June 18, 2011
We didn't know we'd encounter two bears in a matter of hours, but Greg Fortin and I knew we were in for an adventure when we started pedaling away from Glacier Park's Avalanche Campground parking lot at 8:20 last Friday night. It was an absurdly late time to head into Glacier's bear-riddled backcountry, but, as a smiling old man once said to me when he saw me bicycle touring in a rainstorm, "You go when you can."
We only had 48 hours before backcountry permit officials, concerned we'd interfere with road crews plowing record snow off Going To The Sun Road, insisted we be back. The road crews might have been miserable, but we weren't going to let that magnificent, once in a lifetime June snowpack go to waste. We were going to ski. With tent, sleeping bags, skis, and food for two days in our bike trailers, we set off for the mountains.
Five minutes later an enormous, glistening scat pile appeared in the road. Seconds later came the bear. Neither of us noticed it until the moment we passed it, standing on its hind legs and staring at us intensely not 20 feet to my right.
"Whoah!" we said simultaneously, looking at each other with the universal "holy crap we just saw a bear!" expression of raised eyebrows, open mouths, and bug eyes.
We laughed, but I saw bears everywhere after that. Trees, stumps, rocks, everything looked like a lurking bruin in the dimming light. Still, we pedaled higher and higher into the mountains until, just as the day's last light ebbed from the sky, we reached the trail to Granite Park where we planned to camp for the next two nights.
Stashing the bikes, we strapped skis to our packs and started walking. We'd been fairly jovial while pedaling, but now that it was dark and we were making our way through an eery burned forest, our mood mellowed. Darkness does that. Especially darkness in wild places full of bears when you're the only humans for many miles around.
We were thrilled to see the moon was out, and the glow it cast on the landscape buoyed our spirits. Never underestimate the psychological value of moonlight when navigating mountains at night. To avoid surprising an lurking bears, Greg boomed "Hey-ya Boo Boo!" Yogi Bear-style every few minutes. You can just see his outline in the lower right of the above photo, a quick point-and-shoot shot I snapped as we started hiking.
Soon we were fording snow-melt creeks, scrabbling over fallen trees, and climbing ever higher as the black valley dropped away below us.
"You know, most people would be terrified doing this," Greg said around midnight, as the mountainside steepened and the first patches of snow appeared in our headlamp beams.
"I'm totally comfortable out here," I said casually.
"I love it," Greg said enthusiastically.
That's when we came to the second bear.
"I see eyes!" Greg called back to me. In the forest below us, reflecting the light from Greg's lamp, were a pair of unblinking eyes. They stared back at us from about 100 feet away, following me as I walked up to Greg. Critically, they don't run.
"I think it's a bruin," Greg said.
"Let's keep moving," I said as I reached him.
"Keep an eye out behind us," he said. And I did, compulsively turning around to look back with my headlamp — praying to not see a 500-pound grizzly coming toward us — as we quickly hiked away.
Snow soon began slowing us down, however. It appeared in strips along avalanche paths that plunged steeply down the mountainside below us. We carefully kicked steps into the snow and made our way across. One slip and you'd take a long, nasty ride.
It was a happy moment when we buckled up our boots, put on our skins, and stepped into our skis, even if it took us until 2:30 in the morning to finally reach our campsite near the Granite Park chalet, which was buried under snow. Fortunately, we found a smooth, stout snag to hang our food from a short ways from our tent site. Unfortunately, Greg got the carabiner on the end of his rope stuck high on a branch on his first throw. Much cursing (and a little chuckling on my part) ensued while Greg scaled the tree in his ski boots to get his damn rope unstuck.
After a few hours sleep we got back on the skis the next morning and started climbing to the Continental Divide, just above our tent site. Clouds hung low and we were worried about storms swamping our day. Though I'd hoped to get some skiing photos, I tried not to get too anxious about the weather, reminding myself that all we could do was take what the mountains gave us. I often remind myself of this concept, especially when skiing in the backcountry. People who push their luck out here don't wind up living very long.
As we climbed the clouds slowly broke apart, as if rewarding my deference, sending a patchwork of sun across the mountains.
We crossed some old grizzly tracks at the Divide and headed up to a small rocky peak. It took some clambering to reach the top.
I couldn't wipe the smile off my face on the way down as we carved turns down perfect spring corn back to the pass.
Our plans to ski Swiftcurrent Mountain were soon foiled when a storm swept in and chased us back to our tent, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Greg, never lacking in energy, was like a caged wolverine — "I don't do well being stuck in tents," he said. Meanwhile I slept like a drugged baby while rainstorms bulleted our little nylon shelter.
Fortunately, the rain let up just in time for us to cook dinner, which meant taking our food down from the hanging tree.
After dinner, Greg, who was apparently tired from the previous night's hike and wolverining around the tent all afternoon, went to bed.
"If it's storming tomorrow morning we should think about bagging it and getting down," he said, before falling asleep.
"We'll just see what the mountains give us," I said, not wanting to think about not skiing after all of our work to get here, but willing to accept whatever the mountains offered. Thankfully I wasn't quite ready for bed, because they were soon to offer a gift.
