Heaven’s Peak and the Fire

This past week, four friends and I attempted to summit Heaven’s Peak, one of the most picturesque mountains in the park.

Along for the 2-night excursion was Keith; Joey, who was already out in the woods for several days and didn’t meet with us until we reached the campsite; and two friends I hadn’t hiked with yet this summer, Brady and Tip.

From Nashville, TN, Brady is on the maintenance crew with me. At first sight, he’s often perceived as a frat boy – much to his dismay – but he’s actually a southern hipster, a branch of evil in and of itself. A hike between the two of us was long overdue by this point, so I was glad we were getting to spend a few days together in the backcountry.

Tip’s from Tallahassee, FL, and cooks in the lodge’s kitchen, where you can find him manning the grill while enthusiastically bobbing his head to dub-step. Fully bearded with locks flowing, he calls his own shots, and I was stoked he was along for the journey. Equipped with a knife hanging from his neck, a bottle of single-malt, and two giant summer sausages, he was dialed in for this mighty occasion away from the grind.

We left to meet Joey at 10:00 this past Sunday morning. We planned to camp that night at Camus Lake, a 10.5 mile, 3000-ft climb from our starting point at the northwestern shore of Lake McDonald. The first leg of trail takes you to Trout Lake, where I’ve been and discussed earlier this summer. Like last time, getting there worked us over, as we hiked straight upward through burned forest with minimal shade. Just ask Keith, whose heart was pounding like a jackhammer, causing him to stop several times before reaching the ridge. He says he didn’t know what was going on, but I’m pretty sure it was the twelve-pack he finished inhaling eight hours prior.

Once we did get over that devilish ridge, we hung at the lake. Countless logs, torn down by avalanches, dwell along the shoreline and form a floating bridge bisecting the lake, across which Tip and Brady walked nearly halfway. We stayed for a comfortable time and leisurely strolled away not expecting the difficult, time-consuming walk ahead of us.

We came upon the shore of Lake Wilson about ninety minutes later. We stopped – again – and ate. We looked over the water at Heaven’s Peak and the valley below, surmising that we had a fairly easy hour or two of hike left until the campsite. The trail from then on was often overgrown, with shrubbery impeding our movement. Saturated by four lakes and their connecting streams, the valley’s shady bottom and thick foliage resembles that of a rainforest’s. We started to move at a brisk pace as the trail crisscrossed the stream flowing away from Lake Camus, our destination; but, as we started to climb away from the thick forest into more open scenery, the trail kept slipping further into the distance, playing tricks on us.

Again, we stopped and ate, fueling up under a hot sun. Suddenly, I realized that I was plowing through my food and might not make it unless I was rationed from there on. Never again will I leave without enough food to gorge my stomach with — especially while attempting to summit a mountain.

We finally arrived, and Joey was waiting for us. He was growing worried over our tardiness. Having just finished climbing up and over the ridge shadowing our campground, he’d spent the past five days alone in the backcountry. He only drove to town for some food following our last trek a week ago, then back at it in the wilderness filming for his Youtube channel.

As the sun settled and the forest awakened, we were devouring Top Ramen – of which Tip brought fourteen packs. That, along with his aforementioned provisions comprised his diet plan for the trip.

We woke up to rainfall and spent much of the morning inside our tents. The skies cleared at half-past noon, leaving us with a very late start to scale a peak without a marked trail to follow. Climbing a mountainside with no trail, on one’s own whim, is termed “scrambling.” Often difficult on your body, you’ll find yourself using all your limbs to keep from falling and breaking them.

Our designed route started us up a dried water chute made of loose rock and boulders and the occasional waterfall. Tip proved his adept climbing skills for the occasion, breezily slinging himself up and over ledges, not putting near the thought into his next steps as I was for my own. Our plan was to shoot upward a bit and walk across over to the recommended routes. Bunkered inside of our tents all morning, we were eager to start ascending towards the ridgeline leading up to the peak – but our hastiness began to backfire as we started our horizontal movement. More than halfway up the mountainside, after nearly three hours of incline, we were too high up from the trail to start afresh on a different route, so we became determined to make it from our elevated position. Tip stayed a steady fifty feet above, scouting the route for us as we made way. We were walking down the left side of the valley, my left hand holding anything protruding from the mountainside, often along with my right as well; it was a slow and careful process.

