Climbing with Mountain Goats

Our third and final morning in Glacier National Park started well before sunrise. We were headed all the way back up to Logan Pass and wanted to be sure to get a parking spot this time, so we left camp as early as we could muster. Somehow there was still a long line of cars on Going to the Sun Road, and I wondered if the parking lot would once again be full. I added this to a growing list of worries that swirled around in my mind.

Vince and I were on our way to attempt a summit of Mount Oberlin via an unofficial climbing trail that, while legal to use, is not maintained by the park service. I had spent the previous evening pouring over as much information as I could find about the trail, and the internet’s opinions ranged from “This is amazing and super easy and everyone should try it” to “This trail is highly treacherous and you shouldn’t attempt it unless you’re with someone who has done it before.” The park of course doesn’t include it on their maps and brochures, so there was no information to glean from those. After scouring AllTrails and reading a few blog posts we had a good idea of how to find the trailhead and what to expect on the climb. This didn’t stop me from feeling anxious however.

Mount Oberlin was to be the latest in a summer long series of increasingly difficult tasks for my recovering leg. In May there was my first backpacking trip (less than three months post-surgery), in June I hiked eleven miles in a day, and in July I went climbing and caving in Kentucky. Well now it was August, less than six months post surgery, and I was about to attempt my first mountain. I was full of nerves as we approached Logan Pass and found a parking space. What if the scramble at the peak was too much for me? Or worse, what if I got up the mountain just fine, but couldn’t get back down? Ominous clouds covered the morning sky, and when we got out of the car it was lightly raining. This got me worrying about slippy rocks at the peak. Vince kept reassuring me that everything would be okay, and promising that we would turn the hike if I wasn’t up to it.

This did little to comfort me, but I gathered my day pack and trekking poles anyway. My mood was lifted a bit when we saw a very good-looking bighorn sheep before even leaving the parking lot.

It was just the distraction I needed to calm my nerves, and we started hiking immediately after the sheep disappeared behind some trees. The trailhead was easy to find, but there was a rope hung across it and a sign that warned against hiking off-trail. This was clearly put in place to discourage people from entering the little-known trail, but just a few yards away was another sign that read “Climbing Trail Only,” so we knew we were in the right place.

Mount Oberlin Trail started out easy with a flat-seeming section that cut straight through one of the loveliest fields of wildflowers I’ve ever seen. The sky was still filled with clouds, but the flowers gave the landscape a splash of vibrant color.

The distinctly shaped peaks of Clements Mountain, Reynolds Mountain, and Pollock Mountain rose from the grassy hillsides around us, offering beautiful views in every direction. Mount Oberlin itself was minuscule in comparison, but looked much more approachable. By the time the trail passed over a picturesque waterfall, we had already gained much more elevation than I had even noticed. A quick look behind us revealed the Logan Pass was fading into the distance, but we still had the bulk of the climb in front of us.

In the world of mountaineering, Mount Oberlin is really more of a hill. The hike gains about 1,500 feet of elevation in just under two miles. Despite its relative ease, it does have a couple of unique features that make it a good practice mountain for anyone interested in dipping their toes in the water of mountaineering, or for people like me looking to get back into outdoor adventure post-injury. We didn’t stop again until we got to the bottom of the first of these obstacles, a very steep section of loose scree just below the Clements Saddle. Sunlight was peeking through the thick cloud cover, casting a heavenly glow onto Clements Mountain when we arrived and we stopped for a quick breather before we attempted the scree field.

The view behind us was just as beautiful as sun rays broke through clouds and danced across the valley below.

I must admit, I dragged my feet a bit at the bottom of the scree field. I knew this section would be the hardest for me to descend, so now would be the time to turn the climb if I was going to give up. Although we had already encountered a lot of breathtaking sights, it felt like we had barely started hiking and I didn’t want to turn around yet, so I decided to go for it.

As predicted, the scree wasn’t a huge problem on the ascent. We took it slow, I really had no other choice because my quadricep was (and is) still depleted from the weeks I spent lying in bed after surgery. A weak quad will definitely hamper your speed going uphill, but slow was good because slow is also cautious, and I was able to choose my footing carefully as we climbed.

Soon we crested the hill and stepped onto the Clements Saddle only to come face to face with the finest specimen of mountain goat I have had the pleasure to lay eyes on. Of course, my sample size only included three at the time, but trust me, this goat was magnificent.

Magnificent, and very much in the way. We had managed to step onto the saddle at just the right moment to keep a safe distance from the goat, but after we passed he moved right onto the trail, and there were now a few hikers behind us who couldn’t see that they were about to come face to face with a sharp set of horns.

We yelled a warning at them just in time for them to make enough noise to scare the goat off the trail as they approached. They were moving much faster than us, not surprising given how cautious I was being about my knee, but they stopped to chat about the goat situation for a moment. They relayed that this was their third attempt at Mount Oberlin that week. The previous two times they’d been chased off by a protective mother goat, and just yesterday someone had used bear spray on her so they were worried that she would be even more irate.

This was somewhat discomfiting news, especially because we could see a couple of white, fluffy blobs hopping around near the summit above us. Still, we had to try so we headed up the saddle toward the next big obstacle, the rock scramble.

The scramble was actually significantly less intimidating than the scree field. We were never forced to do anything that I wasn’t sure I could repeat on the descent, so I felt much more comfortable with this familiar and sorely missed type of terrain. Route finding was easy enough at first, especially until we reached a significant landmark that was supposedly the “crux” of the climb. It didn’t pose any real difficulty for either of us, and we were up it in no time (the picture below is me descending through the crux on our way back down).

