When I first saw Dave’s sketch of a high route through his beloved Glacier National Park, its appeal was not immediately obvious to me. Unlike more familiar lines (Roper’s, Winds, Kings Canyon), which generally hug major watershed divides by hopping between lightly traveled basins via off-trail passes, Dave’s line appeared to be a contrived ribbon of extended sidehills and improbable ridgewalks that was in a constant fight to avoid deflating drops into low valleys (and the thick brush that awaits there). Sure, it could be done, but would the effort-to-reward ratio be justifiable?
Other information about the route was scarce. In Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park, J. Gordon Edwards inserts vague descriptions of a Continental Divide Route throughout his definitive text. Richard Smith pieced it together over fifteen years, but is intentionally mum on details. Jeff Rome did the same last summer, but again provided little actionable advice. Of course, route beta for smaller segments is scattered throughout the internet, but finding it all (and confirming the accuracy) may take more time than actually doing the route.
Despite my reservations, when Dave invited me in February to join him on an attempt this summer, I cleared my calendar. When I’ve had the opportunity to learn from someone who is intimately knowledgeable of something — whether it be Glacier, ranching, or Quickbooks — I’ve rarely been disappointed.
True, it would be a blind date, since we’d never met, but I thought it’d be okay so long as our online personalities were at least partly reality-based. (Update: They are. As you’d expect, Dave is more abstract and I’m more exact. But our walking speeds, skill sets, and personalities are similar and/or complementary.) Plus, this route is best done with a partner, as a safety measure and emotional check.
We planned a 6-day/5-night itinerary, starting at Kintla Lake and exiting at Marias Pass. This timeline was based on Dave’s gut estimate, but when I started digging more deeply into the route the week beforehand, its 40k+ vertical feet of climbing sounded more like a 7-day route to me — assuming that we were not delayed by bad weather, mistaken navigation, planning oversights, or beaten bodies. In hindsight, an 8- or 9-day itinerary would have given us a more practical margin for error.
On the first day we hiked efficiently to just beyond Brown Pass, and were set up perfectly to start the traverse between Thunderbird Mountain and The Guardhouse in the morning. That section was extremely slow — we made it only 12 miles in about 12 hours. The complicated travel is highlighted in Dave’s video:
We reached the Highline Trail on the afternoon of Day 3, and both promptly fell apart — Dave from an inflamed Achilles, and me from sickly feet.
In the morning we bailed at the halfway point, Going-to-the-Sun Road. I returned later in the day solo, while Dave remained home to nurse his ankle. From Logan, I made it to Triple Divide Peak — at the southern end of the Norris Traverse — before exiting at St. Mary’s and rendezvousing with my car, which we’d shuttled during our down time. That left unfinished 20-30 miles of the route, but no doubt I’ll be back next summer.
As it turns out, the Glacier Divide Route is indeed different than other high routes. The vertical relief is more dramatic. There are fewer viable alternate routes. Most bailout options are Alaska-like: often worse than plodding on. Airy scrambles are more commonplace. Of course, there are bears and tighter backcountry regulations.
But the biggest difference is the underlying geology. Glacier is more like an inverted Grand Canyon, and the secret of off-trail travel is finding walkable ledges (ideally covered in goat tracks) and non-technical seams between them. Topographic maps and Landsat imagery offer suggestions, but on-the-ground reconnaissance is the ultimate validator.