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Grinnell Point

Glacier's best moderate climb

S.gif (910 bytes)o you’re not a Himalayan climber, and the thought of embarking on a climb where your odds of survival are perhaps only slightly better than 50/50 just isn’t all that appealing? But, you’d still like to regale friends and acquaintances with stories and photos of a dazzling peak that youGrinnell Point, viewed across Swiftcurrent Lake ascended, one that would appear to require lots of rope, hardware, and experience? Or, perhaps you could give a rip less what anyone thinks and just want to satisfy yourself by summiting a peak that would appear nearly unattainable? Well, we’ve got just the climb for you. Grinnell Point in Glacier Park is a most impressive spire, dominating the views from the Many Glacier Hotel and Campground. From those vantage points, you’re looking at a few thousand feet of mostly vertical rock, and climbing it would appear to be a major undertaking. Actually, though, the top is very reachable, involving nothing worse than Class 3 climbing (strenuous, but not dangerous if reasonable caution is observed).

Grinnell Point has a reputation for being one of, if not the, best climb in Glacier for those who wish to reach a noteworthy summit, one that doesn’t require use of technical climbing techniques (although it would certainly appear to!). As impressive as the view of the Point is from the valley, the views from the top are unparalleled, and on a par with vistas requiring a great deal more effort to reach. Speaking of effort, depending on the route taken, the climb is a five to six mile round trip, with just over 2600 vertical feet gained. Not bad at all by mountain climbing standards, but still not exactly a casual stroll; it is feasible for anyone in reasonable physical condition. Be aware, though, that fatal accidents have occurred on Grinnell Point. It should go without saying that cautious prudence is fundamental in any off-trail hiking in mountainous terrain, and those who exercise it will not find themselves in any undue danger on this climb.

Reaching Grinnell Point couldn’t hardly be easier. Many Glacier lies at the end of the northernmost access road on the east side of the Park, 12 miles west of Babb. As mentioned, it dominates the view across the lake from the hotel, and towers over the campground. Glacier Park abounds in wonderful places, but Many Glacier is arguably our personal favorite (see our other articles about the area in the hiking and camping sections). Follow the trail along Swiftcurrent Lake that departs the picnic area, between the lake and the campground. If you’re staying in the campground, it’s only a short walk to the picnic area, or if you’re staying at the hotel, you can take the trail from there along the east side of the Lake. It joins the trail from the picnic area at the head of the lake. Follow the trail over a small hump to Josephine Lake, and continue along the west side of it. Or, you can take the boat launch across Swiftcurrent Lake, and if you want to eliminate nearly all the flat walking you could walk the couple of hundred yards to the Josephine boat dock and take that launch to the upper end of Josephine. But, if you’re fit enough to contemplate climbing the point, the walk along both lakes is inconsequential and a good warm-up for the climb to follow. It’s a good idea to register your intentions at the Ranger Station just east of the campground, although there is also a registry box near the trailhead at the picnic area. That way, if you should encounter problems someone will know you’re out there and eventually come looking.

I am a firm believer in always carrying maps, compass, and altimeter, although in this case it wouldn’t be essential. Based on the following description, you should have no problem finding the route. Still, a map is handy for identifying the surrounding peaks when you’re enjoying the dazzling view from the point. Also, anyone who is contemplating doing any climbing in Glacier should have a copy of "A Climbers Guide to Glacier National Park" by J. Gordon Edwards. This book, and topographicalMount Wilbur and the Ptarmigan Wall from Grinnell Point maps of Glacier, are available at the visitor centers and Ranger Stations in the Park. The Edwards book is fascinating even if you don’t explore Glacier’s high country. He was an exceptional mountaineer, a college professor who spent his summers as a Ranger Naturalist in Glacier beginning in the 1940’s, and climbed nearly all of the peaks in the Park in the process. With all due respect, though, I must take issue with his description of the Grinnell Point climb. I found it quite confusing and lacking in description of a few key spots, and I believe my description of the route will be much easier to follow. It’s possible that after bagging many of Glacier’s most difficult and remote peaks, Edwards viewed the Grinnell Point climb as more of a backyard stroll, and felt that anyone with half a brain ought to be able to puzzle out the route. I’ve noticed that on some of the other route descriptions in the book; the more difficult climbs have very detailed descriptions, right down to specific trees and rocks to look for, while you’re left to your own devices on some of the easier ones.

