I turned, all the while casting a disdainful eye at the calamitous depth just inches away (you can believe the disdainful part if you wish), and somehow managed to twist enough so as to slide, with bated breath, out from beneath that tight, high place, back to the more human-friendly confines of the ledge I'd traversed just a few minutes ago. I suppose if there's a lesson to be learned from this it's how effortlessly, and with no warning, circumstances in the mountains can slide from a grand time into something quite different. That had just happened to me, and future narrow ledges and overhangs leading around blind corners through unknown terrain will be evaluated differently, but even at that moment, finally able to stand upright and dwell on the broader agenda of making it back to Triple Divide Pass, it didn't seem I'd been horribly foolish in any kind of decision-making way. True, the way I'd chosen had changed rapidly, but still subtly enough to give no warning, and always there had been the trail continuing in my line of sightI really hadn't thought about what might be waiting in the blind area around the corner!
Then the way back became, if not easy, at least more certain. The sheer cliffs below gave way to something which could be worked through safelynot easily, but at the moment that wasn't the issuewith another ledge continuing in the proper direction after maybe a 20 or 30 foot scramble down. I followed that trail a while, then worked down to yet another ledge, so that I was accomplishing both a loss in elevation and return to the pass at the same time. A bit more of this sort of thing, then came the magic moment when I realized the worst was behind me, and…I was going to make it. Even more amazing, I came out practically on top of the cairn marking the location of my packwhich was just as I'd left ittore the cairn apart (always do this!), returned to the pass, and had nothing before me but an easy trail back to camp through a warm afternoon.
I'd gone maybe a mile when I had an unexpected and interesting encounter. I hadn't reached timberline yet, and so had an unencumbered view of the trail before me as it worked its way off the pass, down the flank of Mount James, when what should I see coming towards me but a mountain goat and her kid. Yes!one of the trail-building culprits! Here was an unexpected opportunity to lodge a complaint about the rather unthinking route placement in the area, so I strode forward, determined to make my point known, and, honestly, I don't think an apology would have been too much to expect, either. Maybe I'd been reading too much of the stuff oozing out from P&P, but if necessary I was even going to yell at her (yelling is good; kind of forces the point), and didn't care if it embarrassed her in front of the young one, either. But the low-life bounded off the trail before I reached her, although she could be seen down the mountainside peering up at me from behind a rock. I bellowed my opinions anyway (I think I was really quite impressive!), but she just wandered off, with her brat close behind. She probably considered herself to have maintained a dignified silenceobviously she hadn't been reading P&Pbut I yelled a bit more, then continued on. I'm pretty sure that in actuality she was shamed. I know I certainly felt better.
So I continued on to camp, all aglow with the satisfaction of having put that goat in her place. The afternoon was actually quite warm, and the trail was on the south slope, so I was eager to get back, get something cold to drink, and find a shower. Normally, the adventure ends upon returning to one's car, but this day was determined to not resemble anything like routine. My pants pockets have zippers in them so nothing can fall out; I unzipped the pocket...and no keysor most importantly at that moment, no car key. Does everyone understand that zippers really don't help all that much if there's a hole in the bottom of the pocket? So no keys. Cut Bank Campground is five miles up a dirt road; and most serious of all, I couldn't even get into the car to reach my ice chest! Retrace my steps through the mountains in a desperate search for the missing item? Oh sure, that'd work. Then the day became amazingly fortuituous: a couple weeks before, I'd had the oil changed in my car, and upon reaching the dealership, parked as instructed in a line of vehicles also awaiting servicing, left the key in the ignition so the mechanic could move it, and promptly locked the door. With the key inside. The service manager, bless him, didn't even laugh at me, but merely said, "You bought the car here, didn't you?" To which I answered in the affirmative, to which he said, "Then your ignition number is on file, and we'll make a duplicate key to get in; it'll just be a few minutesand you'll even have an extra key." So they did just that, left the new key in the glove compartment, and I'd promptly forgotten about it.
Until now that is, when in a burst of brilliance, if not genius (hey, after all I'm the one writing this), I remembered it. The most amazing thing is that I invariably roll the windows all the way up when leaving on a climb, except this day had looked to be so nice I'd cracked them open, hopefully to keep the cooler from getting hot enough to melt the ice. But, even though cracked open, the windows weren't that far down, to wheresayan arm could fit through. What to do? Well, what about the rope always with me in case a pack needs stringing up in bear country; couldn't it be made into a loop? Normally I hate window cranks versus power windows, but at this penultimate momentbecause rope loops fit over window cranks, which can then be turnedI absolutely loved mine! So end of story. I was able to drive out of there. Never did find my keys, which are someplace in the Glacier National Park mountains. Probably the stupid goats have them mounted on some cliff wall as a trophy, and do devious pagan rituals around them at night.
And that's that. The day fits nicely into my catalogue of days and events. I call it "Triple Divide Peak Day, complete with Oceans, Cliffs, and Goats." It was a good day.
In TributeOn March 1, 2011, Vernon Garner, Saintgrizzly, left us after losing a bold, inspiring fight against pancreatic cancer. Or maybe he won, for he is at last free of his pain and has "shuffle[d] off this mortal coil."
Vernon was an important contributor on SummitPost, but beyond merely making good, informative pages, he actually inspired many who read his work. No one put more work into his or her pages than Vernon did, and many of those pages, especially those related to Glacier National Park, the place he loved above all others, are works of art in both the writing and layout. More than one person has wanted to visit Glacier or go back to Glacier largely due to what he shared about that magnificent place.
Many people on SP counted Vernon among their friends, and many more saw him as one of the best, one of those who exemplified the spirit of this site. He was one of the best of us, he will be missed, and he will not be forgotten.
As a tribute to him, Vernon's pages will remain in his name.
Rest well and climb on, Vernon.