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Notes for next time: Gear, logistics, & snow travel || Glacier Divide Route

For my next trip on the Glacier Divide Route, what should I remember from this past one?

Undesignated camping near Gyrfalcon Lake. The popularity of this route will be limited by the availability of such permits.

Undesignated camping near Gyrfalcon Lake. The popularity of this route will be limited by the availability of such permits.

Logistics

  • The drive to Glacier National Park from Colorado is intimidating — about 15 hours, depending on the final destination. But it wasn’t terrible, and it’s eye-opening to know that I can reach Glacier in 1.5 days even if I’m the only driver.
  • Bring audio books and a smartphone loaded with new podcasts. They create an escape from long stretches of unremarkable road through Wyoming and eastern Montana.
  • The popularity of this route will be limited by the availability of undesignated camping permits, which cannot be reserved beforehand and which are at the discretion of the backcountry ranger at the permit office. Permit information.
  • Kintla is WAY out there (2 hours from Apgar) and no public transit options exist. Hitchhiking is an option, but it’s probably slow, especially during less popular seasons. Highway 2 crosses Marias Pass, but again it’s not serviced by public transit. The most convenient termini are Waterton Lakes and East Glacier, which can both be connected with a Glacier Park Inc. shuttle.
  • The free park shuttle is convenient for closing loops, e.g., start at Logan Pass and finish at The Loop or St. Mary’s.
Bring strong ankles and stiff-soled shoes in anticipation of extended side-hilling.

Bring strong ankles and stiff-soled shoes in anticipation of extended side-hilling.

Gear

  • A stiff sole with aggressive (or at least moderate) traction is crucial. In early- and mid-season, snow travel should be expected. And throughout all seasons, expect constant travel across and edging on steep slopes covered in hard dirt or slippery bear grass.
  • One trekking pole may be better than two. On Glacier’s brushy trails, rarely can two be used simultaneously. And while scrambling or descending steep vegetated slopes, this would leave one hand free all the times.
  • Waterproof shoes are terrible. Shame on outdoor brands for even offering them. In dry and hot conditions, feet get hot and sweaty. In wet conditions, feet get wet for a multitude of reasons (e.g. ankle-deep creek crossings, dew-covered brush covering the trail that drips down legs and wicks into socks). Once wet, the shoes take much longer to dry than breathable shoes.
  • The Sierra Designs High Route Tent 1FL sleeps two IF: only the canopy is used; and both sleepers are considerate campers, accustomed to sleeping on some of their gear (e.g. backpack), and not plus-sized.
  • The High Route Tent’s extra tie-out on the door is very important in strong winds. (On our first night, we estimated gusts to be 30-40 mph.) If it’s not tied out, notable deformation will occur.
  • The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor Pack was perfect. It matched my needs perfectly, in terms of volume, load capacity, and attachment points for trekking poles, ice axe, and crampons.
  • Bugs were moderate in the evening and in protected pockets during the day. Skeeters would wake us up in the morning, but were non-existent at night despite temperatures in the 40’s. The bug population was only about half mosquitoes; there were also annoying house flies and non-biting flies.
  • I applied Sawyer permethrin spray to my clothing beforehand, and had full-coverage hiking clothing and a headnet. I would not recommend anything less until later in August, when the bugs have faded.
  • Trekking pants worn over running shorts was mostly acceptable. The system gets hot in warmer temperatures and when hiking hard, but I’m unsure that pants with underwear would be substantially better.
  • DIY permethrin treatment does not seem as effective as factory-level treatment. The force field effect seemed less stellar. Next time, apply it more liberally.
  • On personal trips that are not high risk, bring just the DeLorme inReach instead of the sat phone — texting is more convenient for Amanda.
Ascending the snowfield on Thunderbird's north ridge. So long as the snow has not frozen hard overnight, it could be done comfortably in trail runners. But the precipice below the run-out is good motivation to wear crampons.

Ascending the snowfield on Thunderbird’s north ridge. So long as the snow has not frozen hard overnight, it could be done comfortably in trail runners. But the precipice below the run-out is good motivation to wear crampons.

Mountaineering and snow travel

  • I steadily became more comfortable with Glacier scrambling, which is often airy Class 3 (which some would categorize as Class 4) on sedimentary limestone. It’s different than the boulder-hopping and the slab scrambles in granitic areas.
  • In only one location did we both use our crampons: the north ridge of Thunderbird Mountain. I’m not convinced they were necessary (soft-ish snow, moderately steep), but we had them and we didn’t like the vertical precipice at the bottom of the snowfield. If we hadn’t turned around on the Thunderbird goat trail, we may have needed them to cross a few snow plugs that we could not get up-around or under.
  • Ice axes were useful only in one spot: on Sneak Pass, for expanding a slot between the cliff wall and the underside of a snow plug so that we could squeeze through, and higher up to cut steps in a head-high vertical cornice. Otherwise, they were dead weight.
  • The experience will vary with the time of year, the wetness of the prior winter, and on individual experience. Dave reported that the snowpack was about average; a cold and wet spring had saved a below-average snowpack.
Right: a USGS quad with the standard 40-foot contour interval. Left: with 80-foot contours. It makes a big difference: the 80-ft contours depict twice as much relief.

