Once or twice a year I get the itch to go do something big and stupid in the mountains. Sometimes it’s a race, sometimes it’s just coming up with an idea and going for it. Someday I’d like to traverse the entire length of the Swan mountains, from Columbia mountain at the north end to Morrell Lookout as the semi-arbitrary southern terminus. I thought it would be high adventure to scout the southern, off-trail section of the range. I couldn’t cover the full extent of the off-trail section due to a fire around the Swan peak area, but this covered 53 of the roughly 75 off-trail miles.
Traversing the full Swan range would include about 80 miles of the Alpine Trail #7, from its northern terminus at the Columbia mountain trailhead to its southern tip at Inspiration pass. You’d go off-trail as you moved south from there for another 75 or so miles to the Morrell Lookout through some of the most scenic, iconic ridgelines Montana has to offer.
My friend Anthony Pavkovich offered to follow me up to the Morrell LO, where I ditched my car and hopped in with him. A week later I was going to give him and another friend a ride to the start of their two-day traverse along Alpine #7, so we figured the friendship ledger was drawing even. We drove to the Rumble Cr trailhead in time for a pasta dinner and an early bedtime. On Saturday, Aug 22, we got going in the dark, and Anthony joined up to where we met the crest. From there I planned to tack north and tag Holland peak (it was out of the way for where I was going for the day, but it was useful scouting, and besides…look at that ridgeline). Anthony took some pictures while I went out towards the peak, then took off for home and grad school responsibilities.
From Holland I spent the rest of the day solo, picking my way south along the crest. My only goal for the two days was to move efficiently and happily, but not necessarily fast. I just wanted to get out there and experience this place. I’m bad at giving play-by-play descriptions of routes and terrain; there were a couple class 4 sections heading up and coming down off Buck, but other than that the ridgeline is this supremely enjoyable mix of class 2 and 3. It’s all jumbled and rocky, so you’re not moving very fast, but it’s easy enough that you can get into this great flow.
L: Anthony photo. Looking south at Buck from Holland South. R: from Buck looking south.
I made it to the Holland LO just before noon, and enjoyed the few miles of trail down into the Upper Holland Lake basin. By the time I hit the lake though some ankle tendonitis I’d been battling since June flared up, so I walked from the lake to Gordon Pass. For whatever reason, hiking and slowly jogging off-trail didn’t bother it, but running on trail did. Thankfully, the discomfort ebbed away as I hiked for the next couple hours.
There’s a really neat thousand feet or so of bedrock ramp on the east face leading up to Carmine peak. If you just have a day to explore this area, I’d highly recommend taking the Upper Holland Lake trail to Gordon pass, then going off-trail to Carmine and climbing this bedrock. I’ve never seen anything like it elsewhere in Montana! The ridgeline from Carmine to Fisher peak is also a highlight, it’s just panoramic and beautiful.
Two years before I’d gone up to this section on a day trip and gotten cliffed out on the unnamed sub-peak just north of Fisher, so it was validating to get through this section safely and confidently this time around.
I’d talked my friends Carson and Anastasia Wilde into hiking in to Grizzly Basin to camp with me and provide a re-supply. We set a saddle to the south of Sunday mountain, and I actually got there about an hour and a half before they were slated to arrive. Thirteen hours into the day I was still somehow feeling good, so I decided to tack on another couple miles via the pleasant scrambly out-and-back to Matt mountain. A couple hours later I met up with Carson and Anastasia and after randomly casting about for a while we found a nice spot in upper Grizzly Basin close to a little creek.
I was certainly worked over and ready to crawl in the sleeping bag, but also super happy with how well things had held up through the day. I had some tenderness at the bottoms of my feet from rocks/gravel getting in through holes in my shoes, but other than that I felt appropriately tired with no acute pain. After a long day off-trail, that’s the best you can hope for! Over 15 hours I’d covered 30 miles with 17,000 feet of ascent.
Carson and Anastasia hiked with me for a while to start off day 2, which was a nice treat. The upper reaches of Grizzly Basin and the sub-peaks leading to Crescent mtn are pretty if a bit tedious. I had hoped to reach Crescent in a bit over an hour, instead, it took two and a half! Bit of a demoralizing way to start the day, but part of it was getting cliffed out on the way to Crescent, and also taking a bad line after detouring around the cliffs. I spent an exhausting twenty minutes trying to steeply contour up this face of loose dirt and rock. Every step would slide downhill, so I stuck against the bedrock wall at the bottom of the cliff so I could side-pull myself up the hill one step and handhold at a time. 0/10 would not recommend.
