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Semi-Soloing Mount Merritt
Trip Report

Semi-Soloing Mount Merritt

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Semi-Soloing Mount Merritt

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Montana, United States, North America

Lat/Lon: 48.87194°N / 113.78128°W

Object Title: Semi-Soloing Mount Merritt

Date Climbed/Hiked: Jul 20, 2013

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Summer


Page By: andrew david

Created/Edited: Jul 27, 2013 / Jul 30, 2013

Object ID: 858427

Hits: 1576 

Page Score: 81.18%  - 13 Votes 

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Ptarmigan Panorama
A long beautiful scouting shot from some fun on the Ptarmigan Goat Trail during a day hike. Trust me when I tell you it helps with getting a permit when you can cut off any objection from a ranger with, "well its in fine condition from my scouting yesterday on the Ptarmigan Goat Trail."

First, I wish to mention about half of these pictures are taken by a couple I met in Great Falls.  They deserve the credit and I do not think will mind my posting them, but I am leaving things anonymous for reasons that will be clear later, and should they demand I take their photos down, I will.  The panorama above should not be blurry if you click it to zoom in.

Second, for those who read a previous post of mine, "Mount Gould's Grimace", there was a lot of negativity towards park management.  I have updated my Introduction and Disclaimer to that post (which became somewhat controversial with a few) and will say here as well that my opinion of the park has changed for the positive.  I had a great time there in 2013, meeting rangers who were full of knowledge, great to work with, eager to help people get the permits they wanted, quick to ask questions about peaks they'd not climbed themselves, full of tips and advice, and just a lot of fun to meet.  So in 2012 I think I just crossed a few people on the wrong days.  GNP does a great job in catering to a large body of tourists and a smaller body of hikers, and an even smaller group of climbers, but this year I never felt that I was being squeezed or marginalized and I'd like to thank those I worked with for that.  Commendations.  Okay, on with it!

Ptarmigan 1
From Ptarmigan Goat Trail.
I spent at least 3 years coveting Mount Merritt.  It was one of those peaks which upon first viewing it in a picture, my eyes went wide, I made a little gasping sound of awe, and it became burned into my heart and mind.  I simply had to summit it one day.  Yet that day kept moving further and further back, like all my GNP dreams.  Thunderbird Mountain was another of those peaks, another which made me need to drive 700+ miles to the edge of Canada, the remotes of remote Montana, that state whose very name means mountains.  That was another of those peaks which just made me think, "why yes, that is what a mountain should look like.  I never knew before," - a feeling more common to men about women, as one can just catch your eye and you never thought yourself shallow but suddenly, despite being in a happy relationship, and not looking for a way out, you are walking into a wall doing a double take at some girl too young even to be able to share a sentence with.  For most men do not even notice mountains.  There are scores who drive through my home state of Utah every day and never notice the skyline behind the skyline, those snow-tipped peaks so elegant for me.  There were other views I came across.  The Ptarmigan Tunnel, Iceberg Lake, some I hardly remember.  But above all there was that ramp of the Old Sun Glacier up the flank of Mount Merritt, towering above the sharp ears of the Lithoid Cusp, and those seemingly sheer smooth walls, that "wall of snow and ice" as two bikers I met and talked with for an evening called it.  I knew exactly what they meant.  "Oh that's the Old Sun Glacier" I said, "I am going up that in a few days."  But that was recent, long after I had grown familiar with the glacier from every angle.  The first step was so simple, but so long ago: to order a copy of the J Gordon Edwards "A Climbers Guide to Glacier National Park" through Amazon.  It cost me only $12.50 and took under 15 minutes.  Getting to the park took longer, and learning the terrain, the little red tape rules, how to read the fastest clouds east, west, north, or south of the Pecos (I'm a Yosemite Sam fan if you don't know that reference), and finally attempting Mount Merritt and Thunderbird took longer still- a second trip in fact.  There was suffering, there was danger, there was adventure aplenty, and now, there is a trip report.

The Approach

What really makes Mount Merritt a terrible/tremendous undertaking in my mind is the approach.  From any possible direction you are looking at 12 or 13 or even more miles.  The two most sensible approaches are via Many Glacier, going through the Ptarmigan Tunnel, and from Chief Mountain.  Both are fine hikes, if one is in the mood for a long walk.  If one is not in the mood for a long walk, both will make for long and crabby days.

Ptarmigan 2
Ipasha, Merritt, and Natoas, with Helen Lake near left. Lithoid Valley about centered. Looks so quiet and peaceful from above...

Ptarmigan Tunnel offers the chance to admire where you will be going from a finer angle.  You will get great views and probably pictures of Mount Merritt and Natoas Peak, sparkling across a green valley from you, looking both near and far at once, with red streaked and striated rocks, zebra walls of pink and Tetrus mistake angles at your hip, towering high.  A simple and enjoyable diversion takes you around the shoulder of a yellow-lichened spire to the start of the famous Ptarmigan Goat Trail, surprisingly easy to find after all the reports and complaints I came across from people missing it.  Although the main trail for the full 4 miles may take more effort to locate.  In less than an hour you can go from tunnel to around the shoulder, snap a few miraculous pictures, grab a very windy bite to eat, contemplate your tomorrows, but especially tomorrow, and be back, ready to shoulder your heavy pack and descend those 2400 feet you just ascended.  You will pass pretty Ptarmigan Lake, likely to have a few swimmers or pretenders lounging in degrees of wetness by its ample southern shore- perhaps having already spooked your first goat of the trip.  Count on more fleeing from you on Merritt.  

