“Traveling Light, it’s the only way to fly”
From “Traveling Light”, by J.J. Cale
Christy and I shifted gears on Friday. After several days of car camping and dayhiking on extremely popular trails, it was time for an adventure, and a true wilderness experience. We got that, and more, with a 3-day backpacking trip starting at Logan Pass.
In April, I submitted a request for a backcountry permit to the Park Service. Unfortunately, my request was just one of hundreds (thousands?) received by the park. Demand for popular campsites always exceeds availability in the summer months. As a result, the Park is forced to put all of the requests into a lottery. This year, I was not particularly lucky. Apparently the offering I made to the Permit Gods was deemed inadequate. All of the available slots for our first choice of routes (the famous northern loop, connecting Granite Park, Stoney Indian Pass, and Many Glacier) were long gone when my number came up. Fortunately, we were granted a permit for our second choice. That second choice turned out to be one hell of a trip. Christy and I agree that the first day alone was the most beautiful, and most difficult, hike of our lives.
Our permit granted us permission to camp at Sperry on Friday night and Gunsight Lake on Saturday. The hike between them, over Lincoln and Gunsight Passes, is considered one of the finest in the Park. Unfortunately, getting to Sperry by the standard route, up from Lake McDonald, would require a 7-mile trudge through the woods with a climb of 3500’. That didn’t sound appealing, but pre-trip research revealed a more intriguing option.
From Sperry, a trail runs 3 miles or so to Comeau Pass, on the brink of Sperry Glacier. Another 3-mile stretch of trail runs from Logan Pass to Hidden Lake. Between them is the famed off-trail route through Floral Park. It’s a cross-country route that promised unparalleled scenery, adventure, and challenge. If we could successfully find our way through to Comeau Pass, a good trail would lead us on to Sperry. Going that way would be twice as long, and much more difficult, but it would also be a lot more fun. On Thursday evening, Christy and I debated its merits once again. We poured over maps, photos, and written descriptions of the route a final time. Finally we decided to go for it, throwing caution to the wind.
Then the rain came. It was the first significant rainfall we’d received all week, but it couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. I tossed and turned all night, worrying about the weather. There’s no way we’d attempt the cross-country route through Floral Park in rain or fog.
Luckily, the rain ended shortly before 6 that morning. We got up shortly thereafter and broke camp. This took a little longer than normal, thanks to all of the wet gear. I’d been told to expect the approximately 14-mile hike to take 10-12 hours. Based on that, I figured that an 8am start should get us to Sperry no later than 8pm. With daylight lasting until 9:30, that seemed like plenty of cushion.
We left Many Glacier for the final time, spotting a Mama Grizzly and Cub on the way out. Once on highway 89 we picked up the pace, as the speed limit there is an aggressive 70 mph. We had just cleared a curve, when I spotted a huge Elk starting to cross the road 50 yards ahead. I slammed on the brakes, which was quite exciting at 65 mph. It was close – in fact, we almost passed under that horse-sized Elk. It cleared our path just in time. After I removed my face from the steering column, we were able to get going again (albeit at a much slower speed). This is one backpacking trip that almost ended before it began. We were lucky, but the trip wasn’t exactly off to a great start. I knew I’d have to stop at the restrooms at Logan Pass just to change underwear.
The drive to Logan Pass was, thankfully, less eventful. At the trailhead, we encountered a male Bighorn Sheep roaming the parking lot. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that he was looking for a Dodge pickup truck to pick a fight with. We finished loading our packs, which we had attempted to keep as light as possible. In fact, we’d only brought one sleeping bag. We did have a fleece blanket that zips into it. That arrangement isn’t very comfortable, but it saves a couple of pounds. I was carrying all of our food and gear, but I’m pretty sure my pack was still under 40 pounds. Christy’s pack probably weighed half of my normal daypack. I could pick it up effortlessly with one hand. Even with water, it was probably less than 10 pounds. We made the final obligatory stop at the restrooms, returned to the car, twice, for overlooked items, and finally hit the trail just after 8:30.
ON THE BOARDWALK
We found the trail to Hidden Lake up the hill behind the Visitor Center. The trail starts out on a boardwalk, which was constructed to protect the fragile alpine tundra in the area. There were some lingering clouds leftover from the previous night’s rain, but they were clearing rapidly. We had great views of the surrounding peaks, but the fantastic scenery was only beginning.
