I’ve been dealt a new work schedule, losing my usual trail comrades in the process, and I hadn’t yet hiked alone once this summer—which surprises me—until this past week, when I hit the trail twice on my own accord, attempting to climb Mt. Siyeh, one of the tallest mountains in the park, on Sunday, and then scaling Mt. Stanton the following Wednesday.
In order to start up the side of the goliath Mt. Siyeh—its northern side, not visible from anywhere I was all day, is structured from the tallest cliffs in the U.S.—I had to get to Siyeh Bend, a big U-turn on the newly reopened eastern half of the Going to the Sun Road. Luck graced me with a ride from my friend Sydney, who was headed the same way to spend her day with friends in Many Glacier.
Early on in our drive, we could see the Garden Wall towering ahead of us, and I explained how it’s an arête carved from two glaciers of unfathomable size. This wasn’t news to Sydney, who began to enthusiastically elaborate on my point, and I suddenly remembered that she studies geology. I grew inquisitive and learned some observable roadside terminology along with information pertaining to the fact the park once sat underneath a massive inland sea. There was a lot of traffic on the road, but I was enjoying the knowledge brought forth from its delay. Sydney was breaking down information I’ve been curious about all summer long but couldn’t muster the energy to find out for myself.
She dropped me off at the bend, encouraging me for my attempt to climb one of the highest mountains in the park. I started up the Peigan Pass Trail, which, three miles along from the road, runs into the start of the Siyeh Pass trail, forking off to the right and winding its way around the mountain’s eastern slope. I stayed on Piegan, as scrambling from the saddle it runs along underneath seemed like an intuitive route up while listening to different options earlier that morning. It didn’t take long for me to turn around upon seeing the saddle’s ridgeline, however, as its steepness, along with the jutting chunks of sheer rock to climb over and around, made me reconsider what I had been told. Perhaps I would’ve if I had a companion, one who could run, if something bad were to happen, until he or she could dial in a chopper to evacuate me from the mountainside. I turned back around to the fork and started up towards Siyeh Pass.
Until this day, I hadn’t hiked in this part of the park. Mountains towered from all directions underneath a blue blanket of a sky, sparsely dotted with clouds. I kept turning around, taking in the scenery I was behind, which only became more beautiful the more I left from the lush green valley I was walking through. Straight on from me was the giant gulf of air held within the saddle of Siyeh Pass.
I knew of the possibility to summit Mt Siyeh from this side, but not the preferred route. I was standing below the saddle and began to observe the gradual bare slope falling from the summit and wanted to be there. But it abruptly gives way to a belt of jagged, sheer cliff, from where loose sheeting and meadows merge with the valley floor. I eventually surmised that the gradual rise from the saddle was most appealing, even though it looked like it eventually got sketchy higher up, but I wanted to start somewhere, so I left the trail and started across the arid ground swarming with insects. Grizzlies are spotted here snacking on them.
What looked gradual from afar turned out to be demandingly steep. The flakey and gravely surface moved beneath each of my steps, bringing on pain to maintain upward progression. My view of the valley I had just traversed, along with its shadowing mountains, was growing more spectacular. I could now see the Jackson and Sperry Glaciers draped in the distance. An aqua colored lake nestled between Mt Siyeh and the saddle was directly underneath me and looked like a small puddle.
After about an hour of making my way up, winds strengthened as the ridge narrowed. Again, I’d maybe have kept on if someone else were with me. I wasn’t even sure if my chosen route could even bring my goal to fruition, and the peak only seemed to get higher and farther away. I had made my decision for this expedition earlier that morning and spent less than thirty minutes contemplating it, so I didn’t have a hard time with turning around and giving up the dream for good that day. Later, upon returning back to the lodge, I would learn that I was completely off track with this attempt.
I had climbed high enough for some great photos, ones that must be rare because of my unique trailblazing. Walking back down the ridgeline, I was flanked on either side by two massive valleys: the one I had just came from to my right; and one nestled between two multi-colored mountain chains to my left. When I made it back down the saddle, I decided to hike back over to Piegan Pass, this time all the way so I could view its other side. It was 3:45 in the afternoon, and the last shuttle back to the lodge would be stopping at Siyeh Bend at 6:00.
The hike to Piegan Pass is mild, and I quickly covered the five miles in just over an hour. I was floored by the view when I crested its ridge. Piegan Mountain towered behind from my left, giving way to a massive saddle connecting it to Mt. Polluck, which, still high above me, converges with the razor-thin, jagged cliffs of the Garden Wall running down the left side of the deep valley below. The towering Mt Siyeh and the mountain chain falling away from it comprises the other side. About a half-dozen more peaks and their unique frames contribute to the horizon. I was graced by yet another divine view.
I enjoyed some snacks while I sat for ten minutes and then hit the trail running. I had two miles to go until I reached the fork, with another three until Siyeh Bend, all of it downhill. The last shuttle would be stopping by the Bend in just over an hour.
I made it with plenty time to spare, as the shuttle was tardy. I hopped on and was surprised to see my friend Tony, who was on his way back from Many Glacier. He had his car parked at Logan Pass, where we hopped out and drove the rest of the Going to the Sun Road back to Lake McDonald Lodge.
The following Wednesday, I got off from work at 3:30 with a plan to immediately start climbing Mt. Stanton, which towers over Lake McDonald directly across the water from the lodge. That day, however, the air was thick with smoke from the recently sparked Thompson Creek Fire in Two Medicine, halting my departure to see if new winds cleared the sky. I was eventually going whether or not this occurred, but by waiting, I could also see if my friend Tony showed his face around the property. He wanted to join as of the night before.
