Trail Running in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

After driving the entire length of Montana on Saturday, Allison and I were happy to stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for a few hours of hiking and trail running. We weren’t out to break any course records, so it was a nice cool-down after a week of climbing mountains.

Running down the Ekblom trail

Crossing through a prairie dog town

The park’s terrain was really unique…but even more memorable was the wildlife. We encountered several small herds of bison along the trail, including one stubborn group that blocked our path for 5-10 minutes.

A herd of bison along the Ekblom trail

Moving off into the hills

We followed the Ekblom trail for a mile or so, then turned north on the Maah Daah Hey trail for a few miles. This trail actually runs 96 miles – winding through National Grassland and connecting all three units of the park. A future backpacking trip, perhaps?

Running on the Maah Daah Hey trail

The view from one of the ridges along the Maah Daah Hey

Allison stopping to enjoy the view

Eventually we doubled back to the Big Plateau trail. This trail crossed a big plateau (shocking, right?) before meeting back up with the Little Missouri River.

Running across the plateau

Along the way, we passed through a huge prairie dog town. It was sort of a surreal experience, running past hundreds of prairie dog holes with thousands of the little critters scurrying around and screeching at us. They didn’t seem very happy to be disturbed.

One of the prairie dogs

More prairie dog holes

We made it back to the river around sunset, which we had to wade across to reach our car.

A last glimpse across the plateau

Wading across the Little Missouri River

After changing into some fresh clothes, we stopped for dinner at Dairy Queen and drove another couple hours to our hotel in Bismarck, North Dakota.

So that’s the end of our vacation (and this wave of blog posts). I’ll probably be writing again after next month’s trail marathon.

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Published in: on August 21, 2012 at 7:00 pm  Comments (4)  

Triple-Summit of Mt. Blakiston, Mt. Hawkins, and Mt. Lineham

For our final day in Waterton Lakes, Allison and I had planned an ambitious off-trail route along the Hawkins Horseshoe.  The goal was to climb/scramble to the summit of Mt. Blakiston (at 9342’, the highest point in Waterton Lakes National Park), then spend the rest of the day ridge-walking to reach Mt. Hawkins (8676’) and Mt. Lineham (8857’).

The previous evening, we’d filled out a “Hazardous Activity Form” with the park warden. Based on what I’d read online, our route would include some fairly dicey scrambles and short vertical free-climbs (nothing more than ~20 feet). So we figured it would be reassuring to know we had a search party coming the following day, just in case we were to get stranded overnight.

Allison scrambling up the side of Mt. Blakiston

We parked our car at the Lineham trailhead and departed at 7:20am. After following the trail for about an hour, we reached a large avalanche chute on the south-facing slopes of Mt. Blakiston. This is where we left the trail and began the long, grinding climb to the summit.

The south face of Mt. Blakiston, with our route highlighted in red (photo taken from Mt. Lineham)

The initial hour or so of climbing wasn’t too bad. But not surprisingly, the incline began to steepen as we climbed higher and higher. The biggest challenge was route-selection, since Allison and I have very different “climbing styles” (I prefer scrambling up fields of loose scree; she prefers picking her way along solid rock ledges). Eventually we had little choice but to attack the scree – sprinting up the slope and sliding two steps back for every three we took forward.

Allison really wasn’t a fan.

Just as I was contemplating the prospect of an extended stay in the dog house, we reached a rocky ledge a couple hundred feet below the summit.

Stopping to rest after the scree climb

The final stretch to the summit was challenging in a very different way. At first glance, we seemed to be facing an impassable line of cliffs. Yet thanks to some invaluable advice I’d acquired online, I knew that there was a non-technical route through one of the couloirs just adjacent to the vertical drop-off on Blakiston’s eastern face.

Sizing up the final approach

This final 80’-100’ of near-vertical scrambling was easily the toughest stretch we faced all day. There were plenty of good handholds, but we had to be constantly wary of the crumbly, sedimentary nature of the rock (and since I was climbing below her, there was also the occasional falling stone to dodge).  When we made it to the top, I stopped to snap a picture of where we’d ascended:

Looking back at the couloir (down and to the left)

We made it to the summit at 11:40am – more than four hours after starting up the trail. We spent a half-hour or so taking pictures, eating lunch, and recovering from the strain of the climb.