A moderate climb over many steps brought us to the end of the boardwalk. From there, we followed a wide trail out to the Hidden Lake Overlook. At the overlook, we found a spectacular view of Hidden Lake and the snow-clad peaks of the Continental Divide. We also found a handful of Mountain Goats. They were roaming around the viewpoint, and weren’t disturbed at all by our presence.
From there, we followed a rugged trail down to the lake, where the views were more intimate. We stopped at the lakeshore just after 10am for our first break. We had a snack, filtered water, and slathered on poison to ward off the sudden onslaught of mosquitoes. The area around Hidden Lake turned out to be the only place in the park that we encountered significant numbers of the little flying demons.
MY SECOND GUESS WAS MY FIRST MISTAKE
We were packing up to leave when we encountered a group of 5 dayhikers. They had started at Logan Pass shortly after us, and were planning on hiking some 20 miles, through Floral Park and all the way out to Lake McDonald. I was surprised that they hadn’t gotten an earlier start, but figured they could keep a faster pace, since they were carrying light packs. Their leader, Allison, had done the route through Floral Park twice before, but in the opposite direction. It was somewhat comforting, knowing that other people would be nearby (even if they were ahead of us), and that one of them had been through here before. We figured we’d be able to keep an eye on the route they chose to follow, which might be beneficial.
We headed out ahead of them, and rock hopped the outlet stream without difficulty. From there, we followed a fisherman’s path along the shore of Hidden Lake. This was extremely scenic and pleasant, except for the bugs. Although there was a path, this part of the route did require a little bushwhacking. Christy led the way, and every time she brushed a branch on a fir tree, it sent a cloud of mosquitoes airborne. Each branch of each tree must’ve hosted hundreds, if not thousands, of the little devils. Since I was following Christy, I had no choice but to walk through those clouds. I quickly learned to hold my breath every time Christy brushed against a branch.
Fortunately there wasn’t too much bushwhacking. Soon we entered open meadows, which provided even better views of the lake. The upper part of the lake features dozens of tiny rocky islands that only add to its beauty. At this point, I knew it was time to start looking for the route up, away from the lake. Several people, and at least one guidebook, had warned me not to head up too soon, as apparently that is a common mistake. Although that warning is appropriate, waiting too long is just as bad. The far end of Hidden Lake is hemmed in by sheer cliffs. Finding the right spot to leave Hidden Lake is the key to the entire route.
We started up at what looked to be the right spot. We climbed through open meadows to the base of a small cliff, and a choice. From here, a steep ramp provides access to the top of the lowest cliffs. My gut feeling was that this was the correct way. However, I was worried about climbing too soon. Plus, I’d heard that the climb initially followed a faint path, and there wasn’t even a hint of a goat trail there. Not wanting to make a mistake, I dropped my pack so I could scout.
I stayed low at first, skirting the base of the cliffs. Before long, I stumbled across an obvious trail. I thought it might be a continuation of the fisherman’s path, but we were a fair distance above the lake. I followed it for a few minutes, as it curved around and began to climb. I was pretty sure that it must be the correct route, and headed back to rejoin Christy. I was almost back when I met Allison and the rest of the dayhikers. They were also searching for the correct route. She had thought that the route I’d initially identified was right, but I’d changed my mind, telling them about the path I’d scouted. After a brief debate, everyone decided to follow that path. Allison was also under the impression that a faint trail marked the beginning of the route.
We followed the path as far as I’d scouted, and beyond. It climbed some, but always stayed at the base of the cliffs. I kept expecting a break in the cliffs to appear, but it didn’t happen. Finally we turned a corner, and then end of the lake loomed ahead of us. Clearly, we had missed the correct route up. Nobody wanted to backtrack though. What to do?
Allison scouted out a route, climbing steeply through the cliffs above us. She was making progress, but if she ran into a sheer wall, we’d be screwed. Christy and I debated backtracking, but decided to risk it.
This was extremely difficult for me, as I was the only person there carrying a full pack. I followed everyone else, pulling myself up using rocks, trees, and anything else I could get my hands on for leverage. Luckily, Allison was able to find a way through. A few minutes later, we reached the bench above the lower cliffs. The good news was that our first challenge was behind us. Unfortunately, many more lay ahead, and this one had taken far more time and energy than it should have. One of these days, I’ll learn to trust my instincts and not second-guess myself.
