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Climbing McDonald Peak: Fall in the Missions

Fall in the Missions

Fall in the Missions
By: John Fiore, PT

On an October Saturday which was arguably the most spectacular fall day in western Montana, I returned to the Mission Mountains. I have spent many hours exploring the unique alpine terrain of this rugged range in 2015. On each outing, the impressive bulk and majesty of McDonald Peak (9,800 feet) was evident but just out of reach. McDonald Peak is located in the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness. It lies within the grizzly bear closure zone which means it is off limits to humans in an effort to preserve wildlife habitat and reduce human-bear encounters. The grizzly bear closure area allows the bears to feast on ladybugs and army cutworm moths without human disturbance from July 15th-September 30th each summer. Mission Valley residents have described viewing the bears through telescopes glissading on snow fields and feasting on ladybugs and army cutworm moths. With clear skies forecasted and the grizzly bear closure period passed, our window to climb the peak was now.

lake and mountains
Peaks over lake with reflection

I met Justin Angle and Jeremy Wolf at 5:30 am at the Eastgate parking lot for the drive to the Swan Valley. We chose the eastern approach to climb McDonald Peak due to the early runnable terrain and beauty of the Cliff Lake basin. We arrived at the deserted Glacier Lake trailhead at before daybreak and were running by 7:20 am. The round trip distance for the day would be 24 miles which made daylight hours precious. The first 4 miles passed quickly beneath our feet until we reached Heart Lake. The summit of McDonald Peak appeared framed in the notch of Sunday Pass. From Heart Lake the trail deteriorated to a hiker’s trail followed by a game trail.

Vast image from top of mountain

From Sunday Pass, McDonald Peak was reflected in the waters of Cliff Lake below us. We descended steeply to the shoreline and weaved our way up to Iceflow Lake. From here the terrain changed. Grassy, boggy meadows and aromatic hemlock and fir forests gave way to bus-sized glacier-strewn boulders. When we reached 8,600 feet in elevation, both the summit ridge of McDonald Peak and the Ashley Lake drainage on the western side of the Missions were visible. Justin, Jeremy, and I plotted our final ascent up the loose, rocky bowl and continued climbing.

Image of John Fiore ontop of summit

The view from the summit ridge was magnificent. The Mission Valley was 7,000 feet below us and the ridge from West McDonald Peak to the true summit was pure as any ridge I have traveled. Once on the summit, a light breeze kept us comfortable in shorts and T-shirts. To the south, Glacier Peak, Mountaineer Peak, Lowary Peak, East St. Mary’s Peak, and Grey Wolf Peak formed an imposing spine. To the north, Mount Calowahcan and multiple unnamed peaks blended into the horizon. After imagining how spectacular it would be to descend McDonald Peak’s the south face on skis, we began our return journey. Two aged boot prints were the only sign of human presence we encountered during our brief visit through the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness. I have never experienced a feeling of alpine isolation and purity as strong as I did that October. When we returned to the trailhead 8 hours later, cars were in abundance, but the experience and contentment associated with physical effort endured. Preserving wild, uninhabited areas such as the Mission Mountains puts our role as humans in perspective. We too are visitors on this planet. The mountains endure and they warrant our respect.

Lake at Mission Mountains

The Mission Mountains Wilderness was officially designated as such in 1975, the boundaries for the Tribal Wilderness were set in 1979, and made official in 1982. Prior to the official designation of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, the tribes had fought the designation of the area as a national park, and after much discussion voted against timber harvesting in the lushly forested area. Both circumstances would have led to increased tribal profits, but it was decided such was not to be the priority.

In 1982… No legal definition for tribal wilderness existed then, but much of the language for the tribes’ definition of wilderness matches the language found in the 1964 Wilderness Act, with one significant difference: the primary purpose of the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness is the preservation of tribal culture. In contrast, in the federal wilderness on the other side of the Mission Divide, visitor use and private interests play leading roles in management objectives.
(PJ DelHomme, Forest Magazine, Fall 2006 – Summit Post)