Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Mind over mountain

Climbing Glacier's Mount St. Nicholas requires some gear and a lot of nerve

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Under a smoky gauze of September sky, I wedged my back into the cold, dihedral, dangled my legs over a narrow ledge and peered 4,000 feet down to the V-necked bottom of Coal Creek. Curved like an eagle talon, the burned valley swung north around the Cloudcroft Peaks and disappeared toward Surprise Pass. Mount Doody, sharp as a wolf's tooth, stood directly across the way. I shuddered and forced a deep breath.

This was all wrong.

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I shouldn't be looking north. I shouldn't be staring at Wolftail. I should be gazing east instead, across Battlement and Caper and toward the red argillite mountains of Two Medicine. I should see Rockwell and Rising Wolf looming against the hazy afternoon sky.

My climbing partner Kyle Fedderly was out of earshot, already climbing up through the next pitch of wind-whipped cliffs. With no choice but to keep feeding rope and belaying him, I'd have to explain my fear at the next anchor point. Which also meant that I would have to climb up this sheer wall of gray rock.

I was no rock climber, just a lover of wild country and a mediocre mountaineer. Over the past decade, I had managed to make my way to the top of more than a hundred peaks in Glacier National Park, many of them several times, but had purposefully steered clear of any that required ropes, belay devices, cams or carabiners. I had used an ice ax every summer, but other than climbing Blackfoot and Logan via Blackfoot Glacier once—making that high-angle maneuver above the bergschrund, hammering in snow pickets and belaying my buddy up behind me—I had never used ropes. I decided that if I needed ropes to climb it, then I didn't need to be there.

The reality, however beneficent my intentions, was that I probably stuck myself in more dangerous situations by climbing certain mountains without protection than I would have by climbing others a hundred times with protection. For instance, after free-soloing Mount Wilbur, I down-climbed wet, Class 5 rock in a September snowstorm. I got hung up in a gully while coming off the knife ridge of Kinnerly once, too, which was as close to the big slip as possible.

The bottom line is that I love being off-trail, exploring remote and wild mountains. In Glacier Park, going without ropes would limit me from sitting atop a few particular summits. This doesn't work because I genuinely hope to climb every peak in the park before I die or get old and decrepit—not out of some self-aggrandizing need to conquer or check numbers off a list, but because I love these mountains fiercely and want to explore each and every one of them. I want to know them firsthand, up close, and intimately. Then again, who the hell wouldn't want to swim in every lake, bushwhack every drainage, sleep in every subalpine basin, and climb every mountain in Glacier Park?

Back on the rock, the rope began whizzing through the belay device. It was Kyle, anchored somewhere above and pulling in slack. I stood on the narrow ledge, mindful of the pink tuft of moss campion that called this spot home, and fed rope. When it finally pulled taut, I leaned a shoulder into the cold rock, dug the hexes out of the dihedral and clipped them on the harness. Three tugs on the rope and Kyle responded with the same.

It was time to face the music. It was time to climb.

Mount St. Nicholas was my Moby Dick of Glacier Park peaks—a vertical thumb of a spire that had towered over countless days of my life and consumed my brain for years. When I was a backcountry ranger in Walton, I slept many a night under the mountain's shadow and woke many mornings to sun streaming across its northeast shoulder. I had even tried to climb it twice. Sort of. On the first attempt, I found myself delusional, dehydrated and sucking at a tiny seep of water a thousand feet below the "Great Notch." I was racked from a good, weeklong bender of booze. The second attempt took me to the Notch, where I chickened out. Instead of climbing, I sat atop a small, subsidiary peak to the east and photographed my buddy Jason Robertson free-solo his way up and down. It was mind-blowing to watch.

Robertson is like a skilled machine, though, and a resident expert of St. Nick. He had climbed the mountain six times, four by free-soloing it. He had even climbed St. Nick and Mount Doody (equally as technical and almost as tall as Nick) in the same day (23 and a half hours round trip) and alone. I, on the other hand, was a few years older than Robertson, in my late 30s, and two weeks away from the birth of my second child. There was no denying that I suddenly felt tempered by age, responsibility, and a new tendency toward self-preservation. The bedrock of my life was shifting.

That said, my need to overcome silly mental barriers is equally as real and visceral. I knew I could climb St. Nick, but I had never roped up and done anything like it. Climbing the mountain actually scared me less than rappelling down—at several rap stations you had to face the rock, hang your ass out over space, and then lean back, trusting the rope.

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Worst of all, however, was the thought of never exploring the summit.

Ten or 12 feet above where I stood, a flat ceiling blocked the top of the dihedral. Fortunately, hanging to the east was a rock face split by a lovely, climbable crack. An inch-wide lip ran from my ledge out to the break in the rock, and I just needed to sidle out there and get myself headed up toward Kyle. What worried me was that the ceiling from the dihedral also ran out to the crack, becoming a large bulge, and I would have to strong-arm up and over it.

With all my weight on my toes, I inched out onto the face, using the minutest plasticity of rock for finger holds. At the crack, I powdered my hands with chalk and wasted no time in starting up the break. The climbing was good, what with St. Nick being one of the few mountains in the park with solid rock, and the crack proved a perfect place to wedge fingers and toes. But this was an aberration for Glacier Park. Most mountains in the park are made of crumbly, sedimentary rock—horribly rotten slab—and demand great care climbing them. You never trusted a handhold, for instance, and you always pulled down and not out, if at all.

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