That evening in the Chalet, back from a day exploring in the mountains, I was wrapped up in blankets, full of hot pizza and a mason jar of Coldsmoke Scoth Ale from Northern Lights Saloon. It should have been the perfect blend to put me right to sleep. But cliffs, cairns, and rotten holds were stirring and crumbling around in my head. The images and descriptions from my research battled with the reality of the route, my mind attempting to reconcile the differences. I recalled the end of the scree field clearly and the misleading cairn beckoning. Even more vivid was the feeling that we were right there, one route-finding mistake away from our first summit.
The Southwestern Talus Slope Route on Reynolds Mountain in Glacier National Park was one I had investigated thoroughly and decided on as our (my boyfriend and I) introduction to mountaineering. Class II – III scrambling, dramatic views at the Continental Divide, a pleasant approach, and a high point of 9,124 feet. I am a mountain person, particularly drawn to remote wilderness mountains, with the disadvantage of residing in the Midwestern city of Chicago. Low on experience in such mountainous regions. I try to make up for it by hiking/running, reading, and logistical planning.
On September 5, 2014 we headed east on Going-to-the-Sun Road for Logan Pass, the starting point for the climb. It was the last full day of our week-long vacation in Glacier National Park, the sky was clear, and we were feeling great. In my pack (along with the essentials) was the topographic map for Logan Pass with the route to Reynolds sketched out and Climb Glacier National Park Vol. 1 by Blake Passmore, which I had reviewed several times before the trip. The approach follows the boardwalk up to Hidden Lake where we enjoyed looking at yellow and magenta wildflowers and white goats shining in the bright sun. A climber’s trail breaks off about 1.0 miles in. It is a well-tread path that crosses three small snowfields (bear tracks were visible in the snow below us) and gains elevation moderately on its way to the saddle.
Arriving at an overlook along the climber’s trail, the mountain wilderness of my imagination became real. Winds picking up speed and chill, mountains encircling alpine lakes far below, and the size of Reynolds’ north face above. . .this was what I had hoped hiking in the mountains would be. Making our way to the southwest side, towards the saddle between Reynolds and the Dragon’s Tail, we encountered the first sections of talus. Chunky talus, not difficult and relatively flat, although some of it was glazed over in thin layers of frost. The sun had not yet reached this side of the slopes and the dark grey rocks were icy cold to the touch. This goat trail, sprinkled with cairns and goat gifts, lead us to the southwestern slopes and views stretching for miles into the back-country.
With the Dragon’s Tail at our backs, we ascended through chutes and gullies, an enjoyable section to navigate and the first scrambling of the day. The term scrambling is misleading – it makes me think of flailing and wriggling about, all mixed up like scrambled eggs. But the activity of scrambling actually requires precise placement and calculated movements. Just when everything was clicking, making smooth progress up the mountain, feeling energized by the surroundings, we arrived at the scree field. At first the talus was relatively solid and the path easy to follow, helpful cairns saying, “This way!” Higher we climbed, the slope steeper than below, our bodies heating up, the path fading until only the cairns remained as distinct features in the landscape. The cliffs were waiting for us above as we waded through the slipping, sliding mess to get to them.
Upon reaching the cliffs, still standing on scree and determining what was next, I noticed a cairn off to the left, a flat rock surface to walk on, and moved in its direction. Taking a moment to examine the cliffs and the route through them to access the summit ridge was forgotten and we trusted that cairn. Not long after making the decision, my climbing partner took a step over air, crumbly holds to one side, big blue sky to the other. Going forward looked even worse. Later we learned the terminology for this situation: cliffed out. Turning back, we thought it best to descend, the fear of making a potentially dangerous mistake driving us down. We weren’t sure that we could safely navigate through the cliffs or that the correct route would be any better. Maybe Class III scrambling wasn’t what I had thought. Once we made it off the scree slopes, friendly terrain ahead, our minds clear of doubt and dizzying exposed heights, we wished to be back up there.
Below, looking up at where we had been, we joined the company of two gentlemen who had hiked in, but not to summit peaks. We were talking about the beautiful day and such when one of them noticed two figures descending the southwestern talus slopes of Reynolds at a fast pace. Within minutes, we were a group of six, and we asked the speedy newcomers if they had come from the summit. They described a scenario familiar to us, that after leaving the scree field they ended up in a sketchy position, completely cliffed out, and backtracked. The only difference was that the Transylvanian transient and his blonde friend from Munich had searched and found the route, after which the ascent to the summit was “easy” and “not far”. I felt better knowing that these Europeans (they’re all great climbers, right?) who had spent their summer exploring Glacier’s mountains had made the same mistake we had on our first attempt. I was confident that not continuing up was the right choice and a smart one given our limited experience, but talking with them also made me realize how close it was, the summit I had prepared months for.
What I felt retracing the trail to Logan Pass, Reynolds Mountain at my back but at the front of my mind, wasn’t regret. And it wasn’t defeat or disappointment that kept me from falling asleep later that night. What I felt, and still feel, is a pull. A positive force from within and from the mountain, to return and unlock the route to the top.