What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger . . . but it can also put a pretty good beating on you.

Some Heaven, some Hell.
If you’ve followed my blog over the past few years, you probably get the impression that life on the trail with me is always good – the Sun always shines, I never get lost, and everyone has a splendid time. I’m picky about weather forecasts and I do a fair amount research before doing any off-trail excursions, so that is USUALLY the case. However, occasionally I let my sense of adventure influence my thinking more than I should, especially when choosing routes down from successful peak-bagging experiences. That’s exactly what happened after my friend Murray and I scaled Heavens Peak last week. The steep hike to the summit (5,500 ft. over 4 miles one-way) was challenging but fun and the hour spent on the summit was perfect, but the descent was one of the most harrowing hiking adventures I’ve ever had. This hike was definitely a tale of two halves. (Photo Tour)

Fun and games.
The day started off great. We drove from our campsite near St. Mary, found the starting point a few miles north of Lake McDonald and started hiking shortly after 8 am. There is no trail, but Murray had a copy of Climb Glacier National Park (Vol. 3) by Blake Passmore, an excellent guide book with photographs and very clear instructions. There was some bush-whacking and some scrambling, but the weather was great and we were pleasantly surprised how strong we felt having completed a difficult 19-mile hike the previous day. The route followed a very long series of cascades to a cirque. From there the book showed us which gully to climb to reach the ridge. Once on the ridge it was another steep but walkable mile to the summit. It was a great hike! We talked to a couple young hikers from Whitefish who were coming down just as we reached the base of the summit, and were later joined on the peak by a six Mennonite men from Missouri who came up a different drainage. It was fun to visit with them as we enjoyed great views of the Garden Wall, the Going to the Sun Highway, and Sperry Glacier – which we had walked across the day before. After spending an hour on top, we started down at 2:30 that afternoon.

It’s all fun and games until someone suggests that we try a different route down the mountain.

Don’t tell Mom.
Based on the conversation we had with the two young hikers from Whitefish*, I convinced Murray that we should go down the way they came up – BIG MISTAKE! They climbed up what they described as a “dry stream bed”. Murray was reluctant but went along, so we started down. We followed the ridge past the gully (the sketchiest part of our ascent), side-hilled a grassy slope (not fun!) below a band cliffs that they had pointed out to us, and continued around the bend to the top of the “dry stream bed”. As it turns out the stream bed was a mile-long series of dry waterfalls! At this point there was no turning back, so we proceeded to climb down cliff after cliff after cliff, slowly making our way down to the valley floor. It was 3-4 hours of the slowest, most stressful down-climbing that either of us had ever done. We finally reached the car at 8:30 pm – six hours after starting down from the summit. Too tired to even eat, we drove back to St. Mary, took a quick shower, and crawled into our tents – thankful to be done with the ordeal.

Learning experience.
Fortunately Murray and I are still good friends 🙂 – and we’re both a bit smarter than we used to be. The ideal way to do a difficult off-trail hike or climb like this is to go with someone who has done it, as we did the day before on the Floral Park Traverse. A quality climbing guidebook like the one we were using is a good second option. Another reliable source is Summitpost.org, which includes detailed route descriptions and photos. In fact I’ve gone so far as to print some of their photos and take them with me to make sure I get the tricky parts right.

*NOTE: I place no blame on the two hikers from Whitefish. They were 30 years younger than us, and probably much more athletic climbers. They did not encourage us to go down their way, they simply said that a friend (who had done both routes) told them the dry stream bed route was better. As we say in Montana, “It was my own damn fault.”

Be smart out there. Happy trails! -Rod Benson

Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far, including several in Glacier Park – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.