Sunday, May 17, 2015

Up to the Edge

L. and I climb up the verdant valley towards towards Huckleberry Lookout in Glacier National Park, Montana.  The snow line is receding.  How far will we make it?  Does that even matter?
The forest bursts with spring wildflowers.  Intricate shapes and varied colors.  Trillium in every shade of white to pink-purple; they change color once they are pollinated. 
Trillium "blushing" after pollination.
A lone runner passes us heading back down to the parking area.  The only other car parked there.  Now we have the place to ourselves.  Just us and the bears.  L. mentions that Backpacker Magazine rated this as one of the most dangerous hikes in America due to high grizzly bear densities.  Its too early for huckleberries, so all the grizzlies are elsewhere, right?

We ascend the south-facing slope on well-graded trail.  Into the sub-alpine landscape of glacier-lilies.  The valley opens up.
Glacier-lily lined path.
Montana continues to amaze me with its beauty.  I want to know everything about this place.  Are the intense green slopes across the valley larch trees?  L. says in the fall they change color and light up the slopes.  What must that look like?

I put on my microspikes at snowline, after 4.5 miles where the trail pops over the saddle and shoots around to the shaded edge of a hillside.  A different world here, up in the clouds.  Snow is falling lightly.  The snow pack is thick.  The slopes are steep. 
Snow line (on the way back down).
We follow kicksteps cut into the hillside.  Their tracks show they were wearing real crampons, and we think they had an ice ax.

Alarm bells going off in my heard, stomach lurching at the steepness of the slope.  I automatically think, don’t look down, don’t look down, my mantra that has gotten me through so many miles of terrifying trail.  But I do look down, to see how far we’d slide if we slipped.  Those mental calculations, weighing the price of broken bones (or worse?) against the lure of the trail ahead, to the beckoning tower, the potential exhilaration of traveling those snow-covered slopes and reaching the lookout tower.
Steep slope where we turned around.
I am glad when L. hesitates.  Do we want to continue?  I know we could make it.  I’ve done harder, and so has she.  But there is that possibility that we wouldn’t.  Is it worth it?

An hour is spend going up the snow along the ridges above the saddle in either direction.  Looking for another way around.  Views open up of mountains beyond.  The snow lets up, clouds part, sun glistens on peaks.  We try the trail again, going out to the steep part for another attempt.  Decide again to turn around.
Shifting clouds revealing distant peaks.
I love being here at my edge, knees shaking a little as my heart pounds loudly.  Here, I am fully aware of my balance and how the snow feels beneath my feet, the grip of my hands on my hiking poles, the rhythm of three points always in contact with the snow.
Up and down the ridge above the saddle.
Views opening up.
 Being at the edge, you find out things about yourself.  In moments where you are well beyond your comfort zone, that is where they say “the magic happens” which I think means “where you can grow and find out what is meaningful in your life.”   I am so glad we’ve come out here today.  It gives me the perspective I’ve needed.
At the edge.
I think about climbing Whitney last year.  I think about how heart-wrenching it felt to turn around so close to the summit.  Now, I am more comfortable in not making it to the top.  I know what it feels like to not hike for 10 weeks while broken bones heal.  I am happy for the hike that has brought me to this place where I can see so far, where I get to push my comfort zone.  It is so satisfying to be exactly in this place. 

More info on this hike:

Huckleberry Lookout Trail

Backpacker Magazine's writeup
Meadow rue.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What do you want, Mountain Goat?

I’m feeling great as I begin climbing one of the steepest trails in Glacier National Park—Mt. Brown Lookout with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain in 5.4 miles.  My endorphins are surging and my strong legs are full of energy.  Ah I love to climb!

At the trailhead, I didn't even pause at the “caution grizzly bears… don’t hike alone” sign. I’ve gotten some internet advice from a bad-ass hiker who did many solo miles in grizzly country, and I’m feeling tough.  My bear spray feels less awkward at my hip, and my “hey bear” shouts up the empty trail are confident.

