Last week Ben and I headed north towards Canada and stopped just shy of the border to enjoy some of the best terrain in Glacier National Park. We made it to the toe of Bowman Lake by 3 p.m. on tuesday afternoon and with flawless weather and a slight tailwind launched the canoe full of camping and ski gear for the paddle to the far end. Inspiring views of Rainbow Peak tempted us to change our plans, but the vision of Chapman Peak obscured by the shoulder of Thunderbird Mountain and the benefits of the hiking trail there kept us on route. We had made a quick stop in the Polebridge Mercantile to see the sights and pick up a few last minute items: beer and cozys, and the friendly entrepreneur there guessed we were headed to Rainbow Peak when we mentioned skiing. Rainbow Peak dominates the view from the front country of the upper North Fork Flathead Valley and its three parallel ski runs beckon the adventurous, bushwhacking unafraid skier. I hope to return next season for a longer trip and maybe an attempt on this glorious summit ski run.
The next morning had us up and 5 a.m. and hiking out of camp after a leisurely breakfast and gearing up at 6:30. The first few miles though the forest provide scant views of the surrounding terrain, but otherwise immerse the hiker in the great northern forest with calypso orchids, trillium, mossy ground, and birch amongst the occasional old growth larch that survived the fire about a century or more ago. Pocket Creek crossing and the main crossing of Bowman Creek come up quickly after a few winter blow downs and the blowouts on these creeks attest to an historic snow year and fast melt last season when debris was blown up around the banks and the creek bed of Bowman was rerouted into a braided mess of gravel and downed trees. Good thing we were not here last season.
Hiking the grade following the Bowman crossing wanders into the first open alder meadow with incredible views up to the falls flowing from Hole-In-the-Wall. Surrounded by high and rugged peaks and carpeted by Glacier Lilies there were fresh bear scats and the occasional snow patch. Ben’s first trip to the area and he was taken with the incredible scenery that reminded him of the Canadian Rockies where he has been. Trading tennis shoes for ski boots just a few hundred vertical feet before Brown’s Pass we quickly ascended to the pass and began climbing the great southern face of Chapman Peak, a healthy 3,000+ vertical feet of alpine. We worked the benches up through the cliff bands, sucking fresh meltwater off the rock ledges and stopping for the occasional snack. We traded off leads to the summit where winter’s rime was still in effect covering the rocks with blobs of melting corn rime. We made the summit by about 2:30 p.m. where a stiff breeze had sprung up and we dropped over the north side to briefly enjoy a wind free zone and a closer look at the north faces of Chapman which descend precipitously to Lake Wurdeman and Boundary Creek through which the cut US/Canada line can easily be seen. We had been considering dropping the great north face to the lake but after a close look at the steep, rock littered face with no exit to the eastern pass and a steep rollover plunging out of sight, we were happy to content ourselves this trip with the beautiful south face which descends in a continuous and flawless line from the summit where it approaches 40 degrees for a few turns after which it moderates to 30+ degrees and finishes at the pass in a perfect concave ending in a flat, dry meadow where we lay down to nap and take in the view of this stupendous Continental Divide Bowl. I had first visited Brown’s Pass 16 years ago and had once returned in late May while working in the Park to stare at the face wishing for my skis, and had ever since dreamed of making this perfect Montana trip, with just the right amount of paddling, hiking and skiing. With eyes for skiing this time around it was hard not to notice the other opportunities in the area foremost Rainbow Peak but also Kintla which would probably be better approached from Kintla Lake which I have only briefly visited the toe of before.