After Crescent things settled into a much better rhythm. There are a few opportunities to shortcut the true ridgeline, but I wanted to see if I could hold myself as much as possible to staying on the ridgeline proper. Doing this you end up climbing and descending quite a few 500-800 foot climbs, and this is an interestingly different mental challenge compared to the first day. On day one, the majority of the vertical gain comes in two large climbs, and once you’re up high on the crest you pretty much stay high. By contrast, the elevation profile for day two looks more like a sawblade of endless short climbs and descents. Upper pic is day one, bottom is day two:
On day one I’d also been able to refill water at will at different lingering snowfields on the ridge. Day two had a lower average elevation, and there were only two small snowfields to fill from over the whole day. I didn’t have a filter, and just had to take a chance with refilling also at two high lakes along the way. I never got sick, but I also wasn’t terribly confident about it at the moment. All’s well that ends well?
The heat and cumulative effort were getting to me by halfway through the day, and I stopped to swim in Pyramid Lake after refilling my flasks. Wind gusted through the lake basin, though, and I shivered the whole time it took me to put clothes back on and walk along the length of the lake. Fifteen minutes later, clothes were bone dry and I was sweating again hiking back up to the ridge.
After lucking out with clear skies to this point, smoke started rolling in in the early afternoon. I’d like to say I mentally conquered the fatigue, difficult terrain, and smoke, rising above it all like a happy zen master. The reality is I just put my head down and stubbornly ground my way to the car. I may not be the fastest or the most technically advanced, but I do know how to just grind. It’s only three miles from where you leave the main ridge to connect over to the Morrell LO, but it felt like ten. I was down to my last half-flask of water when I hit that turn-off point, and I sat down on the sub-peak to re-group for a couple minutes. The smoke had steadily gotten thicker as the afternoon wore on, my legs were hollow, and I would have paid good money to just magically transport to the car. I got a clif bar down, thought of Brian Story crushing this traverse unsupported a couple years before, told myself to toughen up, and started jogging down the hillside.
I took my last sip of water on the summit of Morrell, and twenty minutes later made it back to the car. Dropped my pack then at the car and walked up to the LO, because principles. Day two was 22 miles and 13k vert over 13 hours. I downed as much water as I could and the best Odwalla fruit smoothie of my life while driving down the LO road in a crimson smoky sunset.
My friend Micah Drew wrote a short story about this trip for the Flathead Beacon, if somehow you’re not already sick of reading about the effort. Which, if you’re not, you’re weird.
I think about progression a lot with this effort. Four years ago, after several years of scouting, I linked up the nine tallest peaks in Idaho in a single push with Brittany Peterson and Cody Lind — a 50ish mile, 27k vert effort that took 38 hours.
Fast forward four years and thousands of hours of practice, and this effort was similar — 53 miles, 31k vert, 39 hours. But instead of years of scouting and the feeling of questing out into physical and mental unknowns, I onsighted the majority of the trip on only four days’ prep, knew what the physical and mental challenges would be, and felt prepared to meet them. I think the whole schtick about how lessons from the outdoors apply to so many other areas of life can be overplayed at times, but in this case I think it’s apt — keep pushing yourself to grow, learn, and evolve. I think we all can be surprised time and time again by the progress we can make through patient, dedicated practice, across all areas of life.
This off-trail section of the Swan Crest is among the most beautiful ridgelines Montana has to offer. I dream about two different ways to revisit it. I think there’s an iconic FKT-type mountain adventure to be had in linking up the entirety of the off-trail section in a fast push. Start at Napa Point, because it’s the closest access point at the north end, travel 75ish miles south almost entirely off trail, and finish at the Morrell LO. I think if I came into it highly motivated with peak fitness it could be done in under 48 hours.
The other dream is to traverse the entire length of the range, adding on the Alpine Trail #7 section to the off-trail section. Four days? Two days unsupported on the off-trail section, get a re-supply at Inspiration Pass, then do another two days of jogging, or, let’s be honest, walking, along the #7 trail. Could be pretty fun.
Day 1: 31.2 mi, 17,293 vert, 15h 34m
Day 2: 21.5 mi, 13,402 vert, 12h 54m
Total: 52.7 mi, 30,695 vert, 38h 57m (28h 28m moving)