The summit of Mt. Blakiston, approximately 4,200’ above our car at the trailhead

Allison admiring the view to the north of Blakiston

From Blakiston, we followed the long, winding ridgeline across to Mt. Hawkins. Most of this was pretty straightforward, although there was one section that required us to drop below the ridge and skirt around some jagged rock formations. In the meantime, we got to enjoy some spectacular 360° views of the ice-capped Canadian Rockies.

Hiking along the ridgeline toward Mt. Hawkins (just right-of-center, with the reddish peak)

For most of the afternoon, we would be following the “Hawkins Horseshoe” – the winding ridgeline that connects Mt. Hawkins with Mt. Blakiston and Mt. Lineham. In the above picture, a portion of this horseshoe can be seen as a reddish ridgeline (behind Mt. Hawkins) stretching off to the left. It encircles the four sparkling “Lineham Lakes” in the basin below.

Allison standing atop the summit of Mt. Hawkins, looking back at Mt. Blakiston (center)

From the Hawkins Horsehoe, one can see Mt. Hawkins (red peak, left), Mt. Blakiston (gray/yellow peak, left-center), Mt. Lineham (gray peak, far right), and a few of the Lineham Lakes in the basin below

Along the way, we discovered a short section where an “official” trail came up to the ridgeline…so we stopped to talk with a few day-hikers who were there resting.

Allison looking out over Mt. Blakiston (left) and Mt. Lineham (right)

The final climb to the summit of Mt. Lineham was relatively easy, and we reached the top at around 4:00pm.

Stopping for a picture atop Mt. Lineham

From here, we COULD have simply retraced our steps to where we’d met up with the Tamarack trail, then followed that back to civilization. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, we decided to scree-ski (video demonstration) down the southern slopes of the mountain.

2,500 vertical feet of fresh scree

On the way down, we spotted a half-dozen bighorn sheep moving around on some rocks. They weren’t nearly as timid as the mountain goats, so I was actually able to get a decent picture.

Bighorn sheep

We had to do a little bushwhacking to find the Rowe Lakes trail, but from there it was only another two miles down the trail and one mile along the road to reach our car. We made it back at 6:30pm, for a total trip time of 11 hr, 10 min.

Published in: on August 19, 2012 at 9:04 pm  Comments (6)  

Bear Hump and Crypt Lake

On Wednesday afternoon we arrived in Waterton Lakes National Park.  We had already reserved a campsite in the town of Waterton, so we wasted no time in setting up camp.  Being in town, it’s not the most scenic (think lots of RV’s and no privacy), but it suited our needs in terms of the hikes we wanted to do.  And it is on the beautiful Waterton Lake, which makes up for the crowdedness a little.

Our campsite at Townsite Campground

On the recommendation of a couple of fellow hikers we met earlier on the trip, we decided to use the remainder of the afternoon to hike the short Bear Hump trail to an area that overlooks the town and Waterton Lake.   It was a steep but short climb (.9 miles) and did offer a beautiful view of the area.

Matt looking out over Waterton Lake from the top of Bear Hump

Matt and I atop Bear Hump

We had decided to tackle the Crypt Lake Hike on Thursday, and left the dock (you have to take a boat over to the trailhead from town) at 9 AM.  It only takes about 10-15 minutes to ride across Waterton Lake to the trailhead.  On the way, we passed the Prince of Wales Hotel – a famous landmark in Waterton.

The Prince of Wales Hotel

The Crypt Lake hike winds through the woods for the first few miles as you hike switchback after switchback. Between miles 3-5, however, you encounter 3 different waterfalls (Twin Falls, Burnt Rock Falls, and Crypt Falls), each one getting progressively bigger.  Crypt Falls was nearly 600’ tall, formed from the runoff of Crypt Lake.  Matt and I got to see it from both the top and the bottom, which was pretty cool.

Crypt Falls

Now the last mile is where the fun really began.  To actually get to the lake, you have to get around a pretty sheer cliff, and the designers of the trail decided to do this by making the trail about 2 feet wide as you follow the cliff around.  They were nice enough to put a cable in case you felt the need to hold on.  But the best part was the tunnel through the mountain.  To get around the curve of the cliff, you have to climb a 9 foot ladder into a short tunnel through the mountain, which spits you out on the other side so you can then reach the lake.  Pretty epic.

