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Alaska Day 23: Gable Peaks in Montana

August 20, 2022
Emilie Phillips

This is the thirteenth post from the 2022 Flying to Alaska trip.

Armed with my new map and the route guidance from the ranger, we set off for Chair Mountain and Gable Peaks. This was going to be a fun day — 14 miles and a 7K footer. The weather looked like another day of blue skies, probably getting hot in the afternoon.

Trail 327

We left camp close behind the early morning mule train. Not far from camp, we forded the Flathead river. The water, which had been refreshing the day before, now painfully numbed our feet. When we returned in the afternoon, I expected we would be hot and sweaty enough to enjoy the cool water. 

After the ford, the trail went straight and level through a mixed conifer forest. This trail was obviously a horse trail. Isaac found it boring. At Dolly Varden creek, we turned off the horse trail onto a smaller hiking trail. On the hiking trail, we had to climb around our first blow down. We found a few more as we hiked up, but not so many as to be frustrating or slow us down. Once we turned onto Trilobite Lake trail, it was the hill which slowed us down.


The climb had no views. The woods were a uniform pine forest without much undergrowth. The dry soil and air couldn’t support much plant life. Isaac made up jokes to entertain us. His best joke was

There are 5 people sitting at a table and cookie. Each person got one cookie. How is this possible?

Once Isaac ran out of jokes, we counted switchbacks and tracked our progress against the map. The trail on my map looks like it was hand drawn rather than a GPS trace. GPS generated maps tend to blur switchbacks into indistinct wiggles. This map had very clear points for each of the turns, and even showed the shortest legs.

Above the switchbacks, the trail followed a ridge. There, we caught a few views of Lodgepole Mountain through the trees. After another half hour of hiking up, we reached the grasslands surrounding the summit of Chair Mountain. The peak was still two thousand feet up to the left of the trail. We stayed on the trail, aiming for Gable Peaks ahead. The views from the trail were already impressive. We could see Union Mountain, smoke from a forest fire beyond Argosy Mountain, and the cliffs of Gable Peaks up ahead. That explained why the ranger said the route up this side was a rock scramble. We definitely wanted the hiking route.

Up here in the grassland was dry and hot. There weren’t many flowers for me to photograph. I found some interesting seed heads. We opted to eat lunch in the shade of a clump of trees. After lunch, we inventoried our water. We had already drunk over half despite being two miles from the top. Tyson and I rehashed our debate about whether we should have brought the water filter. He said the whole reason he hadn’t completely filled his water bladder was to reduce weight. The filter would have added weight. Besides, the only streams were back at the bottom, almost at camp. I pointed out one blue trickle on my map that we would cross shortly. Tyson was dubious it would have flowing water this time of year. We would have to moderate our water consumption.

We found the stream. The trail, annoyingly, descended into the forest before we got to the stream. The stream was a muddy trickle where it crossed the trail. However, by following it back into the overhanging undergrowth, I found a pool of clear water. Without a filter, we couldn’t get potable water, but we could use non potable water to sweat. We filled our sun hats with water and dumped them over our heads. We each carry a large cotton handkerchief for just in case, which we now soaked with water and tied around our necks.

The trail doesn’t go to the summit of Gable Peaks either. Instead, the ranger had suggested that we pass below the summit, continue a mile south, and then turn back north, cutting cross country to the summit. Ascending out of the forest from the stream, it was obvious why we needed to detour that far south. There were broken bands of cliffs blocking a direct route. As soon as we passed the last outcroppings above the trail, we turned to climb the ridge. The footing was slippery. There weren’t enough plants to hold the rock flakes in place. We made progress, carefully stepping in each other’s footsteps to preserve the fragile plant life. And then we happened onto the rut of an obvious use trail. Walking on that was much easier.

To anyone who wants to do this hike, stay on the main trail going south until you get to a knoll protruding from the side of the ridge. The use trail intersects at an acute angle behind you. It is well traveled and obvious. We descended via that route and it was much nicer.

Once we found the use trail, we followed it to the top. The views the whole way were outstanding. We saw birds soaring on the updrafts right over our heads. Isaac found a fossil that looked like a trilobite. Since we were on the trail to Trilobite lakes, I concluded it must be a trilobite. The whole area looked like it might have held snowfields in years past. The many burnt snags attested to past forest fires. We watched the fire south of Argosy Mountain flare up. Not only did the thin trickle of smoke turn into a black-column, but it grew a large cumulus cloud above it.

Chair Mountain and the view down the middle Flathead river

We paused a while at the summit to enjoy the 360 degree view — endless mountains in every direction. The heat, and our concerns over our limited water eventually drove us off the peak.

Grouse

The hike down was much the same as the hike up. We had a fun encounter at the stream. We surprised a grouse and its chicks. Rather than flying up with a big noise to scare us off, or hustling the chicks away, the adult just perched in a bush beside the trail and watched us. I guess water is scarce enough they didn’t want to retreat. We filled our hats and handkerchiefs and left.

By the time we contoured around Chair Mountain, cumulus clouds were popping up everywhere from the heat. Off to the west, one was growing into a cumulo­nimbus. That’s where the photos end because shortly after we entered the trees, Tyson’s water gave out. It is hard to pay attention to details when you are thirsty and need to cover miles.

My water was almost empty. Isaac, we discovered, had started the day with a half liter more than Tyson. He had enough left to share with Dad. Isaac was nice enough to not rub it in. The next point I remember, is when we reached the horse trail back at Dolly Varden Creek. There, Isaac’s and my water gave out, and we started hearing thunder. Not long after, it sprinkled. I was no longer thinking of stopping at the Flathead river for a refreshing swim. Now I just wanted to get back to camp before it poured and to get a drink. We succeeded at both. The good news is the rain finally shut the squirrels up.

I would definitely return to Schafer Meadows and hike Gable Peaks again, with more water. I would also like to hike Lodgepole Mountain, Porter Greek, Capitol Mountain, upstream and downstream on the Flathead, and many other trails.

P.S. the answer to the cookie riddle is: The people started with six cookies.

Continue reading: Alaska Trip Days 25-27: Return Home from Montana

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