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Mountain Climbing in Glacier National Park: Some Basic Tips
Glacier National Park provides exceptional mountain climbing opportunities with over 224 named peaks and levels of difficulty ranging from very easy to some of the most difficult mountain climbing found anywhere in the world. Mountain climbing in Glacier Park is one of our favorite things to do, and after successfully climbing well over 75 peaks (and counting), we’ve learned a few things about climbing in Glacier Park that we’d like to share with you. Below are some basic tips that you might find to be helpful during your Glacier Park mountain climbing adventures…
1. Standard Rope Safety is Usually Not An Option
The rock in Glacier National Park is mainly sedimentary, much of it either slates or shales. This type of rock is not very conducive to standard anchoring with cams or nuts because this rock does not have the typical cracks that are found in igneous rock such as granite. The only way to safely anchor in Glacier National Park is by the use of pitons (stakes) that you literally hammer into the rock. This of course is not a practical course of action for most climbs in Glacier Park because the entire park would be covered in pitons. Pitons are usually reserved for the great walls of Glacier Park such as the North Face of Mount Siyeh, North Face of Mount Cleveland, or the East Face of Mount Gould, for example. So the only practical way to climb the majority of Glacier National Park peaks is without using safety ropes or anchors.
And because standard anchoring techniques are usually not an option, then belaying or rappelling is also not an option. If the person belaying is not adequately anchored, then there lies a huge risk of BOTH climbers toppling down the mountain.
Therefore, since you are usually climbing in Glacier National Park without safety ropes or anchors, and you cannot belay or rappel, the “trick” is to find a route among the cliffs that provides a safe way to the summit. This is the challenge that we enjoy, but it does take a lot of care or you can really get yourself into trouble. Our rule of thumb is that if we don’t have at least two solid holds (hand or foot), we don’t pursue the next move. We back down and look for another pitch that is safer. Also, since climbers in Glacier National Park don’t have the luxury of being able to rappel down a pitch, then we make darn sure we know for certain we can climb down what we’ve climbed up…. which leads to our next tip….
2. Never Climb Up A Pitch You Can’t Get Down
Since for the most part a person mountain climbing in Glacier National Park does not have the luxury of being able to rappel or belay because standard anchors using nuts or cams are not possible, then a climber needs to make sure he/she can climb down what he/she is climbing up. If a person doesn’t take this tip seriously, you could get into some serious trouble. And remember that climbing up a pitch is far easier than climbing down a pitch.
3. Always Go Down EXACTLY The Way You Went Up
This is probably the number one thing that gets novice climbers into trouble while climbing in Glacier National Park. They climb up the summit using one route, and try using another route that they are not familiar with on the descent. What can easily happen is that the climber is unaware of class 5 or 6 cliffs far below him/her until he/she is directly above them, and the climber then becomes “cliffed out” and can’t go any further. The climber is then essentially trapped on the mountain, and the only way out is back up. Therefore, only if you are extremely familiar with an alternate route heading down should you deviate from the route you used to climb the peak.
4. Carefully Mark Your Route
Marking your route is also vitally important while mountain climbing in Glacier National Park, and it’s tied with Tip #2. What novice climbers often do wrong is they think that they will remember where they went up. You’d be amazed how different everything looks when looking down on the route instead of looking up, and this can lead to trouble. What we do is use two methods of route tracking. One method is by recording our exact “track” with a GPS. This EXACTLY records our route as we climb the peak, and we can re-trace this route coming down. The other thing we do (because you can’t always rely on satellite reception and GPS technology) is we also use what we call “ducks”, which are small piles of rocks. We make small “ducks” at certain strategic locations along the route that we will then clearly see on the way down.
We strongly recommend that you don’t just rely on “ducks” because if fog or a thick cloud cover rolls in you won’t be able to see the ducks below you. So also track your route with a GPS device.
5. Know How To Route Find
Being able to route find is an essential skill that all climbers in Glacier National Park should have. This skill takes quite a lot of practice and experience, but it truly makes for a better and safer day on the mountain. A climber’s guide book will give you a general idea of where you need to be on a particular mountain, but it’s just a guideline. You must be able to use YOUR OWN ABILITY to read a mountain and determine the small details that a book cannot provide to you. The ability to route find will dramatically increase your chances of successfully reaching a summit. Obviously, the more you climb the better skilled you will become at route finding.
6. Know Your Water Situation
Another situation where trouble can arise while climbing in Glacier National Park is running out of water. Many of the peaks in Glacier National Park do not have water on them, and you have to carefully calculate how much water you will need to carry up with you to stay hydrated. And obviously, on super hot days you will need more water than a cooler day. So know EXACTLY where the last creek, stream or lake is before you begin your ascent, and use your water filter and fill as many Nalgene bottles as you need to keep hydrated during the ascent AND descent. Then add at least one or two more Nalgenes because 99.9% of the time, the climb will take longer than you thought and will be more difficult than you thought, and you’ll be glad you had this extra water. If needed, leave some Nalgenes along the way up the route for the climb down so you don’t have to carry all the weight to the summit.
7. Leave Early
No matter how short or how long our climb is, we always leave early. Sometimes, if we are going to be on a maintained trail for several miles (or more) prior to reaching the actual climb, we leave in the dark and use our headlamps. Now of course in Glacier National Park you have grizzly bears to contend with, so we don’t always do this unless we have a super long, 20+ mile day and a 5,500 vertical feet climb ahead of us, such as when we climbed Mount Jackson in one day, beginning at the Going To The Sun Road. Normally, we wait until we can see the trail fairly well before we head out, but it’s always before we see the sun.
