Mount Stimson

August 22-25, 2019

3091m

Glacier National Park, MT

The monstrous massif of Mt. Stimson, the second highest in Glacier National Park of Montana rises 2000 vertical meters above the remote Nyack Creek valley in the south-western corner of the park. This peak may not be “difficult” from technical perspective, but the access is an ordeal no matter which route to take and because of that, this peak has reputation of being a tough bastard. This peak is one of the 100+ “P4K” (peaks with 4000 feet of prominence) in contiguous US and also one of the six 11,000ers in Glacier National Park. There are four ways to approach the low saddle between Mt. Stimson and Mt. Pinchot and all require suffering. After getting there, the standard route, SE Ridge is nothing but a “3rd class” scramble on some typical Rockies choss, but remember, one has to get there first…

  • The shortest is via Pinchot Creek but such access requires over 10 km (one way) of bushwhacking. Given the status of the brushes in this part of the country I wonder how is that possible without a bulldozer…
  • The standard route approaches from Coal Creek and Beaver Woman Lake. There is a major river crossing at the start, a long ledge traverse across the NE Face of Mt. Pinchot and and short section of bushwhacking.
  • The Nyack Creek valley offers a similar ordeal as the Coal Creek valley
  • Greg Slayden et al. had pioneered a new route from Two Medicine Lake on the east side of the park over the continental divide. Their route avoids the river crossing as well as the Mt. Pinchot traverse, but adds a “class 4 crux”, considerable amount of elevation and a lot more bushwhacking.

A few days into the 2019 peak-bagging road trip Adam and I received an invite from Sean C. and Asaka coming from California, that we definitely had two spots of permit secured for an attempt on Mt. Stimson by the standard Coal Creek approach. The span would be five days allowing a leisure pace and a chance to scramble the nearby Mt. Phillips, a “P3K” objective that’s also listed in the “Top 400 in Contiguous US”. On the other hand, our friend Connor M. just finished Grand Teton and was travelling north, hoping to finish his “Ultras of Contiguous US” list on Mt. Cleveland, a feat that had only be done 15 times in the past. The problem with Connor’s trip was the uncertainty in obtaining permits. None of us had booked the permits and we were essentially taking a lottery on the walk-ins. Mt. Cleveland was the original plan but Glacier National Park is famed for the difficulty in obtaining backcountry permits. Adam and I debated for at least two days and eventually settled on Mt. Stimson. This meant that Connor would have to show up and get a walk-in permit that had the exact same itinerary. This seemed unlikely but he did manage to get one. It’s coming all together at the last minute and our group was finally assembled. Adam and I promised Connor that if the weather held for the following week we’d stick in this area to climb Mt. Cleveland.

Mt. Phillips and Mt. Stimson via Coal Creek approach. GPX DL

The weather forecast had downgraded towards the last minute and we were definitely in for some rain, at some point during the trip. The first day had chances of thunderstorms but the next two days were supposed decent, before weather collapsing on the 4th day. In the morning of Thursday (Day 1) we sorted the last minute permit things in the backcountry office at West Glacier and drove to the trail-head, a mere 15 miles away. Right off the bat we had to cross a busy highway, a train track with a parked train, and then ford the Middle Fork of Flathead River. The fording was not difficult but did appear somewhat daunting. The water was crystal clear to see the depth of the river, but the rocks were extremely slippery. After the river crux we picked up Coal Creek trail and our next business was a 6-mile death march to Coal Creek Camp, our destination of Day 1. There wasn’t much see from this boring stretch other than the striking Mt. St. Nicholas but I was happy to be finally back in this park after my first visit in August 2015 from Edmonton, Alberta. The rain did hold off nicely allowing a dry hike. There were some rain drops after setting up the tents but nothing affecting us. The rest of the day was spent chatting, cooking and making a bonfire. Backcountry fire was allowed in the Coal-Nyack zone and we wanted to take advantage of that, for the sake reason of why-not…

Adam hopping over a parked train at the start.

The group fording Middle Fork Flathead River.

As typical as the first 6 miles of march towards Coal Creek Camp

Sean on the first crossing of Coal Creek

Adam and Connor and our first campfire.