The next part of the hike was a delightful stroll. Ahead of us, the headwall separating Hidden Lake from Floral Park promised a rigorous climb. After some easy hiking, we dropped down into the basin above Hidden Lake, where we were treated to more great views. From there, the hike turned into a grunt, as we had to ascend more than 1000’ in less than a mile. We climbed steep talus and scree, making our own switchbacks as needed.
This climb would’ve been tough under ideal conditions. Unfortunately, conditions for us were not ideal. It was a breezy morning, and the wind was literally howling through here. It was coming from the other side of the divide, racing unimpeded towards the lake below. The wind wasn’t constant though, and every once in a while, a stronger gust would knock me backwards. My large pack was acting like a sail, and at times it was all I could do to hold my ground. On more than one occasion, I was actually knocked to the ground. I was being tossed around like a rag doll. At times, I made better progress crawling. Even then, I couldn’t completely avoid the wind.
I thought about quitting. Every time the wind slammed me into the side of the mountain, I contemplated retreating to Logan Pass. I’d been looking forward to this trip for months though. All of the training I’d put in had been geared towards this hike. I forced myself on, but I didn’t just climb with stubborn determination. As I went, I learned. Before long, I could anticipate the brutal gusts of wind that threatened to toss me off the mountain. When I felt one coming, I flattened myself against the slope. After it passed, I’d scramble higher.
After an eternity, we crested the ridge. We were greeted with a startling view of Avalanche Lake, almost 4000’ directly below. It was a spectacular vista, but it wasn’t one we could enjoy for long. Instead, we scrambled up to a minor summit, and around the back side to avoid the wind. On the far side, we found an even more spectacular view. We had our first clear view of the Sperry Glacier, a long swath of snow and ice tumbling down towards Floral Park, far below. In the opposite direction, we had a fantastic look back over to Hidden Lake to the peaks surrounding Logan Pass.
POINT OF NO RETURN
We stopped there for a brief, late lunch. Being just east of the minor summit at least blocked most of the wind. It was 2pm, which meant that by my reckoning, we were 2 hours behind schedule. Before the trip, I thought we might actually make it to Floral Park for lunch. Boy, had I miscalculated. We knew that continuing from here would require an incredibly steep descent to Floral Park, followed by a long, grueling climb to the base of the glacier. From there, we planned to follow the bottom of the glacier, before one final climb up to Comeau Pass. Once at the pass, 3 miles of hiking on a good trail would deliver us to camp. But how long would that take?
We still had two major climbs and descents, and estimating the time it would take to follow the glacier was virtually impossible. If we turned around there, we still had plenty of time to return to Logan Pass before dark. However, if we made the plunge down to Floral Park, there would be no turning back. From there, it would probably be quicker and easier to continue.
Our new friends were eating lunch nearby, so I dropped in to have a little consultation. Although their packs were lighter, they weren’t moving any faster than we were. I was mildly surprised to find that they were planning on continuing. Did they really think they could make it to Lake McDonald in 7 hours? I was concerned about making it to Sperry in that amount of time. Allison told me that she thought we could reach Comeau Pass in 4 or 5 hours without any trouble. I had my doubts, but I didn’t really want to give up, either. Christy and I discussed our options, and decided to continue on. We figured we could always make an emergency camp if we had to.
DOWN IN A HOLE
We followed Allison and the rest of the dayhikers over the edge and down into a steep, narrow chasm. There were two gullies we could’ve descended, and both looked nasty. Allison chose the one on the right, and it was probably a little better than the other. At least once we got into the gully, we were out of the wind.
This was probably Christy’s least favorite part of the day. The gully was exceptionally steep, and Floral Park looked a long way away. We descended carefully, grabbing on to rocks, trees, small rodents, and anything else that would provide a hold. This was tedious, and Christy actually did some of it on the seat of her pants. Our progress was slow, but eventually we found ourselves at the edge of the meadows of Floral Park, just above a small but charming lake. We found some blooming flowers, including Fireweed, and enjoyed great views of the glacier and the surrounding peaks.
