Conquering Grinnell Glacier (with a baby on my back)

I set out to conquer Grinnell Glacier, an 11+ mile hike, in Glacier National Park with my 14-month-old son. An early start, kickbutt friends, and friendly strangers made it all possible.

When I read that positive pregnancy test, I promised myself that I would continue hiking because I feared that the routine of taking care of my baby would force me into a lifestyle I didn’t actually want. I wanted to get lost in the wild, not lost behind the pile of dishes in the sink or the laundry on the floor. I didn’t want to wake up one morning full of deep-rooted regrets for giving up on my passions for the sake of raising my son. I wanted to believe that I could tender my own flames while teaching my son how to build his own. I have learned that I can still be a wild one while raising my wild one too.

I love a challenge and I love wild-haired ideas. Like hiking Grinnell Glacier with my 14-month old son on my back. I’ve had my eyes on this hike for about three years, but never went for it. Maybe it was the intimidating name, or the roundtrip mileage of 11.3 miles with an approximate elevation gain of 2,100 feet, but I knew I couldn’t let another summer slip through my sweaty grasp without attempting the trail. My longest distance with Gavin up until this point was only seven miles and 1,800 feet of gain, so I had plenty of doubts going into this hike. I was relieved knowing that I would have reinforcements with two of my favorite hiking buddies by my side, Cass and Marianne. I met Cass through Instagram when I moved to the Valley three summers ago and we became close friends. That same summer, we met Marianne through an Instagram hiking group and we loved her instantly.

We met up just shy of 6:00 A.M. to carpool to the trailhead. The drive was nearly three hours, but felt much shorter thanks to the miles of long and beautiful roadways with sweeping views of Glacier’s peaks and valleys. Moody morning clouds and crisp fog rolled in behind us as if they had been directly hitched to the 4Runner. We arrived at the trailhead minutes before the last parking spaces were snatched by other hikers who were hungry for Grinnell. We assembled like a team of superheroes destined for greatness. I prayed that this empowered feeling would follow us up the trail as earnestly as the clouds and fog had.

En route to the trailhead along Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

A quick inventory indicated that Marianne brought the wrong shoes, Cass almost left behind her hiking poles, and I packed way too many snacks and diapers. But with our powers combined, we forged onward to the trail and hiked along the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine as I fed my son pieces of banana pancakes. The trail was calm and easy for the first two miles, but we eventually caught up to a bottleneck of 50 hikers at a standstill. We shrugged impatiently until we discovered that two bull moose were standing smack in the middle of the trail with little desire to move.

Cass made her way to the front of the line to help get people away from the moose, namely the tourists who were taking selfies within ten feet of them. The moose began to move towards the crowd, so everyone split off the trail, jumping behind large trees and thick foliage for safety. I’m never nervous hiking with Gavin until there is a wildlife encounter. Animal behaviors are so unpredictable and my mom-brain immediately jumps to the worst case scenario. I’m imagining the horror of my son and I being stomped to death by two bull moose as I’m hugging (read: death-gripping) a bush. Without injury or casualty, the moose wandered south of the trail after a few minutes, waving their tails like a metaphorical green light. I read relief on every hiker’s face as they climbed out of their hiding places, amazed by the encounter and thankful for the calm resolution. We waited a few minutes before continuing on the trail to put some distance between us and the other hikers.

The sun was making her grand appearance and colliding with the cool air, which felt like a slice of juicy bacon: warm and crisp. The trail was starting to gain some elevation now, ever so slightly at first and then in big, noticeable steps. I kept telling Cass and Marianne that they didn’t have to wait for me. I’d catch up. Not only were they are in far better shape than me, but they weren’t carrying an extra 30 pounds of baby either. They always replied with the same sentiment: “We aren’t leaving you, we are doing this together.” Neither one of them were annoyed at my slow pace or my frequent requests to offer Gavin water. We really were in this together, and I stopped feeling guilty for my lack of speed.