A zoomed-in view of Mt. St. Nicholas from our first camp

Mt. St. Nicholas at evening alpenglow time

The next morning we woke up under some valley fogs and heavy dew. The tents were reasonably dry but the brushes were all coated by a layer of water making some annoying wet conditions. The trail was easy to follow and nicely maintained, but the brushes had grown in in most sections. We also had to do a few crossings of Coal Creek. The crossings were trivial but did require taking the shoes off. Our objective of Day 2 was getting to Beaver Woman Lake to set up a basecamp, but because of the unstable weather forecast for the 4th and 5th day Connor, Adam and I were discussing to bag Mt. Phillips right away instead of gambling on the weather. This required an additional 1200 m of elevation gain that Sean and Asaka weren’t keen, so we split at the trail-junction. Adam, Connor and I continued another mile to Surprise Pass and did manage to bag Mt. Phillips. The ascent was extremely unpleasant with lots and lots of terrible, wet bushwhacking. The ascent of Mt. Phillips is written in a separate trip report.

Asaka and the morning mist on Day 2

Sun rising behind the thin layer of morning mist. Our group’s marching up

Mt. St. Nicholas and its reflection

Another angle looking towards Mt. St. Nicholas – a technical summit

The typical scenery on the 10 miles of march on Day 2…

This is looking up the south slopes of Cloudcroft Peaks

Sean on the second crossing of Coal Creek

Asaka looking small on the trail.

Connor on another Coal Creek fording

Asaka hiking a dry stretch with Mt. Phillips in front

Yep there’s another crossing of Coal Creek…

Despite what appears we were actually following a well defined trail…

Fast forward. Me on the summit of Mt. Phillips after hours and hours of bushwhack

From the trail junction we still had about 1.5 miles and ~200 m elevation gain to the camp site and we got there at just after 7 pm, a little later than expected. The evening routine was uneventful and we made another fire for fun. We also played some textbook styled bear safety protocol in this trip and that was not usual for me.

We made to Beaver Woman Camp. The campfire’s already started.

Looking back towards Mt. Phillips. Felt great to clean it up on just Day 2

Asaka and our campfire on the second night.

On Saturday morning we woke up under some overcast sky and strong winds but the various forecasts we got from inReach and the services on the summit of Mt. Phillips all indicated “sunny” conditions on this day, so up we went following the plan. The beta wasn’t very clear about how to gain Pinchot/Eaglehead col but we figured it’s probably better to start bushwhacking from the higher Buffalo Woman Lake. The bushwhacking involved some short stretches of “BW4” but the vegetation was dry and the dense brushes weren’t nearly as sustained as on Mt. Phillips. Ascending northwards we crossed a broad, forested ridge feature, dropped into a grassy bowl and then bushwhacked through some steep krummholz to exit the green zone. Gaining the col between Mt. Pinchot and Eaglehead Mountain required a stretch of boulder field and some scree. Once gaining the col we were hammered by some strong winds, and the weather was still mostly overcast with our objective, Mt. Stimson engulfed in clouds.

Short but dense “BW4” bushwhacking above Buffalo Woman Lake

Sean and Asaka on a brief stretch without brushes. Mt. Phillips behind

Asaka thrashing through some krummholz

Adam posing on the boulder field with Buffalo Woman Lake behind

The 2-mile traverse across the faces of Mt. Pinchot wasn’t clearly described on any beta, so we were in for some route-finding and decision making. The first business was to gain ~200 feet (60 m) above Pinchot/Eaglehead col and that’s pretty much the only useful beta we had. After that all we knew was to start contouring. The traverse can be broken down into two stages – the first, easier stage across the SW Face of Mt. Pinchot on some scree benches and the second stage across the NW Face of Mt. Pinchot on a narrow scree ledge. The key on the SW Face traverse was to not gain much elevation. I wasn’t fully convinced but the occasional cairns and paths kept our bearing down. Around a corner I thought we had to aim for a broader scree bench at about 100 vertical meters higher, but again, cairns and paths kept us staying low on some narrow ledges sandwiched between shear cliffs. The traverse was much easier than appeared but seemed never-ending. There actually wasn’t much route-finding decisions to be made on the NW Face section because we literally only had one way to go. The ledges weren’t flat but we actually lost more elevation than gained, so keep that in mind. The last 1/3 was a bit undefined but had the least exposure. The low saddle between Mt. Stimson and Mt. Pinchot is more than 800 vertical meters below the summit.