We had fallen behind Allison and her group. While I was waiting for Christy, I viewed the route they’d chosen in bewilderment. Rather than descending into Floral Park and climbing out the other side, they were attempting to traverse the hillside a few hundred feet above. The problem with that was that the slope was exceptionally steep, and covered in talus and scree. That route looked tedious, and maybe even dangerous. Christy caught up to me, took one look at them, and said, “Why are they going that way? We aren’t going that way, are we”? My response? “Hell, no”. There was no way that saving a couple hundred feet of elevation gain was worth that misery.
Actually, we were out of water, so we needed to head down to the lake, anyway. On the way, we passed an immense pile of bear scat. After seeing that, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t be making an emergency camp in Floral Park. We reached the lake, where we had a snack, relaxed in the sun, and enjoyed the view. By the time we left the lake, Allison and her group had at least a 30 minute head start. It was already 4pm.
The climb up from the lake was tough, but not as brutal as I feared. We were able to avoid most of the talus and scree, and made our own switchbacks to reduce the grade. Before long, we passed some waist-high Fir trees and the grade eased. We scaled a rib of solid rock, and caught up to Allison’s group at a stream on the far side. They’d had a 30 minute head start, but we’d caught up to them an hour later. I think they were a little shocked that we had caught up to them so quickly. Clearly, we had chosen the better route.
From there, we continued ahead on a relatively easy course towards the base of a cliff. Then we followed the cliffs, heading closer to the glacier. There were a couple of nervous moments along here, as we had to cross a few steep scree slopes. Allison’s group took a different strategy, making a beeline towards Comeau Pass. I had my doubts about this approach, but then, I wasn’t completely confident in the route I planned to take, either.
It was along this stretch that the frame of my glasses broke. One moment I was walking along, and the next, my glasses fell right off my face. I probably would’ve been surprised, if this wasn’t the third or fourth time that this has happened with these frames. Unfortunately, the glasses landed on a rock (where else could they have landed?) and one of the lenses got scratched. Needless to say, I won’t ever buy another pair of frames made by Coleman. I’m not sure if that’s the same Coleman that makes camping stoves, lanterns, and coolers, but if it is, I think they should probably stick with what they are good at.
As we hiked, the glacier loomed closer. The views of all of that snow and ice were fantastic, yet daunting. Sperry glacier is receding, like all of the glaciers in the park, but it’s still huge. As we got closer though, my admiration quickly turned to dismay. The base of the glacier, where we had planned to hike, was no longer there. In its place were rock, water, and debris. The new base of the glacier was higher up on the mountain, but on a very steep slope. In places, we could see huge crevasses – fissures in the ice waiting to swallow an unsuspecting hiker. I met Christy’s dismayed look with one of my own. There was no way we could safely cross the foot of the glacier.
We scrambled down into a narrow draw, and crossed the first of dozens of streams draining the glacier. The water was the color of milk. From there, we scrambled up a pile of rocks to the top of the next ridge. From there, we could see what lay ahead – another gully and stream, and another ridge. Downstream from us, a large milky lake loomed between steep rock walls. When I looked that way, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Allison’s group was working their way around the rocky lakeshore, heading TOWARDS us. Apparently their direct route hadn’t worked any better.
“The overhead view is of me in a maze
And you see what I’m hunting, just a few steps away
But I take a wrong turn, and I’m on the wrong path
The people all watching enjoy a good laugh
Embarrassed in failure, I try to reverse
The course that my tread had already traversed
So doing the trauma engulfing my dream
Invaded through what was an unguarded seam
The torrent of helplessness swept me away
To the cavern of shame and the hall of dismay
Inside me a voice keeps repeating this phrase:
’You've lost it, you'll never get out of this maze’.”
From “Maze”, by Phish.
We scrambled through another gully and over the next ridge. At the next stream, we ran into Allison’s crew. They seemed…frustrated. I was worried about our pace, but the incredible beauty of the area gave me an incredible adrenaline rush. Hiking here was like walking across another planet. It was a place where the sky was black, the water was white, the snow was red, and the ice was blue. The rocks came in a myriad of swirled colors, the likes of which I’d never seen before. Dozens of sheer peaks soared into the sky, and that massive glacier towered over the whole scene.