Matt ascending the ladder into the tunnel

Upon reaching the lake, we wasted no time in hiking to the opposite end to avoid the hoards of hikers on the near end.  Plus, there was a small glacier to walk on!  Oh, and the U.S./Canadian border is somewhere on the far end of the lake, and getting to cross a border without a passport is a rarity these days. Anyway, we enjoyed a hot backpacker’s lunch before walking back around the lake on the opposite side and heading back down the trail.

Me (Allison) cooking lunch

Walking on a glacier!

We got to cross through the tunnel and around the cliffs again on the return trip.

Hugging the cliff

Matt walking along the cliffs with Crypt Falls in the background

Crouching through the tunnel

Hiking the switchbacks

Partway through the hike we decided to take the Hellroaring Canyon loop back to the dock to get a change of scenery.  It was a beautiful canyon, though hard to photograph due to the amount of trees.  However, we also got a surprise visitor along the trail – a bear cub romping through the forest.  This one, we think a grizzly, was smaller than the two yesterday and very interested in finding berries.  So interested, in fact, that after we scared him off into the woods the first time, we encountered him again eating berries 50 feet from the trail.  This time, he was not inclined to be scared off. He just kept an eye on us as we passed by.  We took time to photograph what we could see of him between berry bushes, then moved on to avoid encountering the mother bear.

The bear cub eating berries

The rest of the trail was uneventful and we headed back on the 4 PM boat to Waterton.

Published in: on August 19, 2012 at 1:06 am  Comments (3)  

Backpacking in Two Medicine

After two days of intense hiking and climbing, we decided to scale things back by taking a short two-day backpacking trip to Upper Two Medicine Lake.

Allison en route to Upper Two Medicine Lake

Hiking on the Dawson Pass trail

Within the first half mile of our trip, we encountered a ranger posting something to a tree – “Danger: A mountain lion has been frequenting this area. Travel in pairs.” Maybe we should have realized this was a sign…because next thing we knew we passed a snake on the side of a trail, and further on another snake actually shot out of the tall grass across Allison’s feet (much to her dismay).  We reached our backcountry campsite without further incident around 5:00pm, leaving us with plenty of time to cook dinner and set up camp.

Our campsite

The downside to arriving early? We finished eating with plenty of daylight left, resulting in a bedtime of 9 PM strictly because we were bored and it looked like it was going to start raining. And it did rain most of the night. When we left the next morning, we were treated to cool temperatures and a light drizzle for the hike back to (lower) Two Medicine Lake.

Breaking camp

The wildlife was out in force for our return trip. Less than a mile down the trail, we spotted a bull moose.  Fortunately, he was busy munching his breakfast and didn’t seem interested in charging two hikers. We were prepared for the worst, having read a sign the previous day warning hikers to run around a tree if a moose charged. (The idea of playing ring-around-the-tree with a moose is an amusing one, you have to admit).  Anyway, after posing a moment for pictures, it wandered further into the underbrush and we moved on.

The moose

Only ten minutes or so after our moose encounter, we heard something large crashing through the woods to our left. Moments later, two juvenile bears darted onto the trail about 50-60 feet in front of us. They were each about 4-5 feet tall (standing upright) and maybe 150-200lbs.

Next thing we knew, both of the bears came galloping down the trail directly toward Allison and myself.  Obviously, neither of us were interested in playing fetch with these two playful bears in the event momma grizzly decided to show up.

“Oh crap.” –Allison

“Whoa! Uh…BEAR BEAR BEAR!!!” –Matt

I think that finally got their attention. Both bears slid to a stop, stood up on their hind legs, stared at us for a few seconds, then turned and ran off in the other direction.

That dark spot? One of the bears

By the time I had my camera out, they were pretty well hidden by the trees and shrubbery.

After waiting another 10-15 minutes, we continued down the trail. We’d now seen 3 large mammals within ten minutes; apparently the mountain lion decided not to show.

Crossing a footbridge

Two Medicine Lake, viewed from the parking lot

We finally arrived back at our car around noon, opting to get an early start on our way to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Published in: on August 18, 2012 at 7:31 am  Comments (6)  

Swiftcurrent Mountain and Iceberg Peak

Well it was bound to happen at some point, as Matt and I tend to be quite ambitious when planning hikes.  And today was the day; for the first time in Matt and I’s hiking trips together, we bit off more than we could chew.