I’m in my element.  Lungs full of the sweet scent of the dense cedar forest.  After a month in Montana, I already I know the names of all the blooming wildflowers: the nine-leaved desert parsley, utah honeysuckle, calypso orchids, and glacier lilies.  Montana is feeling more like home.
Spring beauties.
My mind wanders.  While I like to hike solo, I think about how I also would like to find hiking buddies out here.  But I’m old and set in my ways.  I don’t want to backpack with just anyone.  As I daydream, my list of requirements for a trail buddy begins to sound more like a personal ad:

Seeking backpacking companion for two day trips in northwestern Montana.  Must be an early riser.  Must like plants or be able to tolerate excessive oooing and ahhing over wildflowers/ big trees.  Must like bushwhacking and exploring, and value solitude and wilderness.  Introverts preferred, but extroverts that don’t talk nonstop OK. 15-25 miles a day at a 2-3 mph pace, with snack breaks ever two hours, but willing to compromise on pace and mileage if you have a high clearance vehicle to get us to trailheads down FS roads.”

A girl can dream, right?  Of course I would never post that!  Sheesh it’s not like I’m desperate!  I can hike solo just fine.  I can handle anything!

When the trail climbs up into the snow, I slip into my microspikes.  Lake McDonald, where I started, is so far below, I can hardly believe I just started down there.  I feel like I could climb forever.
Lake McDonald, far below.
At the end of a switchbacks, I see a mountain goat ahead munching on bear grass.  There are two hikers behind me, and my first thought is that I don’t want to startle the goat so that they get a chance to see it.  As I am waiting, the mountain goat stops eating and starts walking towards me.  WHAT THE @#$%!?  I wrack my brain trying to remember if I’ve read anything about mountain goats.  Do I act big and yell, or play dead?  I try yelling but he just keeps moving towards me so I slowly back down the trail.  I contemplate pulling out my umbrella but decide that’s more suitable defense against imaginary foes.  This mountain goat is real.  I look at its horns.
What are you looking at, Mountain Goat?
Fortunately, the other two hikers behind me come up and I tell them about the mountain goat.  Rocks, the woman says, throw rocks at them.

I let them go past me and I follow close behind.  The woman gives a few authoritative shouts, and the goat scampers off.  The couple goes ahead of me and I fall behind, taking photos and taking my time as the trail gets steeper and steeper in the deep snow.
Views into Glacier.
After another half hour of climbing, as I get up close to treeline, I decide it’s too steep for me to continue on my own.  I can see the fire tower isn’t too far away, but I don’t like the sheer drop-offs and the kick steps in the snow are shallow.  If I slipped, it would be a long way down, and I don’t have an ice ax with me.  I’ve already made it well outside my comfort zone, being this high up in the snow on my own.  At times like this, it doesn’t bother me to turn around.  The climb is what I live for, not getting to the top. 
Fewer tracks up here.
As I start to descend, I see the mountain goat heading up the trail towards me.  HE FOLLOWED ME!  For half an hour!  What does he want?!?!  I stare at him, wishing I could understand goat behavior.  He tilts his head and stares back at me, expectantly, as he continues walking towards me.

Stay back, I yell.  But he doesn’t.

Rocks are not easy to find in deep snow.  I locate a bare spot in a tree well, and fill my pockets with as many rocks as I can find.  When he gets closer, I start throwing them.  I don't aim at him, of course, but close enough.  He finally gets the message, and scampers uphill, as I pass below him and then continue on down the trail, looking over my shoulder ever few minutes.

I hurry down the trail.  I can see how his mountain goat footprints followed my own.  Why was this mountain goat following me?

I get down past the snow, into the cedar forest, into the land of wildflowers.  Yay plants! Plants don’t follow you, you don’t need to carry bear spray because of them, you don’t have to throw rocks at them. I love plants!
Utah honeysuckle.
Within a half mile of the trailhead, I stop to say hi to a father with his two young sons.  They are throwing rocks down the hillside.  The father says, it’s a nice day to throw rocks.  I reach down and feel a few rocks still in my pocket.  Yes, it is a good day to throw rocks!

When I get back to cell phone range, I ask on facebook about mountain goat behavior, and another hiker tells me that goats sometimes follow hikers looking for salt.  They will leave you alone if you go pee.

When I talk to my neighbor about it the next day, she thinks that mountain goat was trying to give me a message.  She believes things like that about animals.  But what do mountain goats have to say?

Perhaps, "Let’s go for a hike!  We'd make a great team- you supply the salt and I'll not talk your ear off.  I like plants too..."

For more about Glacier's habituated mountain goats, see this video.
Are you potentially dangerous, Mr. Mountain Goat?