OverviewI climbed this route in July of 2006, and it was both thrilling and unnerving. Before you commit to this climb, which is most definitely a climb and not a hike, consider the following things:
• You are likely to encounter Class 4 and even low Class 5 climbing in places where there is extreme exposure and the rock is not trustworthy enough for roping up.
• If weather or climbing difficulties force retreat, the only way out is probably going to be the way you came, so it is as important as it ever is to follow one of the cardinal rules of climbing: DON’T CLIMB UP IT IF YOU CAN’T CLIMB BACK DOWN IT.
• The described route is complicated to follow, and you will probably be finding your own way some, much, or most of the way.
If you’re okay with all of that, then read on. This is a great route on reasonably good rock for a Glacier Park peak, and it is a nice alternative to the steep scree of the West Ridge route, the easiest and safest way up Clements, but also the longest. Followed correctly, this route is easier than the great East Face Couloir route, but it may be harder and more dangerous if you do not follow the route exactly, which is likely to occur.
From either the east or west entrance to Glacier National Park, drive on Going-to-the-Sun Road, my vote for the most scenic drive in any U.S. national park, to the large parking lot at Logan Pass.
Arrive early; in summer, the lot is often full by 9 A.M., requiring drivers to circle around through a controlled traffic pattern until a spot opens. I recommend starting by 5 A.M. and definitely no later than 6 A.M. Doing so will ensure a parking space and will give strong climbers plenty of time to summit before bad weather and/or scenic overflights move in (even without being able to find and follow the route as described, it still took me less than 2 ½ hours to reach the summit from the parking lot). From Logan Pass, it is about 2 miles and 2200 vertical feet to the summit, about half of it on a trail. For safety’s sake, register your climb plans with the rangers at the Logan Pass Visitor Center the day before your climb.
Hike the very popular but very beautiful trail to Hidden Lake Overlook, about 1.5 miles and 900’ of elevation gain. Along the way, look for two features: a rock finger relatively low on the south ridge, and the “teeth” above it; knowing the locations of these features is important for a successful climb. The overlook is the end of the approach. Now stare up at the monster looming above you.
East face of Clements as seen from Reynolds Mountain Clements from near the end of the approach-- click for more info.
Because I did not climb the route with an SP page in mind, there are no detailed route photos here, but the displayed photos of Clements should help in providing an overview of the route’s basic path and important formations such as the finger and the teeth. And honestly, on the mountain itself, it was more a matter of finding a way that worked and less a matter of looking for certain landmarks or other telltale signs, so I’m not sure, looking back, that detailed route photos would be useful beyond showing the conditions on some of the pitches I climbed.
Here is the route description (paraphrased) according to J. Gordon Edwards’s A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park
, followed by my experiences and observations pertaining to the route—
From the overlook, head up the scree and find a narrow gully west of the south ridge’s base. Climb the gully, which Edwards says is more like a chimney, to the crest of the ridge. From the crest, ascend the west slope until you reach the rock finger you hopefully noticed during the approach (see the photos on this page). Here, a goat trail heads across the east face of the mountain; follow it until you are directly below the southernmost of the “teeth” (see photos), where you will find what Edwards describes as a “steep narrow gully with solid rock walls” which “angles up toward the north for twenty or thirty feet toward a black couloir.” Climb the gully (Class 4) until you reach a ledge that is just below the “black couloir” (this couloir is your eventual route to the summit ridge).
This is where the route gets complicated, and it is where the described route and I parted ways. Walk north along the ledge, around a rock rib, and then climb up a wide couloir (Class 3) just past the rib. Here I can only quote Edwards directly: “Stay north of the center of the class 3 couloir while climbing, until reaching a higher transverse scree ledge with a faint goat trail that goes southward and passes a large, freestanding spire. (This is above the black couloir.) Walk south along the faint trail until reaching a couloir just south of that spire (a huge ‘keyhole’ is in a vertical rock rib at the south side of that couloir, but appears about ready to collapse).
If you have made it this far, then relax a little, because the rest is easy. The couloir you are now in is the upper part of the “black couloir.” Climb the couloir (Class 4 at first, but then Class 3) to Clements’ summit ridge, from which the actual summit is a short and easy walk. While at the summit, peer over the edge and check out the upper part of the East Face Couloir route, another classic climb for another time.
Edwards also gives a brief account of an alternate route described to him in a 1966 letter by Richard E. Johnson. From the rock finger, Johnson kept going up the south ridge until he reached the base of the first of the “teeth.” Then he made a northward traverse across what he called “a broad horizontal ledge above which there are impassable cliffs,” and he followed that ledge around a corner and out across the east face of the mountain. He passed a Class 5 gully, reached a second gully, and then climbed directly up some Class 3 and 4 cliffs that took him to the ridgetop at a spot north of the “teeth.” A diagram Johnson provided but which Edwards, for whatever reason, does not include in his book showed that the traverse from the first “tooth” led to the “keyhole” (and, thus, the final couloir) mentioned above. Followed correctly, the Johnson variation would involve harder climbing but would be a little more direct than the Edwards route.
