What We Did
As much as I love wilderness and the backcountry, I am no fan of backpacking. For one thing, I just don't sleep well in a tent. For another, I'm a pretty thin guy, and a heavy pack really seems to wear on my shoulders after awhile no matter how I try to adjust the straps and distribute the load. The fact that I usually go hiking and backpacking alone also means that I haul everything. Finally, because I seem to have boundless energy when out in the mountains but a reluctance to hike anytime except early or late in the day so I can get the best pictures, I spend long hours at camp through the late morning and early afternoon bored to death and swatting at flies. All this hasn't kept me from places I really want to see that require backpacking, and I love a campfire, a stream-chilled beer, and the stars at night, but if I can tackle a trail or summit by a very long day hike instead of spending the night, I will.
And so it was that when planning a backpacking trip in Glacier for July 2003, I felt a night at Gunsight Lake would be perfect. It was far enough from the road to feel like real wilderness, and the spur trail from the lake to an overlook of Jackson Glacier and the trail to Gunsight Pass gave great options for afternoon and dawn outings, plenty to keep me busy. Plus, I was with my just-turned-21 younger brother Mike, whose experience with backpacking was limited and whose youthful legs and swimmer's conditioning were somehow not up to the pace my eager, mountain-tested legs and lungs set. Gunsight Lake was an easy backpacking destination for us, and its attractions were accessible to us both.
Afternoon-- approach to Jackson Glacier
Afternoon found us following the trail to the glacier overlook. This trail wasn't marked but began quite obviously just after the bridge over Gunsight Lake's outlet stream. The beginning of the lightly maintained trail, if it is maintained at all, was extremely steep and wound up through a thick stand of trees that limited visibility so much that surprising a grizzly was a real concern. Any discernible trail ended about a mile from Gunsight Lake and well before any sighting of the actual Jackson Glacier, but it did provide great views of the Blackfoot Glacier and the stretch of the Continental Divide against which it pressed and gouged.
Mike, wearing sandals because of blisters he'd gotten from his new hiking boots, had already fallen behind, but I could see him approaching, and I figured it was safe to press on (there was no way I was settling for not seeing the trail's namesake) as long as we made visual contact every few minutes. My cross-country adventure began as I had to traverse the sides of a steep, slippery, rock slope before reaching a tricky stream crossing that featured a good current, enough width to make the crossing no rock hop, and more slippery surroundings. I found a reasonably safe place to cross, and then I entered another world.
The place reminded me of the end of the Glacier Trail in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness of the Wind River Range when suddenly you enter the stark rock wasteland created and inhabited by the Dinwoody Glacier. Less than two miles' distance from verdant and welcoming Gunsight Lake, I found myself in a world of rock, snow, ice, wind, and water-- the sound of rushing water drowned all other sounds. And before me, finally, was the awesome defile holding the crevasse-laden Jackson Glacier, bluish in the shade of late afternoon. This was a magical place and should have been enough, but several hundred feet above me to the south, at the head of a long, steep-looking snow slope, lay a saddle on the crest of the Great Divide just east of massive Mount Jackson, and I just had to know what lay on the other side.
That was when things went wrong, but it was quite awhile until I realized that things were such, and I also know that what happened was completely my fault. When Mike did not show up after a few minutes, I headed up, expecting that he would go the way I did and see me climbing above him. I followed the rock ledges just above the glacier until there gradually came to be more snow than rock out there. I crossed ever-lengthening and steepening stretches of open snow from rock island to rock island until a few hundred vertical feet of nothing but open snow remained between me and my saddle.
Were I doing this now, I would with no hesitation head right up that snow and to the Divide. But back then, I respected what my topo map said, and that USGS quad said that all of what was under, around, and above me was glacier even though I had continued to avoid the spectacular but obviously dangerous ice on my left. I knew enough about hidden crevasses to worry me. Armed only with a trekking pole, I reluctantly sided with caution and headed back down, angling more in the direction of the trail's end than back to where I started up along the side of the glacier, but I avoided getting too far over-- the thunder-like noises I had been hearing since leaving the stream behind were not thunder on that beautiful afternoon but large chunks of ice falling from Mount Jackson high above and hurtling down the slopes beneath it.