Heaven’s Peak’s summit was still formidable, towering in the far distance. The fact that we weren’t going to make it seeped into my mind, adding to the stress brought on by the steps I was taking. We came up to an area of steep rock face that had small horizontal lines of vegetation stepped into its face. This was when we should’ve called it quits, but the valley’s wall, now shaping into a cliff, turned sharply inward ahead of us. We wanted to see around that corner and whether or not our route would become easier from then on. Tip had just joined us from above, but was headed back up to see if there was an alternative route over to that tantalizing bend. Brady joined him.

Not keen on heading upward anymore, I let them dart off. Keith, who was taking his sweet time, was now just catching up to Joey and me. We received word from above of no safer alternative. Joey, who was very calm from much previous experience, coached me on some scrambling technique, and started across, his back to the mountain, sidestepping over the rock-face. Adrenaline-fueled, I shadowed his movement. Still, I felt in control, and Joey’s emphatic encouragement helped me over.

After crossing, I found myself standing on a steep-pitched patch of grass. No direction from there was desirable – it was either straight down or up, or back across that rock I had just traversed. My legs began to sore from holding onto the vertigo-inducing slope, and an uncalculated step in any direction could have ended me. Joey picked himself out a route moving forward towards the bend and had to drop his pack below to maneuver down the ledge. Hesitating, I followed suit as he conveyed where to latch my hands and find my footing. Not merely trembling, but full-on shaking, I made it. Joey gave me an enthusiastic high-five once I stepped down, all the while telling me I had just done a “class-5” climb, meaning it calls for harness and rope. I wasn’t as jazzed over the ordeal; moreover, I was ready to start a descent and get the hell off the mountain. A look around that bend proved discouraging, and Tip and Brady were ready to come down from above, asking me if I thought the space between us was right to climb through. They couldn’t see because of an obstructing tree line. I yelled back “no,” because of the potential for detrimental consequence; I couldn’t live with myself if something happened. They had to create their own “class-5” route down, which plenty rattled them as well.

Now, we were ready to go down – except for Joey, of course, who was much more content with our positioning; but he was also exhausted – we’d been scrambling upward for four-plus hours. Thunderstorms started howling in the distance. The ridgeline, all the sudden, appeared lonely. It took us another few hours to make it down, by which time it was half-past six – too late for another attempt, especially with lightening flashing in my periphery. We all felt unaccomplished, and I felt a little foolish. Talking it over, we began to realize how the weather had dictated our attempt, bringing on the late start and later taking away our second attempt for the ridge. We headed back to Lake Camus, picking trailside huckleberries along the way.

Two Rangers were at the campsite when we returned, and we were in deep if they noticed all five of us – we had a permit for only four. We were in one of the most remote areas of the park – we couldn’t catch a break. Walking in, I was trailing our group by about fifty yards, leaving me unnoticed. Next thing you know, I’m hiding out in my tent for over two hours. I stepped out for an occasional smoke; otherwise, I was either reading or writing bits for this post. Taking the hit, I now had sole-possession of the single malt – a useful companion after a mentally exhausting day.

We awoke the next morning and immediately headed home, back the same way we took in. Keith and Tip had work at 2:00, so we had Brady lead the way, his tree-trunk legs propelling us with quick pace.

The thunder overhead during our climb likely sparked the fire currently blazing five thousand-plus acres of the park’s eastside. As a result, the Going to the Sun Road has been closed east of Logan Pass and will probably remain until snowfall extinguishes the flames. Access to trailheads — many of which I haven’t yet pursued — has been mitigated. Rising Sun Lodge has been evacuated, leaving a refugee camp out at a company RV park.

Thanks for reading. This week, I’m headed into the park’s Two Medicine area to hike the Dawson-Pita Makin trail. I’ll either trek the entire twenty-mile loop in a single day or split it with another night’s stay under the glorious backcountry stars of Glacier National Park.

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