Glacier National Park on ice

August 5, 2011

I didn’t know whether to wear a tank top or ski pants.

That’s the kind of fashion conundrum you face at Glacier National Park. As a ranger at this 1 million-acre reserve in northern Montana pointed out, you never know what a trail here will look like. One day, it could be buried in snow. The next, it could be sprouting a forest of Douglas firs.

At the moment, I was getting ready to embark on a 10-mile hike to an iceberg lake. That’s because so far, I was finding the park’s glaciers underwhelming.

Two days earlier, I’d driven 36 miles on the scenic 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Roadto the Jackson Glacier overlook, parked and bounded out of my car, excited to see one of nature’s gigantic Popsicles. I’d turned my head to the right. Then to the left.

“Where’s the glacier?” I’d finally asked the crowd at the overlook.


“You don’t know where the snow field ends and the glacier begins,” grumbled the bundled-up visitor next to me (we were at 5,400 feet at this point). This past winter, it turns out, had been one of the snowiest in this part of the state in some time, and even though it was late July, the 25 or so remaining glaciers (of 150 that existed in 1850) were still covered in the white stuff. They looked just like ordinary mountains to me.

I was bummed. This could be my only chance to see a glacier face to face. “Going, going, gone,” said the sign in front of me. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the glaciers, which are melting in response to an increase in long-term mean temperatures, may be gone entirely by 2020 or 2030.

Of course, Glacier National Park wasn’t even named for the actual glaciers. It was named for what the glaciers did: create a series of U-shaped valleys with some of the most breathtaking views I’d ever seen. Mountains that look like Coneheads covered in shampoo lather. Lakes of a turquoise color richer and more otherworldly than anything you could find in a Crayola box.

I couldn’t take my eyes off them, which was not good, because driving down the narrow, twisting Going-to-the-Sun-Road, which traverses the park, requires concentration.

I really, really wanted to touch a glacier. But the Grinnell Trail, the best route for getting up close and personal with one of the icy masses, was closed because of bear sightings (it has since been opened). The Highline Trail, the second best way to approach the glaciers, was closed because of a lingering snowpack. A park ranger suggested a hike to Iceberg Lake. Brilliant! If I couldn’t touch a glacier, then the next best thing would be an iceberg, no?

We gathered at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn on a Tuesday morning for the free ranger-led hike. I’d dressed in cargo pants and a rain jacket and asked Monica, our guide, whether I was properly attired. She said yes. Just to be on the safe side, though, I bought a wool hat. As the rain started pouring, I thought about running back into the camp store to buy wool socks and gloves. But the line was too long, so I turned away.

Big mistake.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

The day before, I’d hopped on one of the red tour buses that chauffeur visitors down Going-to-the-Sun Road. If I was going to see a glacier, I had to get my hands off the steering wheel.

Jasmine, a recent college graduate with a degree in history, was our driver. Actually, she was a “jammer.” That’s from the days of standard transmissions, when you could hear the drivers jamming the gears as they drove up the mountain.

Because of the immense amount of snow, Going-to-the-Sun Road hadn’t been cleared until July 13, making for one of its latest openings ever. “For a while, it looked like it wouldn’t open,” Jasmine said.

Amazing, considering that just a day earlier I’d been at Logan Pass, where the Continental Divide separates the east side of the park from the west. I’d been wearing a tank top while ducking the crossfire of a fierce snowball fight between kids clad in shorts and T-shirts.

We rode along Going-to-the-Sun Road in the 1930s-era bus with the top down, starting at the Lake McDonald Lodge near the town of West Glacier.

“We’re actually traveling the path of a glacier,” Jasmine told us.

All around us, there were signs of a winter that just didn’t want to go into hibernation. At Mount Cannon, Jasmine pointed out the aftereffects of an avalanche. The trees were gone, a sure-fire way of telling where a landslide had hit. On a scale of 1 to 5, this one had been classified a 5, she said. It had taken out 50 feet of rock wall, but the park service wasn’t planning to fuss with the scarred landscape.

