Tango 14 and the Experience of a Lifetime (aka Malena Hikes Glacier)

7:30 PM. I stood in the parking lot at the Logan Pass Visitor Center in Glacier National Park, watching people slowly disperse to their cars and trickle away. The last shuttle that drives park visitors from Logan Pass to the St. Mary Visitor Center, which is where my campsite was, had left half an hour earlier. The map on the board at the empty shuttle stop showed me that it was about 15 miles between the two centers.

A long walk in bear country as the sky became increasingly darker.

“Alright,” I mumbled to myself. “Time to be a charming and harmless young female.”

I approached a couple walking hand-in-hand to their car. “Excuse me,” I said, my voice as soft as I could make it. “Do you happen to be going east?”

The man scrunched his eyebrows together behind his dark sunglasses. “No, we’re not going that way, sorry.” He pulled the woman towards the back of the parking lot. This happened a couple more times before I started worrying.

I know I haven’t showered in a couple of days, but I can’t possibly seem that threatening…

I would love to blame the situation on coincidence, but it all started when I woke up at 10 AM that morning instead of 7 like I had originally planned. I hurriedly threw my hiking supplies in my backpack and slipped into my boots as I munched on a granola bar. My body chose sleep over a decent breakfast apparently.

The shuttle dropped me off at the Highline trailhead at noon. Doing the math in my head, I estimated that I needed to turn around at 4 in order to make the last shuttle. No. Matter. What.

The Highline  trail is one of the most popular hikes in Glacier, and it’s easy to see why. About seven and a half miles long, it goes from Logan Pass to the Granite Park Chalet, before then splitting into three separate directions. Seven miles into the trail was the offshoot to Grinnell Glacier Overlook, a 0.6 mile trail which was my goal that day. The majority of Highline offers spectacular alpine views, where you can look down at the park’s main road from a distance that makes the cars look like ants, while being constantly surrounded by mountain peaks. My favorite kind of hike.

I was making excellent time, so when I got to the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail, I had half an hour to get up there and soak in the view. It was only .6 miles. Easy!

Not easy.

Not only was I on this completely shadeless trail during the hottest part of the day, but the “fairly steep” incline (so said the trail guide) was so intense that there were times I had to lean completely forward to keep from falling backwards as I walked.

“How’s it going?!” An excited young hiker asked me on his way down.

“It’s,” I panted, “going.”

“Oh it’s so worth it though! Keep going!”

“Yeah, okay.”

A couple of PhD students from Wisconsin that were on the shuttle with me that morning passed me on their way down.

“A bit of advice,” one of them said as he put his hand on my shoulder. “Once you get up there, climb those couple of extra feet to that ledge up there. See it?” He pointed towards a rock at the end of  the trail, far off in the distance.

I eyed him suspiciously. Because this part of the hike obviously was not killing me enough.

“I know it sounds crazy! Rest fifteen minutes when you get up there, and then keep going. Trust me.”

I was on the trail for 40 minutes and had similar conversations with several other people who passed by me, all reassuring me that the view was worth the climb.

The last person to descend on my way up was a tall slender man wearing long pants and a jacket. He walked with his back straight and carried his hiking poles like scepters.

He glanced at me and said in a thick French accent, “The experience of a lifetime.” I looked at him in surprise as he hiked past me. “Simply superb,” he said softly without looking over his shoulder.

I looked at my phone. Time was running out. But the experience of a lifetime? The adventurer in me could never pass that up.

A young guy about my age, Jake, who seemed to be in great physical condition, huffed and puffed his way up to me and told me that one girl had told him that the view was “just okay”.

And that right there is when I would have thrown up from exhaustion if I had any substantial breakfast in my stomach. If that girl was standing next to him as he said it, I would have been tempted to push her off the cliff for that remark.

But I did make it to the top, puke-free and an hour after starting.

The French guy definitely beat Jake’s unimpressed girl. Because the view was worth it. Jake sat on the rocks and looked out at the glacier while he waited for a friend to catch up, but I took the advice of my Wisconsin friends and climbed a little bit farther onto some even bigger rocks, where I had a clear view of the lake as well. It felt like I was on top of the world, at eye-level with the peaks of the surrounding mountains. And my fellow hikers seemed to respect the momentous feeling of being there. We were all so silent that I could literally hear the rush of the wind by my ears. Words would have cluttered the view.

Reluctantly, I made my back way down the trail.

Generally, it takes me less time to return from the summit than to climb up it, obviously because it’s faster going downhill. I assumed this trail would follow that pattern. But something a lot of people don’t realize about hiking is that, while you can feel each agonizing step you take going uphill, you rarely comprehend it when you’re going downhill. And that’s how I found myself climbing up major and unexpected inclines over and over again on my way back.

And after climbing the hardest hike of my life in the blazing heat, my strength had already dwindled. The shuttle was long gone by the time I reached the trailhead.

A middle-aged woman holding a map walked past me in the parking lot.

“Ma’am!” I rushed after her. “Are you going east?”

She looked up at me and paused. “I don’t know! Maybe!”

