A beautiful, challenging day linking up the seven prominent peaks clustered just south of Logan Pass: Oberlin, Clements, Cannon, Bearhat, Dragon’s Tail, Reynolds, and Heavy Runner. Or at least the false summit of Heavy Runner. But anyway. You’ll see.
Tristan Scott and Micah Drew up in the Flathead Valley convinced me to take a crack at this. They spend a bunch of time exploring around in the park and always have the insider’s view on interesting routes to explore. Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to share some miles with them up in the park. I had a couple free days at the end of August and wanted to fit in one or two bigger mountain efforts before taking a shot at the WURL in September. So I drove up to the Flathead to take advantage of the stars aligning with schedule and fitness. I met Micah and a couple of his friends for pizza & a beer the night before, I was almost certain it was okay for me to try this line for time, but I wanted to make sure. The last thing I wanted was to accidentally step on their toes or somebody else’s while they were in the middle of scouting it. But Micah assured me it was alright.
So I drove up to Logan Pass that night and thought about the history of Glacier in those dark towering forms outside my windshield. I’m working through People Before the Park, Sally Thompson’s (along with committees from both the Kootenai and Blackfeet acting as co-authors) excellent study of these tribes’ lives before their home became capital-letter Glacier National Park. Logan Pass was originally called, literally, “Where Packs Are Pulled Up on a Line”, referencing the cliffs near the pass. From the book:
Here the men stood on each others shoulder to climb to the different rock shelves. There were seven shelves and a man was stationed on each one, to assist in pulling up the people and equipment. The equipment was pulled to the top first; then the babies in the cradle boards and then the children and women. Two rawhide thongs were used, one of which had a loop in the end which was taken around a person’s hand, while he pulled and steadied himself by using the other thong. In this [way] the entire party scaled this rocky wall.
I thought about the privilege of getting to do what I planning the next day just for fun compared to the times when just accessing Logan Pass was a test in survival. I thought about how I could put my degree to better use working for more equity in outdoors recreation once I got out of grad school. And I fell asleep in my car in the parking lot without coming up with any great answers.
I’d climbed Clements a couple years before, but from the Hidden Lake side, the direction I’d be descending with this route. The year before Tristan had also linked together Oberlin, Clements, Cannon, Reynolds, and Heavy Runner in a day, so I took a screenshot from his Strava route. Other than that, I knew there would be class 4 sections to navigate and some class 5 to deal with or avoid, but I figured I was competent enough to just figure things out on the fly. Ah, hubris, my old friend…
At 6 the parking lot started to come alive with people, and by 6:30 I was up and feeling like a total dirtbag making coffee and a bowl of cereal out of the back of my car. By 7:30 I got going, made it up to Oberlin just before the sun crested the jagged horizon. I felt so damn good, just alive with the feeling of getting started on a big day in one of my favorite places. Then I promptly buggered the traverse to Clements. I hadn’t looked at Tristan’s track closely enough, and just assumed that I had to drop to the base of the SE face and then climb up from somewhere over there. But in reality, the route climbs up from the saddle between Oberlin and Clements and then traverses horizontally out on a ledge system before transitioning straight up into the prominent couloir that splits that SE face.
I thought I could climb up from the base and get back on route. So I spent a careful twenty minutes kicking steps up a steep hardpack snowfield and got onto a large house-sized boulder marking the top of the snowfield and the bottom of the first cliff band. But above the boulder was nothing but legit class 5 cliffs. Looking later at Summitpost, it seems that I was at the first cliff band of the east face direct route, which indeed goes at low fifth class. At least I made a good decision to turn around.
I stood for ten minutes just shaking my head with what a fuckin’ idiot I’d been. Now I needed to get down 200 yards of steep snow just barely soft enough for me to kick steps in. So I downclimbed back to the snow and used my collapsed poles as an improvised ice ax, digging the tips in at my hip. By digging them in as hard as I possible I could keep my speed in check, but the icy sections and copious small rocks embedded in the snow made sure the backs of my legs and ass paid a price. Safely back at the bottom, I cursed myself some more and thought about what to do. You idiot. So much for going out and doing this line cleanly and efficiently, I thought. You messed up the very first section off a trail. Real top-notch work.
