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.

Beneath the large bulge, I stopped to yank loose a hex nut, well placed by Kyle. I hung from a tripod position, leaned on the nut tool and pushed. Nothing. I shifted my weight and hammered at the nut, whacked at it, jabbed at it and pried at it. Still nothing. My calves began to tremble. Each leg began to shake. With an eternity of emptiness beneath me, I carefully reversed my feet and reached for the hex with my left hand. The thing still wouldn't budge, wouldn't slip a millimeter. Against all rational thought, I pushed away from the rock, out over nothingness, and then fell back against the hex. In a quick break of resistance, the nut gave way and flew deep into the crack. I slammed into the rock with my shoulder and without hesitation I grabbed the hex, unhooked it from the rope and clipped it to my harness.

"You're out of your element," I muttered, barely audible over the frozen wind.

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There was no turning back now. Kyle was ahead of me, and so was the possibility of being back on route. To descend would mean rappelling from our anchors and leaving hexes behind, and I didn't like the prospect of dangling from a few nuts anymore than I wanted to leave metal garbage on the mountain. With no choice, I sucked in a deep breath and reached blindly up and over the bulge.

The first recorded summit of St. Nick was in 1926 by Conrad Wellen, although the 1966 discovery of his logbook beneath a rock at the Great Notch casts some doubt over whether he actually made the top. In 1933, Robert T. Young and R. T. Young Jr. completed the second climb of St. Nick. The first winter ascent of the rugged horn didn't occur until December 28, 1985, by the Columbia Falls father-and-son team of Tom and Trenton Cladouhos. Trenton was a teenager.

For the past decade, a dozen or so people had climbed St. Nick every year, most using the Coal Creek drainage. The drainage burned in 2003, creating a direct and easy bushwhack to the Notch that avoided what used to be a three-day venture up Muir Creek or Park Creek. Robertson used the new route once, sauntering up and down the mountain, from truck door to truck door, in 13 hours. That wasn't long after Coal had burned, but now vegetation was growing taller and the forest was thickening again.

What baffled me most was that Robertson and Terry Kennedy, perhaps the most accomplished Glacier Park climber ever, had tackled this beast without ropes. With one hand above the bulge, I glanced over my left shoulder and laughed. Talk about exposure! I hung on a near-vertical rock face that buckled back into the mountain, leaving nothing but cold air between me and scree fields thousands of feet below. A slip without ropes and the party was over.

Needing to make my crux move, I prayed that the crack continued far enough above the bulge to keep finding handholds, but I couldn't see up there yet. My gut wrenched at the thought of slipping backwards, groping for purchase, and having to trust the rope as I fell and dangled in space.

"Hold tight," I hollered, not sure whether Kyle could hear me or not.

I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and opened them. I reached with my toe, blindly stuffing it deep in the crack of the bulge, the meat of my foot wedged in the rock. Then I sucked in one more lungful of air, growled like a bear, and stood. The world disappeared. My focus narrowed with all my energy funneled into the rock. Riding the momentum, I reached and slapped my left hand onto the cold rock. My fingers splayed out, felt the crack. I jammed them in and held tight. I pulled again, then wedged in my other foot. Standing, I reached, found the break, and pulled. Then slung a knee over the bulge. Then the other knee. Then flopped onto my belly and inched along, the slab mellowing, the rope slithering above me, guiding me. Gasping for air, I scampered up three small ledges and found Kyle. My heart thundered in my chest and my arms and legs tingled with adrenaline.

"Holy shit," I yelled, anchoring in beside him. I leaned back and groaned.

"You made it," said Kyle, who had shimmied seamlessly up and over the bulge, like the experienced climber he is.

"Barely," I sighed. "Wasn't sure for a minute there. But, we're too far north, bub. We need to work our way back east."

"I was worried about that, too. We haven't seen a rap station in a while. What do you think?"

"No choice but to keep climbing, right? You're the expert."

"That's what I'd hoped you'd say. Climbing is definitely easier."

"More than one way to shimmy up a mountain, partner."

"Damn straight," he smiled. "Belay me up this way, and we'll cross our fingers."

"Copy."

