The Jackson-Norris traverse

Late Friday, on the mile and a half of continuous down from the Sun road to Reynolds camp, I ran into a ranger at dusk. He checked my permit and warned me about some guys coming up not far behind. Apparently they saw the little tent sign on the map, not far off the road, hauled in duffels of gear and a cooler. Whether they knew they needed a permit I cannot say, but someone ratted them out and at dusk they were rousted back to the road. Such is life in the national parks. The remains of their fire, six inch diameter logs and all, was still warm. I made camp quickly and went to sleep.

The next day, walking up to Gunsight, I passed three groups of six+ before 900. Getting back to a cheeseburger is a powerful motivator.

The civilized trail ends at the start of the Jackson Glacier spur. The mile and a half before the tread is lost to the alpine flowers is steep through tight forest.

The scenery in the basin is just unbelievable.

The Jackson and Blackfeet glaciers used to be one, but in the last century split in two and are now cloistered vestiges of themselves, sitting high up on east-facing shelves staring out at the polished wreckage of their former reign.

A miasma of the unexpected, I embraced the mood and wandered haphazardly, traversed across the ridgetops of terminal moraines to maximize perspective and snaked a path between the lakes, slabs, and ledges which seemed most intriguing.

The cascades down the steeper slabs were a serious consideration, the polished rock is better than any slip n’ slide. I took many detours to cross through cracks or on dry patches.

The stiff breeze and my slim, 15 pound pack were most welcome as I headed up and across to Almost-a-Dog pass. A few of my detours edged into 5th class terrain, and I never took my pack off for scrambling all trip, save on skinny chimneys up Norris.

The snaking moraines and unpredictable, hanging basins formed whimsical terrain. A lot can be planned from a distance, but much of the route finding needs to be done from near eyes as it unfolds from your feet forward.

The view from the 7900′ pass into Red Eagle was all-consuming: just when it could not get any better.

Looking back towards the route down from Almost-a-Dag. Easily the route finding crux and the place which stretches the usually intuitive route finding of Glacier the most.  The gully through the cliffs terminates in the small snow patch, half in shadow, and ascends left at 45 degrees, hidden behind.   (In reverse) Go straight up through the vegetation, traverse straight left under all the snow, climb a small cliff band, and take the goat trail left on the obvious systemic break around the blunt pinnacles to the flat top just south of the pass itself.  Crossing those gullies, filled as they are with broken shale, on that goat trail felt like the most tenuous part of the whole route.

Fitting then that the meadow walking which comes after is simple.

My plan had been to camp near the pass, complete the traverse the next day, stay at Atlantic Creek in the Cut Bank valley the next night, and meet M the morning after. Yet even with my wanderings and moderate pace I was far ahead of schedule. I investigated the meadows and thought about going over to Red Eagle pass itself, but didn’t fancy the bushwack through dwarf willow and dense krummholz. The sun was intense late in the afternoon, the wind had died, and it was a bit buggy. I just didn’t want to stop yet, so facing a dry stretch I stopped, made dinner, drank lots of water, and filled my 2.5 liter platypus.

There were lots of tracks around, from moose to this guy (weasel?), but no evidence of people. To keep the adventure high I had brought only a fuzzy print out of an old topographic map, and limited beta. I didn’t know exactly where to go around the first knob on the ridge, but figured the normal Glacier mode of take the obvious weakness and watch for goat traffic would do.

It did. A ~thousand feet above the meadows a coherent collection of tracks trending east turned into a bomber trail wrapping around the north face between cliff bands. I was at the first saddle in a blink, staring at a highway of a trail leading from one to the next to the next.

The light was in every direction, stupendous.

I kept moving, driven by joy, until the renewed presence of trees reminded me that it was getting late. First good spot, I promised myself, and I would stop.

This looks good. Great turf for taking stakes, a tight tarp to deflect the gusts, soft grass for sleeping, and an overhanging cliff off the end of the ridge to hang food.

Perfect. I slept well.

Sunrise, brewing cowboy coffee with the alcohol stove on a polished prow, on the very continental divide, looking 4+ thousand feet down in Nyack and Red Eagle, washed out what was left of my mind. Clean.

I was motivated to get going, despite the show. It was obviously going to be a hot day, the terrain ahead looked inviting, my camera battery was almost dead, and doubt lingered in my mind if the texts I had tried to send M the night previous had gone through. The phone said they failed every time, but three bars alternating briefly with none had me thinking that might not be the case. If so, she would be expecting me, with my revised plan, to call from St. Mary that afternoon before catching the shuttle back to the west side. The sun is up! Go!

So I went. The summit of Norris, chimneys leading to the same providing the technical crux, by nine. Triple Divide pass by ten oh five. Red Eagle Lake, 5k below Norris, by one. Hot and sweaty though the dead globemallow and dehydrated on the bush Thimbleberries and on the shuttle at the St. Mary visitor center by four. A double scoop of huckleberry ice cream in Apgar by six thirty. Home in bed, clean and asleep and content, by ten.

Quite the same? Never again.


14 responses to “The Jackson-Norris traverse”

  1. Inspiring photos, Dave! I recognize a bit of the described terrain. Reynolds camp, Triple Divide, Red Eagle Lake. The trailed parts of your journey. I”m so glad I met you and can follow your adventures. :)

  2. nielsenbrownoutdoors Avatar

    Amazing photos, just makes me want to pack up and go now. The geological features are very impressive, which camera are you using. Thanks again David for a wonderful start to the day

    1. Cheers.

      It’s a Canon S90.

  3. Outstanding Dave!

  4. Stunning photos. I’ve never been camping before, but this post makes me want to learn!

  5. Well done Dave!! Living here in Whitefish I love hiking and backpacking in GNP. At 64, your trip reports make me wish I was 24 again with all that energy. I’d love to do more off trail stuff.
    pocketlint :)

  6. Dang. I definitely live in the wrong corner of the globe :) Beautiful!

  7. […] Read full article at Bedrock & Paradox Tweet (function() { var li = document.createElement('script'); li.type = 'text/javascript'; li.async = true; li.src = ''; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(li, s); })(); […]

  8. […] sitting by the lake with only 6 miles of trail to go, when I did the math and realized that my time last year, going the opposite direction and also with one camp, was 25 hours.  I guess it is all in the […]

  9. […] I discuss the next shoe, it’s worth noting that as recently as 13 months ago I only took the X Countrys on rugged alpine stuff with some trepidation.  Now the Anakondas are my […]

  10. […] in either time or commitment, but you still want the experience of off-trail in Glacier summer, the Norris Traverse cannot be beaten.   Though our off-trail, elk trail day back in August is one of many options […]

  11. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience. Simply inspiring. Will make my third trip in September.

  12. […] exactly how long it would take to get from one benchmark to another.  The first time I walked the Norris traverse in Glacier I purposively took only a comically vague map, figuring that the big picture route would […]

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