This trip report is based on a September 15, 2009 ridge walk in the Two Medicine Valley of Glacier National Park.
It Is Mid-September In Montana And Change Seems To Loom Over Everything!
It is the time of year when the eternal battle wages between the pregnant expectations of winter’s solstice of quiet clothed in fresh snow and life’s urges to hang on and scream for that last breath of summer’s solitude.
Geese are flying south in their familiar v-shaped flight patterns to warmer weather and grizzly bears are gorging on high protein snacks in an attempt to put on those necessary pounds for a long winter’s hibernation.
Fall is made up of the sun’s fighting off cold nights and warm days suddenly dashed by a chilling afternoon rainstorm.
The elk are bugling and the bighorn sheep are herded up. The Rocky Mountains mammals are locked in the struggle to pass on their seed to the next generation.
The sights, sounds and sensations of fall embolden us to explore more and get in that one last trip to the high country.
And so it was on that September day when we made a trip to Never Laughs Mountain in Glacier National Park. This glorious day of sun, smells and sounds was made up of a round trip of about 10 miles, 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and some of the most spectacular scenery in the park.
Never Laughs in Morning Sun
An early start from the Flathead Valley was necessary to be at the trailhead at Two Medicine if we were to complete this trip before the “Coldmaker” once again visited the valley. The weather forecasters promised sunny skies and great climbing. An enjoyable 75 minutes of retro rock-n-roll eased the pain of an early morning awakening for two night owls.
Arrival at Two Medicine Trailhead introduced us to the “as usual” beautiful views of Mount Sinopah and her surrounding neighbors as well as Never Laughs Mountain our final destination. Since this was a point to point hike we would leave the car at the Two Medicine Lake South Shore Trailhead and walk the ½ mile or so to the Scenic Point Trailhead where our traverse would begin. There were no cars at the trailhead and this further bolstered our spirits as we would potentially have the route to ourselves.
Fall seems to be winning
Appistoki Creek was a mere gentle flow compared to our last visits in June and July. Fall seemed to be emblazoned everywhere. Plants and trees were vibrantly announcing their struggle to survive; yet it appears they are loosing as there was more red, brown and yellow than green. The smells of pine trees filled the air along with the musty odor of autumn Aspen and Cottonwood leaves turning and falling presented a rich imprint that lingers in the memory.
A quick pace hastened by our desire to complete the route rapidly lead us through the various switchbacks along the Scenic Point Trail. Appistoki Falls could be seen far below the trail as the waters produced a cacophony of sounds while cascading over the streambed and then roared when it hits the pool below the falls. Early morning mists pour up on to the trail and produces a chill in the warming air.
Appistoki Creek Drainage Appistoki Creek
The decision had been made to maintain as much elevation as possible on the traverse and upon reaching the terminus of the trail portion of the route a challenging-ankle-twisting path across endless scree fields stretched joints and tendons that were not quite ready for the day. Unfortunately the “endless scree fields” soon gave way to the even more dangerous loose scree topped with slick vegetation which then relented to more loose powder-like scree. Eventually Appistoki Creek was crossed and we continued up the other side of the valley towards our first objective Appistoki Peak.
Bighorn Sheep in the Valley
After gaining nearly 300 feet up the slope we stopped for a bit to ponder what God had wrought and observed a large herd of Bighorn Sheep grazing in the valley below. There were at least 40 animals grazing along the upper reaches of the creek drainage below Mount Henry. We were thankful that we had chosen to cross the stream below their grazing area. Although they were difficult to see we were confident that there were both rams and ewes in this group and they were in the process of starting their breeding season. When rams fight with each other the crashing of their horns can be heard as they collide at full force. We did not observe this behavior as more than likely it was a bit too early for actual duals between rams for breeding rites for mates.
The remaining elevation gain to Appistoki Peak was an uneventful slog through subalpine pine and plant covered slopes to a view of Two Medicine Lake.
The Two Medicine Valley
Appistoki Peak sits above Middle Two Medicine Lake and the view that unfolds from that peak is amazing.
Wanting to linger longer but knowing that we should continue on to our final objective we spent but a brief moment on the peak. Descending down to the saddle and then up again to the brilliant red rock covered Point 8650 on a goat trail that followed the path of least resistance along the ridge. It is near here that a pika colony is located and we could hear their shrill whistles warning their neighbors of our intrusion into their territory. This colony was not known to the park science team until this author reported it in July of 2009. Pika habitat is shrinking and locating another colony is a big deal to the scientists at Glacier National Park. For more information on the Glacier National Park science program see the article: Gridelines, Goat Signs and Pika Poop.
Part of the Glorious Ridgewalk Mount Ellsworth
Another short ridge walk took us to a location that was unfamiliar to us and we thoroughly enjoyed descending through a subalpine meadow to the rising cliff of Mount Ellsworth. At a distance it does not appear that Ellsworth is climbable as a sheer cliff guards the summit. As usual once the peak is approached there are numerous ways to reach the summit. We chose the easiest route and stayed near the break between the cliff and the great scree field to the south. This peak was summit number 3 (or 4) depending on how peaks are counted. Another brief rest and photos we cruised down the scree slopes towards Never Laughs Mountain.
