Climbing Mount Merritt in Glacier National Park: 6 Grizzly Bears Guarding The Route
In mid August of 2013, my wife Shannon and I set off to climb Mount Merritt in Glacier National Park. We were camped at Mokowanis Lake, and it was a perfect day for climbing: clear skies with no weather in the forecast. We completed the bushwack in less than an hour (talking loudly the entire time as to not surprise a grizzly), and had a quick snack at the base of the cirque at 8:45 am. We both felt great and hadn’t even broke a sweat yet.
We then began climbing up the cirque cliffs and at about 10:45 am we looked below us and saw a grizzly sow and cub (cub of the year) walking precisely where we had our morning snack at the base of the cirque. They were about a thousand feet below us, and they were looking up at the cirque. We were a bit concerned that they were planning to climb up into the cirque to “moth”, and if that were the case, coming back down might be a problem. Fortunately, they worked back into the white pines below the cirque after about 15 minutes of staring upward, so we continued to climb. We knew that we had to possibly deal with them during our bushwack off the mountain, but we were willing to put this all to the side for the time being. Periodically we would yell out “hey bear” to make our presence known, and continued to climb.
Everything was going great for about another 20 minutes, but just when we were about to reach the reef below the saddle at about 8,500 feet, Shannon, who was above of me, quietly said “grizzlies”. I thought that the sow and cub had probably re-appeared below us and were coming up. But Shannon was looking above her… not below her. I climbed up next to her to see what she was looking at, and my jaw about dropped to the ground. Only about 75 yards directly above us on the cliffs were not one, not two, not three, but FOUR grizzly bears. They were rolling over rocks and munching on moth larvae, which is known as “mothing”. One of the grizzlies was slightly larger than the other three grizzlies, so this was more than likely a sow with her three “cubs” that were now good sized sub-adults.
It was actually a beautiful sight… the morning sun had just broke over the saddle, and their hair was backlit and glowing. My initial reaction was to pull out the camera from my pack, but after having over a 100 summits under our belts in Glacier Park and having plenty of experiences with grizzlies “mothing” on summits and summit ridges while we were on them, both Shannon and I knew that we needed to get out of sight as quickly as possible before they saw or heard us. The wind was in our favor, so we knew they wouldn’t pick up our scent, therefore we quickly hid behind a cliff, out of sight, and looked at each other and immediately knew what we needed to do…. and that was get the heck out of there as quickly and as quietly as possible. We agreed with this decision with no hesitation… even though what was going to be a perfect day on a great mountain was instantly taken away from us.
We are quite familiar with grizzly sub-adults. They are curious, brave, and a bit cocky, and if one of them had seen us, then we could have had all four grizzlies coming down the cliffs to check us out. That would not have been a good thing…obviously. And keep in mind that these are not “trail bears”. These bears rarely, if ever, see humans. That can work in your favor, but often times it can work against you, and we were in no position to take any chances. Also, because there was a fairly strong wind, our bear spray would not have been as affective as we would have liked. And we were out-numbered 4 to 2.
So instead of potentially getting into some serious trouble on the cliffs of Mount Merritt with four grizzly bears, some twenty miles into the backcountry, we did what we still feel was the right thing to do, and that was to climb back down the cirque cliffs as quickly and as quietly as possible, without the bears seeing, hearing, or smelling us. Fortunately, we made it safely off the cirque without the four bears detecting us. They remained on the cliffs above us “mothing”. (And by the way, this explained what the sow and cub were looking up at earlier… they wanted to come up the cliffs to “moth”, but saw the four other grizzlies up there and decided not to come up.)
We then had to dive into the bushwack exactly where the sow grizzly and young cub that we saw earlier had walked into. We knew they were somewhere in there, and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying the “Mount Merritt bushwack”, you know just how thick it is and just how high the potential is of running into a grizzly… especially after you’ve just watched a sow and cub walk into the exact area you are about to bushwack through.
We of course changed our strategy on this stretch of the adventure…. we talked EXTREMELY loud the entire way through the bushwack as to let the sow and cub, and any other bear in the area, know that we were there so they would hopefully move out of the way to avoid us. The last thing we wanted to do was surprise a grizzly in that thick jungle. Fortunately we did not see any more grizzlies, and we got back to our camp at Mokowanis Lake at about 2:00 pm.
Yes we were relieved, but we were also extremely disappointed. Everything was going so good and we were certainly going to summit Merritt that day, and in an instant it was taken away from us. But as we began to understand it all once we settled down, maybe we were extremely lucky that we saw the four grizzlies on the way up instead of on the way down. If we had summitted, and came across the grizzlies on the way down, we would have had less options. And let’s say that again they didn’t see, hear or smell us…. then we’d have to sit them out, and hope they would eventually move out of the way or head back down the cirque… giving us enough time to still get off the mountain before dark. But in the past we’ve watched grizzlies literally stay in one spot all day long and moth. Now that would have been a real problem. The last thing we’d want to do is to spend the night with them on the side of the mountain. So with all things considered, we were quite fortunate the way it all unfolded. Yes, we would have preferred to not have any grizzlies on Mount Merritt in Glacier National Park on the day of our climb, but Mount Merritt will always be there, and we’ll simply climb it next year…. and hope that we are “grizzly free” next time.