Between climbing on Wednesday and climbing on Friday, there was a drive-heavy Thursday, where I cruised West Glacier, attempted to get over to St. Mary at East Glacier but turned around due to roadwork delays in the park, then entered Polebridge on a quarter tank and journeyed out through some alpine meadows before paying $20 for three gallons of gas to get me back to the inn.
It wasn’t the most spectacular day, but I grabbed dinner at Three Forks Grille and chatted to the bartender, a gal named Lindy who recommended I hike Avalanche Lake and Trail of Cedars the next day.
“The cedars aren’t growing new trees anymore because the climate has changed up here,” she told me. “You might not get the chance to see cedars in Glacier again.”
I added this to my list, then drove out to Great Northern to meet up with a colleague of mind, Gillian, who lives up in Whitefish for the summer. I’m always on the fence about social media and how much I post, and how many stories I take the time to compile, but it’s times like these – when someone sees one and mentions they live nearby and let’s meet up – that make me feel like there’s an upside to social media.
It was a great night, with lots of dancing and the band doing a cover of “I Know You Rider”, which is the best song in my mind right now. I drove Gillian home, a spooky drive up the side of the mountain in rolling fog so thick you could barely see the road in front of you. I was grateful to snuggle into my big bed at Moss Mountain after.
On Friday morning, I awoke to find an Instagram message from Chris (Homestead Ales) saying he and Russ were planning to climb that afternoon if I wanted to join them. My plans had been to hike Avalanche Lake and then maybe wander through some meadows or hike to a fire lookout in the afternoon, but I loved the idea of one more climbing trip, even if it was miles away.
I hiked Avalanche Lake in the morning, a trail so busy with humans that all fears of bear vanished pretty quickly. It was a nice hike in a grey drizzle of a day, and when I made it to the lake at the top and watched the fog glide along the surface and between the mountains, it was all worth it. I walked along the lake for a while before turning back and crossing to the Trail of Cedars. An easy boardwalk stroll, the trail was lined with little illustrations on placards bearing adorable forest haikus.
I paused on a bridge overlooking a waterfall, where a park ranger was also paused mid-tour. He, like everyone else I met in Montana, was a friendly guy, so I asked him about Lindy’s claim regarding the cedars.
“Yup, that’s accurate,” he told me. “It’s getting too warm here for them to grow, so once the next fire comes through – and they’re on a 400-year fire cycle, and the last fire here was 400 years ago, so we’re in that window again – they’ll be gone. This is part of a huge cedar forest stretching all the way to the west coast, but this is the eastern terminus of it.”
I wandered through, pressing my palm against many a cedar to wish it well. I often feel like you need to do that with trees. They’ve seen a lot.
I drove out of Avalanche and back to the inn to change into climbing clothes, and then drove into Whitefish. Tim, my climbing guide from Wednesday, had recommended Runner Up sports as a place to maybe score some used climbing gear. Chris had an extra harness and helmet, but I was shoeless.
As it turned out, they had a handful of used climbing shoes and they had my size! This never happens. I took it as a sign. Sure, the toe had a hole in it where my own toe would eventually push through, but whatever. Also awesome: they were $12.
I drove another 45 minutes to the brewery to meet Chris, who I followed another 45 minutes north toward Canada to pick up Russ, who lives so close to the Canadian border that Verizon sometimes messages him, “Welcome to Canada!”
“Yeah, they charge $5 for roaming every time it does that. I had to call and tell them. Imagine how many people don’t know they’re getting charged when they’re near the border,” Russ said.
We all piled into Chris’s car and drove up to a place called Stone Hill, a clump of rocks and boulders along a winding road that snaked along a gleaming reservoir. It was gorgeous. Theoretically, you could belay out of your car’s sunroof.
Chris had a guidebook for climbs in the area and chose two, Duckface and Quack, a 5.7 and 5.8, to set up. He and Russ set the anchors while I stood uselessly below, studying the crimpy rock face and wondering how the hell I’d get up it. I barely climb outdoors, and I don’t climb cracks or faces well.
The guys were awesome. I love watching other people climb, because everyone’s technique is a little different. Chris’s footwork was precise and usually a few steps up vertically rather than spread-eagle on the rock, which is what I normally do. I went up second and I made it. I made it to the top. It was not easy. I struggled, I fell, I banged my knees. But pulling up that last move felt phenomenal.
I figured I’d let it rest with that, and when Russ climbed the route, it started to rain. I figured we’d be done. But they wanted to try out the 5.8, which I was certain I couldn’t get up. They encouraged me to give it a go, and I did. And I got up.
It was harder than the first one, with super crimpy holds and practically invisible footholds. The scenes from The Dawn Wall came to mind, where they push their fingertips against stone or gently press the toe of their climbing shoe to the wall. Twice I reached for a hold and pushed up with my legs and slipped down, dragging my fingertips along the rock. Twice I had my fingers in a crack and fell off and felt all of my finger bones crack. But I did it.
Part of the drive probably came from the fact that two strangers invited me to climb with them, and I wanted to impress them and not give up. It’s a good lesson, actually – I can do more than I think I can, and I need to stop giving up so easily or choosing simple routes on the climbing walls. When I came down, Russ said, “I liked watching that. You really fought.”
The other perk of climbing with locals is that they remind you to stop at the top and look around and take in the view. Them below, the route sent, the reservoir sparkling in the afternoon sun that finally poked through the cloud cover.
I drove home 1.5 hours listening to The War on Drugs and feeling super stoked. Montana was wide open with misty mountains on the horizon. I made good time and got in by 9, with enough time to soak in the hot tub with a Moose Drool.
If when you die, you get a handful of days you could relive, this would be one of them.
Categories: United States (USA)
“Chris sets the anchors while I stand below like a giant human starfish.” Reading this makes me want to try rock climbing, so I can speak knowingly about a “sleek slab with zero juggy holds.”
You should try it! It’s how I feel about the fly fishing slang that you and Holly know so well!