With cold hands, we unclipped carabiners, reclipped carabiners, and Kyle began climbing. I fed rope through the belay device and soon he disappeared over a shelf of cliffs. Since the bulge, we could have climbed the Class 3 and 4 rock without the rope, but we needed it to rappel back down.

"Rap station!" hollered Kyle in no time, his voice tumbling down over the rock, unmistakable. Then three tugs on the rope.

"Hell, yes!" I screamed back at the top of my lungs. "Coming up."

"All good!"

Soon, I joined Kyle at the rappel station—a small boulder wrapped in neon-colored slings—and we peered over the sheer northeast face. Our packs were tiny dots on the rock near the Notch.

"You want to keep climbing, or go ahead and rappel down?" asked Kyle. "I know that bulge was sketchy."

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"I'm not going down yet," I said. "I have to rappel down this beast either way, so we might as well climb it first. I don't think we have far to go now."

"Me, either," Kyle said, with a bigger grin than usual.

Sure enough, the next few hundred feet was mellow, Class 3 stair-stepping. We moved quickly and freely, having left the rope at the rappel station, and before we knew it, we crested the small summit.

Smoky skies hung in every direction, obscuring the distant peaks of the park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. More than 5,000 feet straight down, Coal Creek drained the valley, a sinuous thread of gray through the red autumn. I spun a quick 360, snapping pictures, and spent the next few minutes studying the shape of the summit and the rocks that lived there. I still couldn't believe I was atop Nick. It seemed like forever coming. And I didn't know if I'd ever make it back—this might be a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

With sunlight waning, we paid our respects to the mountain and then hurried back to the rap station. If the rope got caught on the way down and it took half an hour to shake loose, we would be rappelling to the Notch in the dark—a scary thought. Kyle played guinea pig and hopped over the cliff while I sat on the ledge, anchored to the boulder. Racked by fatigue and driven by a desire to be on flat ground, I didn't hesitate when it was my turn and cruised down the rope. The descent was surprisingly fun in that it offered the most bizarre view of the mountain, what a bird sees sailing down a cliff face. I studied the rock as I lowered myself, fascinated by the perspective and suddenly filled with the desire to rappel down every mountain wall, like a pioneer or explorer. Before I knew it, I had descended four rap stations and we stood at the Notch.

I howled, loud as I could, and then hugged Kyle.

"Amen, mountain," I said, too, and bowed.

No rest for the wicked, though. Before we could relax, we still had to drop a thousand feet down a precipitous goat trail. Following the bouncing halo of our headlamps, Kyle and I managed to joke about how peaceful it was to stumble along without seeing the tremendous exposure that fell away just beyond the beam of light. We could have been walking in a valley and it would not have appeared any differently. Never, however, did we let our guard down.

Hours later, we forded Coal Creek and retrieved our gear from the Elk Creek campground. We had stayed there for a short spell of sleep the night before beginning the climb. Back out on the trail, we followed our high beams, plodding numbly ahead, one foot in front of the other.

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At 4:30 a.m., more than 23 hours since we first left the backcountry campground, we threw our packs into my car and collapsed onto the seats. Exhausted. Spent. Barely able to focus.

An hour later, at home in Columbia Falls, and without a wink of sleep, I helped my 18-month-old daughter, Harper, from bed. Like always, we made cereal, shuffled some Coltrane on iTunes, and began our day.

"Daddy went hiking," she said in her cute bird voice, milk dribbling down her chin.

"Yep, Dad climbed Mount St. Nicholas," I replied. "In the park."

"Harper hike, too!" she hollered, tossing her head back and dunking her spoon for another bite.

"You want to hike this afternoon?" I asked. I couldn't help but smile.

"Yeah," she squealed. "Harper hike with daddy."

So we did, up the North Fork. Nothing crazy, just a mellow walk in the park: whistling at birds and looking for bears. Counting clouds and rocks. Naming trees and flowers. Flat ground felt good beneath my feet.

Looking south, in the direction of Nick, I couldn't help but wonder if someday Harper and I would climb mountains together. Or if the new baby would. Or maybe all of us.

I hoped so.

Maybe I would see the top of St. Nick again, after all.

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