Right: a USGS quad with the standard 40-foot contour interval. Left: with 80-foot contours. It makes a big difference: the 80-ft contours depict twice as much relief.

Navigation

  • On two occasions, the track recorded by my Suunto Ambit GPS watch went haywire. On both occasions, I was experiencing stormy weather with electrical activity. Coincidence?
  • Most of the USGS quads of Glacier have 80-foot contours, not the standard 40-foot. This is important to recognize — that makes the relief twice as big!
  • Double-check the USGS quads with the Trails Illustrated park map. Old trails on the USGS maps are no longer useful, as they quickly become overgrown, or they have since been burned.
A standard breakfast: 3.5 oz of cereal and 1.5 oz of protein powder. It's more interesting than bars, and it's a convenient way to get protein. Just add water.

A standard breakfast: 3.5 oz of cereal and 1.5 oz of protein powder. It’s more interesting than bars, and it’s a convenient way to get protein. Just add water.

Food

  • I did not appear to be digesting the dehydrated vegetables in the Curry Couscous dinner. The following morning, I would promptly expel whole carrot slices and corn. If they simply need more cook time, consider an alternate ingredient — they’re not going to get it.
  • Like last summer, I found that a 5-oz breakfast, 7-oz dinner, and four snacks of 3 to 4 ounces is perfect. For the first three days, I can suffice on three snacks.
  • The Ursack AllWhite is awesome. It’s 8 ounces and provides reliable protection from rodents and bears. I’m more concerned about the former than the latter, especially at designated camps.

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9 Responses to Notes for next time: Gear, logistics, & snow travel || Glacier Divide Route

  1. Sean August 1, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    “Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor Pack”

    LOL

    Excellent name.

  2. Bill August 1, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    I have found a marked difference in the effectiveness of home Permethrin treated clothing and factory treated clothing. We have had a wet summer in Illinois and the chiggers have been a real problem. I have only had a couple of chigger bites since I started wearing my factory treated socks. Chiggers really go for the ankles and the bites itch forever. I will still treat my own clothing, but I think that I will soak rather than spray. I doubt that the treatment really penetrates synthetic fabrics and may be better suited to wool.

    • Andrew Skurka August 1, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

      I’m so glad to hear my personal observation confirmed. My recollection from my big AK trip was that my permethrin-treated clothing was remarkably effective; and same a few years later when I guided a group for two weeks right in the midst of bug season. With this aftermarket stuff, it seems to lack the same performance.

  3. Brad R. August 1, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

    You can send any piece of clothing to Insect Shield to treat with their system that supposedly lasts 70 washings It isn’t cheap, but not unreasonable either especially if you send multiple pieces at once. I sent my hiking shirt, pants, and socks before going to Alaska last year.

    • Andrew Skurka August 1, 2016 at 7:59 pm #

      There are two big advantages to this option. First, if you already own clothes you like, you don’t need to buy more clothes — you just need to spend an extra $10 per item. Second, you greatly increase your clothing options, since permethrin-treated clothing currently represents only a small fraction of the overall market.

      • Bill August 2, 2016 at 5:29 am #

        Availability of the factory treated clothing is a problem. The piece that you want may very well not be available treated. I was fortunate to find some socks on clearance, so I bought several pairs.

  4. Bryan August 4, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    Given your minimal use of crampons and ice axe on this trip, will you still bring them next time? Would micro-spikes offer “just as good” traction as crampons given the snow texture? Looks like the vertical you guys tackled on the snow fields may require something more stable than micro-spikes.

    BTW, I probably missed you by only a couple days at Triple Divide Peak, though I was on the much tamer CDT section of the pass. I, too, experienced bug pressure during the days when idle (didn’t seem to bother much when moving) and early part of evenings. No problems at night. I used Sawyer’s Permethrin spray on clothing prior to trip, which has always performed admirably for me (meaning I will continue using it or consider the Insect Shield send off treatment mentioned above).

    Both your’s and Dave’s post were fun and interesting reads. The topographic detail on the larger scale NatGeo Trails map looks pretty intense. Is the true start of the route intended to be Boulder Pas/Bowman Lake junction? What is the intended ending point?

    • Andrew Skurka August 4, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

      Need for foot traction and ice axe will vary with the trip and person. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have left behind all but one axe. But we did not know. Next year the snow conditions we experienced may still be the case in mid-August, or early-June if it is a drought.

      Real route starts at Brown Pass. Kintla/Boulder is a better way to start than Watertown in terms of scenery, but logistically it is best to do Watertown to East Glacier (or Marias Pass, less easy but not bad)

  5. Luke August 19, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    “Waterproof shoes are terrible. Shame on outdoor brands for even offering them”

    I think the public should be blamed more then the brands. Look at Altra, the public will pester a company until they give in and offer waterproof options. I have a hard time blaming large companies for giving the public exactly what they want, there are some brands that can get away with offering what the customer needs and not what they want, but I don’t think large brands have that luxury.

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