This article is based on a hike I took with a group, Sunday, July 31st, 2005 on Grinnell Glacier Trail, Glacier National Park; a 11 - 12 mile roundtrip hike considered by most to be moderate in difficulty. The actual writing was prompted by reading Tim Sharp’s insightful “Mutiny on Gray Wolf Peak” found here on SummitPost.
How Not to Hike the Grinnell Glacier Trail!
Trail not far from Many Glacier Lodge
If you saw the six of us walking from the Many Glacier Hotel parking lot towards the trailhead, we probably looked like any other hiking group headed for Grinnell Glacier that July day, 2005. We were two adults in our 50s and four male teenagers all with daypacks, water bottles, sunscreen and sunglasses. Our clothing consisted of shorts or long pants, light jackets, sneakers or light hiking boots and the requisite hats.
Ralph walking ahead of me with Lake Josephine on the left
When we got to Lake Josephine and saw the boat dock we realized we could have saved some footmiles but we pushed forward up the trail. We hiked together for awhile before we fell into two groups – fast and well, not so fast. It was becoming quite warm; about 10 degrees warmer than we expected for mountains this far north and quickly slowed down two of us, an overweight 17 year old whom I will call Ralph and me. I stopped to take pictures quite often, impressed with the amazing views and I decided to stay back with Ralph since our scout rules require traveling using the buddy system. I was panting a bit every few steps, and Ralph was sweating heavily and plodding along. Besides, I was tiring out, headachy and feeling a little bit lightheaded.
By the time we reached the big waterfall steps I decided to stop hiking and have the two of us wait for the others to come back down from the Glacier. But at this point, Ralph and I had no way to communicate with the other four and no more water. I wanted to kick myself as I pictured our water filter sitting back at the campground. A lot of good it was doing the two of us here in the bright sun in the middle of the trail.
About ninety minutes later, after waiting and dozing in the sun by the waterfall I told Ralph that we should head on down and wait for the others and we left. We actually made decent progress for awhile but I was exhausted and about 2/3rds of the way back to Swiftcurrent Lake I had to stop and vomit. When I looked up again, Ralph was nowhere in sight ahead of me as he had been earlier.
Resting on a big rock I hoped that my group would parade through any moment, until finally, a family came by. They shared the news that the rest of our group had made it to Grinnell Glacier and had their pictures taken. The family asked if I was okay and after I reassured them that I was, they continued down. Just before I reached Many Glacier Hotel the summiting part of our group caught up with me and then I saw Ralph guzzling down a can of soda.
Reality: Most who saw any of our group that day would not have known what you will read below.
Hiking anywhere that day was an impulsive decision based upon the suggestion of the other adult who I will call Bill after we had driven the Going-to-the-Sun Road. We had originally planned to explore Apgar Visitor Center and ride a boat on Lake McDonald that day and then do the hike the next day but an impromptu drive that morning had taken us all the way up Going-to-the-Sun Road and Bill felt we could still accomplish the hike on our first day in the park. The teenagers jumped upon the idea and we scrounged the car for our packs, hats, snacks and water bottles. We set off after a quick stop at the Many Glacier Hotel to fill water bottles.
View from Many Glacier Lodge right before starting hike
We started out late for this lengthy hike at 11:00 am and hiked in the heat of the day. We carried insufficient water (1 bottle – 32 ounces) per person for the time of day and length of the hike (6 miles each way). Given the distance, heat and the fact we were adjusting to altitude, two bottles would have been much more realistic.
And although as a group of sea-level, east coasters we were in decent physical shape, we had just come from Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho at 2185 feet barely fifteen hours earlier. And no one could predict how they would react to a hike of approximately 4900 feet to 6600 feet with approximately 1800 feet of ups and downs in one day. We had spent the week before paddling 77 miles along the Lower Salmon and Snake Rivers but believe me, this was no conditioning for climbing mountains!
