The Belly of the Chief
I have a new goal for the summer; becoming a better trip partner. This won’t entirely supercede training for the Wilderness Classic in the way I did last year, but given my mediocre physical condition one month out, and more importantly my different sorts of present motivations, my approach in Alaska will be different than last year.
And so be it, because M and I had a fantastic trip in the Belly river country this weekend.
The plan was to hike up Lee Ridge, stash gear at the trail junction, summit Chief, and reverse down to the ranger station. The next day we’d packraft out to the border and hike the swath to the highway. As usual, a nice UL backpacking load was ruined by 20+ pounds of packrafting and snow climbing gear.
Maybe it was finally being on the trail fully un-sick. Maybe it was being out at all after a week of bittersweet contemplation: psyched to read about Dan and Greg’s trips, yet sad to have cut my own short. In any case, my enjoyment of the trail only grew as we wound through the young pine forest, up through a bit of snow and out onto a stunning alpine ridge.
M had perhaps the largest pack she’s ever hauled. She wanted to hike and raft in her new Pace Glove shoes, so brought boots along for potential crampon use on the mountain.
There are a lot of places like this in Glacier, stark meadows with huge views of the sort which add rather than take away hours and days from your life allotment. That Lee Ridge abuts against the great plains, feels far from the road and is yet easily accessible, makes it unique. The faint, obviously infrequently used trail tread going up made it seem hidden in plain sight.
Above treeline no tread has been cut, merely enough rocks piled to put hikers on the right path. A nice act of discretion.
The snow was soft in the early afternoon, but with enough of a nasty runout in spots to make our axes not dead weight.
We followed abundant goat tracks through the snow past Gable Pass, and traversed over to the base of Chief on the south side. The route finding isn’t especially complex, but the talus changes consistency as you go east, with progressively slicker limestone making for ever more difficult going. M was close to tapped out by the base of the talus slope which leads most of the way to the summit. As her pace slowed going up it became obvious that fatigue was not the only story, with a headache pointing more and more towards altitude sickness. That and a rain storm rolling towards us made turning around an easy choice. M had to dig pretty deep on the way back, and was cold by the time we made it back to our gear cache under a large boulder near the trail junction.
We layered up and made soup as I repacked, then got moving when the wind and rain made hanging around untenable. Shortly after restarting, M vomited up a bit of soup, but absent any other recourse kept rolling down the alpine ridge, fully layered against the wind. The camera stayed tucked away, but the terrain, even through high clouds, was spectacular. We lost the trail briefly, as almost always happens, when we dropped into the first trees in 4-5 feet of snow, but made sure to stay right of what was reasonable before cutting left and finding the trail. The snow band was quite short, and soon we were threading steeply down through mixed spruce and aspen groves. The rain stopped, the sun came back out, birds sang, neat flowers were photographed, and while M’s lack of calories had the pace dropping we made the ranger station with plenty of daylight left, ate dinner, chatted with fellow campers, and went to bed.
In northern Montana this time if year it’s barely dark for 6 hours. I had time enough to wake up at first light, go back to sleep, make coffee, eat breakfast, and go fishing before coming back to rouse M for the sunny packraft out. Slugs had crawled into the tent to avoid the sun, and one was perched on M’s sleeping bag inches below her chin. I’d never heard her squeak like that.
We had perfect conditions for boating; strong sun and little wind. The Belly should prove to be one of the classic packrafting trips in Glacier, especially in early summer. From the hiker bridge to the border the river is consistently interesting but mostly easy, with minor riffles, and a fair bit of wood to keep an eye on. We portaged three river-wide jams, only the last of which truly had no way through. M did great paddling with first-descent eyes, and we made the border in about 3 hours.
In retrospect our plan to hike the swath straight to the road was pretty stupid. Once underway I thought about cutting through the woods to meet the regular trail shortly before the parking lot, but in the unlikely event we were seen doing so that would look more suspicious.
The swath is well maintained and very convenient. It also straddles a juridical line which in these suspicious days is not the most prudent place to be. We popped out on the highway, right between the two checkpoint stations, sweaty and the object of bemusement. The Canadians wasted no time in calling us over and admonishing us, a state of affairs exacerbated by M having no ID whatsoever. They did not arrest us, nor did the American agents, who sent us along with minimal fuss and a bemused smile.
So, future packrafters should probably take out a bit before the swath, and perhaps backtrack along the river to hike the trail out. The swath is tempting, but even if you do have your passport on you the hassle is likely not worth it. In any case, this is a trip worth repeating.