By late June, pretty much all snow from the surrounding mountains of North Idaho had melted out, and the ski resorts had long been closed. I had heard about the grand allure of Glacier National Park (GNP) and the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which tops out at Logan Pass at 6,645 feet. It maintains copious amounts of snow until August and offers access to easy hiking and snowfields for skiing and snowboarding. It is this appeal that took me to GNP, plus the opportunity to ride terrain in steep mountains.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road, an impressive engineering feat, is an incredibly picturesque drive up a twisting road east of Whitefish, Montana, that rises 3,500 feet from a valley floor carved from glaciers centuries ago. It passes under avalanche paths that careen thousands of feet down the mountains during the winter months. At this time of year, roaring waterfalls from spring melt burst over the road, splashing cars as they drove by. The sweeping views of declining glaciers on nearby mountaintops remind visitors about current environmental concerns and how lucky we are to still have these wild places.
As I reached the Logan Pass parking lot, I geared up for the climb. This was my first time here on unfamiliar slopes, and a solo mission that had me a little nervous, yet excited. As I walked through the parking lot, curious tourists in shorts and t-shirts gawked at me with my snow gear, especially when temperatures neared 60 degrees on the black pavement. On the hike up to the snowfields, I answered questions like “Where are the ski lifts?” and “You’re going over there to ride that?” Some people asked for a photo of the crazy snowboarder they met while out hiking to share on Facebook.
Once I began my ascent across Hanging Gardens snowfield, further from the camera-toting tourists, the stillness gave way to mindful meditation: Glide across the snow. Enjoy each bit of cool breeze in contrast to the heat of the sun. Each stride brought me closer to my destination—a snow-covered headwall that rises just south of the pass.
The route I chose passed by numerous roaring waterfalls that raged from spring melt then disappeared under the deep snow, rushing down to join larger streams and rivers in the lush valleys below. I thought to myself: This is a metaphor for our lives, the way that rivers rage with energy then disappear, morph, and create new life.I sat beside an enormous fall. Listening to the water roll over the rocks and feeling its spray was like a christening.
I continued my trek until I reached the base of this beautiful headwall, an impressive, rock-lined patch of snow that can be seen from the pass parking lot. It sits between two high peaks: Clements and Reynolds. I fastened climbing crampons to my boots to make the climb up the chute, which is looker’s right of the headwall. The climb was steep and I was on my knees at times, concentrating on each step and each breath. I forced myself to resist looking down as I moved higher, the sun’s intense heat softening the snow. I was keenly aware that a wrong move or missed step would send me straight down into rocks.
The upper chute had a steep roll toward the top that mellowed. Momentarily stopping to catch my breath, I noticed movement about 30 feet above me. There stood a lone, white mountain goat. I stopped in my tracks, unsure if the goat would take offense to me intruding on his turf. It turned and stared at me—not with discontent, but what seemed like curiosity. We stared at each other for a long while, then he tracked across the upper slope to some rocks farther to my right, granting me passage. Once there, I sat surveying the landscape down to the bustling congregation of tourists about 1.5 miles away.
Below me, the goat was back, having circled down to a rock outcropping I had just come up. I watched this magnificent animal glance down the chute, then back at me. He stayed for a while, and I enjoyed his quiet company until he impressively worked the rocks with graceful moves like he was out for a Sunday stroll and disappeared. I felt lucky to spend time soaking up the tranquil beauty of this place with this wild mountain goat.
Since my first experience in Glacier almost a decade ago now, I have made an annual pilgrimage to Logan Pass when the spring snow plowing is completed, to fill my soul with climbing and riding in such wild natural wonderment.
Larry Banks is an accomplished splitboard mountaineer who co-founded PanhandleBackcountry.com. He is also a board member of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center. He last wrote about a fundraiser for Friends of Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center in October 2018. You can follow his exploits on Instagram @Powderpanda.