After a few more minutes of this great self-talk I decided hell, why not just jog back to the car? Get some food, reset your head and the watch, and just start fresh? It was only 8:30 in the morning, I could reset and potentially still finish in the daylight if I was smarter on the second go round. So I got back on the Oberlin trail and jogged down to the milling tourists back around the car. Just a simple 2-hour, 2,000-foot warmup. I took 30 minutes at the car to reset my head, ate some chocolate chip banana bread (which helped a ton!) and started the watch again. Work harder, not smarter.
Oberlin was right where I’d left it a couple hours before, but now the sun was firmly up. I started up the Clements ridgeline from the saddle between the two mountains still not knowing exactly what to expect beyond that I’d probably climb the ridgeline until I got cliffed out and then I’d hope like hell that there was some kind of cairn marking the right ledge to take out onto the face. Thankfully, that was the case. I followed occasional cairns up the ridge and marking the highpoint of the ridge where you go out onto the face on a ledge. From there there’s nowhere to go but forward until you come to the obvious couloir and begin the climb up. The climbing is not particularly difficult, but the exposure is high. Summitpost and Edwards’ book rate sections of it as low class 5. I moved upwards slowly, testing each hand and foothold before committing to it; the Glacier rock is notoriously rotten and untrustworthy.
I felt elated to reach the summit, to be feeling good and moving well in this place, past the first technical test of the day and back on to familiar terrain. I would descend Clements to the north, the same way I’d both ascended & descended the time before. There’s such a neat little goat trail there on the north ridge of Clements, you feel so alive and free up there in the wild country. I caught another hiker on his way up to Cannon and we chatted for a couple minutes. It still blows me away that people will scramble in this kind of country without a helmet, though. With as light and functional as helmets are these days, there’s just no reason in my mind not to. Any time there’s rock above you something could come loose and change your life in an instant, even in “easy” terrain. Anyway, blah blah blah listen to your mother wear a damn helmet. I went wide after passing him, summited Cannon, then detoured again on the way down so at least I wouldn’t be the one dropping rocks on his head.
After Cannon I rejoined the tourist melee on the Hidden Lake Trail for just the few minutes it took to reach the lake. Then, just as suddenly as the throng appeared they were gone. Amazingly there was not a single other person along the west side of the lake, even though there were at least a couple dozen within sight on the trail or where the trail met the lake on the east side. I guess the prospect of getting your feet wet to cross ten feet of outflow stream is an effective deterrent.
The trail was kind of on-again, off-again along the lake until it unceremoniously completely went away in a blow-down of aspen trees. From there it was just a pleasant walk to the head of the canyon, and though I think there are a few different ways you can get up onto the SE flank of Bearhat from the Hidden Lake valley, the line I took felt especially neat. Right at the head of the canyon there’s what looks to be the only cleft in the cliff band. You climb past the base of a small waterfall, then climb up through this cleft that can’t be more than ten feet wide, pulling yourself up by trees and bushes. And voila, you pop out above the cliff and on the gentle slope of the upper basin separating Bearhat and Dragon’s Tail. Feels like a secret Lord of the Rings elven passageway or something.
Bearhat, on the other hand, hews closer to Mordor than Rivendell. It’s just a tough one to onsite because of all the little creases and ledge systems as you try to move northwest towards the summit. You can never get a full view of the terrain you’re going into, only the next few minutes at most. And because it’s a series of ledges once you get cliffed out often the only recourse is to go backwards and down before you can move up again. But once you get far enough north the terrain curves out more into a bowl shape and you can pick a line upwards more easily.
If nothing else, Bearhat was a great opportunity to practice staying nimble on a lot of steep, uneven terrain. After the first wave of frustration with getting cliffed out subsided I settled into a steady rhythm of just trying to flow over the rock efficiently and problem solve as quickly as I could. I hit the summit at five hours elapsed on the dot and took a few minutes to soak in the perfect August day. Scattered puffy clouds, just a bit of breeze, warm but not too hot, just…perfect. I spun slowly all the way around a couple times, mentally ticking off the peaks, glaciers, high basins, and valleys that make up a dream line I want to do someday: linking all the Park’s 10,000-footers in a continuous push. Someday soon.
I followed my line back down the mountain as best I could, testing myself if I could stay on the exact line I’d taken on the way up. I couldn’t stay on it through the maze step-for-step, but I did find a neat rock. So win some, lose some?