The scree field behind Ellsworth is home to yet another pika colony. One of them nearly ran over montanarendonk as he descended through the scree. I was able to also tell the science crew at the Park Headquarters about this colony as well. Within a short distance while we were stopped studying the route down we heard the melodic bugle of a bull rocky mountain elk in Buttercup Park. Shortly after the first bugle we heard a response from another bull. They were attempting to locate each other and fight for the harem of cows that were available in the Paradise Creek drainage.
How Many Places In The World Can You Almost Get Run Over By A Pika And Hear An Elk Bugle In A 5 Minute Span Of Time?
Never Laughs Ridge
At last the summit ridge of Never Laughs…legs are starting to feel the pounding and our water reservoir started to run low. Another 15 minutes of scrambling leads us to the summit of Never Laughs Mountain.
The views did not disappoint while standing on the summit which yields an interesting perspective of Two Medicine Lake as well as the peaks along the Continental Divide. Rising Wolf especially dominates the view as this massif sits as a chunk of rock with its summits surrounded by cliffs.
We actually feel joy unspeakable…..
We feel elated…..
We feel tired yet strangely invigorated...
and yet know that we still have to descend through a notoriously nasty bushwhack to the South Shore Trail.
We are hoping to find remnants of the 1930s Paradise Creek Trail that is no longer in use but it is difficult to say if we will be that fortuitous. This will be a challenge because photos taken from the South Shore trail as well as from Sinopah reveal that Never Laughs is surrounded by thick forests below bands of scree and loose rocks underneath the cliffs that surround the mountain on the Two Medicine Lake end of the peak. We are hoping to descend quickly through all of these obstacles yet it is an exploratory trip for us.
Scree and Shrubbery
Hoping That Fate Smiles Upon Us We Plunged Into The Abyss Called The Paradise Creek Drainage.
What we found was a maze of elk trails through thick vegetation below endless slopes of large teetering slabs of argillite that are waiting to bust your ankles or arms with each potential misstep. We found hundreds of feet of flour-like scree that was enjoyable to descend through until it became mixed with vegetation which challenged our route finding skills and forced cautious footing. We also saw what appeared to be a trail far below us. Hope once again did not disappoint and we found what appeared to be a human trail which we were able to follow for about a thousand yards until it seems to have been obliterated by a rock slide. Forging ahead we entered a maze of Solomon’s seal, thimble berry and conifer forest that is so prevalent on the northern exposure of these mountains. Thick undergrowth made it impossible to see the large bone breaking rocks on the slope and the area “smelled” of bear.
You Know How It Is When You Just Know That There Is Something Out There…And Its...Close.
A few years ago my wife and I unexpectedly walked past a grizzly along the Highline Trail…. We knew it was in the area but did not realize he was 10 feet below the trail. He was behind a clump of alpine trees minding his own business and we were quite surprised to see him when we looked back on our travel path. It is an event forever etched in my memory. On this fall day I had the same feeling.
Working under the assumption that Mr. Grizzly Bear
wants to see us even less than we want to see him we frequently called out a warning to him and stayed on course hoping to locate the old Paradise Creek trail. We call him Mr. Grizzly out of respect and just a little bit of fear.
We found an elk bedding area where the elk we had heard up on the ridge had possibly spent the night and softly tip-toed through the various plies of elk droppings that dotted the area. No wonder this place smelled of bears…they know where to go to try to find an easy meal.
Fortunately, there was no contact with Ursus arctos horribilis
and we only have a pathetic story to tell about “feeling” like we were in the midst of the top predator of the Rocky Mountains.
Slogging Through An Impenetrable Thicket Of Growth Makes It Difficult To See Nearly Invisible Trails
End of the Abandoned Trail
Abandoned trails are always easier to locate at a junction rather than trying to find them in the middle. In fact, montanarendonk walked right over the trail as he was searching for it. Connecting with explorers of yesteryear we began to follow the trail through the overgrowth.
Occasionally we lost the trail and were required to backtrack a few paces only to see it had zigged when we zagged. There were numerous trees that had fallen over the trail multiplying the effort to follow it.
Within a short time we reached the South Shore Trail and headed back to the trailhead at Two Medicine Lake but not before we stop for a refreshing drink from Aster Creek. There is something about refreshing about drinking water right out of the stream.
Living On The Edge...Unfiltered!
Isn't that really how all of us would like to live our lives? Life has too many filters and this Autumn Day on Never Laughs was a great way to remove some of them.
All In All This Was One Of The Best Days Ever In Glacier National Park.
All Of God’s Creatures Were Doing Their Creature Thing.
Autumn Was Busting Out With Reckless Abandon.
Life Was In Balance.
Life Was Good!