After enjoying the descent and the nap we worked the snow patches back down and across the raging creek crossing, bypassing the sketchy ascent log for a snow bridge, skiing some brush and dry trail to link the final patches together into a post holing free return to the forest trail and our hike to the lowlands. Having crossed both Bear and Wolf tracks we had dreamed of finishing our Glacier trip with some view of its charismatic mega fauna, but knew that on a windy afternoon that was unlikely. Amazingly we were wrong and coming down the final grade to the Glacier Lilly strewn alder patch, I was scanning to the north and the toe of the avalanche debris coming down from the gullied mountain above and spotted a dark brown blob that looked remarkably like a bear. I alerted Ben, and we stopped to watch it move about and become a large Grizzly Bear grazing around on the Glacier Lilly patch emerging from the snowmelt. We stayed put for about twenty minutes watching and enjoying the rare sight as it lived its life oblivious to us across Bowman Creek, all noise obscured first by the raging river and secondly by the windy conditions. Eventually it worked its way partially out of sight and we moved on to the final four miles of trail back to camp. We celebrated our amazing day with a four pack of Sierra Torpedo IPAs and a healthy meal of Elk Sauce spaghetti.
The end of our trip was blessed with an early morning wake up and a gentle tailwind paddle back to the roadhead. We paddled the south shore scanning for weaknesses in the terrain and thicket for approaches to Rainbow peak and found none, determining that the best time of year for Rainbow is when the lake is still frozen and there is still snow in the trees. At the beach we packed up and began the drive back to Missoula, where I immersed myself in the craze of humanity at Costco stocking up on essentials and desirables before heading home to Hamilton.
Yesterday dawned bright and bluebird and Brian and I were on the trail to Stuart Peak. We were attempting to complete a version of the Rattlesnake traverse that would take us from Stuart Peak to Mosquito and onward to Murphy Peak with a few other high points enroute. I had never tried this tour before; Brian had done it already a few times, so I was in good hands for the steep north facing sections. We summitted Stuart in decent time and peeled skins for the first descent. There had been a fair bit of fresh snow last week, and we encountered plenty of refrozen roller balls and debris. This warm descent was nice as the next descent after a short 600 foot climb took us out of the sun after the first couple hundred vertical into the shady part of the Eagle Chute. It was icy and challenging. Shuffling off to the water hole, we watered up and began the climb to the north and Mosquito Peak. At Mosquito, there were clusters of lady bugs on the summit rocks where we ate again and I iced my feet and changed to thinner socks, as my feet were swelling and feeling quite hot and uncomfortable. It worked and after booting up again we skied down the ridge a bit to a north facing chute bisecting this cliffy face. Brian started down the nice corn snow at the top, but soon encountered ice and debris at which point it became a side slip for a bit. I talked myself down this chute, telling myself to relax and side slipping passed the rocky choke to begin making some turns down to the lake below. From there a hot sunny climb to the northwest gains Sanders Peak and we skied this fabulous line in good corn snow. Starting as a fairly steep upper face it narrows down and enters a gully before descending to Sanders Lake below. This run lifted my spirits as the skiing was challenging, but good fun compared to Eagle and Mosquito which were strictly challenging survival conditions. Not that my spirits were down, I had just gotten really hot on the final climb up Sanders, a boot pack in full sun. From Sanders, the route arcs southwest and we traversed a high point before descending a short sweet corn pitch to the basin behind Murphy Peak. We worked up in the wonderful shade to the summit ridge and made our way to the high point of the trip at Murphy Peak. Good views of the Missions had been a hallmark of the tour and we looked out over the Jocko Valley and the St. Mary’ Peaks and Grey Wolf in all their precipitous glory. Murphy Peak’s south gully run was in a good shape and not too steep and we enjoyed another round of good corn snow skiing. Catching a high traverse south and then east we wrapped around Burgundy Peak and began our final climb to the pass leading to SnowBowl. Our final descent down the east bowl of SnowBowl was late afternoon corn in good shape and quickly thinning to beargrass. We hugged the gully eventually and made it to within about 500 vertical of the lodge before having to take to the sneakers. We hydrated at the grate and headed down to the parking lot where Brian had stashed the bikes the night before. Biking down SnowBowl Road was a fun high speed pedal in the glow of a Western Montana sunset and we were back at the interstate in quick time. A most excellent tour highlighted by the diversity of terrain and snow conditions, a long distance tour, and a variety of tracks: human, goat, bear, and moose? I look forward to returning to this one, thanks Brian!