We decided to try a double summit of Swiftcurrent Mountain and Iceberg Peak in Glacier National Park in the same day.  We left the Loop trailhead around 9 AM (unfortunately, we had to get a backcountry pass for our backpacking trip in the morning or we could have left earlier).  From there we hiked about 4.2 miles to Granite Park Chalet, gaining somewhere around 2,000 feet elevation along the way.  We had some excitement on the way up, discovering fresh bear tracks along quite a bit of the trail as we ascended.

Bear track along the Loop Trail (or someone with really wide feet wearing Vibram FiveFingers?)

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, the bear seemed to have left the premises earlier in the morning. We ate lunch off the trail near the chalet before continuing toward Swiftcurrent Mountain, which is another 3.2 miles of hiking with around 3,000 additional feet of elevation gain.

Granite Park Chalet – a primitive hotel in the mountains

After having reached the summit of two mountains the previous day, my legs were a little tired, and I think I had to ask Matt to stop and rest briefly at about every other switchback on the way up.  I nicknamed Matt the mountain goat on this ascent, as he kept going and going just like the mountain goats on the mountains around us (if you have never seen a mountain goat on a mountain, they are FAST and very agile on the cliffs; trying to get close pictures of those guys was more than a challenge even though we startled more than one on our hike).

Hiking along the switchbacks on Swiftcurrent Mountain

At the summit of Swiftcurrent Mountain, a small lookout tower still stands as a private residence to Alex and Liz (according to the sign posted on the door).  We tried to figure out what they did, living on top of the mountain, but while we could see a man working inside, no other information was given.  However, who could blame them for living there. The views from the summit are breathtaking – 360 degrees around Glacier National Park. While Matt took pictures, I (and my tired legs) rested on the rocks and took in the view.  After Matt had paced around for a while, I asked him if he wasn’t at least a little tired? (I mean most people are after gaining 5,000 feet elevation change in less than 8 miles) Matt’s reply, “No, I feel great – my legs, my knees, my lungs – everything feels great.”  Me: “Wanna share?”

As close as one can come to Nepal…without leaving the U.S. of A.

The lakes along Swiftcurrent Pass

When we had reached the summit of Swiftcurrent Mountain, I had quickly realized that we were not going to get over to Iceberg Peak from the summit, as the sheer cliff drop-offs made that an impossibility without ropes.

Surveying the ridge connecting Swiftcurrent Mountain to Iceberg Peak

Iceberg Peak in the distance, with the ridge we need to cross in the foreground

However, I had recalled that the directions we had read said that you could cross over from the lower slopes of the mountain on game trails.  So as we descended we watched for a place that we might be able to cut over.  We quickly found what we were looking for and began scree skiing (okay, not really – but scree running perhaps) along the side of the mountain to the saddle that connected Swiftcurrent with Iceberg Peak.

Scree “skiing”

Scree running

The scree ended after a short while, and most of the saddle consisted of scrambling over rock and just hiking around the ridgeline.

Matt planning our route

As mentioned earlier, the goats were out and about. One group was walking across a snow bank, and we managed to get a picture of a few of them.

Mountain goats

Since we were unable to walk across the snow bank, we skirted around it instead.

Matt skirting a snowbank

Daylight was really catching up to us at this point, as were the amount of food and water we were carrying.  Additionally, Iceberg Peak itself is very steep, with steep cliffs on either side of our approach.

Looking over at Iceberg Peak

After having made it to the southern part of Iceberg Peak, (almost 3 miles from Swiftcurrent Mountain) we decided to turn back for safety.  We were both a little disappointed that we hadn’t been able to reach the summit, but had a lot of fun all the same just hiking on top of the world between the peaks.  As Matt says it, “this is how hiking should be, just making your own trail up a mountain, for views that are absolutely amazing.”

Looking back at Swiftcurrent Mountain (far left) from our turnaround point below Iceberg Peak

Published in: on August 17, 2012 at 10:21 pm  Comments (3)  

Summiting Cataract and Piegan Mountains

We arrived in Glacier National Park early on August 12, following Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Siyeh Bend trailhead. Our original plan was to make the 9 mile hike to Piegan Pass and back, with an additional scramble to the summit of Cataract Mountain. No point in wearing ourselves out so early in the trip, we figured.