If you get this view, you went to far and are on your way to Helen Lake. This looks like a much more pleasant start to a bushwhack than what you'll get though.
Chief Mountain Customs adds a mile to your ankles' workload, but replaces a steady climb with rolling hills and prairies.  First, you go through a forest briefly.  A half mile or so of trees with their best days behind them, the pine beetles at work, mauling their way up from the ground, with branches falling as they go, the trunks barer than the midriffs of teenage daughters these days, sauntering about in those "hoochie mama" outfits that seem to be the only option on shelves, even in the great repressive state of Utah.  If I were 14 again, I'd be ecstatic.  If I were a parent, I'd be more annoyed that prices continue to go up for clothes while the amount of fabric in them has been cut to about a third of what was there 10 years ago.  Vibrant green ferns are high, but for once, the trail is wide and shady.  It won't last.  You descend 800 or 900 feet in a handful of switchbacks and meet again the sun.  That claustrophobic narrowing of GNP backcountry turf will begin to suffocate you, nettles and huge leaves and flowers closing in, invading your privacy bubble, scratching at any skin you try to give fresh air to.  At first the prairies will charm you.  "Holy heck," you might think to yourself, "millions of flowers!"  And you will smile.  Then the small and middling hills begin and the four or five or six miles of flower meadows become tedious.  "Holy heck," you will think to yourself, "millions of flowers!"  And you will sigh, or groan, or curse.  The mountains in the distance, which you know force the fork of this "Y" of a trail, splitting hikers to the camps heading to Lakes Elizabeth and Helen and Lakes Cosley, Glenn, Mokowanis, and beyond, still small, still distant.  There is a limit to the beauty one can take in.  Paintbrush and sunflowers after hours just become redundant, annoying.  You focus only on the plentiful bees and flies they house, and the camera goes away, if it was ever even out.  The trail is mostly dry, though with small crossings on bridges, often, passing the jealousy-inducing ranger station (what a house!), then the prairies yielding to rockier footing and steeper hills in the shade of another forest.  Dawn Mist Falls is a good place for a break.  Elizabeth Lake's foot is another tempting rest spot.  Where you are camping might determine where else you cool your feet and drop your pack.  Lake Helen is 1.5 miles beyond the creek crossing and twin bridges where you start the bushwhack but provides a stellar view of Old Sun Glacier and your itinerary.

Of course both my descriptions assume you are targeting the Old Sun Glacier route.  You could also start in Canada, take the boat across Waterton Lake for $21 and attack the North coulours from Mokowanis Lake, or start at Chief Mountain, and hike to Mokowanis Lake.  I think that last option would be a two day affair, as the mileage would be something like 17 miles and that still leaving a couple miles of approach before you are climbing the next day.  But I won't tell you what your legs can do.  The trouble with any such approach is weather really.  Rain on the day going in is unacceptable because the plants crowding the trail will soak every bit of you, especially your feet, no matter how waterproof your boots are.  Your pants and socks will drip into them and ruin them from the inside.  And even a touch of water on the treadmill scree encircling Merritt will make your efforts more difficult, if not futile.  Its too long an approach to risk any rain.  Wait for the right weather report.

Merritt 2
Dawn Mist Falls from the main trail.

Merritt 1
Dawn Mist Falls from a short spur trail.

Base Camp (and even more approach)

Even having just completed this trip, I am still unsure where to advise you to set up a base camp.  If targeting the North coulours, you will be at Mokowanis Lake, because there is nothing practical that is closer to the mountain.  I consulted the rangers I spoke with on this and they confirmed they are not in the business of writing undesignated permits for the wilds beyond Mokowanis just to save you a mile.  Why bushwhack the extra yardage with your gear anyway?  And its a bear trap.  As for the Old Sun Glacier route, it is easy enough to arrange a permit for the Lithoid Valley leading up to the cirque under Merritt, Ipasha, and Natoas.  I set this exact permit up multiple times (cancellations due to rain or its threat) and each ranger was quite willing to send me up there as its far from trail, isolated, and exotic (who goes there?).  The hardest thing about getting the permit was that nobody could figure out how to describe it in the system.  I kept suggesting "Lithoid Valley", though there is no official name.  The round, icy, pale blue lake is known to rangers though and they settled on penciling me in as camping there. 

Merritt 3
From near where we camped.

That is indeed an ideal base camp and where I intended to be.  But there is one little problem with it.  Actually a very large problem: grizzly bears.  Right as I caught my first glimpse of that lake, I caught a glimpse of a large fellow munching flowers near it.  I gave my standard bear call of "Ai-yee" as loudly as I could, and shook the very cliffs themselves.  Then I waited to see this big fluffy hombre scurry away as bears will do, but he glanced over at me, languidly took me in, then turned a shoulder to me as if to say, "I see you.  I don't care."  Hmm I thought, this is a boy I do not need to shake hands with.