Asaka on the first (SW Face) stretch of traversing across Mt. Pinchot

Around the SW Corner we could see Mt. Stimson looming in front

A zoomed-in shot of Adam, Asaka and Sean on a tiny stretch of the NW Face traverse

This is looking down the Pinchot Creek valley.

Mt. Stimson and the SE Ridge ahead

Connor checking out the north side of Pinchot/Stimson col

Panorama of upper Nyack Creek valley from Pinchot/Stimson col.

This is looking at a glacial lake at the headwaters of Stimson Creek

We took one last long break at a sheltered spot immediately above Pinchot/Stimson col and the weather still looked threatening. We started to worry that the clouds might not clear at all and we might get rained on. To maximize the chance of success Connor, Adam and I decided to go ahead while Sean and Asaka would follow behind on their own pace. The scrambling on the SE Ridge appeared daunting but I assured the others that in Canadian Rockies, the peaks are generally much easier than appeared. The rocks were chossy as expected, but the terrain is made of infinitely many ledges with chimneys and steps to break through. There weren’t much down-sloping terrain and certainly no “climbing move” needed. What appeared to be technical would turn into “no harder than 3rd class”, at least by the PNW standard. The line we took was closer to the ridge crest, climber’s right of Greg Slayden’s GPX track. The terrain we encountered was mostly “class 2” on the lower half and no harder than “class 3+” on the upper sections. The summit ridge was narrow but not exposed, and in no time we were on the summit reading the register. Too bad the last 100 vertical meters were done in the clouds so we had zero view.

Starting the 800 m scramble on SE Ridge of Mt. Stimson

Me picking the way. Photo by Adam W.

Adam on the lower face – mostly class 2

Mt. St. Nicholas still looks impressive on the horizon

Connor ascending onto the upper SE Ridge

Adam starting to encounter short steps of 3rd class

This is our best view looking back towards Mt. Pinchot

Adam and Connor scrambling on the upper ridge of Mt. Stimson

Another photo of Adam scrambling on upper reach of Mt. Stimson

Me dashing across the summit ridge. Photo by Adam W.

Me on the last few steps to the summit. Photo by Connor M.

Me on the summit of Mt. Stimson

The register entry to prove we indeed made the summit…

Adam, Connor and I on the summit of Mt. Stimson, second highest in G.N.P.

Not wanting to risk getting caught in a thunderstorm the three of us didn’t linger any longer than necessary. We thought Sean and Asaka had turned around but after traversing back across the summit ridge we were surprised to see them still going up, taking a slightly different line (closer to Greg Slayden’s GPX track, more on the E. Face than SE Ridge). We estimated they’d summit in another half an hour so instead of waiting we started the descent on our own. It turned out that the clouds actually lifted and they managed to get some decent views from the top! The descent down SE Ridge was tedious, but easy. The ledges could mostly be descended by facing outwards or sideways and carrying one pole was certainly a good idea, at least for me. We waited at the saddle for less than 1 hour and then the five of us regrouped for the long ass traverse back across Mt. Pinchot. I was going to bag either Mt. Pinchot or Eaglehead Mountain too but after some internal debates I opted not, in order to save energy for Mt. Cleveland. With both Mt. Phillips and Mt. Stimson down it’s clear that we wouldn’t need the 5th day, and that further meant we were in for a burly Day 4, close to 30 km death march to hike out… It’s been a while since I pushed hard on horizontal and I wanted to have some reserve.

A zoomed-in view of Sean and Asaka still scrambling up.

Connor on the summit ridge and I just started the descent. Photo by Adam W.

Adam descending the typical terrain on the upper route

Me posing on the descent. Photo by Connor M.

This is looking down towards Pinchot/Stimson col, hundreds of meters below

Much lower down now.

Adan descending the last 100 m to the col.

A stretch of Continental Divide – Mt. James, Norris Mtn., Split Mtn., etc.

Tinkham Mountain in the foreground.

