Missions – southern traverse

A couple weeks ago I had a fantastic day stringing together East and West Saint Marys peaks, Lowary Peak, and rest of the Sonielem ridge. It was a beautiful bluebird day and my eyes naturally started to wander farther out to the Garden Wall and deeper north into the rest of the range. Somehow I’d only spent a couple of days in the Missions over the years of living in Missoula, and I had a strong urge to put together a bigger traverse through the range to really get a deeper experience in the place. So I mapped out a potential route with help from Brian Story, who has spent more time in the Missions than anyone I know. He keeps a good blog of his adventures, chock full of helpful info for folks like me interested in traveling through some of the same places.

My friend Justin Angle was game to join, and two friends of his — Jeremy Wolf and Patrick Murphy — decided to join in on the fun as well. I’d never spent any time in the mountains with either Jeremy or Patrick, but knew them both by reputation and knew we’d have a solid crew. It’s not often that schedules and interests line up for four people to band together on a more ambitious and technical day like this; it was a fun break to have the extra camaraderie, versus going solo like I usually end up doing.

Our route was to link together the major peaks in the southern portion of the Mission Mountains, staying as high as possible throughout. We planned to start at McDonald Lake, bushwhack up to the west ridge of Sheep’s Head (which some folks call West McDonald peak), then link to McDonald, Icefloe, Glacier, Mountaineer, Lowary, and East Saint Marys; dropping down the ESM trail to finish. It would be something like 20 miles (15 off trail), 12,000 feet of ascent, loads of fun scrambling up to class 3, and views for miles. I looked forward to this day more than anything I’d planned for a long time.

We left Missoula at 4:30a with everyone piled in my car. I love that quiet excitement that brews when you’re up early and driving out somewhere for a big day in the mountains. There’s something about that mix of the early morning, darkness, coffee, quiet conversation, and anticipation that just hits the right buttons.

We started jogging up the trail at 5:40a, moving well with high spirits. We stayed on trail for about 2.5 miles, then started the bushwhack south up the main drainage leading towards Sheep’s Head. We stayed on the west hillside and ridgeline rather than schwacking up the creek bottom. Don’t know if this is the most efficient route, but it worked well enough for us. Pretty manageable bushwhack, all in all, not too much alder or deadfall. We gained the west ridge of Sheep’s Head in three hours, and made it to the summit in another hour and a half by scrambling directly up the W ridge and at times leaving the ridge to scramble up the south face.

Rain clouds had been threatening from both the east and west all morning, and caught us about a half hour from the top of McDonald. Gusting wind and intermittently spitting rain made us work a bit harder for progress over the final push to the summit, and certainly made me realize how exponentially more difficult a day like this could be with even slightly bad weather. We topped out on McDonald and immediately found a sheltered spot in the rocks to hide from the wind and add layers. As we hit the summit another guy was kicking steps up the soft snow on the south face about a 100 feet from the top, though it was cold and windy enough that our only interaction was a smile and a simple “hey!” By the time he gained the top we had our layers on and were ready to get the hell out of there.

Patrick and I took the 1,500′ glissade down the south face pretty, um, ambitiously. I almost spun out of control and had my ice ax ripped from my hands, and I’m sure he had a similar feeling. Justin and Jeremy played things a lot smarter and in control. We all got our money’s worth, that’s for sure.

Ridge hero-running towards Glacier peak, with Mountaineer looming in the background

We descended to the saddle between the drainage housing Icefloe lake and the Ashley Lakes drainage, then got into a good rhythm climbing Icefloe and Glacier peaks, jogging across the Garden Wall, and climbing Mountaineer. Jogging across the Garden Wall has to be one of the top five most scenic places I’ve ever ran…it is simply stunning.

The Garden Wall. Looking south towards Mountaineer (far left) and Lowary (right third of frame).

There’s a bit of route-finding necessary to keep things at class 3 or below through all this; we picked a route up the east face of Icefloe instead of trying our luck with its north ridge, and also we scrambled up Mountaineer’s west face rather than its NW ridge. The other route-finding through this section was all intuitive enough, and even these two sections “go” without too much trickery. Here and throughout the day we just kept going where we felt the weaknesses were and found a suitably class 3 line through everything just fine. Our key was taking the time to communicate things clearly between all four of us, discuss options, and make sure everyone was confident about each decision and section of scrambling. This extra emphasis on communication usually makes for slower movement than if you’re moving solo, but is absolutely essential for good group travel.