But I am ahead of myself.  I will describe the "Lithoid Valley" for you.  From the Ptarmigan Goat Trail, or at least, Lunch Hour Shoulder, or whatever you want to call the spot when one comes right around the corner on a fabulously exposed little obvious wisp of a trail, clear enough to show up in photographs to wow your friends, the spot that will take you just about 5 hours to reach and at which you are suddenly smacked with a view of Mount Merritt and Ipasha to take away what breath the wind has left you, that valley looks tame, gentle, nearly flat, and as quiet and green as a postcard of Ireland open fields.  From the creek crossing, a different story is instantly obvious.  The brush is high and thick, the trees tangled and some fallen, the creek roars more than sings, and there is no doubt that all means of wild things live up there.  How can it be the same place, I wondered?  The first sight gave me cold feet.  This is not a place to go strolling into solo.  This is jungle, this is a self-contained world, which knows nothing of recent events, knows nothing even of music, where lightning and teeth still are considered novel.  But up I went.

Merrit 4
The last photo my camera will ever take. For no reason at all, it broke right after this picture looking back toward the Helen Lake Trail. Not much elevation gain during the bushwhack.
Things are not really so bad either.  There are plentiful elk trails almost immediately.  Fallen trees make things tougher, but the worst of the brush is simplified by having the route picked for you.  Lose one trail and take another, make some noise, and keep close enough to hear the creek.  It veers NW sharply for a bit, so don't hug it at first.  When in doubt, move back closer to it, but the creek will come and find you again.  Even calling out regularly I spooked one large elk into flight.  Or a moose.  Or a bear.  But my ears are pretty trained up to animals through brush by now, and I thought it was an elk.  They have a sort of thunder to their fear; those hooves just clatter with the exact opposite of the mammal's usual grace when they try to rush.  I got annoyed with the elk trails a little after that, and coming to a mostly dry creek bed, rocky and wide, I just followed it and left the brush behind.  Even low, the creek was juuuuuussst too wide to jump, by about 6-12 inches everywhere, so I gave in, put on wading shoes, and just walked right up the water, stepping out only to let my bright red feet, ankles, and shins recover from glacial cold.  That creek is cold as ice and just as slippery, so watch your step if you follow in my footsteps.  This method made the progress faster and soon I was eyeing several promising spots that offered some security.  Mostly I was tempted by the total lack of interesting comforts or goodies for a bear.  Thinking like a grizzly: I'm big, I'm fat, it takes about 16 hours of chewing a day to keep me alive, so why am I going to go exploring a dry creek bed with no fish?  But I continued on, figuring I could backtrack if needed, and hoping for something a little more inviting.

I stopped and attempted to take some pictures as in late evening the HUGE pyramid of Merritt and the smaller blade of Ipasha block most of the light but let a spotlight halo through which is quite pleasing to behold.  My camera failed to capture it, and also made a bad work of some waterfalls streaming down from lush cliffs on my left (the West).  I tried a shot right behind me back toward trail, with an unimpressive lump of a mountain spotty with light and shadow, the whole valley behind me.  That was a mediocre picture and sadly the last I ever got with my camera, because my focus broke and despite ten minutes of fiddling with it, there was no hope.  After the long approach and years of waiting for this particular adventure, and that promise in the guide book that Merritt boasts the finest view in the park, this was too much, and I flipped out.  I started screaming "why now?"  repeatedly.  Salt deprivation and solitude that drowns out your shouts does crazy things to people.  Looking back, it was a little like Sally Bowles from "Cabaret" going to the train tracks to scream at the top of her lungs as trains went past so no one in Nazi Germany could hear her panic.  If a man freaks out over his camera in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it really happen?  That's an ancient Chinese proverb, updated for the modern American.  Well, okay so I came to grips with it.  Many people climb without cameras, and I am a believer in anti-fame.  Experiences are still valid, even if not shared.  Its fun to make summit videos and panorama photos and show off and share them with those who can't or never will go be wild, but that's not essential to the mission.  Its a fringe luxury really.

Then five minutes later I was being dissed by the bear and weighing my options.  Return to the dry creek bed down wind a mile or so?  Slink out and give up and drive home?  Just because this was my first grizzly ever and I'm occasionally (just took me 6 tries to spell that right- I hope you appreciate the effort one of these TRs take) an optimist I tried to snap a picture, but believe it or not, despite five more minutes, my camera was still broken.  But, now comes the most surreal moment of my hiking life.  I hear some talking nearby.  On a solo permit, miles from trail, approaching a hard peak, and just having bumped into a bear, and knowing that only one undesignated permit is granted for any "section" of the park on any given night, I hear talking.  Am I imagining this?  I shouted hello, and heard one back.  So nope, I am not.  I look up the brushy hill and there are three people coming down in a hurry.  I will spare you all the details so this does not turn into a novel, but its three squatters there to climb Mount Merritt, who had started an hour and a half before me, and spent that lead exploring the upper basin to the east of the round icy lake.  They'd run into a larger smellier bear, likely sitting on a carcass (for we never saw sign of her again over the next day), and a goat skull, and were getting the heck out of that valley as fast as their permit-free legs could carry them.  They were packing light- one of the pleasantries of having a group and being able to divide and share gear, but wanted no part of two big grizz. 

Hey Bear!

