June 27-30, 2019
When my mom was my age, she and my dad sold our house, packed up everything we owned and drove across the country from Georgia to California with two young kids in the car (me 8, my brother 2) so that my dad could start a company in Taiwan. That is way more hard core than me quitting the legal profession at 35 to pursue outdoor adventures. I have no responsibilities. I can hardly imagine. Compared to my mom, I feel like I have not gotten very far in life at 37.
And my parents could not have foreseen that that trip would have germinated my romantic notions of The West and eventually lead me to live this definitely not achievement-oriented / make-your-Asian-parents-proud vagabond life.
This was what I thought about during my drive from Big Sky to Cut Bank Campground Thursday evening after work for the beginning of my solo adventure in Glacier National Park. The skies north of Butte and Helena were immense and the clouds enormous. During my six hours drive to Cut Bank, I drove through two storms. The sky would darken as if it were dusk, and then I would emerge into day again. And then it would become night. And then I was driving with headlights and wipers and sunglasses on as the setting sun emerged again below the storm clouds at 9pm.
Cut Bank, a quiet and secluded area of the park, when I arrived at dusk
It’s not an adventure if eveything goes as planned. I had planned to camp for two nights at Many Glacier, but I got greedy and I am in the backcountry permit office in Many Glacier discussing backpacking options with the ranger when Many Glacier Campground fills up in the morning. So, I grab the last backcountry camping permit for Gunsight Lake for the following night, drive to Rising Sun Campground to stake out a spot for that night and then drive back to Many Glacier for a day hike.
I can’t decide whether to hike to Grinnell Glacier viewpoint or Iceberg Lake and let the parking situation dictate my decision. I get the last parking spot in front of Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead, so Iceberg Lake it is! (“Ptarmigan” always makes me think of Chicken, Alaska which supposedly got its name because its early residents didn’t know how to spell “Ptarmigan.”) The trail to Iceberg Lake is perched on one side of a u-shaped glacial valley with beautiful views almost immediately of sharp fin-like glacially carved peaks. The trail was lined with Indian paintbrush and fluffy white bear grass flowers. I stop with all the other tourists to observe a mama bear and her cub playing a safe distance up a small drainage above the trail. I really enjoyed the vibrant turquoise green and brick red of the mudstone on the trail where there was water running over it.
I stop for a snack break and water above Ptarmigan Falls, which is very much like Vernal Falls at the beginning of the JMT, but there doesn’t seem to be a good place to take a photo of the falls without falling. The second half of the trail to Iceberg Lake recalls The Great Valley from the Land Before Time, much like Yosemite Valley from Half Dome or all of Zion NP. Iceberg Lake is the tarn under the cirque at the end of the valley that forms part of the Continental Divide. The lake is beautiful when you first see it, but as I approached the shore in search of a good lunch spot, there were kids throwing rocks in the lake, rowdy folks shrieking from each other’s polar plunges and unsteady tourists trying to walk out onto the “glaciers” in the lake. A regular circus. High above the commotion, a herd of sheep impressively traversed the cirque to get to little patches of green grass, so I stayed and watched a while.
It was still early so on the way back to the trailhead, I decided to take the side trail to Ptarmigan Lake. Not a few minutes from where Ptarmigan Trail forks off, I found half a dead baby sheep on the trail, followed by some bear scat a bit further on. Unlike the trail to Iceberg Lake with its expansive views, this trail was in heavily shaded woods. I started “Hey Bear!”-ing and soon ran into two girls who told me they turned around because they were spooked. I kept going anyway, because, whatever, I’m a card carrying Montanan now and can’t be scared of no bears.
I cross paths with an older couple coming back from Ptarmigan Lake who inform me that I’ll have it all to myself, there is no one on the trail behind them. This is excellent news in light of all the bear signs, but once they are out of earshot, I say out loud to myself, “I guess I can pee wherever I want!” Iceberg Lake trail had the problem of being too exposed and well-trafficked and there had been a line at the pit toilet.
Following a moderate climb, the views opened up on Ptarmigan Pass. This cirque, at the end of another glacial valley that forms a Y with the one ending at Iceberg Lake, is much less dramatic and photogenic than the one at Iceberg Lake, but I can see the faint line of the trail that switchbacks up to Ptarmigan Tunnel, which is really cool. Why is there a tunnel? Why doesn’t the trail just lead over a normal pass? How did they build the tunnel? What is on the other side? Piques the imagination. It made me think of the “Tower of Babylon” short story by Ted Chiang. Ptarmigan Pass does not open until mid-July.
Ptarmigan Pass in the distance
I aspired to get up early for my overnight backpacking trip, but only managed to wake up at 8am. By the time I get onto Gunsight Pass Trail (part of the CDT), it is almost 11. The trail dips off Going to the Sun Road into the lush, heavily vegetated valley floor. The trail is narrow and lined with bear grass in full bloom. When I stop for water where the trail first meets the river flowing over rocks in swirly waterfalls, a deer appears and doesn’t seem bothered by my presence. I stop for lunch where the trail follows a meandering stream at the bottom of the valley, and a moose is also lunch-ing nearby in the marsh on aquatic plants.
Bear grass lined trail to Gunsight Lake
I arrive at Gunsight Lake campsite around 2pm and while it looks idyllic, I seem to collect a cloud of mosquitos as I hang my food and pick a campsite. I have a headnet, but the mosquitos attack my hands as I stake out my tent. So I keep moving and after I set up my tent I head off to try to hike to Gunsight Pass and see what’s on the other side.
The trail climbs up over Gunsight Lake on switchbacks with great views of the splindly waterfalls on the opposite side of the valley that cascade into the lake. I climb over and around a small snowfield, then the trail cuts into the rock walls of the steep mountain side. I am thwarted from making it over the pass by a snowfield about half a mile from the pass. It’s not too wide, but would be a long drop down into Gunsight Lake. With no means of self-arrest, I decide not to risk it. I attempt to climb around the snowfield off trail, but get scared, especially after thinking about how I have to downclimb anything I climb up, turn around and head back to camp.
Gunsight Lake and Gunsight Pass Trail
After getting around the small snowfield I climbed over before, I see a hoary mountain goat maybe 100 feet ahead of me on the trail. It starts walking toward me so I pull out my phone and start taking photos. It starts getting really close, so I turn my phone to video and back up against the wall. I don’t want to be butted off the trail! The goat seems to check me out, probably asking for food, and determining I’m not going to feed it and am not a threat, kindly climbs up off the trail and lets me pass. I was very jealous of the ease in its climbing ability. If I was a goat, I would have made it to Gunsight Pass!
Live to hike another day or YOLO?
My final day in Glacier was a straightforward hike out the way I came, a drive across the Sun road, with no stops because there was no parking anywhere, ending up at Polebridge Mercantile, where I bought and ate three pastries and hung out until they opened up the showers at 4pm.
Glacier NP definitely reminded me of Alaska, even down to Polebridge Merchantile.