There comes a moment almost every day in which I ask myself “how the hell did I get here?” This brief period usually appears during monotonous chores, mid-afternoon meetings, or mid-workout side aches, all of which I’ve learned to solve by simple gritting my teeth and pushing through. Some things, however, don’t work that way.
Last month I attempted an off-trail route in Glacier National Park called the Norris Traverse. It’s a relatively remote, super scenic, and scree-laiden scramble on the east side of the park. Very few people know about the Norris, let alone hike it. Why did we want to then? A variety of reasons, namely the solitude, uniqueness, and the chance to truly, fully unplug.
What we got was a little different than what we expected.
I instigated the trip a few months back, starting with route research and an email to friends, to gauge interest. Plans developed quickly and by a twist of fate we ended up with a bundle of equipment and apparel from Mountain Hardwear, to test on our trip. A new tent, sleeping bags, lightweight rain shells, and prototypes of the Ghost Shadow jacket, which launches this fall. Testing product is a fun part of my job, especially when it’s the real deal. Our trip was cold and wet, meaning this stuff needed to work. Fortunately it didn’t disappoint.
"Most people can suck it up and suffer through three days of backpacking. Walking on steep, loose rock ledges is a whole other ballgame."
But bringing the right gear is only one of the many challenges of this route. Fewer than ten groups attempt it each year according to the rangers I spoke with, because it’s both poorly publicized and difficult for even the experienced adventurer. Just 32 miles long, the biggest challenge in the traverse is technical terrain and route finding, not hiking endurance. Most people can suck it up and suffer through three days of backpacking. Walking on steep, loose rock ledges is a whole other ballgame.
For the record, I’ve done a couple similar off-trail routes in Glacier—not to mention a 50-mile traverse across the entirely of Zion—so I wasn’t going in totally blind, nor lacking in ill-advised adventure experience. From these past trips I came into the Norris with a fair idea of what to expect. Bramble bushwhacks, vertigo-inducing ridges, and slick snowfields would dot our path from Cut Bank to Saint Mary. What I didn’t expect was the volatile weather, questionable rental gear, and mental stamina of the group.
Like most good adventure stories, things started off well. A friendly conversation with the rangers while getting our permit and watching the bear orientation video. A seamless car shuttle drop, last minute snack purchases, and quick download of maps to our phones. Heck, even the sun was out when we strapped on our boots and started hiking.
The first part of the route is on trail—a little over seven miles with a couple thousand feet of climbing—and went smoothly. Sweat dripping from our faces, we stopped to enjoy lunch at Triple Divide pass, negotiating for the best seats with a family of marmots. After refilling water from a nearby snowmelt stream, we left the trail and headed uphill. That’s when the plot thickened.
We needed to gain another thousand feet to stay on course and on schedule, and the only ridgeline access was a small chute in the rock wall, which was full of snow. Using ice axes for extra security, we switchbacked upwards, grateful that the warm sun had softened the snow under our feet. This was old hat for me, but relatively new for my companions, Gil and Nina. With an intense focus and a few words that their moms probably wouldn’t approve of, they acquired the ridge a few minutes after I did. Spirits were tested, but still high.
Topping out, we were greeted by stiff gusts of wind coming out of the west. In the moment the wind was refreshing, but looking back it foreshadowed what was to come. Now on top of the rock shelf, we peered north, following the line as it continued up and over Triple Divide Peak and out of sight. Both daunted and excited, we started walking, putting one foot in front of the other. The route isn’t marked with signs or cairns, but does follow some goat trails, which are often the path of least resistance.
"Only masochists enjoy scree—fortunately that includes me."
The next twenty-some miles of the traverse follow the top of the ridge closely, occasionally dipping into a small valley, summiting three notable peaks along the way, and mostly holding elevation across arduous miles of scree. For those uninitiated, scree is a rock-and-dirt cocktail renowned for rolled ankles and sore shins. Only masochists enjoy scree—fortunately that includes me.
Scree is more mental than physical, forcing hikers to focus on every step they take. Nothing comes easy. The best advice I could offer Gil and Nina for this type of travel was simply “try not to overthink it. Just walk.” Even on a good day a scree slope will can be heinous, and with high winds and an impending storm, it is guaranteed to be uncomfortable.
After hours of slow and meticulous movement, we stopped at a small and flat grass meadow. We had progressed less than four miles since gaining the ridgeline and didn’t know where the next bivy spot would be, so we opted to call it a night. The wind was raging and dark clouds looming closer. We were a few miles behind our planned campsite on the back side of Norris peak and noticeably demoralized.
Hoping to stay dry and fight another day, we set up tents, started to boil water, and opened up the maps. Our goal was to regain some confidence and re-assess the feasibility of us completing the route.
Needing to clear my head, I went on a short scouting scramble up the ridge, to get a clearer view of the next few miles. It would be much of the same, mostly loose rocks and steep, side-hill walking. The going would be slow and group moral was already teetering.
Back at camp we ate curry and cous-cous in mostly silence, knowing that an inflection point was coming. Out of the stillness, instead of negotiating, Gil said “let’s just go back.” And as much as I hated it, I knew he was right. It was the best call.
"Failure is in the eye of the beholder."
Backtracking off a route is never a good feeling. Failure always sucks. But there are lessons to take from the experience, and the biggest one is humility. Instead of two more days of hiking in a stormy morass, we opted to bail off the Norris and make our way back to the trailhead. Initially bummed, I spent the evening in my tent working through these thoughts. I had come into the trip confident, and a bit naive, as it turned out.
The biggest lesson is that failure is in the eye of the beholder. Sure, we failed hiking the Norris, but we ended up having a great time the next few days, finding joy in small things. On our way home we stopped to jump in an alpine river and to eat huckleberries, making me realize that the real purpose of the trip was to spend quality time with close friends, to laugh, and to embrace that not everything goes your way—and that’s okay.