Merritt 5
We saw plenty more of "Stripes" here.
I am the persuasive sort though, and I instantly realized my salvation and solution was to convince them to camp with me and all try the climb next morning.  One fellow took little persuading as he had just walked 14 or 15 miles to be there, while a younger couple near my age of 30 or so seemed to still like the evacuation plan.  Well, my new accomplice and I, offered, why don't we just hike down a half mile or a mile and see if we can find a safe spot and then we can decide what to do in the morning?  So that's what the four of us did.  I was given a dose of shame by falling into the creek.  These three all made a three foot leap from one wet rock to another easily, but I went right into the drink up to my chest.  That was embarrassing and if my camera had not been broken, it would now have been drowned anyway, so I was glad it was broken.  My pack always has dry sleeping clothes and thermals inside the sleeping bag, inside my bivy sack, so nothing essential can get wet, and that was a good thing.  We set up a decent campsite with my accomplice and I facing different directions in bivy bags and the couple in a tent facing opposite directions.  Apparently no one slept well.  A surprise to me, as I never heard a peep all night and thought they were out like rocks.  I sat up a lot at every little noise but between spooks I slept fabulously, fat and happy with my luck.  Wispy thin clouds resembling smoke clung to the high points of Merritt all night and the whole valley glowed with white moonlight brighter than many dawns.  I spent some time just staring at that mountain too.

I will start a new section before telling the rest of the story, but before I do, I mention that Lake Helen and Lake Elizabeth (the head) are the other options for a base camp.  Helen requires you hike 1.5 extra miles out of your way before and after your climb.  Elizabeth is very popular and makes obtaining your permits more difficult, though you can arrange permits for actual campgrounds months in advance.  You are at the weather's mercy then, though.  A 4 am start from either lake would mean you could do the bushwhack without your heavy gear, and sleep further from bears.  So that is an option.  The other discussion I had with my new peers was a camp on the "ramps" up toward Old Sun Falls, the waterfall draining the glacier.  This would be a camp up on scree a few hundred feet above the little lake, and a second less impressive lake just east of it.  Animal encounters would be likely but bear encounters would be lessened.

My peers saw a dozen elk crossing up there before I got there.  And the next day I came very close to a solitary goat before he realized I was there (I climb quiet), and 3 others scattered later in the day when I came down.)  So just know that Lithoid Valley likely has more animals than the Lincoln Park Zoo and you will meet many of them.  There are negatives to any and all basecamps for this mountain, but day climbing it is not feasible.

An appealing place to pass a night.
Merritt 6
Lithoid Cusp and the cirque directly above. Little else to do but start going up.

Summit Day

I woke at first light but no one else was up, so I let majority rule and went back to sleep.  I thought a saw a bear peek out from the brush across the creek and then turn around but figured that was no different than any other time I sat up to watch for bears in the night.  Around 6:30 the trio were up and we moved down creek to where we'd stored food.  Downwind and hundreds of yards away.  As I unscrewed my bear can and they heated water on the stove and lowered hung food, the young man said one single word repeatedly, "bear, bear, BEAR, BEAR!"  Sure enough, padding silently, head swinging, placid in face, calm as a bomb, here came the striped grizzly male from the night before who had scoffed off my shout.  And he kept coming.  What is amazing when a moment slows down, and this one did, is how much you can get done in twenty seconds.  I screwed my food back up to cover any scent that might be drawing this fellow, tossed it into a hole, dug out the bear spray, threw everything into a pack, and was up, not quite completely useless as we formed a phalanx.  The old statesman of the group tossed rocks at the grizzly and shouted, which I personally was not inclined to do.  He came to within 50 feet of us, silent the whole time, and my mind was mostly thinking about just how sneaky these huge animals can be.  Deer you hear, and goats.  I am woken by them all the time in my lonely camps, but a bear can come right up to you, and could tear your face off or your throat out and you'd never even know until Saint Peter gave you a mirror at the golden gates, unless they wanted you to know.  Bears only make sound when they want to.  I tell people that when they scold me for scaring them on a trail.  Fifty feet away or sometimes less I clear my throat or kick a stone so they turn around and see me, and sometimes they act as though I did something evil by not screaming sooner.  I just tell them if I didn't want you to know I was here, you wouldn't.  But its more true with bears.  Those padded feet give no trace and without brush around, this thing was a mime on steroids.  Well, anyway, it made no aggressive moves, even when being taunted with rocks and shouts and disappeared.  We sat and watched in four directions and finished quickly.  We all had cold food to reduce the time we needed to be there.  Eventually, after my three friends were busted for not having permits, despite my valiant efforts to cover for them (we'll get there eventually), a ranger listened to our description and seemed very enthused to hear the word "indifferent" in how we described his approach.  This is apparently a common thing with grizzlies, though not with black bears, where when one does not like the odds, or isn't in the mood to fight, but is not pleased with an intruder, they do a kind of stunt, like this calm, slow "charge" while ignoring us, as if to say, "yes, you see me, but I don't see you," or "you aren't worth noticing.  I'm just doing my normal walk."  The four of us all thought this was a 3 or 4 year old male, so that is near the human teenage stage and it was interesting to think of this as a 19 year old or 21 year old guy posturing in a bar or strutting during a game of flag football, belittling the opponent or acting like there was no one there to even know the name of.  Anyway, you get seemingly hours worth of memories as a bear walks towards you, growing bigger and bigger, like a ship coming over the horizon, and the whole encounter is under 30 seconds.  Had I been alone that bear might have charged me, or mauled me.  Its actually fairly likely I think.  Then again, I may have been down at Elizabeth Lake or up on those ramps.  Sadly the only camera we had was mine, still wet, and still broken.  But that was only a concern after the bear left.  That same ranger we met chuckled a bit and said the no reaction, "I don't see you" reaction weirds out many people, who then feel a need to draw one out of the bear by throwing rocks and yelling, eventually angering the bear enough to force a confrontation.  At this we all suppressed laughs and kidded the one fellow who had done just that after the ranger left.

