(AKA Chuck Norris’s Scenic Death March)
On July 14 I took a stab at connecting the Norris and Scenic Death March traverses in a day, starting and finishing at the Saint Mary Falls trailhead. Except for the section of trail from Gunsight Lake down to the car towards the end of the day, I’d never been in this area of the park before. But I’d heard great things about these two ridgeline sections and thought it’d make for a fun day out. I refreshed my memory on the overall route the night before, but didn’t want to spend too much time obsessing over details. I figured I could sort things out on the go, and if I couldn’t it probably meant I was somewhere I shouldn’t be.
After driving two hours from my friends’ house in Kalispell and gearing up, I got on the trail just after 8. The day was already warm, and for the first 20 miles on trail I’d regret not being able to get an earlier start to beat the heat.
The nine miles of trail along Saint Mary lake don’t get a lot of traffic, and some sections are pretty overgrown with brush and stinging nettle. Better than coffee!
If you wanted to, after leaving the lake I think it would definitely be faster to jump off trail for a short section and ford Red Eagle creek instead of taking the trail all the way down to the bridge and then back up the valley (yellow circle below shows the shortcut). I bet taking the trail adds another mile to things, and the short bushwhack would be relatively easy. I personally thought it was better form to stay on trail at this point, but your view may vary.
It’s just under 22 miles to Triple Divide Pass, and by the time I got to the pass my legs felt heavy and tight. I haven’t been running too much lately relative to time spent hiking around off-trail, and this was apparent as all hell. I was nervous about being able to complete the planned traverse given how bad the legs felt, but I figured I’d at least give it a couple hours on the off-trail stuff and see how things felt.
There’s an immediate route-finding decision when you leave the pass, as the cliffs leading SW to Norris peak look like actual rock climbing. It looked like there were a couple breaks in the cliff band protecting the S ridge of the peak, though, so I contoured over there on goat trails. At one of the first weaknesses in the band I found switchbacking steps in the snow chute from some earlier folks; success! If I was on the wrong path, at least I had company. I found out later that there’s actually a decent class 3 straight up through the cliffs that would save time. I’ll put that in the back of the mind for a future repeat attempt.
After summiting Triple Divide peak I contoured around south of Norris to avoid cliffs and found some strong wind crossing from valley to valley. It was enough to push me off balance, maybe gusting 30-40 miles an hour? I’m not a good judge of wind speed. It never knocked me over, but came close to a couple times. I contoured over to the NW ridge of Norris, then took a half hour or so to push up to the summit. This sidehilling over to Norris and descending off it was some of the worst rock of the traverse. Thankfully it’s not an overly long section. Those damn goats need to get to work widening out their trail some more.
I skipped Peak 7912 and the Liberty Bell because the route could naturally contour below them, but did take the time to summit Goat Mountain. For style points I think someone should come back to this and summit all the named peaks along the traverses. Or maybe it’s not necessary? I’ll be curious to see what future efforts think is good style for this route.
My legs had recovered somewhat by the time I got to Red Eagle Pass, but I still wasn’t having a particularly strong day. A chronic low back injury had flared up some, and it affected the strength I felt in my legs and my overall motivation. I kept alternating between moments of happiness to be moving in such a place, and unhappiness and trepidation about what a bigger day like this would do to the back injury.
From Red Eagle Pass the Scenic Death March begins. Not to give too much away, but this section of goat trail that traverses along the W face below Clyde Peak is some of the most inspiring, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever had the pleasure of moving through. There are cliffs above and below you, and a narrow goat trail going in and out of the mountain’s contours. The side canyon draining the Pumpelly glacier stretches a couple thousand feet below you, and the Pumpelly itself takes up almost all of the view in front. Everything feels larger than life. For 45 minutes on this trail my brain was stuck in the mud, and I just kept repeating “this is fuckin’ bonkers” out loud to myself over and over. That maybe says more about my overall mental state than it does for the beauty of the place, but hey, whatever. It’s a tough place to get back in to, but so very worth it.
I think part of the appeal of this day was the way it built on itself. You feel like you’re running the wrong way along Saint Mary lake to start (cause you are), then you get some glimpses of the ridgelines to come while running up the Triple Divide trail, then the Norris traverse is quite fantastic but not quite the jaw-dropping epic that the SDM is. It felt like the farther I went and the more I worked, the more I was rewarded.
Once the goat trail comes level with the saddle between Clyde and Logan peaks you leave it and climb a couple hundred feet straight up through some class 3 cliff bands to the saddle itself. I ended up finding a good goat trail that contoured right at the 8,000 foot level and followed it for maybe half a mile across the W face, but I think there are a lot of different options for climbing up Logan. At some point I left the goat trail and just scrambled up to the E ridge to access the summit.
From Logan I glissaded into the Blackfoot glacier basin, then contoured over into the Jackson glacier basin to meet up with the Jackson Glacier spur trail. These basins are incredible, with rock carved by the glaciers, high, hanging lakes, and numerous waterfalls. There’s a sub-ridge that separates the basins; trend either high or low on it. There is a series of cliffs in the middle, in the 6,200 – 6,800 foot range or so. My intuitive path took me right into the middle of this and I had to backtrack and hike above.
Once on the Jackson Glacier spur trail life was all gravy, downhill on the trail back to the car. I yelled bear only about 2000 times over the next two hours, jogging back down the trail in the dark. I got back to the car just before midnight pretty worked over. Got some calories in and a recovery drink while driving out of the park, and slept in my car in the Saint Mary Hotel parking lot. Classy.
Oh and the frogs on the trail! I lost count after 25 in the final eight miles of trail. They were just hanging out in the trail; no idea why. At one point I had to bend down and touch one just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Any biology wonks out there that can tell me why there were so many frogs?
The next morning I was so groggy I accidentally sat down with a dozen folks on a bike tour at the Saint Mary hotel restaurant. I just thought the servers were seating all the early-morning breakfast folks at these two big tables in order to cut down on how much walking around they had to do. Nope. Turns out I just randomly crashed the group breakfast. We all had a laugh over it and actually had a great conversation. It was way more fun than sitting by myself; I should make that mistake more often.
Overall, think of this route as a beautiful, committing 15-mile scramble that happens to include 30 miles of trail running to access and get back home. The trail running is just the “pay to play” aspect in order to get to the real good stuff. The off-trail is a great mix of runnable ridgeline and interesting class 2-3 scrambling. I love this class 3 level, when the terrain is broken and varied enough to keep things interesting but not so broken and steep that it’s scary. I’d love to see other mountain runners take a stab at this route and tell me what they think!
- 45.8 miles / approx 30 on trail, 15 off
- 12k-ish ascent. My watch said 18k but Caltopo said 12k. So I’m going with the conservative estimate.
- 15:07:14 total time
- 4 peaks climbed: Triple Divide, Norris, Goat, Logan
- On Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2534593459
- Scenic Death March goat trail
- Evening light on top of Logan
- 2,000 foot glissade off of Logan
- Moonrise over Blackfoot and Logan mountains
- Running through stinging nettle for first 1.5 hrs
- Back injury flaring up and discomfort all day
- Descending moraines in the Jackson glacier basin. That kind of dirt is marbles on concrete and is exceptionally shitty to descend.
- Imagining getting eaten by a bear for two hours while running down the trail in the dark at the end.
- 10.5 pound pack incl emergency kit and InReach
- BD collapsible poles
- Arc’Teryx LD shoes
- CAMP Nanotech ice ax
- UD rock gaiters
- About 2,200 calories in ProBars, Cliff Bars, Snickers, Skratch chews, Skratch hydration mix