Monday, August 20, 2007

Mt. Stimson

Getting there:

This trip was organized by Susan Schwartz, David Olson and Ken Mcdermott of the Glacier Mountaineering Society (GMS). Susan (from Colorado) and David (from Wisconsin) travel up to Montana every year for Glacier Mountaineering Week, which was starting just after our 3-day trip to Stimson. Ken was kind enough to invite me along as a fourth member of their little expedition.

Late Thursday night, Ken and I drove down from Lethbridge and met the others at the cabin of David Olson’s uncle on St. Mary Lake. The place (on the Blackfoot reserve) looked like a little hideaway from the road, but inside it was really nice and had awesome views of the lake and surrounding peaks.

The trip up Mount Stimson
DAY 1: Friday, we awoke early (5 AM) and made the drive up past east Glacier to our trailhead. On the way, a large brown bear, (perhaps a grizzly) popped out of the woods and dashed across the highway in front of us. Susan and David also saw a cow moose with a calf not too far from where we parked.

We finally headed towards the trail shortly after 9 AM. Words to describe the approach: decimation, devastation, obliteration, shattering, destruction, ABANDON ALL HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE! It was ‘just’ a 9 mile approach (15 km) following elk trails, but more often than not, we found ourselves floundering along the trail slowed by quagmires of deadfall, or more commonly - bushwhacking in thick brush after losing the trail completely.

After crossing Middle Flathead River and stashing the canoe away, we followed a park trail to the first crossing of Pinchot creek. There was a ridiculously steep drop of a couple of hundred feet to the creek, where we discovered a cable strung across the river at an opportune spot, which assisted in the crossing. There was a USGS water monitoring station being set up there, complete with solar panels and antennae for remote data transmission. It was rather funny to see such alien looking technology in the middle of the bush!

We made really slow progress after the first crossing of Pinchot; by 8 PM we were still a few miles from our intended campsite near the base of Stimson and our morale was getting low. It was a heatwave in Lethbridge that weekend, and in Glacier the heat was slightly better, but still brutal… probably still in the 30s.

We had been given rather detailed information on the approach from one Ralph Thornton (a longtime GMS member), who had made multiple trips (apparently 5 trips!) up the creek to the summit of Stimson. We tried our best to stick to Ralph’s route and in particular, we expended much energy looking for a phantom elk trail that Ralph had described rather favorably, which we had guessed was some distance upwards from the creek. By 8 PM we had decided we had ascended too high and decided to drop down towards the creek and luckily found a good trail that took us within a half mile of our intended camp by 9:30 PM. My feet got a bit trashed from hiking in wet boots as we followed some gravel beds along Pinchot creek.

The only ‘near miss’ of the day occurred as I fell almost up to my waist in a big hole as we hung our food in a tree in the dark!

Day 2: Summit day!

Again it was super hot day, probably in the 30s after 10 AM. We left camp at 8 AM and made it to the saddle between Mt. Pinchot and Mt. Stimson by noon. The trip up from the saddle was mostly class II and a bit of class III near the summit… typically there were lots of ledges a couple of feet high that one could ascend rather easily, the most difficult part being loose rubble on the ledges that could cause one to trip or dislodge a nugget or two onto fellow climbers below. We made it to the summit ridge by 3:45 PM and views did not disappoint! The summit ridge of Stimson runs roughly east-west, with the true summit being a few minutes west of the eastern edge, and it was a fun little scramble to follow the ridge to the true summit. There were great views of the Mt. Jackson and Mt. Logan, as well as the Jackson and Blackfoot glaciers; Mt. St. Nicolas; Rising Wolf Mountain. We found a canister in the summit cairn and saw we were the first summit party of the year. Judging from the summit canister, there are just a few parties that make it up every year. We spent way too much time on the summit and finally started our descent around 4:30.

Initially, the descent was slow. The ledges were impossible to make good time on the way down! Finally, when we hit the top of the saddle we found some scree that took us down to Pinchot Creek. At this point, my feet were just killing me and unfortunately I slowed down the group pretty good. By the time we made it to the gravel beds of the creek it was dark (10 PM) and eventually, we had to don headlamps. (I forgot mine and had to follow closely behind the others, tricky, especially when crossing the stream!) We still had to follow the stream for about a kilometer to find our campsite, which was along the stream somewhere. To make a long story short – we got lost and ended up going in circles for a bit, thrashing about the woods trying to find our tent by GPS. It was very much reminiscent of the movie ‘The Blair Witch Project’. I don’t think I will ever forget that night, as much as I would like to! It is a bit spooky to be bushwhacking in the dark- you don’t really see much past the first set of bushes that your flashlight shines upon. Finally by midnight, we found our tents and had a midnight snack. We hit the sack around 1 AM!

Day 3: We felt bagged from our previous ‘day off’ and were not ecstatic about the prospect of backpacking out. Luckily, we knew exactly what we were up against and really, we knew it could not be any worse than the previous couple of days!

The only real trouble we had on the way out (aside from the heat) was finding the exact spot where we crossed the Pinchot Creek for the first time on the way back. Luckily, Susan had her GPS with her and with some care we managed to find the little cairns we had built at the spot where we crossed. From that crossing, there was still some unexpected bushwhacking that occurred, but we made it back to the cars by 8:00… about 11 hours! The shortest day yet!

I am really glad I did this trip and in particular, I appreciated the good humour and patience of David, Susan and Ken… but I don’t think I ever want to do this trip again!!!