“I’m camped at St. Mary, which is just before the park exit to the east, and I missed the last shuttle at 7,” I said, pointing to the lonely bench at the shuttle stop. “If it isn’t too much trouble, would you mind driving me if it’s on your way? It’s only 15 miles from here.”

“I think we’re going in that direction…yes, yes of course! George!”

Out of nowhere, a guy who couldn’t have been more than 21 years old came up behind us.

“This is my son George. Can you guess my name? It’s Georgia! My daughter, Holly, is talking to that park ranger over there getting directions to our lodge. She can make friends with anyone, that girl!”

I nodded and kept the smile plastered on my face.

As we approached her daughter, I could hear the park ranger saying, “No, that lodge is an hour outside the park from the west entrance.”

And there goes my ride.

Georgia looked at me and then at the ranger, then back at me. I smiled at her and shook my head.

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t want to put you out, and I need to go in the opposite direction.”

“Well I’m real sorry about that,” she said as she and her kids walked towards their car.

I glanced at the park ranger as the family left. “Um, sir? Would you be able to give me a ride to the St. Mary campground? I missed the shuttle.”

The park ranger broke into a giant smile. “Sure, I can take you! That’s no problem. Hop in to the truck.”

Thank God! I thought as I clamored into the passenger seat with my backpack on my lap.

The ranger (who I’ll call Nick Miller because his name tag only gave the initials N.M.), who seemed to be in his early 30’s, settled into the driver’s seat and flipped a couple of switches on the dashboard, much like a pilot before takeoff. He picked up a walkie talkie.

“This is Tango 14 to Logy. I’m taking a guest on a courtesy ride to St. Mary. Starting mileage 146 at 20 hundred hours.”

Someone on the other end of the radio responded. “Tango 14, this is Tango 16. There is a ram situation in front of Logan Pass. I repeat, there is a ram situation.”

“Tango 14 to Tango 16. On it.”

Nick looked over at me. “How would you like to help me scare away a herd of rams first?”

“Sure!” I suddenly no longer felt sore or tired.

He grabbed a blow horn from the truck and we walked to the road in front of the Center. Sure enough, a line of cars was waiting behind a herd of about a dozen or so rams, the wildlife casually hanging out without any notice of the people gathering around them with cameras.

Another park ranger (Tango 16), met us at the road. Nick waited a couple minutes to let the tourists take their pictures, and then slowly walked towards the rams with the blow horn, pulling the trigger every couple of steps. The herd scattered, galloping up the hill next to the road. A couple of younger rams lingered by the side of the road, but Nick continued using the blow horn until they were all a safe distance away.

He said goodbye to Tango 16 and we walked back to the truck. As he drove, he pointed out the various mountains and glaciers, naming every single one.

Suddenly, he shouted, “There’s another ram!” He slowed down and threw the blow horn into my lap as we watched the ram wander down the side of the road. “Do the honors?”

I covered an ear with one hand and stuck the blow horn out the window with the other. I gave it a long pull, and the ram ran off.

“Awesome job! Now what was I saying? Oh yeah, I definitely recommend the Siyah Pass trail. But do the whole loop, not just the out and back trail. I did the loop a lot as a backcountry ranger.”

“You were a backcountry ranger?”

“Yeah, for eight years! I could have done that job forever,” he said, dreamily looking at the horizon as he drove.

“Why didn’t you?”

Nick shrugged. “It was nine days on the job, five days off, and my wife didn’t like me being gone that long. Plus front country is better pay and gives you more room for advancement.” He seemed unconvinced after his speech on practicality and was quiet for a few moments.

“Did you see that?!” He pointed up at the hill to our left. “There’s a bear up there. You didn’t see it? Well most people aren’t allowed to turn around in the middle of the road, but can!” Nick whipped the truck around and parked on the side of the road. “Here,” he said, handing me a pair of heavy duty binoculars.

I leaned out the open window with the binoculars to my face. Sure enough, a young black bear was hunched over the foliage, not a care in the world. He was far enough away so that I never would have seen him had Nick not pointed him out to me. It was the first (and only) bear I had seen during my ten days in the park.

As we drove the rest of the way to my campsite, Nick told me everything he knew about bears. He was an enthusiast, to say the least.

“The sows and cubs are usually the ones at the campsites. They’re there less for the people and more to avoid the larger and aggressive boars that hang out by the usual bear hangouts – watering holes, berry bushes, and the like.”

I nodded with wide eyes, trying to remember everything he told me.

“Bears don’t tend to hang out by the road a lot, but when they do, it’s usually the younger ones – maybe about two or three years old, because that’s when the sow kicks them out of the family, but they’re still too young to face the boars alone, so they seek the safety of people.”

I pointed out the irony of bears feeling safe around people when people tended to feel so unsafe around bears.

“Well,” he muttered, “except for extreme cases, it’s usually when people are being stupid that they’re unsafe around bears.”

Laughing, I told him I couldn’t disagree with the stupidity of people.

Ranger Nick dropped me off right at my campsite and said to let him know if I needed anything. I waved as he drove off, and after he was out of sight, I could feel the day’s adventure on my feet and my back. But I smiled.

Woke up late. Almost threw up from heat and exhaustion. Missed my shuttle.

It became an experience of a lifetime.

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