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Scaling Swiftcurrent Pass

Michael May

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Ptarmigan Tunnel Pass
(Michael May)
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Swiftcurrent Pass in Glacier National Park rises sharply from Going to the Sun Road, a winding highway that slithers along the edge of a deep valley in the center of the park. My wife Rachel and I will walk cross three mountain passes before we see asphalt again. From the car, the mountains look impossibly steep and majestic. From the tree-covered trails, they just look impossibly steep.

I've been hiking for about a mile or so. We are going pretty much straight up. And tonight we'll be camping in snow. Which is hard to believe, just a few miles up this trail.

Montana had record snowfalls in June this year. The mountain crests still sparkle under the hot July sun. The trail starts with a merciless 2000-foot climb through pine forests and mountain meadows. I begin to wonder why I put myself through this strain. After several hours of hiking, the wildflowers give way to snowfields.

Finally we come across a sign for our campground. It says "Granite Park Campground .6 miles" and it's pointing directly into a forest covered with snow. There was no sign of the trail, so we head blindly into the woods. About 20 minutes later, we come across a sign sticking out of the snow. We have Granite Park campsite all to ourselves.

A rushing creek cuts through the snow. I cross it, walk to a clearing above the trees, and immediately forget about the hours of slogging up switchbacks. The valley below unfolds in shadows. Snowcapped granite peaks rise into the purple sky. I now understand why the park is called "The Crown of the Continent." I find a rock and sit for hours, exhausted, mesmerized.

It's very odd. I'm sitting in snow being eaten by mosquitoes. They will not leave me alone. They're hungry.

The next morning, we hike over the continental divide at Swiftcurrent Pass. On the other side, we celebrate the joy of going downhill by boot skiing down a snowfield several hundred feet long.

On both sides of the valley, you can still see glaciers. They're hardly the mammoth chunks of ice that carved the valleys below and whittled mountaintops into spire-like horns and tall thin ridges.

We pass Swiftcurrent Glacier. Photos from the 1930s show it filling a hollow bowl in the mountain. Now it's shrunk by a third. Mountain glaciers are one of the best measures of climate change, because unlike plants or animals, they have only one response to rising temperatures -- they shrink. Due to global warming, the last glaciers in the park are expected to melt away in 12 years.

Our next night, we camp in what is still called Many Glacier Valley. We share a campsite with two teenagers on a cross-country trip. Christina Bavanet is 19 years old and has never backpacked before.

"I'm out here to get away from mom," she says. "Self-discovery. I don't know what I want to do with my life. So I don't have a reason. I thought I'd come out here and find one."

Their first day involved a 14-mile hike over a snowy pass. Christina slipped and started to slide down the mountain. "I could not stop," she says. "So then I just started to worry what would happen when I got to the bottom of it."

Thankfully, there were trees at the bottom, not a cliff. She made it back to the trail and eventually back to the campsite. "The first thing I did was cry, and then I just wanted my mommy," she says. "I called her and told her I loved her and I couldn't wait to get home."

Christina and her friend called off the rest of their hike. The wilderness had taught her something she needed to know, even if it hadn't been what she expected to learn. I think that happens to every hiker, in one way or another. There's a romanticism to backpacking that can obscure its more painful and grueling aspects. I spend much more time recalling the sweeping views than the way I felt going up the passes.

By the third day on the trail, I'm used to walking for hours. The rhythm of my steps becomes a sort of hypnotic tonic. I'm aware of the sounds around me and my mind wanders aimlessly.

My wife Rachel is a policy wonk for the city of Austin, and she needs to get away to feel like this. "I like being completely disconnected from your regular life," she says, "so there is no chance of checking back in. And you make all your decisions ahead of time, and you just go. There's nothing to decide except for should we have the Katmandu curry or the beans and rice?"

There are three main dangers in Glacier: falling off a cliff, drowning and having a bad encounter with a grizzly bear. The park is home to around 300 of them. Grizzlies can weigh 1000 pounds and are much more aggressive then black bears, so you don't want to surprise a grizzly.

So we walk through the forest calling out, "Yo bear! I know kung fu!"

The grizzlies force Glacier hikers to get friendly. You need a permit for each campground, and there's shared kitchen areas so that food smells stay far away from the tent. No one wants to wake up to a blur of fur and teeth searching for a midnight snack.

So when we arrive at camp, we sit around our portable gas stoves with our fellow backpackers. A typical conversation? The best freeze-dried food, of course.

There is immediate intimacy among strangers cooking together in the wilderness. We meet parents who come out here with their children to get away from playstations and cell phones. Tonight there are eight firefighters here. Retired firefighter David Rogers helped start the backpacking tradition 15 years ago. "You can say what you want, and you don't have to worry about offending people," he says. "It's kind of an extension of the fire house. And it's not all joking. There's also talking about things that matter. Personal, private things."

Our next day is our longest and hardest hike: 14 miles with a 3000-foot climb over a pass. Glacier lies where many of North America's ecosystems meet: Arctic, Pacific, the Great Plains, the Central Rockies. Plants and animals from all these environments find a home here. Deer among wildflower meadows, a bull moose grazing near shimmering Poia Lake. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats scaling impossible granite precipices high above the tree line.

And then, just ahead of us, Rachel gasps. A bear.
We beat a hasty retreat. "It was small, so I'm worried it's a cub and there's a mama bear nearby," says Rachel.

It was a black bear and I didn't catch a glimpse. I was a bit relieved, but also disappointed. "I turned a corner and it was just 20 feet away," says Rachel. "And it just jumped and took off."

We regrouped, ramped up our bear calls, and headed back down the trail. We had another 18 miles to reach our car. The bear could stay, but we were just passing through.

  • Music Bridge:
    Hanging From the Rafters
    Artist: Human Bell
    CD: Human Bell (Thrill Jockey)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Doris Gilbert

    From Los Angeles, CA, 08/05/2008

    Michael, Sue sent me your article and photos, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We've hiked in Glacier and loved it. Some of those photos are thrilling! The Sierra is our backpacking area, which is great, but different.

    Doris, Sue's friend

    Doris, Sue's friend

    By Tammy Kuntz

    From North Olmsted, OH, 07/26/2008

    Thank you! I worked in Glacier Park for 4 years, most recently in 2004. I was a jammer. I was so blessed to have the opportunity to drive the Red Bus. The hikes were incredible and the Park is a second home to me. Any chance to hear another story of the glories of Glacier is a welcome respite from whatever I am doing.

    Peace and mountains!


    By henry kuharic

    From seattle, WA, 07/26/2008

    enjoyed the photos and wished for more. I made 23 hikes into the Olympics which are still my favorite but now over 80 years with bad joints I am an armchair hiker.

    By Laura Gullett

    From Cleveland, OH, 07/26/2008

    I just heard this story on 90.3 here in Cleveland. It sounded so wonderful. I wish I had friends like this group whom I could join on such a trip. I love nature so much. The pictures looks great too. Thanks for sharing Michael. I enjoyed your narration of the trip. Laura

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