Merrit 7
Looking up and North during the creek track/bushwhack.
Well, hanging out was clearly no option.  Up or down, we were moving somewhere.  I put on wet clothes and we started toward that little lake again.  There are two possible attacks for the lower boulder fields and scree slopes of Merritt: a) follow the creek the whole way up to the snowfields below that waterfall that comes off Old Sun Glacier and fills the creek, or b) go to the lake(s), then proceed up easy "ramps" up to the same snowfields.  In late summer those lower snowfields likely will be melted out and you'll be on scree up to the waterfall.  There are many waterfalls but there is no confusing THE waterfall for any other.  It is very prominent as the Edwards book says.  The ramps meant we had to contend with less steep treadmill scree.  And by treadmill scree I mean the kind where your arms are moving, your legs are moving, but you are not moving, where maybe you have to do a breast stroke to gain an inch of ground because it keeps sliding out from under you.  However, it is also less direct and adds a half mile probably.  We kept out of brush as much as we could, finding more elk trails and also avoiding rock chutes that looked unpleasant.  I tried these on the way down and they were far beyond unpleasant.  They do keep one out in the open so you can see a bear coming, but if one comes, you won't be getting away anyway.  I turned my entire right leg into a bruise trying to push the pace a few times and had to self-arrest with my alpine axe twice to stop slides from taking me for a bad trip. 
Merritt 7
Merritt and Natoas.

There are little falls all the way, plenty of chances for water and pictures.  Another benefit of meeting my squatter friends and absorbing them into my permit was that there were cameras out so I could take home some memories.  We actually all hit it off quickly.  No surprise because anyone up for 15 miles in a day has to be pretty cool.  Its rare that I find people I dislike in any rugged place.  We kept pace slow.  This was their first mountain of the year.  They all had blisters from wearing the hard shell boots one takes up a peak like Rainier (which they had all three done twice, including Liberty Ridge).  I had on approach shoes now, and had high cut boots hanging from my pack to dry.  Carrying two boots is a pain, but not nearly as much as the pain of blisters or boot rot which I'd gotten a week before and did not want to risk again.  The route we took crosses three symmetrical falls up on the slopes and sadly there are no pictures of those as I thought them very pretty.  I thought my friends took pictures of them, but apparently not.  Or they were deleted after not turning out.  It took several hours as we stopped often.

Closer in of the route up to the Glacier. Again, we pretty nearly followed along every patch of snow you can see to the waterfall and traverse.
The snowslopes below the falls were steep.  They looked steep from below but got steeper once on them, which is the opposite of how I typically feel (things look worse from far away).  I led the way surprisingly, with strap-on crampons and the flimsiest of boots in the group.  I kicked steps for a while but realized quick enough no one was going to follow my lead straight up.  I rested 15 minutes while they zigzagged up, eyeing the traverse around that waterfall.  From below I'd had little enthusiasm.  The spot I expected to cross was shiny and black, wet as a swimming pool, possibly impossible, impassible, but as I rushed up that snow, I started to feel more and more confident.  I thought I might get up there and do much of the traverse while the rest worked their way up off the snow, to prove it could be done.  Once sitting with crampons off, I knew the thing could be done.  Sure it was wet, but not a flood, just trickles to step over carefully.  The right ledges were easy to spot. 
These were more difficult than the glacier, but it will depend on conditions. Plenty steep though they didn't look it to me until I was on it. Poke and prod for cave in areas, of course, but I found several flat pockets to rest in while taking as straight and steep a line as possible.

The view of the Old Sun Glacier with the waterfall draining it is astonishing from this spot.  We enjoyed it for a good half hour while everyone tried to make his or her own decision about continuing.  I scrambled up and around onto the traverse ledges and posed for a few pictures, which came out pretty good, though I could have tried a few more interesting poses in hindsight, and went around the corner where one must think thin as squeezing between the wall and a big boulder.  From there the shelves got much mossier and wetter and scared me off.  The glacier was intimidating the other two guys.  The young lady had had enough the night before, when big blisters and the big bears had made her ready to go home.  She was mostly just there for the company anyway, it seemed to me.  She wasn't burning up inside needing to summit Mount Merritt.  She was set on not going any higher.  The other two decided to turn back as well, but I talked myself into scouting a little further.  'I will probably be an hour behind you,' I told them.  We exchanged contact info and parted. 