So, with that said, continue along the trail west of Josephine Lake (unless you’ve (tsk, tsk) taken both boat launches in which case you need to proceed from the upper boat dock around the south end of Josephine Lake to the Grinnell Glacier Trail, which intersects the trail along the west side of the lake in short order.  Assuming you're hiking the whole way, though, there is a small pothole adjacent to Josephine Lake, and a couple hundred yards beyond (southwest of) that watch for an open grassy slope above you. There’s a large cliff at the upper end of this open slope, and look for a waterfall on the face of that cliff. This stream is a key to the whole route. Edwards describes this as a "great waterfall", but during the drought conditions of summer 2000, it was barely a trickle, causing some confusion on my part, particularly since the adjacent "broad couloir" and "grassy ramp" he describes are only obvious from above. Rest assured, though, there is only one waterfall on that cliff, and regardless of how great or inconsequential it appears, it’s the one.

From this point, one has a choice of routes. Edward’s apparent favorite ascends directly up the open slope below the waterfall, and skirts to the north around the cliff, back toward the stream, and then more or less directly up from that point. This is an interesting route (which I will describe in greater detail momentarily), but personally I think it would be somewhat challenging to find without someone along who has done it. There is only one feasible route through the cliffs, and it is not apparent from below (although hopefully my subsequent description will make finding it easier). I used an easier route on my ascent, and descended on the route north of the waterfall, and will describe them in that order.

Continue along Josephine Lake until the Grinnell Lake trail intersection near the head of Josephine. Near that point the great cliff that has been towering above you all the way along Josephine finally tapers off and ends. Watch for a relatively open area through the berry bushes above the trail, and scramble up through a couple of small rock outcroppings to the open slope above. The trail to the old Josephine mine angles across this open, grassy slope, and if you work your way upward and to the right you willMineTrail.jpg (22546 bytes) find it approximately two thirds of the way up the slope. The mine trail saw lots of use by naturalist guided parties in the years before World War II, and by the miners prior to that. These days it is used mainly by mountain goats and sheep, but is still fairly obvious, at least out on the open slope mentioned. Edwards describes finding it by continuing along the Grinnell Glacier trail and then switchbacking and bushwhacking through some difficult terrain. He says the lower reaches are badly overgrown, and trust me, if he says it’s hard to find that way, it’s not an advisable course of action. Far better to ascend through the open to the grassy slope as I’ve described, and angle up that until you hit the mine trail. Then, follow the trail until you come to the Josephine Mine, which is obvious due to the tailing pile below it. This is a cone-shaped pile of lighter colored rock than the surroundings, immediately south of the stream that forms the waterfall. The mine opening itself is interesting, with the remains of an ore car and some track disappearing into a mine shaft bored into the mountainside. To myJosephine Mine entrance knowledge, no great riches were extracted from the handful of mines in the area, and I shudder to think of the frightful amount of labor expended in pursuit of fortune. I was tempting to explore into the mine shaft, but it was a hot day and while somewhat improbable, the cool recesses of the mine struck me as a perfect refuge from the heat for a grizzly bear.

Speaking of grizzlies, all of Glacier and the Many Glacier area in particular is prime grizzly habitat. You will find it hugely reassuring, though, that the routes I describe are mostly open slopes, vastly preferable to clawing your way through underbrush where a close-range encounter could occur at any moment. That tends to wear on one’s nerves after a while, and being able to see several hundred yards around you is a great relief. On my climb, I didn’t see any wildlife at all, but my family saw three grizzlies while I was gone, two of them on the slopes of Grinnell Point, viewed from the boat launch on Josephine Lake. They were in the huckleberry brush patches away from where I was, though. As always, it is advisable to make plenty of noise so wildlife in the area is aware of your presence. Particularly when by myself, I use a bell; not one of the phony little bear bells they sell in the concessions around the Park, but a Swiss bell intended for use on livestock and available at most ranch supply stores. Mine is about three inches tall, and makes a pleasant ringing tone; loud enough to be effective, but not so much as to be irritating.