It was a beautiful place, but it was not a place I’d want to hike through after dark. With the glacier impassable, I knew that the hike would take hours longer. My only concern was that we didn’t have any time to spare. It was approaching 6pm, and an easy route to the pass was not apparent. Finding even a marginal campsite would be exceptionally difficult.
Finding a way through the maze below the glacier provided the toughest navigational challenge of the trip. It was impossible to see anything down in the gullies, and the views from the ridges weren’t much better. Plus, my vision was compromised, thanks to my broken glasses. We took the strategy of trying to stay as close to the glacier as possible. Most of the lakes were farther from the glacier, and they looked impassable. We also used another simple, yet effective technique to find our way through. When Allison’s group picked a route, we usually went the opposite way. This almost always worked. On several occasions, they would race ahead, only to have to backtrack. In this way, we kept running into them. They were definitely moving faster than us, but less efficiently.
The routine continued, climbing up talus, scree, and boulders to crest a ridge, only to have to find a way down into the next gully. Even if we knew exactly where to go, this would’ve been slow-going. Finally we passed the far end of the glacier, but steep cliffs prevented us from climbing directly up to the pass. Instead, we had to follow a large creek downstream towards a small lake in the distance. An escape route failed to present itself, and we had to continue beyond the lake before we found a shallow place to cross. Once on the far side, we found a break in the cliffs. Ahead of us was a series of benches. That route looked difficult, but passable.
This part of the climb was a joy. It was wonderful leaving all the boulders, talus, scree, and water behind. We scrambled up from one bench to the next, all on solid rock. Occasionally the rock gave way to snowfields, but those were pleasant, too, and the solid rock always resumed on the far side. At one point, I thought we were on the final ascent to the pass, but when I reached the crest, I discovered it was a false summit. Another snowfield loomed ahead, and more rock. Then another sizeable stream intervened. I got one boot a little wet crossing that one. Finally, after more rock and snow, a giant cairn, signifying the pass, loomed above us. We reached it a couple of minutes later, and all the adrenaline I’d been running on for the last few hours left me. I practically collapsed there. It was 8:30, almost 12 hours after we’d left Logan Pass.
Most of Allison’s group was there when we arrived, but Allison’s father was behind us. None of us would reach our destinations before dark, but at least we were out of the maze, and the rest of the route was on good trail. We had a quick snack, located our headlamps, and started down the trail to Sperry.
It began with steep descent on an impressive stairway carved out of solid rock. From there, we followed switchbacks steadily downhill. The sun was already behind a nearby peak though, and the last daylight was fading quickly. We were still above treeline when we were forced to switch our headlamps on. Allison’s group passed us shortly thereafter. They were moving fast, despite only having 3 headlamps for 5 people. Presumably they made it down safely.
We plodded on towards Sperry, moving slowly thanks to exhaustion and fading light. Before long, it was totally dark. There was no moon, and a dazzling array of stars provided the only light beyond our headlamps. At one point, I think I actually fell asleep as I was walking. At what point is a daydream, a dream? I also grew delirious. In the distance, we could see the lights at the Sperry Chalet. Occasionally the lights would go on, then off, on and off. Was someone trying to signal us? It wasn’t until later that I realized that someone was simply opening and closing the door.
We reached treeline, and prime grizzly habitat. That’s really not the place to be hiking after dark in Glacier. Christy and I were so tired, if a bear had attacked, we probably wouldn’t have cared. Still, we attempted to make plenty of noise. I made up a story and related it to Christy, telling her that the Sperry Glacier was actually named for former Journey singer Steve Perry. She didn’t get the joke. We tried singing, but we didn’t make it far through “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”. “Row, row, row your boat” was also rather uninspired.
Finally, after an eternity or two, we reached a junction, and a sign. It stated that the campground was a ˝ mile ahead. A ˝ mile! Good grief already! We climbed a quarter mile or so to the Chalet, where another sign stated that the campground was a ˝ mile ahead. We were not amused.
“’I’m still alive’, she said, ‘but do I deserve to be?’”