I found those wet mossy ledges, lush as well with grass and wee flowers, were not too bad.  I could keep one hand or foot on something dry at all times and never slipped.  I moved cautious, right under a dripping falls once, over a wet boulder so it was between me and space, and got onto the glacier easily.  To my own surprise too.  I threw the crampons back on, and eyeing ice breaks and bergschrunds, and minding time, hugged the cliffs of Natoas Peak as closely as I could, aiming straight up for the low point on Cosley Ridge above me.  I had to stay off a good 50 feet from the walls due to cave in potential and waterfalls, but spent less than 30 minutes kicking into the steep soft snow before the looming vastness of Mount Cleveland greeted me.  The impression of Cleveland is immediate and you do not need to reach the summit if that is what you want to see.  A thin blue worm of Glenn's Lake was far below, with thick dark forest looking primeval.  A pretty lake named Whitecrow Lake sits high above Glenn's.  Cleveland is big in every direction.  That is what I noticed.  Not just tall, but wide and thick and by its proportions the height is skewed, as a stocky man may not look as tall as a gangly one. 

Merritt 8
The astonishing lip of the Old Sun Glacier where the three others I met turned around. I felt like I was walking out alone onto a whole other world.

I wasted less than five minutes in dropping all the gear I could spare- crampons, gaitors, my tall boots, soaked once again from the glacier and flying snow as I kicked steps.  Then I was on the south side of that ridge, heading towards a summit, still looking pathetically small.  I found some ramped ledges I liked, some with quite a bit of grass, ignoring the glacier because I was alone and it was getting into late afternoon, around 2:30 pm, I think, at that moment.  I see no reason to tangle further with the Old Sun Glacier really, except for showing off.  If you adore glaciers perhaps it would be a treat, but that bergschrund is gaping and the climbing along that ridge above the glacier is among the finest and most pleasant and stress-free I have found in that whole park.  I have done 26 peaks I think (without pulling out the map and crossing them off it is between 25 and 27 I know), and none of them has offered as many right choices as the final 1,000 feet of Merritt.  It was shockingly easy and I made very fast time.  Cairns were plentiful but unnecessary as there was hardly a wrong move to be made.  Every ledge led somewhere, with easy breaks to move up at any time I wished.  I reached the summit within an hour of the traverse.  That traverse and the scree and snow up to it are the crux of the climb.  If you can brave two foot wide ledges with plentiful, but not terrifying exposure, you can do this peak.  Personally, I never thought much of that traverse until after, looking at pictures.  They made me do a double take.  "Wow, that is very exosed!"  I gushed, proud.  But on them, I could think of many goat trails and ascents I have done that featured worse falls and thinner ledges.  I won't name them all here.  But three experienced, tough climbers wanted no part of them.  In September or even late August, they will likely be dry or drier, though the glacier will be harder to navigate.  So take your pick.  I've heard of some using crampons to cross the traverse section.  I felt unsafe to even think about that, but whatever gives you confidence and whatever works best with your boots.

Merritt 9
A couple of guys looking cool and being careful while doing something dangerous.

The view from the summit was unimpressive.  Only Mokowanis Lake and Glenn's Lake are visible, with Whitecrow.  However, move toward the middle summit of Merritt (there are 3, with the middle and the NE summit similar in height, though the NE is I believe the tallest), descending a few feet and aiming for an easy to reach "notch" and you get the great view.  I did not have a camera with me and will have to just describe it for you, but some prefer not to see the summit before reaching it anyway.  Margaret Lake, a twisting crumpled rag of a lake with isthmus (or peninsula?) at its center shimmers beautifully blue below, with a big white veil of a waterfall draining it down to Mokowanis (unimpressive and mundane), and filled by Ipasha Lake to the SW, which in turn is attractive for one of those thin string waterfalls of Glacier Park, Ipasha Falls, 2,000 feet in height, coming down from a lake which should have a name, high and pinched between the waist of Ahern Peak and Ipasha Glacier.  In that direction in the mid-foreground sprawls out the entire high route described in the Edwards Guide from Ahern Pass (blocked from view) to that lake, an ideal camping site, then traversing Ipasha Glacier, a narrow nose of dark cliffs (Edwards named it "The Nervous Traverse" for the narrowness of the ledge), then the Chaney Glacier, and at last onto Sue Bench with dark blue and often ice-freckled Sue Lake another good camping site.  I'm not sure if the park allows for undesignated camping on that bench anymore and I should have asked while up there and friendly with a handful of rangers.  Its a trip I thought sounded fun already, but viewing it from above cemented it into my future plans.  I'm not sure when I can or will go back, but that will be a trip I target, including Stoney Indian Lake and targeting Cathedral Peak and Pyramid Peak and probably others while there.  I never quite reached the summit of Ipasha in 2012 and would like to, as the summit photos would compensate for those I don't have of Merritt.  I would like to go up Cleveland.  Kaina Mountain looking down on Miche Wabun Lake was on my agenda as well, but got scratched.  Well, if it sounds appealing, contact me sometime before July of 2014, as I'd like to put a group together for it.  I may talk my three friends from this trip into it.  If I include Cleveland, I think I can. 

Makes you want to go see the rest for yourself, eh?

