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Mount Cleveland

Glacier National Park

The highest peak in Glacier National Park, Montana is Mt Cleveland at 10,461 ft. The easiest way to reach this peak is via Canada. From Waterton townsite in Waterton National Park, Canada, you ride a boat for about 1.5 hrs down the lake to Goat Haunt, Montana, and hike from there. This approaches the West Ridge route. There are other approaches, but I believe all are much longer. Here is the story of our ascent in July 2000.

Our chosen route of ascent was the WEST RIDGE route as described in J Gordon Edwards guidebook, Climbing in Glacier National Park. It is a well-written book, but would be better yet with (more) route photos. After stopping in Waterton Park visitor centre to reserve a campsite at Kootenay Lakes for that night, we went and booked on the 1 pm tour boat to Goat Haunt. With our large packs, we stood out like sore thumbs among the many tourists on the boat. From Goat Haunt, we shouldered our loads and hiked an easy 2.8 miles (4.5 km) in dense forest to the small backcountry campsite. After
eating supper in a swarm of mosquitoes, we watched 7 moose feeding in the lake --- or swamp as the case may be. Then an hour was passed finding the start of "the old elk trail" which would lead to the west side of Cleveland.

We did not actually find the proper start, supposedly beginning at a trailside meadow, but instead bushwhacked upstream along the left side of the small stream which crosses the main trail 15 minutes or so north of Camp Creek. By doing this we met the elk trail, quite faint and overgrown in places, but thankfully, flagged with bits of orange flagging. Downed spruce trees caused us many detours but having verified that this was indeed The Old Elk Trail we returned to camp, hung up our food and turned in for an early 5 a.m. rising.

By 6:15 a.m. under a cloudless sky, we were off and soon on The Old Elk Trail headed for our peak. One of the prettiest rangers I've ever met (female, too!) had mentioned the night before that no-one had climbed the peak yet that year, which really gave us incentive, we being Canadian, the peak being American! We were glad the underbrush was dry as we went and in a couple of hours, the weathered flagging led us to the edge of Camp Creek below (west of) Cleveland.

At Camp Creek, as per the book, we headed upstream along the creek with the mountain towering above. Alders along the hillsides were frustrating to thrash through but no easier option existed: Waterfalls prevent you from merely walking alongside. We spent about an hour struggling up to get above treeline. Luckily, a thoughtful grizzly had ripped up sections of the steep slope digging for bear food. (so we weren't the only ones "root"-finding) Anyway, between torn-up slopes and his pooped-lined trail through thick bush we finally reached the open basin right below the southwest face. I had nearly yelled
myself hoarse while following his path, however.


As per the guidebook, a high waterfall cascades down the centre of the cliff face and far to the right was a scree slope and gully that would lead above the first and seemingly largest rockband. The gully had considerable snow in it, but we stepkicked up until it steepened uncomfortably, then scrambled easy rock along the right. Shale slopes and a narrow gully among small evergreens got us higher and above said rockband, whereupon we traversed left to get onto the main west or southwest face. It was necessary to cross the upper part of  the same snowy gully we'd ascended lower down, (about 35 degrees here) then traverse up over a small hump some 75-100 metres below steep walls. A slight loss of perhaps 100 feet elevation
now put us below the main west/southwest face on scree/snow slopes. Only this upper face can be seen from Kootenay Lakes.

A surprising amount of snow remained, testimony to a cool spring and summer and seeing that, I was glad we'd brought crampons and axes. Most easy gullies had residual snow in them, so we plotted a somewhat meandering line up low-angled snow slopes at the bottom, then on rock through the many short cliffs above. I am sure that with no snow, route selection would have been much easier, but to avoid removing and donning crampons any more than necessary, we tried to avoid snow. Sections of these cliffs had water streaming down --- also to be avoided. Although we had already gained some 2500 feet elevation, another 3500 vertical feet remained. Our chosen route worked out well and whenever we found our way up a crucial spot in a rockband, I built a small but reassuring cairn for descent. As we got higher, it became apparent that slopes further right were less steep and had fewer rockbands so would be preferable on descent.

While infinitely entertaining, the ascent was taking longer than expected and by noon, Sim and I were both feeling fatigued. We stopped for a Power Bar, guzzled some water, and continued towards a final, somewhat more menacing, rockband near the top. Donning crampons, we climbed a long snow gully which petered out at a rock step. A couple of easy steps over verglassed rock put us on gentle shale slopes right below the summit. Crampons were removed and we treadmilled up a veritable gravel pit to the summit. No register awaited, (horrors!) but I did leave a Canadian flag. I must confess, I had wanted
to climb Cleveland the previous weekend on Canada Day and claim it for Canada, but too much snow remained and my little joke came to naught.

While the views down the length of Waterton Lake and towards Chief Mountain were stupendous, it was clear that Ma Nature was brewing up a surprise to the southwest. Distant black clouds were forming, with trails of virga (rain that evaporates before
reaching earth) below some of them. After 8 tedious hours we spent only 20 minutes on top over a well-deserved lunch.

On return, we walked down the broad ridge to where it levelled out and found an easy descent through the uppermost rockband. For several hundred meters, shale and rubble quickly took us lower and we found simple ways through the many short cliffs. As we got down to one of the higher rockbands, we traversed right and were glad to find our small
cairns verifying key passages to snow slopes below.

A sitting glissade would have made for a time-saving descent on the snow, but Sim never glissades. Thinking it was because she hated wet pants, I gallantly offered to let her wear my spare undershorts once we got back to camp, but she was not to be bribed. Glissading, whether seated or standing, if done properly, is a great time saver and when bad weather
is imminent, every climber/scrambler should have the ability to perform it. Besides, it's a hoot!

Anyway, at the bottom of the snow slope we traversed left and were soon off the face. A   rain shower ensued, but now we were off any exposed areas and could relax a little. We had hoped to catch the 8 p.m. boat back to Waterton and we knew it would be close.

The showers subsided but left the bush wet enough to quickly soak our boots and pants. A strong afternoon sun broke through and we hurried back down through flowered meadows to alders, Camp Creek and flagging at the old elk trail. Our descent to camp took 5 hours but nonetheless, despite a good try, we missed the evening boat. . At Kootenay Lakes, a billion mosquitoes eagerly awaited our return. Though we hated to disappoint them, instead we packed and walked to Goathaunt by 9 pm.

We stopped and spoke to the ranger lady at Goathaunt, who congratulated us on being first for the new millenium. She thought the flagging on the old elk trail was unnecessary and that the rangers might go remove it. I suggested to the contrary, that the
vegetation and deadfall hid the path far too well. We were very happy to have found what was left of flagging. If anything, someone should take new roll and REFLAG the route, while enough still remains to follow. Perhaps the trail may be evident in the fall when the leaves are off the thimbleberry plants, but it sure wasn't evident for us in July. (And I'm not too bad at finding a trail either...)

At Goathaunt, we set up our little tent in the concrete-floored hikers shelter and washed up in the nearby sink. It wasn't as good as a shower in Waterton campground, but at least the mosquitoes were fewer here. Next day, we caught the 10:30 boat back, a happy ending to our climb of Mount Cleveland.

While the guidebook says that conditioned climbers can leave Goathaunt at 7 am, climb the peak and catch the last boat back, I would suggest that this only applies to very fit people who have dry conditions and prior knowledge of both the approach and mountain.

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