From “Alive”, by Pearl Jam
A bit later, we reached the trail to the campground. Here we found a map, showing the layout of the campground, including the campsites, the toilet, the cooking area, and the pond. The sign was a big help, because I’m not sure if I ever would’ve found the water in the dark without it. We were still making a fair bit of noise as we entered the camping area, which probably wasn’t the best form at 10:30, but I think I’d decided that I didn’t want to be eaten by a bear, after all. We were trying to figure out how to find a vacant campsite, when a disembodied and mildly annoyed voice floated through the air, telling us that the last two sites were open. We stumbled over there, and set up the tent quickly. Christy was ready for bed, but I wanted a hot meal.
We found the cooking area, and I got water from the pond. We boiled water, and added it to our freeze-dried meals. Once they were ready, I all but strapped the bag to my face. Dinner was consumed in a matter of a couple of minutes. We went to bed a few minutes later, shortly before midnight. Despite the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, we didn’t have much trouble falling asleep. Staying that way, however, was a different matter. On several occasions, I woke due to cramps in my legs. Needless to say, stretching out wasn’t much of an option.
WAITING ON THE BUS
We slept in the next morning, or at least we tried to. It would probably be more accurate to say that we both laid there until the heat and cramped conditions became unbearable. Eventually we limped over to the cooking area and boiled water for oatmeal. Actually, I wasn’t feeling too bad, but my legs were sore and tired from Friday’s epic 14-hour hike. During breakfast, Christy stated that she wasn’t sure she could make it over two passes to Gunsight Lake. We discussed our options, but I left the final decision up to Christy. I still wanted to hike over to Gunsight Lake, but after the hike through Floral Park, bailing out a day early wasn’t a terrible idea, either. Plus, I knew that no matter how nice Gunsight Pass was, it couldn’t top Floral Park.
Christy chose to head out. We broke camp at 11:30, which must be some kind of a record. Before we left though, a handful of mountain goats wandered into camp. They seemed annoyed that we were still there, like we were late checking out or something. It didn’t occur to me until later that they probably stop at each of the campsites every afternoon in search of salt.
We headed down the trail, but didn’t make it far before stopping for lunch. We ate along a creek, where we could enjoy the sunshine and the sound of rushing water. The hike from there was pretty much a trudge through the woods. At one point, we were treated to a nice view of Lake McDonald. Otherwise, we found ourselves mainly looking at the trees. We did pass a number of other hikers, and even a couple of horseback riders, heading up.
We finally reached the zoo that is the Lake McDonald area later that afternoon. After wandering around a bit, we eventually located the waiting area for the shuttle bus, across from the store. The bus stop at Lake McDonald leaves a lot to be desired. Each time a bus comes in, it’s impossible to tell which direction it’s headed. The first bus was going the wrong direction. The second was full, and the third was also heading towards Apgar. Finally, after 30 minutes or so, we got the last 2 seats on one bound for Logan Pass. I took the seat next to the driver, which was unfortunate for him, as I’m sure I smelled terrible.
It was a long wait, and an even longer drive, but we arrived at Logan Pass later that afternoon. We found our way to the rental car, and headed down the Sun Road, with plans to spend our last few nights at the Rising Sun campground. Fortunately, there were quite a few free sites when we arrived, and we found a nice one after driving through the campground for a while. It wasn’t until after we set up camp that Christy realized she’d left her boots on the shuttle bus. The next morning, we stopped at the St. Mary visitor center. They called the Apgar Transit Center for us, and found out that her boots were at the lost and found there. We made plans to pick them up on our way out of the park on Thursday. It was a relief that she hadn’t lost them after all.
That evening, we had dinner at Two Sisters again. We had planned on eating at Park Place, but there was quite a crowd waiting to be seated there. We enjoyed burgers and fries at Two Sisters, but my metabolism was going crazy. After dinner, as we were leaving, I mentioned to Christy that I was hungry again. Fortunately I was able to fill up with beer back at camp.
The backpack through Floral Park was fantastic, and I’d love to do it again some day. Next time though, I think I’ll do it differently. The ideal approach would be to reserve a night at the Sperry Chalet. On the first day, we’d hike over Gunsight and Lincoln Passes, and down to the Chalet. It would be a fairly challenging hike, but we wouldn’t need to carry much since we’d be staying at the Chalet. We’d get an early start the next morning, and hike up to Comeau Pass and on through Floral Park. I think this hike would be easier in this direction, although finding the correct route down from Comeau Pass would be critical.
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