This was not my favorite view in the park, however.  It is beautiful, with the high lakes draining into lower ones, all tiered, peaks, behind peaks, with an amphiteatre of snowy peaks behind, but I prefer the views from Siyeh, Bearhat, Boulder Peak/Pass area, Mount Gould.  I am very particularly fond of the view North from Mount Gould, though I think comparing these views, a favorite comes down to what particular day one goes up.  The days I did all these other peaks had mixed clouds, with white, light grey and dark grey swirling together, creating great shadows and speckled patterns on the peaks, already colorful and snow-patched.  My climb of Mount Gould was with storms bombing every peak around, Iceberg Peak as black as night, Mount Merritt famous and resplendent behind, Cleveland looming inside a storm behind, only insinuated, suggested, invisible unless you know it was there.  Had I been up on this summit a few hours earlier, with more of the light behind me, or better yet early morning (good luck!), this could very well be the best view in all of the park.  But we're talking about comparing blue ribbon pigs here, or Kentucky Derby horses.  There are a dozen views in the park that are magnificent.  Maybe if I had a working camera I'd have appreciated this one from Merritt more.  Maybe I talked myself into not treasuring it.  Or maybe because this peak takes 3 days, many convince themselves the view is incomparable.  For me, the view East taking in Chief behind a twisting, rolling, melting needle spire of Natoas, with yellow and red mountains and green forests dotting the below and the plains behind was very attractive.  With more time I'd have taken the easy scramble up Natoas just to do it, though the view will offer nothing you don't get from Merritt (since looking beyond Natoas is easy and its the most impressive peak of the lot), and I'd suggest trying to budget time and energy for both.  It was my plan, though plans don't mean much at Glacier Park, until you've covered the ground at least once.  I also think the view from the edge of Old Sun Glacier with that waterfall draining it is hard to top, with Ipasha and all those cliffs behind.  Its like being on the edge of one world about to step into another.  And the climb itself, while often tedious is exciting and excellent.  The whole experience does not hinge upon that view, and I was glad to find that.  Had the summit view changed my life, I'd be trying to paint it right now. 

Remarkable, no? Ipasha Peak shaded in background. The problem with Ipasha is you have to climb Ahern Peak to climb it. Otherwise it might offer a similar summit view with less work.

Conclusions and Exit

The climbing in Glacier National Park seems out of fashion these days.  High end 5th class techincal climbs with big faces are more popular and earn you street cred in a way a mountain that is scree and goat trails and ramped ledges cannot, which seems a shame to me.  Mount Merritt and many of the other peaks in the park offer excitement and variety that you can find in few other places in this world.  Wildlife is almost a certainty, you can walk in or above clouds, shake hands with storms and ancient gods, must be able to read and invent routes for yourself, be comfortable on every kind of mixed terrain, be willing and able to hike 15 miles in a day without burning up your legs, and these views of colored mountains in bizarre and marvelous shapes high over lush forests with sparkling lakes, and always, always, always waterfalls of every type and dimension makes for a rich experience.  In a way, there is no paradise for the soloist like Glacier.  The one thing I am unwilling to do is tackle huge vertical walls.  Slabs in Utah and Zion Park set at 65% angles don't phase me, but big face climbing is for people with the gear for it, or a few more guts than I have.  In another way, GNP is a terrible place to solo.  Nothing comes easy.  The terrain is hard and unforgiving, indifferent to your pleas or your taunts usually.  Its old, it has better things to do than aid or even notice you.  There are grizzlies around and you don't want to meet them.  Even goats and sheep and moose can gore or trample or knock rocks down onto you.  Certainly this place is more fun with other people.  I met a few other soloists who attached to me quite quickly, and I did not try to shake them.  I made a handful of friends in the park this summer, which is great.  That does not happen on trails in Utah where more than a grunt as you pass someone is typically bad form.  I have to say that I very much like Montanans after two summers.  Square dealers, friendly, helpful, but independent and reliant at the same time.  And I'd like to thank GNP again for doing a great job stewarding a huge area on a small budget despite the influx of millions of tourists and the strain of endless search and rescues for parties that get in over their head or meet with bad luck.  Personally, I'd say that ought to be privatized.  I could move up there and make money saving people's bacon from the fire, so to speak, but the rangers do what they can and must.  I had a great month, and I have the bruises and cuts to prove it, and some of the pictures. 

Merritt is a glorious mountain but you need to warm up to it.  The two men I met are going to try again in September.  The lady said she was out, but would hike in with them.  I think they will make it just fine, but if you make it your first peak of the year, its likely you'll fail.  I could have used fresher legs.  It was Number 15 for me in a 28 day period, with 200+ miles of trail and off trail.  A lot can go wrong and at least some of it will, so pencil in plenty of time and try to head up when you can sit out a rain storm or do day hikes while you wait.  As I said, I cancelled the trip a few times.  The sad part of that is I had someone contact me through Summitpost who wanted to do the mountain together and by the time I got up Merritt he was probably there at the same time, and we could have gone together.  I think the difficulty of Merritt is over-rated to an extent.  I found Thunderbird Mountain much harder, as well as Mount Logan, all things considered.  Both of those also took 15+ miles to the summit and involved more route-finding challenges and glaciers that gave me more trouble. 

