On the second anniversary of walking out of corporate America, we saw no better way to commemorate the event than with walking up 4,325 vertical feet in 5.4 miles and back down again on a whim. TLDR: It didn’t end well, but the memory of it is getting better with time.
We honestly lost our senses (and the feeling in our fingers and toes). With Glacier basically closed in this “Phase 1 Reopening”, there are a handful of accessible trails and we decided to tackle the bear of the bunch – Mt Brown Lookout. One internet review says it is so steep only visitors in good physical condition should attempt this hike while another says it’s fun if you’re in shape, but could be a disaster if you’re not. We read these afterward, of course.
Dressed in t-shirt, fleece and Air Jordans, Eric dug around in the truck and found a plastic Safeway back with 6 Snyder’s sourdough pretzels and a Tupperware liter bottle of water to take on our trek. Originally we were going to drive around Flathead Valley to scout campgrounds for our move on Sunday, but called an audible and decided to hike a giant mountain instead.
The vertical ascent begins immediately and never stops. There is not one section of this trail that is flat. About a third of the way into the hike we fell into a pattern: Eric would scurry up the trail then wait for Sheri to plod along and catch up. So there we were, Scurry and Plod, averaging 142 heartbeats per minute, swatting gnats and mosquitoes discussing the pros and cons of turning back before sunk time set in and we couldn’t give up the elevation gained. Plus we were seeing wildlife and cool stuff like beetle bark and mushroom pods.
Three years ago, a large natural fire ripped through this area. Today the landscape is one of woodland recovery with the lower elevations full of low-level green growth and upper elevations burnt trunk poles on charred ground. The trail is a series of steep switchbacks cut into a near vertical slope that give ascending views of Lake McDonald below and surrounding snow covered peaks that continually improves with no leaves on trees to get in the way. It also gave us sore calves and sailor mouth that continually worsened with each step on the insidious incline.
We spoke to every hiking group we passed, partially out of curiosity and partially out of necessity to catch our breath. A young couple who had just gotten engaged showed off the ring, followed by a series of physically fit young people in Patagonia garb, sporting light-weight packs stuffed with energy bars, foul weather gear and bear spray, briskly springing along on the trail asking us if we were okay and wishing us “good luck.” We speculated on the conversation they probably had about us once out of ear-shot. It was the fashionable mountain goat who said nothing but we knew what he was thinking.
After 3 1/2 hours of hiking 5 miles, we’d crested at the lookout and could see the summit, just 1000 feet above. Eric stood on a glacier while Sheri revisited her recent reading of “Into Thin Air” as she gasped for breath. Interestingly, temperatures on the top of mountains can be far less than those at the base and this effect can be intensified by high winds. At that point we called it quits. A) we had no business being on that mountain and B) we had all the wrong clothes, no hiking poles and a bad-Mom’s 3rd grader snack bag and C) we had 5.4 miles of descent with dark clouds looming over the lake.
The Mount Brown look-out was in sight but we didn’t get there. But we did make it up to the snow level, above elevations where the forest grows. We perched ourselves precariously on a rocky outcropping from where we could peer down into the park to see the snaking Flathead river to the North filling the eerily blue Lake McDonald to the south in its entirety. Briefly we shared company with the snow-capped mountain range of the northern Rockies until the effects of hypothermia and oxygen deprivation overwhelmed our sense of zen.
The descent was worse and actually slower than the climb. Even though we were out of breath most of the time on the way up, we were stretching and gawking at the scenery. On the way down we were pounding our knees, toes pushed into shoes, rocky terrain threatened to roll a newly mended ankle, creaking hips, thighs, buttocks, lower back feeling the burn… you name it and we felt it badly. As Eric scurried, Sheri plodded, taking more amazing photographs trying to slow him down.
As we nurse our aching bodies today from the comfort of Roxie recliners, the pain is fading but the sense of wonder experienced up in the alpine zone remains. We will not attempt this kind of hike again we say to each other, knowing full well we probably will. It is the second big climb that we attempted but didn’t summit (Picacho Peak got us due to a fast setting winter sun), and we are surprisingly at peace with that. We made the right choice leaving our sedentary jobs for adventure and uncertainty on the road. Sometimes we come up short, but do we really?