Beyond the crux, route finding got a bit trickier. While there was the occasional cairn, we must have managed to miss one because we soon found ourselves on an obviously wrong path. This wasn’t unexpected. I had read online that it can be easy to get lost on Oberlin if you haven’t been up it before, and a good rule to follow was just don’t do any climbing that was even remotely difficult.

This rule served us well when we ended up at a dead end that had no options that seemed easy enough. Rather than try to press forward (which is the kind of move that will cause you to need rescuing on Oberlin), we backtracked and realized that we had just gone the wrong way around a big cliff a ways back. Soon we were back on the official unofficial trail, and nearing the summit.

A couple more scrambles put us on top of the cliffs, and it was just a matter of walking the few hundred feet to official peak where we met back up with the trio of hikers from earlier. One of them was kind enough to take about 50 pictures of us on the summit, which was an awesome way to document what felt like a monumental achievement to me.

We may have only been at 8,179 above sea level, but I felt like I was on top of the world. For such an achievable summit, the views were spectacular. After chatting with the other three hikers, who were all current and former park employees, Vince and I settled in to fuel up on protein bars and water before descending. Of course, we also wanted to fully appreciate the amazing views from the summit before we left too.

As we snacked, a couple of pushy chipmunks tried in vain to get to our food. We don’t feed wildlife, but these two had clearly learned that humans=food and were bold enough to try to dig into our bags whenever we were distracted. One of them even climbed up onto the lens of my GoPro while I was filming, making for some adorable footage (check it out on YouTube).

Eventually we agreed that we should start the descent. The scramble went by quickly now that we knew the path, but we did have a somewhat nerve-wracking encounter with another goat. Just as we were climbing down from the flat cliff top, we ran into a pair of hikers on their way up who warned that there was a goat just around the bend that had charged at them. Apprehensively, we rounded the corner to find that there was indeed a female goat, perched on a cliff right above a narrow section of trail. In order to continue, we would have to pass directly underneath her, leaving us with a leering goat above us on the right and a sheer drop-off below us on the left.

Vince went first and I stayed back to keep an eye on the goat so I could warn him if she made any moves. After he disappeared around another bend to safety, I realized that now I had to walk below the goat with no one to warn me. My stomach did a flip as I did the first thing that came to my mind. I had read in some park literature that if you ever found yourself too close to a bear and out of other options, you should talk to it in a soothing voice (note I have never been close enough to a bear to test this tip), so I reflexively started cooing things like, “That’s a good goat, I’m just gonna sneak right past ya” as I inched toward her.

I felt utterly ridiculous. But I made it through unscathed despite the goat’s vigilant stares. From there it was an almost too quick descent back to the Clements Saddle.

The views from the scramble were so pretty that I didn’t want to leave, and I was also fully dreading going back through the scree field, although I knew it had to be done. Anyone who has had knee problems will know what I mean when I say that going downhill is far worse than going uphill, so I was uncertain of my own ability to overcome this challenge. I packed up my cameras and unpacked my trekking poles, then I took a deep breath to steel my nerves and we started to very slowly pick our way downward through the loose rocks.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t filled with terror for the entirety of the scree field. Every precarious step was dramaticized in mind as potentially being my last, and I had to focus too much energy on staying calm in the face of sickening flashbacks of falling (another lingering side effect of my accident). Vince stayed close to me the whole way, offering words of encouragement, and a steady hand when I needed it. We went at a snail’s pace, but eventually it was over, and my feet were back on safe, solid, flat(ish) ground, where I was rewarded for my trouble with another mountain goat sighting.

This was lucky timing because it immediately pulled me out of my fears, and soon I had grabbed my camera back out of my bag to take some pictures. This was the first goat we’d seen earlier, but now it was cooling off by digging itself a spot in the dirt near a big patch of lingering snow.

There were a few of other goats hanging around the snow, a smaller scragglier adult and a couple of adorable kids higher up near the saddle, and we watched them for a while until I felt steady enough to start hiking again.

The meadow we’d passed through earlier was even more beautiful in the sunlight and I couldn’t believe how many varieties of wildflowers there were.

Columbian ground squirrels scurried through lush grasses, gorging themselves on the wildflower blooms.

Even though we took our time getting back to Logan Pass, it was still only midday when we arrived. Hidden Lake Overlook, which had been closed for the past two days because of a grizzly bear, was now open. After a another snack we decided to go ahead do that hike too, which would add another three miles to our day.

This trail was easy, which meant it was crowded, so we donned our masks before setting out across another lovely meadow where we got to see the other side of Clements Mountain.

Hidden Lake was a nice, easy wind-down from the more adventurey Mount Oberlin. We made it to the overlook in good time, and admired the beautiful view, but turned around fairly quickly because of all the other hikers. While Hidden Lake was undeniably spectacular, it didn’t quite compare to the peacefulness of sharing a trail with mostly goats

I started to wear out on the way back down to the parking lot. My leg wasn’t particularly sore exactly, it had just had it for the day, and there was no use arguing with it. It had carried me up (and back down) a mountain, which was far more than I ever thought I could expect from it so soon after surgery. Although I was tired, I was full of a very satisfying sense of accomplishment. I still feel a sense of pride reminiscing about this climb because I had to put so much effort into physical therapy, and push through so much pain for months in order to be able to do something like that. One silver lining with breaking my leg is that I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I can overcome. I’ve learned that I can persevere in the face of a terrible situation. I still have work to do, but right now I am incredibly proud that I went from being unable to get out bed without help to climbing mountains in less than six months.

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