We carried no trail map and had read only a one paragraph write-up in a travel guidebook before starting the hike. Earlier, Bill had tried to speak with a ranger at Apgar about trails but they were so occupied with other tourists that he never had a chance. While a trail map wouldn’t have been mandatory for this well-signed standard hike reading more about its difficulty and recommendations for preparations such as times for catching the boat to save foot miles would have been very useful.
Our trail snacks consisted of salty nuts, jerky and a bag of gorp for the group. Fruit and a more substantial breakfast would have greatly added to the moisture and energy we needed. I had a small First Aid kit which I carry at all times in my day pack but no one else in the group carried more than bandaids and snacks. Bear deterrents such as whistles or bells had been forgotten in the campground in our haste to head out that morning.
There was no plan if the group became separated or someone fell or became ill. We had not kept to the most basic buddy system rule or hiking rules that day. I was totally alone for at least one hour. Since it was mid to late afternoon there were only a few hikers still coming down from Grinnell Glacier. Other than my own group, that family I talked with was perhaps the last to come down the trail that day.
Once the group met near Many Glacier Hotel that afternoon I pulled Bill aside and explained in not so calm words, how it felt to be alone and ill on a trail with bear danger always a possibility. That night he admitted it was wrong to suggest to the group that we hike to Grinnell Glacier before talking with me as well as with so little preparation.
My mistake was NOT stopping the whole thing right at the start. Even though four people in our group made it to Grinnell Glacier and had a good hike, two of us didn’t and were put in jeopardy by hiking alone. All hiked without enough information, preparation, water and safety precautions in place. As we often do in Scouting, we processed this experience afterward.
And in fact, August 2008 when we were again with Scouts getting ready to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, Bill and I used this incident to illustrate proper decision making. Our mistakes made it easier for our new Scouts and adults to choose, prepare for and successfully complete their first alpine hike.
Why didn’t I speak up? Why had I let Bill in effect bulldoze a bad idea to the group? I have gone over that morning many times determined to learn from what went wrong. At the time Bill and I had traveled together on many trips including a 14 day canoe trip in Maine and countless weekends. He has generally been the ‘idea’ person and I have been the actual planning person who works out the details. We have always made day by day decisions in easy agreement but on paper, he is always listed as the Trip Leader. By history, he has taken Scouts on one more long trip than I have. My expertise though from many years back is hiking and much of it at higher altitudes in the Rockies while Bill readily admits this is not his ‘thing’. We are very good friends as well as trip partners but I think this was actually part of the problem. There are times you have to separate one from the other and make the tough call; I didn’t do that. I knew better that day and I didn’t call him on it.
Our entire trip was planned out, day by day based on input from everyone involved. Our first mistake then, and I emphasize, OUR mistake, was not ironing out how we would handle a change in plans. Since that wasn’t in place, I should have said something to Bill, while he was driving the car; insisted that we talk and maybe suggested an alternative. Had I stopped him that morning, we would have been better prepared for a hike the next day. We would have started out early, eaten a decent breakfast, caught the boat saving ‘foot miles’ and energy for the last couple of miles uphill, carried more water, appropriate snacks, bear bells* whatever and found out more about the trail beforehand and at least for me and Ralph, had more chance to adjust to altitude. There were many mistakes that day and most while not deadly by any means, were so unnecessary.
Luck was definitely in our favor in that no one in our group encountered bears that day or a serious case of altitude sickness although I think we all got very dehydrated. I probably suffered a mild form of altitude sickness and no one should have hiked alone that day. But thank goodness, as they say in flying, it was a ‘near miss’ and one I will not repeat!
*See links in the next section to a serious bear incident on the same trail less than a month later.
•Plan and follow your plan!
•Know ahead how you will deal with a change in plans or the suggestion for a change in plans!
•When it comes to groups, and a group is more than one person, safety for the entire group comes first no matter what.
Hikers injured by bears on same trail later that month Backpacker Magazine article about this incident