As I’ve mentioned before, my parents met in an outdoor shop, and I went backpacking from before I can clearly remember. Backpacking is important to me, and getting to go on a trip with my mom is a big deal.
Glacier is also a big deal. We first came here when both my sister and I were little, and when my dad was still alive. I have vivid but fragmentary memories of the beach at Lake McDonald and goats at Iceberg Lake, but clear and remarkably complete recollections of hiking the Highline Trail. Of the steep initial cliffs, and endless green slopes, the marmots, and the first distant glimpose of the chalet. They still served food back then, and it will forever remain the best tuna sandwich of my life. We kids were all of 8 and 5, and that 11 mile hike took all day, but it still surprised me that my mom had never properly backpacked in the park.
The world cooperated and gave us perfect weather for Gunsight Pass. The first day was crystal, and we saw every distant detail, along with a moose and calf in just the right spot along the way up to the lake. Mid-afternoon the campground was deserted, and we picked the best spot to setup before heading off on the side trail to Jackson Glacier basin.
It’s easy to be cynical about this route, as it get beaten to death every summer as soon as the powers that be declare it an ice axe-free zone. Simple fact is that you’d be hard pressed to find a better 20 mile hike, and the Jackson side trip only adds to the variety.
The wet limestone on the trailless traverse up to the moraine is slick, and the drop off down from the ridge is always unexpectedly steep, but the tortured rocks and glacial remains are at their best in early fall, at the snow’s nadir.
When we returned to camp and got dinner rolling it was less than an hour before dark, and still no one had arrived. Weird, as there are 7 sites and four had been reserved 36 hours before. Finally on the cusp of dusk two groups on the 1500 start plan rolled in, but we were on our second pot of tea, and by full dark bed called.
This rhythm of the backcountry I love; sleep with the dark, sleep long, and wake just before the first red fingers full of anticipation.
You should be at nothing short of full function to look at the walls as you ascend above Gunsight Lake.
I had originally hoped to camp at Ellen Wilson, but a Grizz had been parked there for a few weeks, prompting the closure of the lakeshore, and anyway that would have eliminated our side hike the day before. We got most of the way down towards the lake, and pulled out the binoculars to glass the scattered patches of subalpine fir and boulders. I saw nothing. Then a few minutes later, Mr. Grizz emerged.
Grizz seem to have two speeds: extreme indolence and resolute purposiveness. This Grizz was leaving the lake for new pastures, and quickly. The big black and silver lump was quickly up on the trail and moving towards us, and we had little time to formulate and act on a plan. We scuttled to the apex of the last switchback, and went 100 yards beyond it out on the steep dirt. I could see no reason the bear would go out there, and expected him to cut the switchback anyway. Sure enough, he made it under the waterfall and with corpulent ease ascended the scree at around 8 mph up towards the pass.
We wondered if our camp companions would have the misfortune to time their arrival at one of the numerous cliffed-out choke points with that of the bear.
After that encounter everything was bound to be anticlimactic, but we had plenty to enjoy.
It was somehow fitting that our farewell was a marmot saying hello from his hole, in the middle of the trail.
I was and am at a loss for real words. Combined with the hunting trip, two such precious experiences within a week have left me dry. Fortunately mom isn’t slowing down too fast, so we’ve got some more trips left.