Trip Report: Glacier National Park

After a less-than-stellar winter in the Northwest ended just as I developed an appreciation for walking up mountains, I was left hungry for turns wherever I could find them.

So when I learned about a local Idaho backcountry crew’s annual trip to Glacier National Park, I was eager to tag along.

I knew Glacier was big, of course, but still—Glacier has a lot more to offer than I realized.

Once in Montana, I met up with David Steele, an internet friend who I hadn’t had the chance to ski with yet.

David grew up in Kalispell, MT, with Glacier in his backyard, and he has been skiing and exploring the area for years. He has an incredible sense for what will be skiable and how to ski it, so I was very fortunate to have him as a guide.

We set out to ski without a firm plan in place, but we quickly found a worthwhile objective.

Logistics, Wildlife, and Tourists

Since it’s a National Park, Glacier is not as much of a free-for-all as some other areas. You’ll need to buy a pass to get in, and campsites fill up fast.

This year, Logan Pass (the area we skied) opened early, but it’s a little bit of a gamble if you’re traveling out to the park, since snow plowing and construction can close down much of the access.

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
Photo from 6.14.15 – just a sliver of Glacier National Park.

Driving up the pass, it was hard not to get excited. Even though this was a bit of a weak snow year, it’s breathtaking to see all of the peaks, snowfields, and possible lines that extend to the distant horizon, and so few people skiing any of them.

Instead, Texans in cowboy boots slip and slide across the icy walking paths, and small tourist children wave iPad’s at any wildlife.

In fact, the Logan Pass parking lot was a bit of a zoo this weekend.

Hordes of tourists were interacting with (and improperly identifying) mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife. Be prepared for middle aged couples from Nebraska asking you where the chairlift is, as you hike past bighorn sheep that are licking up leaked antifreeze.

By the third day of skiing, we were used to those couples asking us where the chairlift was. This is the kind of place where people honestly want to know at what altitude deer turn into elk, and mistake marmots for grizzly cubs.

Don’t worry, though. A few hundred yards out from the parking lot and the crowd thins, leaving only rangers, skiers, and the occasional adventurous-but-ill-prepared midwestern teenager.

As I mentioned, I didn’t come to Glacier with a specific objective in mind, but wanted to first get a sense of the snow conditions, what lines went, and how accessible those lines were.

So our first day of skiing in Glacier was mostly about scouting, and we skied a couple of easy lines not far from the parking lot:

David Steele making turns in Glacier national Park.
David Steele, Glacier National Park.

But we quickly identified a gorgeous-looking line on a mountain called, “Bearhat.”

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
This line down Bearhat caught our eye on the first day.

The summer route up Bearhat was filled in, and from afar, it looked like a fun ski. Back at camp, we met a couple of split boarders who had been eyeing the same line, so David and I decided to join forces with them and head out early, aiming to meet at the top of Logan Pass at 5 am. Nerves and excitement had me awake much earlier, though.

The pre-dawn start made for some icy traversing on the approach, but we were rewarded as the rising sun lit up our line:

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
Early morning sun illuminates Bearhat on the skin in.

At the foot of Bearhat, we had to cross the outlet of Hidden Lake—nothing like an icy, knee-deep water crossing to wake you up in the morning.

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
David Steele crossing Hidden Lake, with Bearhat in the background.

Later in the season this area is closed off to keep people away from the bears that come down to eat the spawning fish.

From Hidden Lake it was  just 1.75 hours of skinning, bootpacking, and scrambling to the base of the line.

It quickly became apparent that things were a bit steeper and tighter than they looked from afar once we got to the first choke, which David classified as “spicy,” a word that ended up aptly describing the whole experience.

We cramponed up and headed for the summit.

Our early start really payed off, with soft, climbable snow that didn’t quicksand out too terribly.

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
Dave checks out one of the tighter pinches on the way up.

At the top, David reiterated to all of us Rule Number 1: Don’t Fall.

We headed down the line, one by one.

It was steep, tight, and exposed enough that I was suddenly thankful that my baggy pants hid my shaking knees.

A few ugly turns and a lot of side-slipping later, we popped out onto the apron.

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
Our tracks (some nice, some not so nice) down Bearhat.

Still stoked from knocking off our objective, we headed back down for the water crossing + hike + skin + slog back to the parking lot.

Once there, I collapsed onto the warm asphalt for a nap. It was only about a 7 hour tour, but I was totally spent.

While I was crumpled on the ground, David decided that he was going to head back out for another lap.

A tight, off-camber line had caught his eye on the way back to the car, and he obviously hadn’t had enough skin-track suffering for the day.

The guy is an animal.

Cy Whitling trip report, Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review
David Steele hikes down the summer trail to Bearhat.

As I continued to lie on the ground in a collapsed pile, I periodically heard iPhone shutters popping. I’m pretty sure several tourists have vacation photos of this weird guy sleeping in his climbing helmet in the parking lot. I was too tired to care.

The line we skied was really just the tip of the iceberg. Glacier National Park has a huge range of ski options, from easy parking lot tours to multi-day bushwhacking adventures. The skiing and access is best in the early spring immediately after the roads open, with approaches growing longer and longer as the summer progresses.

If you like to earn your turns and don’t mind a few clueless tourists in the parking lot, GNP is certain to have something for you.

As for me, I’ll be heading back next spring, with stronger legs and lighter gear. But until then, I’ll be keeping up on David’s blog, Skinning with Bear Spray, as he continues to find improbable things to ski in the area.

Cy Whitling's trip report of Glacier National Park for Blister Gear Review.
David Steele and a very subtly-attired Cy Whitling.


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