On our initial climb, we were treated to excellent views of Piegan Mountain – a 9,220’ peak rising 3,377’ above our tiny Honda Fit back at the trailhead. The massive Piegan Glacier – responsible for carving a crater into the top of the mountain – was also visible.

Piegan Mountain and Piegan Glacier

Pollock Mountain (L), Garden Wall (C), and Cataract Mountain (R)

We stopped for a short lunch at Piegan Pass, then began our energetic scramble to the summit of Cataract Mountain.

Allison attacking the climb

Iceberg Peak – tomorrow’s destination – is visible in the distance (far right)

Although considerably smaller than many of the surrounding peaks, Cataract Mountain offered terrific views into the surrounding valleys.

Sheer cliffs line the northern face of Cataract Mountain

Allison explores the ridge along Cataract’s summit

It was only around 1:00pm when we arrived back at Piegan Pass, and I think Allison was starting to pick up on some of the subtle hints I’d been dropping over the previous hour.

“Check out that glacier on Piegan Mountain! It would be pretty cool to see it up close.”

“One of those hikers I talked to earlier really carried on about the view from the top of Piegan Mountain.”

“It looks like there might be a non-technical route over there on the west side.”

Beginning the ascent of Piegan Mountain (on left; mostly off-screen)

As you can see from the above picture…she caved.

Searching for the best route

After 40-50 minutes of gradual (but grueling) climbing, we reached the saddle connecting Piegan Mountain to neighboring Pollock Mountain. From here we were faced with a very steep approach to the summit, guarded by towering cliffs to the north and fields of loose scree to the south.

Allison shows off her bouldering skills

This final section involved some steep scrambles – interspersed with brief free climbs and lots of route-finding.

Looking down on Piegan Glacier (seen from below in picture #1)

We reached the summit of Piegan Mountain after a little blood, a lot of sweat, and…well…not really any tears to speak of. The view was well worth the effort.

A rock cairn atop Piagan Mountain; Pollock Mountain (L), the Garden Wall (L-C), and Mt. Gould (C) are visible in the background

View from the summit – looking south

The descent was mostly uneventful, aside from my close encounter with a mountain goat. We came face-to-face as I inched my way along a ledge, and very nearly startled each other over the side of the mountain.

Returning to Piegan Pass; Cataract Moutain visible in the background

FYI: I probably won’t be able to post this for several days, but I’m writing from our campsite in St. Mary’s. We’re turning in early. The plan for tomorrow is to tackle Iceberg Peak via Swiftcurrent Pass.

Published in: on August 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm  Comments (7)  

Trail Running in Badlands National Park

Allison and I only have ten days carved out for our trip to Glacier National Park, so we’ve been trying to minimize our travel time. Still, we figured a 2-3 hour evening run in the Badlands would be a nice way to recover from our first full day of driving.

Navigating the rough terrain

Allison on the Castle Trail

Most of our running was along the Castle Trail, although we made a few detours to check out some of the more interesting formations.

Allison stopping for water (unaware of me holding the camera)

Hurdling over a narrow (but deep) crevice

Running alongside one of the larger ravines

We reached our turnaround point around mile 6. The sun was already pretty low on the horizon…and of course I hadn’t listened to Allison’s suggestion that I bring along my headlamp (“No worries. We’ll be back WAY before it gets dark”).

Approaching the turnaround. 

So we really had to book it to cover the final 5-6 miles before running out of daylight. And for some added encouragement, one of the hikers we met warned us that he’d already seen several rattlesnakes lurking in the grass alongside the trail.

Running…

…and running…

…and running.

We ended up making it back to the car just as visibility was becoming really poor (and about 20 minutes before a thunderstorm hit).

Allison on the home stretch

We drove another 90 minutes to Rapid City SD…but as luck would have it, there was a huge motorcycle rally going on. We weren’t about to fork out $200+ for one of the remaining rooms in the Motel 6, and also didn’t have much luck finding a decent place to pitch our tent in the National Forest.

We ended up just pulling into a Wal-Mart parking lot and sleeping in the trunk. Which was fine.

Cliffs are like clouds: if you stare long enough, you can almost imagine you see faces.

This morning, we made a quick stop at Mt. Rushmore before beginning the 12 hour drive to Glacier. We’re currently staying in a motel in Missoula, MT – with plans to drive the final 2.5 hours early tomorrow morning.

Published in: on August 11, 2012 at 10:33 pm  Comments (5)