Tuesday, September 11, 2012

by the numbers

Now that the climbing roadtrip has been completed, and we reside again in West Virginia, albeit temporarily, it's time to crunch the stats of the journey.

states visited - 20
miles driven - 12,000
states climbed - 8
destinations climbed - 13
routes completed - 121
vertical feet climbed (outdoors) - 8,610
climbing gyms visited - 4
nights spent indoors - 8
national parks visited - 5
miles hiked in backcountry - 71
bears encountered - 5
lives changed - 2

Monday, September 10, 2012

backcountry u.s.a.

Although the focus of the ropetrip has been traveling to America's premier climbing destinations, Eric and I also enjoy the occasional backpacking trip. Loading up a hefty pack with forty pounds of all you need to survive and walking tens of miles into the wilderness is a truly unique experience that only so many outdoors enthusiasts tackle in our national parks. Numbers of backpackers are limited, mainly because not many people like to leave the securities of our modern lifestyle. Second, coveted backpacking wildernesses are limited to use by permit systems in most national parks. These permits ensure those entering the backcountry are able-bodied, educated, and respectful of Leave No Trace trail ethics to minimize impact in our treasured wilderness areas.

Eric and I had planned on backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park back in late June, but the big fire at the park's main entrance town of Estes Park forced us up into Wyoming. Fastforward to August, and we were hungry for a backcountry epic. We cruised from Missoula, Montana north to Glacier National Park - endearingly referred to as the Crown Jewel of the Continent. Glacier is billed as an International Peace Park, sharing land with Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park. The 1,000,000 plus-acre park is dissected by the continent-dividing Rocky Mountains, with many peaks over 10,000 feet. The glaciated landscaped is one of geological wonder, with massive U-shaped valleys, over 130 named lakes (some hundreds of feet deep), gushing waterfalls, and over 1,000 species of flora and fauna. But most notably, tons of bears. Grizzly and black bears occupy the park in massive numbers, and the National Park Service makes all visitors aware of this. To obtain a backcoutry permit for any of Glacier's many trail systems, hikers must watch a 14 minute educational video on bear behavior. The park offers bear canisters for food storage along with any other items that carry the smallest inkling of a scent. Bears have extremely sensitive noses - a girl was recently roused at night in her tent because she had washed her hair with berry-scented shampoo several days before her hike.

The park's namesake glaciers are disappearing before our eyes. The scenery that inspires so many can only be understood through the geologic timescale - the uplift that created the mountains occured 170 million years ago. However, the glaciers that attract millions of people every year are shrinking away in the length of a human lifetime. Glacier was home to around 150 glaciers in the nineteenth century - now only 25 named glaciers remain. And those 25 are estimated to disappear by 2025. So if you want to gaze on one of the most powerful erosive forces on the planet, book your trip to Montana now. It will be a sad story that we have to tell our children and grandchildren - "back in my day, there used to be huge fields of snow all over the place!"  As climbers, the death of the glaciers and premature melting of mountain frost is a source of danger. Each year as temps hit early records, crucial ice acting as an arctic cement melts away, leading to rock falls and scree avalanches that are killing and injuring climbers at alarmingly high numbers.

Now that the depressing truth has been presented, let's get to the good stuff. We did a 35 mile beast of a hike in two days. We started at Kintla Lake Trailhead at the far northwest corner of the park. Day one completed the 17.5 miles in to gain the top of Boulder Pass where the backcountry campground is. The trail follows the north shore of Kintla Lake, a massive glacial lake over 450 feet deep. The trail heads upslope into a large burnt out meadow with great views of the Border Mountains, then onto the north bank of Upper Kintla Lake. After 12 miles, the 3,280 feet of elevation begins. Five miles of uphill switch backs through old growth forest and alpine meadows set you up for the grand finale, Boulder Pass. The campground sits at 7,100 feet and has three tent sites, a communal cooking area with a convenient bear hang wire, and one of the world's top ten outdoor toilets. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1078738/Loo-view-The-worlds-toilets-best-vistas.html - check it out for a look see.
boulder pass in all its glory - agassiz glacier visible to the left, flanked by the 10,101 ft kintla peak

Our arrival at the pass was made more exciting by the presence of a male grizzly bear about 50 feet from where we collapsed on a small snowfield. When we noticed he was there, we did as they told us and faced him while backing up slowly - you never want to turn your back on a bear. He barely acknowledged us, flopped down on the snow, and seemed quite happy to be where he was. So we got an easy exit and didn't have to use the bear spray - the best way to experience a closeup grizz. We spent a night at the pass, rewarded with the clearest night sky either of us have ever seen, and woke up at sunrise to have a quick breakfast and manhandle the 17.5 mile hike back to the trailhead. We would have preferred to do a loop hike, but the requirement of a shuttle and hitchhiking back to the trialhead left us questioning the practicality of the loop. With one mile to go, exhausted, sore, hungry and sporting a low morale, a black bear sow and two cubs occupied the trail, forcing us to backtrack and try to circumvent the aggravated beast. She eventually let us pass, and we were glad. All we wanted at that point was to get the hell out, drive the 1.5 hour gravel road to the nearest town, and grab a cold beer and a burger.

the grizz from the snowpatch - photo by other hikers

becoming rarer by the year, it was great to safely encounter one of these beasts in the wilderness

Although we were completely fried by the end of the hike, the experience was amazing. Glacier is home to the some of the greatest alpine scenery the country has to offer. I highly recommend a trip to this national treasure, and don't let our story keep you away if you're not a hearty woodsman. Glacier has over 700 miles of trails, some even ADA accessible and paved. The Going to the Sun Road lets motorists catch glimpses of wildlife and scenery. Put this park at the top of your list - it won't be as it is much longer.