With the government shut down, the research and science programs in Glacier ground to a halt. Despite being at a critical juncture for the season—the brief, erratic window before the weather makes getting up high difficult and dangerous—, park scientists were forced to set aside their research until Congress could resolve its differences. When they were allowed to go back to work a week and a half ago, it appeared that the October snows would soon close the season with incomplete data sets.
But the unseasonably-warm weather continued to hold out hope. So, needing a night out, I volunteered to conduct a field survey at Gunsight Pass.
The plan was simple enough: Hike into Sperry after work, camp, hike to Gunsight in the morning, and out that afternoon the way I came.
I started an hour later than I had hoped—packing is never as simple as I pretend it is when planning at the last minute. But the sunset on the way up the Sperry trail made the headlamp-hiking worth it.
I got in later than I wanted to—3,400 feet of elevation gained seemed less daunting when I began scheming, and my hasty plan didn’t account for either the gap of nearly two months since my last serious trip or several extra pounds of survey equipment. But I still managed to get a full nine hours of sleep that night, and I woke refreshed and ready, with frost on the inside of my shelter.
Below me, Lake McDonald was covered in a morning haze thick enough to obscure all but the top of Howe Ridge, and the Apgar Mountains—the entire range in view—rose from the clouds in shades of blue and pink. I lingered longer than I should have. But the morning was beautiful, and I needed the opportunity to enjoy it.
I still had to gain Lincoln Pass before I could descend into the Lake Ellen Wilson drainage and ascend again to Gunsight Pass. So, I packed up quickly, losing more time fumbling and packing that I had planned. The two months away had me out-of-rhythm already, but I was off soon enough. Despite the later-than-planned departure, I still didn’t make it into the morning sunlight until I reached Lincoln Pass.
From that point forward, the warm southern exposure of the last two weeks had melted out most of the snow, and what was left was hard-packed by the thaw-freeze cycle. Fresh griz tracks preceded me into the basin, but I would see no sign of bears—or any animal other than the brief glimpse a pine marten and a water ousel—all day.
The journey to Gunsight Pass was unremarkable, but only in the way that having such a beautiful basin all to oneself can be. That is to say, it was wholly remarkable, and I don’t have the words to say more. The climb to the pass itself had enough snow—now beginning to soften—to slow my pace and quicken my breath. I was again behind schedule, but there was nothing to be done except to proceed to the survey site, glass for goats, and to enjoy the viewsheds.
Survey completed, I began my descent toward Lake Ellen Wilson again. By this point, the flaws in my plan began to present themselves more clearly, and I realized that I had not accounted for my time well. My legs were already tired from the extra weight and the time off, and moving forward at a respectable rate was no longer a matter of habit but of will. As I began ascending again toward Lincoln Pass, I could see the accelerating movement of the mountain’s shadow across the basin. It was enough to push me faster, but I was too tired to make full use of the motivation.
I kept climbing, but again my lateness proved fruitful. As the trail crested a ridge and turned, the sun cast an orange light upon the landscape. Never have I seen Jackson in such glory.
Soon after, with heaving lungs and heavy legs, I gained Lincoln Pass for the second time that day. The sun was almost set, and I had four thousand feet of elevation below me and an hour of daylight left. I knew that, also for a second time, I would soon have my world constrained to the narrow circle of a headlamp.
Looking at the big lake below and the mountains beyond, I took in what was left of the evening light. The scene before me cooled and faded, and I stepped down into the world, grateful for the gift of poor planning.