As the elevation continued to increase, I tried not to look ahead because I didn’t want to discount the distance we had already covered while feeling discouraged by the distance we still had left. The trail got more narrow and steep as we passed a group of hikers stopped for a break. They were admiring the view and discussing if they should continue on. I said hello as I walked by, huffing and puffing no doubt, and I overheard them saying, “Okay. Now we have to keep going!” I felt pretty dang proud in that moment. I know I’m not exactly saving the world or anything here, I’m literally just walking. But I am incredibly astounded that by simply having been outside with my son, pushing our struggle bus around a trail together, we were able to encourage and empower others hikers.

We rounded a corner and I looked up to take in the new change in scenery. The flowing water and rolling mountainside, still full of life in mid-September, sure was a sight to see. Then I noticed other hikers in the distance, who appeared to be the size of ants against the steep cliffs. I was terrified. How am I ever going to do this? As I was wrestling with the reality of the ascent, a group of bighorn sheep waded through the nearby foliage. I paused for just a moment before continuing on because my pack is practically unbearable to carry if I’m standing still.

The elevation gain was starting to wear on my body now, especially since Gavin had fallen asleep and he felt twice as heavy. We sat along an overlook for a break, my shoulders breathing a sigh of reprieve. I smashed a sandwich and water, taking in the views while panting and wondering how many miles we’d covered. I glanced at Gavin sleeping, with his body tucked neatly inside the pack, and I felt so much pride. Pride in this crazy creation my husband and I made, and pride for the steps we had taken to make it this far – both literally on trail and figuratively in our lives together. We almost didn’t survive his birth, so to be on this dramatic mountainside with him nearly brought me to tears. I don’t get much right, but I think moving to Montana, marrying Ian, and raising Gavin among the wilderness are some of my best life decisions.

When Gavin woke up, I fed him some applesauce and pasta. He washed it down with a few big gulps of water before it was time to re-embark on the trail. I settled back in to the weight of my pack, feeling the tension on my shoulders. I pulled the hip straps a little tighter. Cass let me borrow her hiking poles at this point because the terrain was becoming more difficult to navigate without them. I’ve never used poles except for snowshoeing, but man, what a staggering difference they made for hiking with Gavin. I felt so much more confident in my center of gravity with these little gems. I know what’s going on my Christmas list this year.

We were somewhere near the last mile of trail when we were met with a family of mountain goats sunbathing along the ridge. I imagined the baby goat being christened like Simba from The Lion King. Gavin waved at the goats and the hikers passing by us, even letting out a few excited squeaks when the goats walked around their perch. Moments like that are magic. You can see the amazement in my son’s eyes and you can feel his curious energy in these encounters with wild things. He said “Wow!” for the first time and I think there is no better way to sum up the value of raising him in wild places than that.

The baby mountain goat, showing us how it’s done.
Marianne and Cass, my trail-loving posse, posing with Angel Wing Mountain.
Leading up to the final stretch. Can you spot the trail and other hikers?
Salamander Glacier is in the middle of this photo, with Grinnell Glacier and Grinnell Falls to the left.

The trail was certainly challenging up to this point, but thankfully the grade started getting more subtle until we reached the trail marker indicating that we were about to begin the last half mile of trail. The girls asked if I wanted a break, but I could practically taste the glacier at this point. I was so thirsty to finally see it for myself that we forego the break and hit the trail running. Okay, walking briskly. Dang that last half mile. All up, up, and up. And then up some more. I knew I could get there, albeit slowly, but I knew I could. Hikers making their descent smiled and waved at Gavin while praising my efforts. I started feeling like a superhero all over again and my legs were lighter than ever as we made the climb.

Then suddenly, the trail plateaued and we arrived at Upper Grinnell Lake. The stark color of the turquoise water was unreal. Above the lake to the northeast corner, I spotted hikers along the ridge at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook, a hike that I did two summers ago as a part of the Highline Trail. I admit that I felt rather accomplished for having seen this section of the Continental Divide from both vantage points.

