I arrived at the winding trailhead at 6:10am only to find that the Glacier Gorge parking had already filled with early risers. I followed the trail of cars a bit further up the mountain to Bear Lake, and its trailhead and parking lot.
Today I brought the bear spray. Made sure I could reach it on the side of my pack, and had my knife on my thigh pocket. I even passed an odd man in a brown leather kilt that had bear bells. Even the signs warned of black bears, and what to do if you should encounter one. Still, I filled my hydropack, glanced over the map to walk an extra half mile from Bear Lake to Glacier Gorge, and set into the dawn-lit woods.
The trees were spindly, skinny and impossibly tall. There were so many, and each looked about to snap in half in the gentle wind. They coated the peaks so thoroughly in a dark, rich blanket, though at parts bathed in vibrant gold by the sunrise. The water under the footbridge rushed eagerly, cold and clear, starting its morning work with determination, bubbling and fizzling white.
I snaked through the dim aspens, winding along the creek and very quickly I came to Alberta Falls. Quiet and something to behold in the early morning, but clogged with tourists on the way back.
Alberta Falls cascaded down with a constant crash on the mossy rocks, the fine mist grazing my face as I looked on. This was the bottom of the alpine river, and I would soon understand why at this lower relative altitude it rushed so quickly. It flowed with clean, clear, simple power down into the green.
I kept climbing, across the open switchbacks, along the pine-spiked ridges. I began to see snow in the crevices of the rocks above, and knew I would soon have to trudge through it again.
I came upon the Loch, the first stunning and bright lake on this trail. It was set unbelievably under the backdrop of those snow-dusted mountains. But the air cut across the water, encouraging me to retrieve one of the two layers of clothing I’d stripped off on the warm climb.
Andrew’s Creek and Icy Brook passed tranquilly on my left, the water running only slightly more gently here.
And then I found the snow.
The heavy tree line receded, leaving me and my worn boots to carefully proceed through the first snow packs, footprints of other hikers already laid out for me. Carefully, I climbed up around the exposed rocks, the snow actively melting and slushy under the summer sun. I did, of course, slip and skid a few times (more on that later…), but I made it to Timberline Falls.
Something I’d never seen or pictured, it was a waterfall that dropped directly into a huge and steep bank of snow. It ran under the fractured snow packs to seep out the bottom.
And after that point started the climb to Sky Pond. An arrow on the signpost just pointed bafflingly straight up the rocky waterfall. Alright. I guess I’m doing this today, I thought. I supposed I would get good at rock climbing on this trip, if only by necessity.
I put my hiking pole away (should have brought two), and stepped up onto the first jagged boulder up the foot of the falls. A relatively short climb, but very precarious, my fingers gripping the slick ledges with white knuckles hoping I wouldn’t slip. At times, my boots simply had to be drenched in the water, no other way across. But eventually the rocks levelled out, and the Lake of Glass presented itself.
Not Sky Pond, as I and other hikers thought, but equally as ferociously windy. I lost my hat, twice, a silly garbled yell coming out of my throat as I dove to grab it from a bush. I scrambled to snatch it back up before it was spirited away forever.
Informed that this was not, in fact, the end of the trail, and with some help to find the path forward up the unassuming rocks, we all pushed onward.
Sky Pond really did look as though it was set on the edge of the heavens.
At 10,900 feet, there was nothing but a deep and perfect blue behind the snow-creviced cutting peaks. The frigid wind was constant and warmth-sapping. I had to tuck my hat in my belt to prevent it from flying away, and I put on my last layer. If I had known it would be like this, I would have brought a windbreaker. All the same, I huddled at the edge of the sky to eat my little protein bar. In that moment, it was the best snack I’d ever had, and I was still hungry.
Ten miles with the half mile addition from Bear Lake to the Glacier Gorge trailhead, and a 2,000 foot ascent. Even the Loch at that height was a little blue fleck in the hazy, yet sharp valley among the mountain range. After a long break, and watching some crazy hikers jump straight into the ice-cold water of the pond, I rose and turned around. A traffic jam had formed behind me, just in the time that I’d been sitting there. An early wake up to avoid the crowds was well worth the cold moaning and groaning in my tent that morning.
A steadily more trafficked and uneventful climb back down, except for one thing.
The snow, one completely coated hill that I’d taken such great care in climbing on the way up, one boot in front of the other in the pre-made depressions. I placed down a couple steps on my descent, and then…
I landed on my butt at the top of this hill (pictured above) in the snowy rut, legs out in front of me, hiking pole somehow managing to lose contact with the ground. I started sliding. “Well,” I said out loud, defeated and irritated as my wet ass gained speed on the damn slope. With no debris in my path, and a clear and padded stop at the bottom of the short hill, I just let myself slide (as if I could have stopped myself anyway). “I didn’t mean for that to happen,” I laughed as I came to an embarrassing stop in front of two hikers.
“But it was fun, no?” the fucking Frenchman said. Begrudgingly, I laughed again. I pushed myself up on the ice, and my butt was fortunately dry by the time I made it back to the trailhead.
Snow baskets on your hiking poles. Use them.
Despite the unexpected ass sledding, it was a beautiful day. Took about six hours to complete this trail.