The terrain proved too difficult for angling directly back to the trail, so I eventually wound up near the stream again, though a little closer to the trail than I had been when I first reached that icy flow. I climbed a small rock outcrop and began scanning the area for any sign of my brother. After several minutes, I finally did see him, but he was on the snow slopes above
me. I called to him, and he heard me and turned. I waved, signaling, I thought, to come back down (he had no idea he was on what the map marked as a glacier, he had sandals on, and he did not even have a trekking pole), but he just waved back and then continued up in the direction of the saddle I had abandoned. And he was hiking through the path of the falling ice. In spite of my worries for his safety, I ironically wanted to kill him right then.
I waited almost an hour, thinking he would soon return from the saddle and that it was his problem if he wanted to get himself killed in a crevasse or by falling ice, anyway-- no way was I risking myself for his dumb decisions. But as I became more and more worried and sunset approached, I knew I had to go find him and turn his butt around.
So back up I went, this time knowingly in the path of danger as I tried to follow his path. As I walked beside and touched boulder-like slabs of ice resting in flat spots and noticed their ski-like tracks from high above, and as I heard more such blocks of ice crashing down, I knew a fear I had felt only once before in my life-- when my wife and I became separated above timberline during a nasty thunderstorm two years before in Wyoming's Cloud Peak Wilderness. It was not a fear for myself-- I was counting on experience and a little luck to see me through-- but rather a deep dread for the well-being of someone close to me and a haunting guilt from knowing it had been I who had brought that person out with me and then left him or her behind.
I could not find my brother's tracks. Maybe the snow was too hard to leave deep prints, the lighting was bad for picking them up, or I had erred in my location of Mike's path, but the bottom line was I had no idea where he had gone. But he had been heading up, remember, and so it was, perhaps the greatest bit of irony during this adventure, that I ended up going where I'd decided not to because of concerns for my own safety-- the saddle on the Divide.
Only other mountaineers can probably understand what I am about to say-- when I reached the saddle, I briefly forgot about my brother because of the incomparable beauty and wildness of what I beheld. I gasped at an untrailed country of glaciers and horns-- absolute wilderness -- and only the impending night and the urgency of finding my brother made me leave. Still, and people reading this may see this as proof of my callousness, my true passion for wild places, or both, I pulled out my camera and took several shots before dashing down the snow slopes to my original glacier-side starting point far below.
Serious wilderness, from the head of the glacier Sunset scene
Still, I found no traces of my brother, and I faced an undesirable choice-- stay where I was, perhaps through the night, hoping to see or hear him; or go back to camp, probably sleep not a bit, and head out in the predawn light to the car and then to a ranger station for help. For many reasons, the latter seemed the better choice, and, with the sun already below the ridges and less than a half-hour until real night, that was what I did. All the way back to camp, I was on the verge of breaking down and wondered how I would live with myself for this. I had taken my little brother out to the mountains to introduce him to their splendor and possibilities, and I had perhaps killed him while I pursued my own goals. I had completely failed him, and I had no idea how I would face my family, especially my parents, and I wondered if we would even find his body.
But Mike was back at camp. He had not gone to the saddle. After seeing me, he had crossed over to the edge of the glacier, which was where he had wanted to go all along; he had just taken a different approach than I had. Then he headed down to about where I had originally reached the glacier, waited for me
, and finally gone back to the trail and then to camp, planning to hike out in the morning and get help.
Growing up, my other brothers and I picked on Mike a lot, and we still do, but I was indescribably happy to see him back at camp that evening. I thought I'd lost him, and I thought that once again, as He had two years before, God had answered my prayers even though I didn't deserve it-- I guess what mattered was that the other people involved deserved their misery even less than I deserved redemption. I don't mean to get all religious here-- I'm not a churchgoing person but no atheist, either-- but I really believe more than just luck was with me those times.
What I LearnedNever leave your hiking or climbing partner.
That sounds obvious, but maybe you, like me, get filled with such eagerness and passion for the mountains that you can pull away from the group without thinking. If that afflicts you as it does me, go alone and take your chances. I prefer hiking and climbing alone, anyway, despite the risks. But if you go with anyone else, stay together even if the pace is not to your liking. Your adventure, solitude or great photographs are not worth your partner's life. The fear
of loss was bad enough for me. I still shudder at the thought of what the real thing would have been like.
Sunrise the next day