The temperature dropped and Gavin’s nose turned red. He didn’t seem to mind, but Cass and I layered his body in Buffs, bandanas, socks, and a jacket anyway. He smiled and ate his granola bar, fruit snacks, and sandwich. He wasn’t walking on his own yet, but he was anxious to walk around the area. I held his hand as he led the way, taking giant leaps toward the glacier and lake. I have never seen him so confident on his own two feet, like he had no fear of how steep the trail or how loose the rocks. Meanwhile I was like a helicopter-mom-extraordinaire to make sure he stayed upright and didn’t tumble down the rocks and into the lake. As he was nearing a sharp grade of loose rocks, I picked him up and turned him around. He protested with kicking, screaming, and crying. When I had set him down in the right direction, he fought to turn back around towards the sharp grade again. Insert more kicking, screaming, and crying. Stubborn like his dad, obviously (ha!). I picked him back up, coaxed him through his little fit, and returned to our lunch camp. He quickly nestled into Cass’s arms for comfort.

Notice the people and their colorful jackets in the foreground to help show scale.

My only regret was not spending more time here, but I wasn’t prepared for the cooler temperatures and my body was starting to get that post-workout-chill. We took a few more photos before beginning our descent. Gavin fell asleep again within a half mile of being back on the trail. Thankfully, the sun started dancing through the clouds at the lower elevation and I was able to warm up quickly. We were making great time coming down until we noticed a crowd of people in the distance, which meant there was either another wildlife sighting or someone had hurt themselves. The hikers making their way up the mountain let us in on all the commotion: grizzly bear ahead.

When we got closer to the hoards of people, we could see his silvery back illuminated by the sun. He was lazily making his way through the huckleberry patches and paid no mind to the attention he was receiving. Meanwhile I’m having more worst-case-scenario dreams while I’m wide awake taking in the size of this creature. I only took one photo and then I was ready to move on again before a straight panic attack kicked in. Cass expressed an interest in carrying my pack at this point. I was definitely not going to tell her no, even though I really wanted to go the full distance without any help for the sake of proving to myself that I could do it.

But we traded packs. “Oh, this feels just like backpacking!” she said, and she carried on with her steady pace, completely unphased by the 30+ pounds of cargo. I slipped her pack over my shoulders and instantly felt like I would float away. My goodness, I could run a whole marathon with her pack on. Is this what hiking used to feel like? I honestly can’t remember! Within mere minutes, Marianne was commenting how my entire demeanor changed now that I had a lighter pack. My shoulders and hips weren’t aching, my breathing was back to normal, and I no longer had to pass snacks over my shoulders to hungry little hands. I could actually partake in the conversation instead of just listening and intermittently laughing when I could muster the strength.

Cass carried Gavin all the way to the trailhead, which ended up being about four miles, with zero complaints. I later learned that she had bruised her hips as a result of this selfless act and that the pack wasn’t even comfortable for her to carry. You would’ve never known that from watching her carry my little boy. She was laughing and pointing and totally immersing Gavin in the wilderness that surrounded us. He devoured her candor like a handful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, down to the very last crumb and granule of sugar.

We soon reached the trailhead and the nearly-empty parking lot. I celebrated this feat by taking off my hiking boots and changing my clothes. I did the same for Gavin while he played in the grass and thumbed through the pages of his cardboard book. I marveled at how well he did and beamed with pride at what we accomplished together. I am still so proud of him, and I think I always will be. He sat perfectly content in his pack marveling at the mountain views for seven hours. SEVEN. HOURS. I am so proud and lucky to have friends that stayed alongside me, sharing their stories, hiking poles, and backs for the sake of a memorable adventure that we could share in together. I truly could not have done this hike without them.

2 thoughts on “Conquering Grinnell Glacier (with a baby on my back)

  1. Ohhhhh that day! You captured it so perfectly. Really was so memorable for me too seeing YOU complete your goal and Gavin chalk up another wonderful adventure with his super mom. Lucky kid, for sure. So very happy I got to be a part of that fantastic day. Will never forget it. Love ya!


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