Climbing Mount Merritt in Glacier National Park: 6 Grizzly Bears Guarding The Route

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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.

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Autumn in Glacier National Park

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Autumn in Glacier National Park
Even though summer is the most popular time for visitors to explore and enjoy Glacier National Park, fall is also a gorgeous time of year to visit this famous destination.  Even though the days are shorter and the nights are colder, the month of September and early October provide a host of reasons for you to consider visiting Glacier National Park during the autumn season.

#1.  The Aspens Turn Color
Most of the east side of Glacier National Park is covered in aspens, and during the last week in September and first week of October, the aspen leaves turn bright gold.  It’s a spectacular sight… especially around Chief Mountain along the Chief Mountain International Peace Parkway.

#2. The Rut
Elk and moose have there mating season, known as “the rut”, in late September and early October. Watching these great animals “do what they do” is absolutely amazing.  You will see bull elk fighting to protect their harems, and you will hear them bugle at each other…. It’s really something special to experience this amazing behavior.  And watching a huge bull moose guard over his cow… it’s really a great time of year.

#3.  Electric Blue Sky
The sky during the fall season in Glacier National Park turns a vivid “electric blue” that is even more striking when the aspen leaves have turned to their bright gold color.  It’s a shade of blue not seen any other time of year…. providing that the regional fires are out by then.

#4.  Easier River and Stream Crossings
There are several Glacier Park hikes that require that the hiker ford across a river or stream, and fall is the best time of year to make these crossings because the water level is much lower than spring or summer.

#5.  Cooler Temperatures
The day time and night time temperatures begin to really cool down in Glacier National Park, especially after mid-September.  These cooler temperatures make hiking very pleasant and really make a campfire feel extra good as the night time temperatures begin to drop dramatically.  This time of year you’ll really enjoy your down sleeping bag as well.

#6.  Fresh Snow on the Mountain Tops
If you’re lucky, you will get to see a fresh “dusting” of snow on the peaks of Glacier National Park. This fresh snow, with the electric blue sky and the golden aspens, are what dreams are made of when taking scenic photographs.

#7.  The Tamaracks (Larch) Turn Yellow
Glacier National Park is home to many Tamarack trees, also known as Larch.  Located mainly on the west side of the continental divide, these amazing trees look like evergreens in the spring and summer, but during late September and early October, the needles turn a vivid yellow before they fall off the tree.  When the tamarack forests are yellow with a dark green background of the neighboring evergreens, the sight is breathtaking.

#8.  Animals Are More Visible
Fall is a great time to see animals in Glacier National Park. They are out more because the days are cooler, and many animals such as pika are busy gathering food for winter, or animals such as bears are trying to really fatten up for their long winter’s nap.  They are so busy looking for food that often times they are out all day and quite visible to visitors. Elk and moose are in their mating seasons, and later in the fall (November) the big horn sheep, mule deer and whitetail deer begin their mating seasons.  So fall is a wonderful time to view wildlife.

Limited Services
Now of course many of the Glacier National Park Lodging Facilities and Glacier Park Campgrounds begin closing up in September, but keep in mind that many of the campgrounds are still open, even though they won’t have running water.  Instead, they turn what is known as “primitive”.  So you can still camp, but you won’t have all the conveniences that are provided during the summer season.  The lodges are closed up usually by the third week of September, and the Going To The Sun Road typically remains open until mid October, depending on the weather.

But if you are OK with the primitive campgrounds and the lodge closures, you will truly enjoy some magical days in Glacier National Park.  Fall is an amazing time of year in Glacier… the colors, the clear skies, the cool nights, the snow capped peaks and the animals all make autumn a very special time, and we highly recommend that you take some time and explore it.

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