The Garden Wall!

About 30 minutes after leaving Mountaineer the bad weather that had been threatening all day finally caught up to us. Unlike the brief bit of wind and rain that caught us on McDonald, it was for real this time. We dropped into a small depression in the ridgeline to refill water, and then suddenly a hefty, deep rumbling from just out of sight stopped us in our tracks. The ice ax strapped to my pack about three inches from my left ear started buzzing with static electricity, and Justin hollered out that his trekking poles were buzzing too. We didn’t have any great bail options, all we could do in a hurry was to drop about 200 feet directly off the side of ridge until we got cliffed out. We hunkered in between a spine of rock and another large chunk of rock, threw on whatever layers we had, and discussed our options. Lightning started striking on the ridge both in the direction we wanted to go and where we’d come from; we felt the safest option was to stay right where we were and let the storm blow over. It was a slow moving storm. We ended up sitting there for two hours before it was safe to move again.

Everyone but Justin was under-equipped. Patrick and I had forgotten any kind of space blanket or emergency bivvy. We both threw on rainpants and rainjackets over light mid-layer tops, but pretty much started to immediately shiver. Jeremy had a rainjacket but had forgotten pants. He wrapped his space blanket around his legs and fared about as well as Patrick and I. Justin shivered with us for about an hour, then crawled into his emergency bivy sack and was noticeably more comfortable than the rest of us. Never go into the mountains without at least an emergency space blanket, and preferably an emergency bivy sack. Be like Justin.

Misery loves company?
Patrick testing his raingear’s xtreme-mode

After the storm passed, things looked promising over the rest of our route to the north, so we decided to press on instead of bailing down to Lucifer lake. We got moving again on stiff joints, dropping down the rest of the scrambly ridge and contouring across a few lengthy snowfields. The storm had cleared the air of all particulates, and the evening light looked just as crystal-clear as can possibly be.

Still stiff and cold on the shaded side of the ridge after getting moving again.
Jeremy enjoying the sunshine and moving again after waiting out the storm. Picture is looking north.

The ridge took us to an unnamed peak east of Lowary that is separated from Lowary by a toothy, precipitous ridgeline. We took a cursory look, but it was clearly out of our league. So instead of descending directly west to Lowary, we had to circle back and descend down that peak’s southeast ridge in a series of scrambles and fun glissades. We were a couple hours behind schedule from having to wait out the storm, and between that and our mounting fatigue we decided to skip the last two peaks we’d planned on summiting: Lowary and ESM. So from the basin we put our heads down and soldiered across the basin below those peaks (the basin that drains into No Fish Lake and Dry Lake).

Crystal clear evening light on Grey Wolf

We gained the south standard approach ridge to ESM right at dusk, with the last red glow of the sunset filtering through lightning and tendrils of rain from the thunderstorms hovering over Saint Ignatius. It made for a memorable, surreal scene. More thunder and lightning hovered just south as well, threatening to throw yet another obstacle in our way. We hustled to get below treeline while the going was good.

The steep descent on the ESM trail always seems to take longer than it should, especially at the end of wall-to-wall day. We made it to the trailhead just before 11pm, wrung out after 17 hours on the move but with everything still functioning and in good spirits. Justin’s friend Ben Ferencz met us with chips and beer (hero points there) and shuttled us back to my car at Lake McDonald. From there we struggled through the hourlong drive back to Missoula. I was definitely afraid of falling asleep at the wheel, but luckily I was floating on enough of a high from the day that staying awake wasn’t too hard.

I dropped everyone off and made it back to my house a bit after 1am, a full 21 hours after starting the day. I felt pretty wrung out and physically fatigued, but that’s all to be expected and I just felt grateful to come out of a day like this with no acute injuries.

This was one of the last big days in the mountains this summer where I felt physically on top of my game. Everything was clicking here, mentally and physically. After the struggles with low back pain this spring it was incredibly gratifying to feel strong, to be able to move like I know I can. I’d love to go back and complete the full traverse that we’d planned, but with the back injury flaring up again about three weeks after this day the full traverse will probably have to wait until at least next summer.

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