The traverse back across Mt. Pinchot was again, tedious but not difficult. The rest of the descent back to camp was also not very pleasant because of some compact scree and bushwhacking. Adam took over the lead here through the brushes as my brain needed some rest time. This evening we again, set up a fire for fun, but didn’t stay up long.

Sean just started the NW Face Mt. Pinchot traverse

Adam on a short stretch of elevation regain

Sean looks tiny around a corner, Mt. Stimson behind

Adam leading what appears to be the typical terrain here, for more than 1 mile long

Asaka traversing

Bowl after bowl. Asaka still traversing…

Asaka traversing around the W. Corner onto the easier, SW Face section

Connor leading the second half of Pinchot traverse

Connor descending towards Pinchot/Eaglehead col

Adam descending to the col

Mt. Phillips looks impressive from our vantage point

Adam leading down into the bush… Let’s face it…

Connor bushwhacking in the typical Glacier brush

Party time back to the camp…

The morning of Sunday (Day 4) we woke up under some similar weather and did some routine packing and cooking thing. Unfortunately for us, the weather collapsed as soon as we got down to the main Coal Creek trail and the rain literally never stopped until later that afternoon in West Glacier. In no time we were soaked to the bone from the wet brushes. There was actually not that much worth documenting about the rainy hike-out because all we needed was following the trail out. I somehow decided to not use rain gear at all and somehow managed to stay warm for a few hours all the way until Coal Creek campground. Adam and I had to do a short detour retrieving some ditched equipment and meanwhile I did a quick change of clothing. I abandoned the wet t-shirt and pants and went for rain jacket and rain pants and felt much more pleasant. My shoes were so soaked that I didn’t even bother to take the shoes off for the last crossing of Coal Creek. We also marched back at a ridiculously fast pace because we believed speed could overtake the misery. I also didn’t bother to swap shoes for sandals on the final crossing of Middle Fork Flathead River. The river was thigh deep now, but didn’t impose much of a problem. The train wasn’t there anymore but the crux might actually be the road crossing at the very end. This road was very busy and the cars were very fast…

Starting the long ass depproach

Connor at the first Coal Creek crossing

A storm just passed us moving towards Mt. Phillips.

This picture of Mt. St. Nicholas sets the tone of this day…

A very soggy Connor on another Coal Creek crossing

Asaka on yet another Coal Creek crossing, in pouring rain now

Connor fording the much-higher Middle Fork Flathead River

Sean hopping back across the train track. No train parked here now.

The road crossing at the end might actually be the most dangerous of this trip…

In the end we got back to the parking lot at 2:30 pm at least a couple hours faster than expected, tired and beaten but very satisfied. Given the shitty weather we literally couldn’t ask for better. Normally in the weather we just encountered in this trip I wouldn’t even bother to do day-hikes, but we managed to knock two tough bastards in Glacier National Park and still finished the trip one day ahead of schedule. There was no cell service at the parking lot so we didn’t stay long there. For Adam, Connor and I the first stop was West Glacier to check weather. The weather looked awesome for the next short while so we went straight for the backcountry office to secure our walk-in permits for Mt. Cleveland. It was a miracle that we just showed up and got the permits. The three of us then drove back to Kalispell to regroup with Sean and Asaka in the pre-agreed Mongolian Grill restaurant. The five of us then went for a lodge stay splitting the 250 dollars of cost. It was still expansive for my kind of standard, but in the middle of such a road trip we just had to do one night of civilized stay. Connor was the man staying up late to do our laundry thing.

The following morning we woke up as late as we could. Sean and Asaka had to go back to California and they left in the late AM. Connor decided to use the one-and-only rest day to catch up some work thing, while Adam and I opted to pay some cash to the Whitefish ski resort, taking a chairlift to bag Big Mountain. The weather was gorgeous and we just couldn’t spend the day without bagging a peak. The ascent of Big Mountain would involve over 600 m elevation gain that we decided taking a chairlift would be the most reasonable way, especially given the big, big trip coming up.

That night we went back to the car-camping routine. Adam found a secret spot that might actually be much better than most paid campground one could find. For the purpose of keeping it secret I wouldn’t share the location in my trip report but my hint is to spend time on your Google satellite images… And then it’s time for Mt. Cleveland and Mt. Merritt