First, don’t be surprised if you have a hard time following the route exactly as it is described. I do not blame Edwards for my losing the main route and having to find my own way (actually, it was a little more fun because of that), but I will say that in my experience, complicated routes are difficult to follow unless one has several detailed photographs of them, and Edwards provides none for the South Ridge route. With all the turns, pinnacles, ledges, gullies, and couloirs encountered along this route, not having good pictures of them makes it hard to stick to the described route. What one person sees plainly as a “transverse scree ledge” may not be so apparent to another. So consider the description a guide, not a guarantee!
What I did was some kind of mix between the Edwards route, the Johnson route, and my own way. What was supposed to be mostly Class 3 with some Class 4 became low Class 5 with severe exposure at times, the kind of exposure meaning certain death if one falls. I followed the Edwards route to the rock finger more or less correctly, and then I followed the wide, obvious goat trail across the east face of the mountain, and I found a way to climb to the next ledge before the one I was on cliffed out, but I question whether the climb to that next ledge was via the “steep narrow gully with solid rock walls.” The problem: that gully was supposed to take me toward the “black couloir,” which should have been straight above the gully, but I saw nothing that struck me as a “black couloir.” Were the rocks black? Was it narrow and dark? The guide didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t know.
So I wandered about that ledge, once finding a huge cairn near the south ridge proper, after which the goat trail turned onto the south face of the mountain and led to impassable cliffs. The cairn seemed to say I was somewhere I was supposed to be, but maybe it marked one of the gullies or couloirs I was supposed to take. Seeing no easy way up from that spot, though, I resumed traversing the east face, figuring I would eventually find the key. I didn’t, though, and far across the east face, almost at the buttress dividing my part of the east face from the part holding the East Face Couloir route (at this point, I considered going that way, but the buttress seemed unclimbable without protection, and I was going free solo), I found an arch-like formation that made me think of the “keyhole,” but it was way too far from where it was supposed to be to be the right formation.
Out of obvious options, I started climbing the cliffs themselves, finding the rock often loose but mostly decent, testing holds extremely carefully before using them. The climbing entailed several short but extremely exposed pitches of Class 4 and Class 5 work, and as I climbed higher, the exposure and the difficulties continued to increase. At least twice, I retreated to lower ground to seek a better way up. Eventually, I began to despair of ever finding a way up via this route, and I kept thinking of my wife and son, both still asleep in a cabin at the Rising Sun Motor Inn about ten miles away. Making my wife a widow and my son fatherless was looking increasingly possible, and it was about time to head back down and try the safer, easier-to-follow West Ridge route either later that day or the next morning.
But I hate admitting defeat, and I vowed to make one more try. This time, the pitch I climbed took me to a wide, steep, and obvious couloir leading right up to the summit ridge. I am almost certain this was the upper portion of the “black couloir,” and Class 3 climbing took me right to where that couloir was supposed to. A few minutes of rock-hopping and walking on talus and then firmer rock put me on top. The summit was all mine, and the views were astounding, as they usually are from anywhere high in Glacier. I took the West Ridge route down. It was fast and easy going that way, but going up the steep, loose talus leading to the ridge would be a thigh-burning hell.
The short of the route I took:
If you look at the picture below that shows the outlines of some of the routes, you'll see that the South Ridge route heads out onto the east face and then loops back to the "teeth." What I did was basically head straight up from the area where the route loops back, always trying to edge south since that was where the correct route lay and because the cliffs on my north side weren’t looking too friendly, until I found the upper couloir a few hundred feet below the summit.
If you like adventure and know you can tackle low- to mid-Class 5 without ropes, I'd recommend attacking the south ridge over the plodding, painful talus trek of the west ridge (which is also more than twice as long a route). And if you follow the route correctly, it's all Class 3 and 4 with fair rock and moderate exposure, not something an experienced and competent climber should dread.
Photo by Aaron Johnson, graphics by Fred Spicker; South Ridge route is in yellow. Where the route loops back to the "teeth," I climbed up. I think I eventually reached the upper couloir by working up and over, but I may have gone up via the inset area right of the buttress separating it from the diagrammed route. I say this because 1) I don't think I really climbed over that far, 2) the couloir I climbed took me very close to the summit, and 3) that couloir was pretty broad and sunny and had lots of alpine grasses in it-- not what I would call a "black couloir." Anyway, try sticking to the described route!
Patience and composure
Sticky hands and footwear
In summer, needing an ice axe is highly unlikely, but having one to test rock still slightly out of reach is helpful.
Two of Many Great Summit Views