There was still no sign of Tony after an hour had passed, but the features of the surrounding mountains became more visible through thinning smog, the sparse boulders and trees at the top of Mt. Stanton suddenly glistening under the sun. I became very enthused over it all, even though I couldn’t find Tony anywhere—he would later inform me that he was golfing that afternoon, and nine beer-soaked holes carried over into eighteen.
I arranged my stuff, told some people where I was headed, then stopped by the restaurant’s kitchen to inhale some makeshift iced coffee. The time was 5:15. I had a quick drive ahead of me until the dreadful Trout Lake trailhead, which I would follow until cresting Howell ridge, where from I would follow a smaller, unmaintained trail until I reached a higher ridge to ride to the summit.
Along the way, I thought of how my bunkmate Jeff had just done the same climb a few days earlier as fast as he could. He finished the 4,700 ft. incline in only two hours and fifteen minutes, not stopping once. Until now, I hadn’t had a single competitive thought concerning this, for I was originally going with someone not as fit as me. But now I was alone, and though Jeff is a ball of muscle known to perform backflips on demand, I wanted to beat him and knew I could. I don’t know whether it was the caffeine or the beast within, but I turned up the music and tightened my grip on the wheel while convincing myself—at times out loud—that triumph was imminent.
After holding onto my car for a few half-assed stretches, I was off; and for the third time this summer, I found myself climbing up the burned eastern half of the Trout Lake trail, laid bare to the day’s punishing sun. There are over 750 miles of trails in the park to pick from, and other than this one, which I was now on for a third time, I haven’t hiked any of them twice. It was very hot that afternoon, with everyone telling me earlier I’d roast on this mountain, but it had now cooled a bit, and I kept moving along, not stopping once, not even at the top, for I found the unmaintained trail with ease and kept shoving along.
Debris and brush covered the narrow line, which I had trouble following at times. I was leapfrogging fallen tree-trunks, some of them surprising me when they’d give way downward and spring me back up. Soon, as the switchback trail began to dissipate, I veered off, and started a demanding scramble up a meadow dotted with various types of trees. Here, I envisioned Jeff climbing hand over foot, eating away the elevation. I held steady with a somewhat slow pace that I didn’t break. I was sore and breathing heavy, but my calves and thighs have ballooned over the summer’s course, along with feet that have hardened, while all conjoined by plenty conditioned knees and ankles. My mind wanted to stop, but I’ve never been in better shape.
After surpassing the meadow, I could see the peak looming straight ahead, with a narrow rocky ridge falling away from it like a twisted spine. I was happy, but still much work remained .
A break did come, as I was finally able to walk over the flat surface of the ridge’s beginning. I felt empowered walking along the narrow strip, especially alone, as thousands of feet of sheer mountainside dropped away from either side. Looking to my left, I could see both Trout and Arrow Lake, with Lake McDonald, the park’s biggest, on my right.
I began to move upwards on the last steep leg of hike left until I finished. An endorphin rush began to emanate from my brain through my body and limbs. I was almost there, and I knew I had Jeff beat.
I was steps away when I suddenly realized that it wasn’t the peak, nor was I near it. I had just been fooled by a “false peak,” and still had to surpass another ridge, which was longer and steeper than the one I had just finished. I sighed a few cuss-words at myself, and started back up again. Now, my race with Jeff was coming down to the wire.
I finally did conquer that mountain, losing to Jeff by five minutes. I wasn’t disappointed, for I was too exhausted for coherent thought, and I was hungry. I sat down at the top and took in the amazing 360-degree view of the park. Only a little haze was left in the air, so I could see peaks running on for miles in every direction except for into the west, where the landscape flattened beyond the park’s border.
I realized that I had cellphone service, and I texted my family a selfie—my first ever—and took advantage of the internet service. It was a perfect time for photos, the sun starting to settle over the distant horizon. I was eating my sandwich, taking it all in, when I realized that nightfall was coming. I was on top of a mountain, with no trail to guide me down until near the ridge. I stood up quickly and started back up again.
The beautiful sunset ten minutes later was bittersweet, for time was running out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find that narrow log/brush-ridden trail in the dark, so I moved as fast I could while still in control of my steps. Last thing I needed was to sprain an ankle or trip into a barrel roll. I was upset with myself for spending so much time at the top, but I was exhausted and needed the rest.
I was extremely lucky to have run into the trail from where I had left it on my way up. I was closing in on Howell Ridge, where I could hop on the Trout Lake Trail, which would lead me out in pitch-black darkness.
There was a sliver of moon, so I was guided onward by my headlamp. I was making a lot a noise, yelling pleasant phrases to the bears. I wanted to run but knew better, for joggers comprise a hefty portion of attack statistics. I was walking through the most bear-infested portion of the park, and it’s amazing what sort of things your mind conjures while hiking alone through a dark forest. I never looked away from the trail, regretting it when I did, my headlight illuminating just enough to confuse and then frighten me. I made it, though, minutes before 10:30, and sitting down in my car to drive back was very comforting.
Upon arriving at the lodge, I was greeted with relief that I was ok. Jeff was already asleep, but his alarm sounded off at 11:00, around thirty minutes after I returned, while I was reading in the common room just outside our door. He came out to make sure I was home, for he was going to notify the park rangers if I wasn’t. He’s already done this once on my behalf this summer, when a friend and I didn’t get back from the trail until past eleven because we had stopped at a steak house. He’s a good kid.