A secondary reason I didn’t explore the mine shaft was that a couple inches of water were flowing out of it, and wet feet would result. The waterfall stream is only a few yards beyond the mine, though, and is a good spot to refill your water bottles. The mine water could be colder, but it also could be contaminated by heavy metal residue; common in old mines. Perhaps not, but better to drink out of the stream, in my opinion. Thus refreshed, you are ready for the steeper climbing which awaits. Proceed a short way north past the cliffs just beyond the stream, and begin ascending more or less directly upward. From this point nearly to the summit you will need to pick your way through numerous small cliffs and rock outcroppings. Most of these are not over ten feet or so high, and while you will need to use your hands for support in a few spots it is not difficult climbing, and is in fact quite interesting with just enough adventure quotient to make it exciting. The stream flows out of a narrow chute to your left, which contained a fair bit of snow even in late July of a low snowpack year. Under more normal conditions, there will be quite a lot of snow in this chute. With steep rock adjacent to it, this presents an obvious danger and you will want to stay back from this area. A fall into the chute would likely be fatal.

As you near the summit ridge the small cliffs give way to largely open scree. Bear slightly to your right and continue upward to the ridgetop. It is a remarkable sensation to reach the ridgetop, with a great rock cairn marking the Point. Suddenly you are looking down a nearly two thousand vertical foot wall at the campground far below. Grinnell Point is notSummit Cairn of Grinnell Point actually the summit of the mountain, but the eastern terminus of the long ridge of Mount Grinnell. Nonetheless, it is a fabulous vista and offers stunning views of the whole Many Glacier area. The Swiftcurrent valley stretches away to the west, dotted with lakes on its way to Swiftcurrent Pass on the Garden Wall. Mount Wilbur lies across the Swiftcurrent Valley, with the Ptarmigan Wall beyond. Altyn Peak lies directly across the valley beyond the campground, and the view east toward the hotel, Lake Sherburne, and the plains beyond stretches into infinity. Looking south, the Cataract Creek valley is framed by one stunning peak after another; Allen Mountain, the Angel’s Wing, Mount Gould, the Bishop’s Cap, Pollock Mountain, Piegan Mountain, Cataract Mountain. You can also glimpse several glaciers, and you will experience the exhilaration that comes with reaching a summit that only a tiny percentage of Glacier’s visitors see. Obviously, you’ll want a camera along!

After saving the fruits of your labors, it’s time to descend. Follow the same route down to the mine you used on the ascent, again staying away from the dangerous snow chute. At the mine, you may wish to descend the direct route I mentioned earlier. A broad grassy slope runs just north of the waterfall stream. It is a quite easy descent, although it is steep and watch that you don’t slip on the clumps of grass. Even if you do, you are in danger of nothing worse than a bruised backside, though. In fairly short order you will come to where the stream plunges over the great cliff. VeerCliffs.jpg (25204 bytes) north (left) above the cliff and you will shortly come to an obvious goat trail that leads to the only feasible spot through the cliffs. When you are looking from below, there is an obvious dark area on the cliff a few hundred yards north of the waterfall. The goat trail descends just south of this dark area. From even a hundred yards below where the goat trail descends the cliff, it appears completely impassible without using ropes and climbing hardware, and if you choose to ascend via that route, I’m certain you will be having grave misgivings right up until you see the goat trail at the base of the cliffs. The trail is actually quite safe, though, no matter how imposing the cliff appears from below.

Getting back to descending, though, below the cliff you need to work your way back over toward the stream, picking your way through rock outcroppings until you reach the open grassy slope south of the stream which leads all the way down to the trail along Josephine Lake. Personally, I found descending this route to be moderately strenuous due to all the rock outcroppings that must be climbed around. In fact, it took me just as long to descend as it did to climb the Point via the mine trail. Obviously, ascending it will be quite a bit more strenuous than the other route. If you enjoy modest rock climbing, though, and seek a good workout, you may find it enjoyable. If nothing else, you are bound to get a chuckle out of attaining the top of what appears to be an impassible cliff, via the goat trail.

So, if you’re looking for a relatively easy climb in Glacier, that affords absolutely stunning views, I highly recommend Grinnell Point. Once you return to the hotel or campground, you will be immensely gratified with the knowledge that you have stood atop that magnificent peak that looms above, and slightly bemused with the knowledge that it really wasn’t all that hard. Of course, you can leave that part out of your tales of adventure in the high country of Glacier Park!

 

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