As I finally got low enough and free of Bearhat’s scrambling terrain I (relatively) turned on the jets and ran down into the basin between Bearhat and Dragon’s Tail through a mixture of grass and scree. I found a small bit of water still flowing, luckily, because I was completely out and if there hadn’t been any in the basin it would have been a long time until I hit another spot or some remnant snow. I wove my way up towards the Dragon’s Tail ridge, skirting back and forth to stay on class 3 terrain and away from the cliffs. Once on top it was a short hike and jog up to the summit proper. Still feeling good, but definitely not a spry as I’d felt that morning.
There’s another amazing goat trail on the east side of the Dragon’s Tail ridge, and you can jog on it as you head north towards Reynolds. At that point I felt fully immersed in the mountain running, fully focused on the nuances of the goat trail and how I felt. Like I’d shifted into a different gear than how I’d started the day; the intensity felt the same, but here the bright-eyed shininess of the morning had worn off, replaced by a quieter, measured determination.
Reynolds felt comparatively like coming out of the woods into civilization. There’s a well-established climber’s trail heading up the face from the saddle on its southwest flank, and I just got to work with the poles and tried my best to keep my footing in the loose rock and sand. And in stark contrast to the less-than-ideal footing on the way up, the view from the summit ridgeline is sublime.
After Reynolds I backtracked the way I came (and the loose & crappy footing on the way up becomes loose & great on the way down!) then skirted south around Reynolds to the saddle between it and Heavy Runner, following Tristan’s line. Heavy Runner was a pleasant walk up, a relatively relaxing final peak compared to the higher exposure at times earlier in the day. However, that good mood was interrupted when I could see immediately from what I thought to be the highpoint that it was actually a few feet shorter than the next farther point along the ridge. But from what I could see, the actual highpoint required some fifth-class climbing. I studied it for a minute or two, then decided I was perfectly happy only going to the false summit. I figured if there actually was a non-technical way to get up that spire, then someone else fitter and more dedicated than I could come along later and improve on the route. I was happy with how the day had come together and was ready to start working back towards the car.
I knew that from the saddle between Reynolds and Heavy Runner Tristan had traversed west in the upper reaches of the Reynolds creek basin until he could get high enough to regain the trail north of Reynolds. Standing at the saddle though, I realized that just like Bearhat, knowing exactly which ledge to take would be crucial. Thick brush and the curving canyon wall obscured the right route to take, and after 30 minutes of poking my head along two different cliff bands I luckily found the right one. Funnily enough, it was the one I’d initially dismissed because it felt so unlikely. But I sidehilled into upper Reynolds creek without incident and then climbed back up to get back on trail.
Once on the Reynolds trail it was a simple couple miles back to the parking lot and the happiness of taking my shoes off. There’s something pleasant and satisfying about jogging down the wide boardwalks towards Logan Pass. I think after a day like this, it feels a bit like a warm welcome back after a journey. Back at the car I sat in my camp chair for a bit, sipping a chocolate recovery shake and watching the sunset colors fading from Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. Despite how the day had started it had turned into a wonderful day, with everything that I love in a day running around the mountains. There was some climbing and exposure but not too much, just enough hit my sweet spot of difficulty and excitement. There were unexpected moments of beauty, interesting terrain, and I got to appreciate my body moving fluidly and consistently over many hours like it is meant to. Not every day features all these things coming together, and I sat playing the day through my head, feeling grateful and fulfilled.
A couple walked up to the short rock wall that marks the eastern edge of the parking lot with a photographer in tow. They were dressed in bride and groom finery, obviously getting their wedding photos taken. They looked about my age, maybe a bit younger. They stood on the wall laughing and cycling through their poses, unintentionally directly in my line of sight to Going-to-the-Sun Mountain from where I sat thirty yards away. I suddenly didn’t feel very happy or fulfilled at all.
“Okay okay, I get it, I’m pathetically single and need to fix that. No shit. You’re not very subtle, are you?” I packed up my stuff and continued the silent conversation with the universe at large on the drive down the pass as nighttime solidified. I wondered if this was a sign that my master plan to meet the girl of my dreams on top of a peak somewhere was a bit of a flawed strategy. Well, I was certainly 0 for 7 today, or, um, 0 for 8 actually, but I figured I should test the strategy at least a few more times before throwing it out entirely.
Oberlin, Clements, Bearhat, Dragon’s Tail, Reynolds, Heavy Runner (false summit).
22 miles, 11,700 feet ascent, 10h 7min.