“This will be kept here for as many years as it remains here,” Jasmine said. “We won’t touch it. Let Mother Nature take care of it. She definitely knows what she’s doing.”

Mother Nature had also created many cascades along the road. We drove past the 100-foot-high Weeping Wall, which was weeping even more than usual because of the melting snow. Good thing I wasn’t sitting on the right side of the open van. Next we passed the 8,987-foot Heaven’s Peak, a mountain that preceded the Loop, the only switchback on the road. The designers had originally planned about a dozen switchbacks, which would have made the drive feel even more roller coaster-y than it does.

The two-lane Going-to-the-Sun Road is such an engineering marvel that it has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is a major attraction in its own right. Completed in 1932, it was designed to blend into the scenery. It’s also one of the most difficult roads in North America to clear of snow; I was surprised to see six- to eight-foot walls still standing along the mountain. Complicating matters is major ongoing restoration work on the road.

Eager to see glaciers, we asked Jasmine to point them out. “You guys will laugh because it just looks like a pile of snow,” she said.

At Logan Pass, she pointed out the Gem Glacier, the smallest in the park.

“It’s in that U between the peaks. Left-hand side. Sliver of white. You see it?”

I squinted.

And yes, I laughed.

The hunt for glaciers continued during a cruise on St. Mary Lake, the second-largest lake in the park at 10 miles long and nearly 300 feet deep. Our boat, built in 1925, was the oldest boat operating in Glacier.

Samantha, our guide, said that the lake had still been iced over just a few weeks earlier. Today, we were all enjoying the pleasant cruise in T-shirts.

“Even when you see them, they don’t look like anything different,” Samantha said when we asked her to point out some glaciers. It was becoming a familiar refrain.

Nonetheless, we were happy when she pointed to Sexton Glacier on the southeast slope of Matahpi Peak. The more than 7,000-foot-high glacier covers an area of about 68 acres but has lost more than 30 percent of its surface area since 1966. You can see Sexton only by boat; it’s not visible from the road. That made the cruise seem worth it, though once again, all I really saw was a patch of snow.

I asked park ranger Jeremy Wei if there was any way to get closer to a glacier.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “I haven’t even been up to any.”

I’d have to settle for the iceberg.

I can’t feel my toes

As soon as the downpour started, I knew I was in trouble.

We were a little more than a mile into the five-mile uphill hike and my pants were completely drenched. Should I turn around? This was bear country, so the thought of hiking back by myself wasn’t appealing. Why hadn’t I packed my ski pants?

Keep moving, I told myself. Keep the blood flowing.

Every once in a while, Monica would stop to point out interesting vegetation, mountain goats or evidence of bear activity. All around us were plateaus and mountains. But by Mile 2.6, even she realized that she’d have to keep her speeches short or risk hypothermia. It had become survival of the fittest for the more than a dozen of us adventurous — or foolish — enough to do the hike.

At a waterfall, we stopped to scarf down trail mix and water. A family of four dressed in shorts announced that they were turning around. They assured Monica that they’d be fine because they had bear spray. I, on the other hand, did not. If I was going to give up, this would be the time to do it. But I was determined to see that iceberg. I kept climbing.

“The last half-mile is all snow,” Monica warned us. I could only hope that the rain would stop and that my pants would dry. We were starting to get desperate. At the halfway point, we came across a pit toilet (a glorified Porta-Potty). It was the only shelter in sight, and a few of us spent an inordinate amount of time in it.

About a mile later, a snow field replaced the lush vegetation and we came upon a steep wall of snow. Monica scaled it first and instructed us to follow in her footsteps. I was too afraid to look down.

When there weren’t snow fields to climb over, there were puddles of water to trudge through. I could no longer feel my toes. My fingers were stiff. My nose was red. “This had better be worth it,” I muttered under my breath.

And it was.

Standing, finally, on the crest of a snow field looking down into the valley, I gazed at the beautiful blue lake studded with floating sheets of ice. I was tempted to run down and touch an iceberg. But I was just too darned cold.

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