By leaving early, you will be in cooler temperatures, and you will have plenty of time to enjoy the summit and get off of it before the afternoon thunderheads start to brew.
8. Watch Out For “Rogue” Wind Gusts
We have been on many summits with absolutely no wind whatsoever, and out of nowhere, a tremendous gust of wind blasts across the summit without warning with enough force to easily knock you off balance and sometimes enough force to nearly knock you down. If you are standing on the edge of a cliff, you could easily be blown off. So please remember that no matter how calm the day may appear to be, be aware of these “rogue” wind gusts. Don’t stand on the edge of cliffs or walls just to take in the view. Instead, stand a few yards away from the edge (at the least) to be safe.
9. Any Sign of Thunder or Lightning… GET OFF THE PEAK!!!
Lightning is a potential killer while mountain climbing in Glacier National Park (or anywhere for that matter). And when you are exposed on an open mountain face or ridge, or on a mountain summit during a lightning storm, you are a sitting duck and are at great risk of getting hit by lightning. Our rule of thumb is this: If we see thunderheads anywhere in the sky, especially on the western horizon, we abort the climb and get to the tree line as quickly and as safely as possible. If you’ve ever been caught on a summit ridge during a lightning storm, you will completely agree with us… there are few things more terrifying than being helplessly exposed to an electrical storm where in an instant your life could be over.
10. Stay Within Your Skill Level And Comfort Zone
Shannon and I only climb with each other and never with anyone else, so we don’t have to worry about our pride and don’t have to worry about succumbing to peer pressure. Therefore, if we are uncomfortable with a particular pitch, we aren’t shy about it. Another reason we do so well together is we share a nearly identical skill level. But we suspect that within a group of friends who get together for a day of climbing, there are going to be a variety of skill levels in the group, a variety of egos, and the dynamics are going to be completely different.
So if a member of the group becomes uncomfortable with a particular pitch, he or she may be reluctant to say anything in fear of appearing “chicken” or “weak” to the rest of the group, and that person might take a risk he/she normally would never take. This can lead to a disaster. So either leave your pride at home and tell the group whenever you’re uncomfortable with a particular pitch, or don’t go with them.
11. Wear a Helmet
There is a misconception about helmets and mountain climbing. Many novice mountain climbers think that a helmet is only for the event of a fall, so if they are climbing a peak that shows no true risk of falling, then they feel a helmet is unnecessary. This is simply not the case. The #1 reason for wearing a helmet while mountain climbing is to protect your head in the event of a rock rolling down the slope above you, or a rock falling off a cliff above you. Even the smallest rock can kill you if it is traveling fast enough, and Glacier National Park mountains have a ton of loose rocks just waiting to roll down the mountains.
And of course the risk of rolling rocks dramatically increase if there is a group of climbers. The lead climbers could inadvertently send a rock flying down the slope, putting the other climbers at risk. Another cause of rocks falling or rolling are mountain goats that are above you that you cannot even see. We’ve had this happen to us many times where out of the blue a rock comes soaring down out of nowhere. After further investigation we learned that there was a mountain goat far above us that dislodged a rock.
12. NEVER, EVER, EVER CLIMB ALONE!!!
One of the golden rules of mountain climbing anywhere in the world is “Never Climb Alone”. Anything can happen on a peak, and if you’re alone, what could have been an easily survivable situation could become fatal.
For example, even a simple ankle sprain can become life threatening if you cannot get help. If you’re alone on a peak and sprain an ankle or break a leg and can’t walk, there is no one there to go get help for you. You are then looking at staying the night…. or staying several nights on the mountain, without water and without food. Hypothermia could easily set in, as well as dehydration, and a fatal outcome could be the result. If you had a climbing partner, he/she could have gotten help and you’d probably be off the mountain on the same day… alive.
And yes, today’s “SPOT” technology is great, but if you are unable to push the button because you are unconscious or you forgot to change the batteries, SPOT is useless to you.
We could go on and on with different scenarios, but the bottom line is this: If you are mountain climbing in Glacier National Park alone, what could have been a simple rescue operation and something you could have easily lived through, instead could end up needlessly killing you.
13. Always Tell Someone Where You’re Climbing And When To Expect You Back
No matter how easy or quick the climb may seem to be, ALWAYS tell someone EXACTLY where you are climbing, and let them know when to expect your call that you’ve made it down. This is so important because if something went wrong during your climb and someone can’t get help because both members of the party are injured (a lightning strike for example), then it is essential that there is someone on this earth that will know where you were climbing and when you were expected back. This will save hours, days and sometimes weeks, and dozens of volunteers and an army of search and rescue team members putting their lives at risk trying to find you…. that is of course after they eventually learned you were even missing.
14. Expect To Stay The Night
Whenever you are mountain climbing in Glacier National Park (or anywhere), you need to assume you are going to have to spend the night, therefore you need to pack your day pack accordingly. Hopefully you will never have to spend the night on a peak, but you should always be prepared to do so. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN when you are mountain climbing, so you need to be prepared.
Mountain climbing in Glacier National Park can be a wonderful experience. The climbing opportunities are endless, and the views from the summits are beyond breathtaking. By following these 14 basic tips that we’ve presented to you, your Glacier Park mountain climbing experiences will be far more enjoyable and safer.
CLICK HERE for “Views from the Summits” in Glacier National Park.