The skies gradually cleared as twilight settled over our lofty world. An owl flew overhead while I brushed my teeth. I ambled and looked for an hour, enrapt by the unfolding magic as moonlight bathed the mountains. We were the only humans in that entire alpine wilderness. The stillness was breathtaking.
We might not have gotten the skiing we'd hoped for that day, but I was convinced all the effort in getting there was worth it just to be there at that moment, under that moon, alone in the mountains of Glacier.
To our profound joy the morning dawned clear and we were out of the tent and jumping into our skis as soon as the sun rose.
We'd been oggling lines on the slopes of the Garden Wall to the south and were soon navigating across avalanche paths to reach them. The wind grew stronger as we climbed and soon we were buffeted by fast-moving clouds.
We couldn't see a thing at the top, so we decided to cook up breakfast on the Continental Divide, tucked into some rocks above the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, to give the weather time to clear. It may have been cold and windy, and our seats may have been rocks, but it was the best place I've eaten breakfast in a long time.
We were deeply tempted by the seductive lines dropping off the other, east side of the Divide, but after a long assessment we decided to pass them up. The 50-degree drop-in off the ridge looked okay, but we'd be skiing across glaciers on the way down where several cracks were visible in the snow. We had no ropes for possible crevasses rescue, to say nothing of the steep return bootpack we'd have to make back up to the ridge in rapidly warming snow.
Tempting, yes, but we decided to stick with the safer, 1,500-foot corn runs down the Garden Wall on the west side of the Divide
Which ended up being an outstanding choice...
More storms were moving in, so we decided to head back to camp, but not before skiing then hiking out to a cliff-edge high point overlooking the valley we'd climbed the day before. We eyed new lines for future trips and saw a better route back to the road than the one we'd taken in.
At camp we debated our options. We needed to be back at our car by 6:00 AM the next morning because of crews working on the road below. If we came down from the mountains any later they might not let us through and we might get ticketed by the park service. Greg is a permitted guide in the park and couldn't risk breaking the rules, so getting out on time was important.
I, hopelessly addicted and hoping to get more skiing in that night, suggested we get up at 3:00 AM, break camp in the dark, and hustle down by headlamp. Greg, being the more sensible one, wanted to head out that night. Dark clouds on the horizon and thunder in the valley below made our decision for us — rain is bad enough, but with our exposed camp we wanted no part of lightning.
Before we left I took shots of the historic Granite Park Chalet, accessible only by foot or horse, which was buried under a solid 12 feet of snow. Supposedly work crews are hiking up soon to start prepping the Chalet for summer visitors. They, uh, have their work cut out for them...
After packing up and skiing across the mountains to our exit route, we found an avalanche bench — a tree uprooted and laid down by an avalanche — and cooked freeze-dried lasagna in an effort to milk our time in the high country. We were in no hurry to get back to the road and the civilization it led to. Even if it's the most beautiful road in the world, it's a paved tendril of civilization that will only deliver us back to the world of ringing phones, speeding cars, and unrelenting busyness. The spirit uniting Greg and I is our preference for the world of wild mountains, snow, and grizzly bears.
Unfortunately the milking soon stopped as a dark, wicked storm appeared and began barreling towards us like a charging bear.
"We're going to get killed," Greg said.
"Yeah, we're toast," I said. "Let's get into the trees and see if we can wait it out."
So we grabbed our lasagna and headed for the woods. We were thrilled to find a cavernous tree well, which we climbed down into like giddy kids and successfully waited out the storm. The mountains were challenging us, no doubt — battering us repeatedly with storms — but they also gave us shelter. That tree well kept us perfectly dry.
The rain and resultant avalanche danger put the kibosh on our dreams of climbing up for another run, but we got got some fun turns on the last slivers of snow leading down to the road.
The road itself was a marvel of waterfalls and wildflowers. Water spilled over everything — rocks, tree roots, cliff faces — as the snow we'd skied let forth its liquid bounty from the mountains above. Greg and I were high from the buzz of our days in the alpine and couldn't stop talking about how glorious it all was, how great a ski trip we'd just had, and how lucky we were to be there. The sun even made its final appearance for the day.
Once our gear was loaded in the bike trailers, the road pulled us downward into the valley's depths as darkness crept out from the forest.
It may have been late on a Sunday night, but we weren't the only animals on the road. Shortly after the picture above was taken Greg rounded a corner to the sight of a large grizzly bear ambling towards him. When I caught up, we rode through the area side by side. I held my pepper spray in one hand, safety off, and aimed into the forest, prepared to spray in an instant should a bruin lunge. In the next half hour we encountered two more bears, one of which ignored our repeated yells — in our deepest, manliest voices — to move off the road and let us pass.
We eventually made it back to Greg's truck (the bear finally let us by) about 48 hours after we'd left it, though it seemed longer. We'd climbed through moonlight, faced off with bears, lounged on the Continental Divide, and enjoyed some of the most beautiful runs of our lives. Smiling exhausted smiles, we climbed into the truck and vowed to return next spring. The mountains gave nothing easily, but their gifts are like precious gems that we'll always carry with us. As long as we can ride a bike and ski we'll be back for more, no matter how late at night we have to leave.