Going solo is unadvised for this trip.  I got lucky to meet those three, who did get busted and warned on the way out.  The warning was the right move I thought.  As the ranger told us, we could have all been on the same permit easily (up to 6 allowed on undesignated parties) and its better I was not alone, and we were responsible about how we set up camp and dealt with the bears, and had those three gone for a permit they would have been denied because I already had one for the area, which is silly, as I don't need the whole valley to myself.  But he does have to do his job, and those three did cheat the system and ace the park out of $5 per night, each.  I wish GNP would allow 6 people in any number of groups to any undesignated area for a particular night, though I think this is a conflict less than twice a year, likely, as those hard places are not in demand.  Anyway, you will get caught if you have no permit, and if you are not hanging with someone who can flash a permit and try to cover for you, its likely a hefty fine.  Even at popular sites, permits are not impossible to attain.  I got every campsite I wanted for a whole month.  If you do trips of three days or longer, the same will likely be the case for you.  Paying $5 per night for a beautiful and rare place is the right move.  That's half the price for a movie and most movies are lousy.  

Our exit was uneventful otherwise.  I came down like a rocket and caught my friends an hour after they returned from camp.  They were just putting jackets and packs on when I came strutting in, beaming like the king of the world.  I told them how shockingly easy the travel had become and the two guys regretting not going further.  I think they were achingly jealous.  But they'd made the right choices for them.  I had had the legs left to do it, but one of them wound up with bleeding blisters and the lady was not in much better shape and I think they would have taken some spills had they forced the issue.  We didn't know it would get easy looking up at it, even when I was scouting it I couldn't tell until I hit the glacier.  We retreated together to the head of Elizabeth Lake, where another party was already wrongly camped with a lame excuse the whole campground was mocking openly (a stubbed toe- that's really just a middle finger to the system), never finding our elk trails and taking a thrashing in the brush.  The trail was a highway to return to, feeling narrow the way in.  We found ground near the camping, not quite level and passed a bear-free night.  With that big brash grizzly knowing where we ate and were bunked, we thought best not to spend another night there, even in the group.  He had crossed as far from our sleeping bags as the creek allowed which I took as a sign of respect, but still, why get mauled for kicks?  We told our story to the whole campground and nobody much minded us being nearby.  I slept better on the gravel though as it was at least level and I could lay on my side.  The hike out went much faster, only 4.5 hours from Elizabeth Lake Head to Chief Mountain Customs Trailhead, which is around 11.3 miles.  Early morning, before heat sets in, you can make good time.  We spoke with some who had come in from Ptarmigan Tunnel and were ruing that trek out.  One guy was local and had been at Gunsight Lake 3 Saturdays before, and I told him so, to his surprise.  I had passed him on my way up to Mount Logan.  But that's another story.  Met two cool older gentleman from Bozeman who gave cold beers to the other three.  I take no joy from cold beer when I've dehydrated and politely refused, with those ever-effective mystical words, "Oh no thank you, I'm from Utah."  Those magic words can get one out of almost anything, because the rest of this country has no idea what goes on here in Utah and is ready to believe anything.  I spent the night with the couple about my age, eating all the stroganoff I could handle, warm cookies, and watching some action movie (they are all about the same aren't they?).  That was my first hot food in 28 or 29 days.  I forget.  Don't carry a stove.  I got all the pictures they'd taken, offered my hospitality if they ever pass through Salt Lake City and drove home next day.  Good thing too as I had what I think was crypto infection from dirty water a few days later.  But that will wait for the next story too.

As always, I hope you got something from this or at least had the sense to quit reading long before now.  If not, that's hardly my fault, now is it?



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Viewing: 1-4 of 4    

DannyUtahglacier kicks ass!


Hasn't voted

Spell-binding trip report man. I will message you again about some of the route details that left me a little murky, but otherwise this was an entertaining read. especially the tidbit about Utah and the rest of the world's rather false impression of it (well, at least in the SLC and Park City areas...otherwise the stereotypes are correct). unfortunate about your camera issues, as pics from the summit would've been stellar i'm sure. i'm going for Merritt next summer. i'll make sure I get some...:)
Posted Jul 30, 2013 12:10 am

andrew davidRe: glacier kicks ass!

andrew david

Hasn't voted

Added a photo to the gallery named "Routes Marked".
Posted Jul 30, 2013 5:58 pm

andrew davidOther Route Option

andrew david

Hasn't voted

In cleverly named photo "Merritt10" there are 2 possible routes. One goes to the top of a green grassy triangle, follows the snow on an angle from the lower left corner to the snowpatch nearest upper right, which I hear melts out by September, meaning your feet can stay dry until the glacier above. The other option from the Edwards book and intuition if you can't pick out the "ramps" is to follow the creek to the waterfall, as it forks before the little lake. The right fork gets steep, going into a higher "basin" or "col". I am unsure of the terminology. It then cuts through a "seam" you can pick out in "Merritt10" along the rightside, and you could climb 3,000 feet of scree anyway you liked up to the traverse and the lip of the glacier. My eyes jumped on that route immediately and had trouble picking out the "ramps", but the fellow who led our make-shift team had the route from sundown in his mind and led us all like it was painted with red arrows. No danger spots. So I had done plenty of route invention for a month and was content to be a caboose. Emailed you also. The three I met are going to go conquer the peak this fall too. Its a great one. A real prestige peak.
Posted Jul 30, 2013 5:40 pm

RoryKuykendallGeat Photos


Voted 10/10

Great adventure and great photos. Thanks for sharing.

From what you remember about this route, would it be possible for a person not carrying an ice axe and crampons to climb Merritt from this side by going around the glacier to the right?
Posted Jan 28, 2014 9:08 pm

Viewing: 1-4 of 4