Accessed from the West, via the Mission Valley and Ashley Lakes
Like most climbs in the Missions, the approach is the crux of the climb. Giving a precise description of the approach thrash is impossible, and finding your own way is what being in the Missions is all about. Enjoy!
Very well put. So it begins (and remember your ice axe)....
For a number of reasons this route page is quite problematical to write. Partly it's that there is no "best" way up this mountain, partly it is that even after substantial time spent in pouring over maps (the National Geographic Topo Montana CD set, Topozone, Acme, the USFS "Mission Mountains and Mission Mountains Tribal Wildernesses"), I can do nothing but conclude they have the last half of the approach road, and at least part of the Ashley Lakes Trail wrong. And lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that our ascent and descent of McDonald Peak were not in the least a routine climb. Our outing involved an unexpected bivouac, with the second day being comprised of working through country, not to just find the way out, but to do so in a manner enabling a comrade with an injured leg to accomplish the difficult task of doing so with us. Our route out was a constant matter of exploratory back and forth, up and down, to find the Minor Epic on McDonald Peak for the Trip Report on the adventure.)
The problems mentioned above, however—if following our original approach and ascent—are relatively easily bypassed, and if maps are not used with the expection they be exact prior to reaching the Ashley Lakes vicinity, need not cause confusion.
It is easy to reach the parking area: Take Red Horn Lane (turn east off Hwy 93 four miles north of St. Ignatius—do NOT take the Ashley Lakes Road, which is three miles north of St. Ignatius) all the way to the end (six or seven miles, the last half of which is dirt), where there is a small camping area. The non-paved portion of this road is not accurately shown on any map, but there are no roads branching off, so staying on the proper route is not an issue. You'll pass through at least one gate (close it behind you), and there is a sign stating "Dead End Road"—all of which is an indication you are, indeed, making accurate progress. The road is not recommended for passenger cars, but is not challenging for high clearance vehicles (SUV's, pickups, Jeeps, would all be okay). It climbs steeply enough to be difficult if muddy, and the upper reaches do not melt out early in the spring (my guess would be not before sometime the first half of June).
The problematical part of putting this route in print comes from the fact that the last half of the drive—that is, the part on dirt—is not accurately shown on any map I've seen (in fact, most maps—the one exception being the USFS "Mission Mountains and Mission Mountains Tribal Wildernesses," with that depiction being inaccurate—don't show that part of the road at all), and the "trailhead" at the end of the road does not coincide with the Ashley Lakes Trail as it is shown. In other words, use the map and you only have a general idea where you are! Two trails lead off from this "trailhead," one of which will indeed take you to the Ashley Lakes, if that is the way you choose, but remember (see "Getting There" section of the McDonald Peak page) that once at the lakes you'll have to deal with the large alder thicket along the entire north shore of Upper Ashley Lake, and then climb approximately 800 feet of difficult cliffs (I've been told it is a technical climb, but as we traversed above the lake, then reached Ashley Creek by descending to a point above the waterfall, can't verify the accuracy of that statement). So I recommend you do what we did: leave the trail for those inclined to enjoy just a day at the lakes, and traverse the ridge you parked your vehicle on so as to come out above the lakes.
(A major indication there is a problem with the maps is that almost immediately upon heading out on the trail to Ashley Lakes there is a quite lengthy descent—which is, of course, an ascent if going the other direction. Due to an injury to one of our party (see the above-mentioned "Minor Epic on McDonald Peak" Trip Report) we finished the trek out by taking the trail from the lakes, and estimated that last substantial push up the ridge to be around 750 feet elevation gain. Following the dotted trail on any map shows nothing even remotely close to that elevation change as the trail accesses the ridge—doesn't, in fact, show much elevation change at all, and even more, doesn't indicate the end of road as being on a ridge—so exactly where the trail begins/ends—even though you are there—is a mystery!)
I'm showing two maps on this page, the first being an overview of the area in which you will eventually park your vehicle. Even though this is the map portion of questionable accuracy, I believe it to be worth your study—the surrounding terrain is probably accurate, with only the dirt-portion of the road, and at least the starting location of the Ashley Lakes Trail, being incorrect. The second map shows our route up McDonald Peak, which I've diagramed beginning at the point our initial traverse reached the area above Ashley Lakes.
At any rate—and I know it sounds odd to say this—don't worry, for the moment, where you are. A good trail leaves the camping area, and almost immediately branches, with the trail to Ashley Lakes heading off to the right. The other trail, which is the one you take, continues up the ridge. This trail (probably a game trail) is not on the map, but it is my undestanding that it stays on or near the ridge crest, providing access as one of the major routes up West McDonald Peak. However tempting, don't stay on the trail more than approximately a quarter mile before heading off to your right. And that's it; no more trails the rest of McDonald Peak!
From this point, even with no trail, it is not difficult. The bushwhack is not severe with undergrowth, but what I'd call moderate, and the idea is to keep traversing around the ridge without gaining or losing much elevation. After maybe an hour of this you'll come into sight—and above—Ashley Lakes, and from the point at which you first see the lakes below you (approximately a thousand feet is about right), the route, if not necessarily the terrain, is relatively easy to follow all the way to the McDonald summit.
Stay above the lakes, with your immediate goal being to intersect Ashley Creek just above the waterfalls. Traversing through the cliffs (see picture) to reach the creek is not difficult, as with a little searching you'll be able to make use of game trails. From the point at which you reach the creek, it is a matter of boulder hopping (quite a bit of it!), and crawling over, under, and around the debris littering the water course. We crossed the creek, staying on the south (your right when facing east) side, as it appeared a bit less difficult, but even so, this portion of the climb is time consuming. Eventually, you'll work your way to a small clearing and glacial tarn (a great place for lunch!), and this is the point at which you begin a more northward (check the map; it's still not true north, but more of a northeasterly heading) direction, following a ravine as it climbs to where you get the first view of your goal. Once the summit is in sight it is not too much further until coming out at the saddle between McDonald Peak and a nice view of Peak 9328 and the Glacier Peaks (see picture). If you can stop lollygagging at the view and being thankful you're in the kind of country giving wilderness definition (and that you have it in you to appreciate this sort of thing), this is where you begin ascending the southeast face of McDonald Peak proper. But be forewarned, you've come a long way, and it is (still) much further to the summit than it appears!
From here, the ascent is largely a matter of line of sight, and working around and through large scree and/or snow fields. There will be substantial snow which must at some point be dealt with, so I'll say it again: Don't leave home without your ice axe! The summit of this magnificent mountain is not easily attained, and while I don't know how many peaks I've climbed in my life, McDonald Peak is beyond the shadow of a doubt one of the absolute best. The westernmost point is highest, and the true summit; you can do them both if you wish.
(Please note that there are unusual restrictions you MUST be aware of prior to climbing McDonald Peak. If you haven't already done so, check out the "Red Tape, Cautions, & Wildlife" section on the main McDonald Peak page.)
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. Any member who sees a need for an addition or correction should please contact site management via the "Send PM to the Elves" feature.
Rest well and climb on, Vernon.