Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Hike with Scouts in Montana, August 1947

Hello friends:

Yesterday I opened an old box that had the note on it "Keepsakes - do not discard." In it I found all sorts of scout things including the diary of my Philmont trip in 1946, the hitch hike trip around the USA in 1947, the vagabond trip to Panama beginning in December of 1948 and lots of other things. Here is a story I wrote in September, 1947 and filed away only to be found 61 years later. It has never been published. I have made no changes to the original document. This is a story about a hike that I took with scouts camping at Melita Island on Flathead Lake. Looking at the Montana Boy Scout web site I find that they were totally unaware that scouts were using the site this early. I sent this story to the Montana scout executive and told him that I have lots of photos of this trip and more stories about expeditions I took with scouts from that island camp. Photos by Leonard Derby of Missoula, Montana.

NOTE: McDonald Peak is 9,820 ft in elevation with a good 5,640 ft sticking up beyond Sheeps Head.

Climbing Mt. McDonald August 4th 1947

By George F. Drake

“Whew!” gasped Kenneth. “That was a tough climb. Let’s rest awhile.”

“Agreed”, said Cy as he dropped to the ground.

We had just passed the last stand of timber and were now on the rocky slopes of the mountain. Above us loomed Sheep’s Head and beyond it lay McDonald Peak, both to be climbed that day.

"LOOKING SOUTH FROM McDONALD PEAK: To right hand side the diamond shaped peaks are called "Glacier Peaks." The lake in the center is appropriately named "Lake of the Clouds." The ridge is the one the two grizzlies were on. No hunting. Too bad!"
Notes by Leonard Derby of Missoula, Montana

Our party was made up of eight fellows. The leader was Cy Varnum, hike master of Melita Island Senior Scout Camp. Cy had lived in the western mountains all his life and had climbed in these hills many times. Another Melita Island Senior Scout Camp staff member, Earl Freels, Explorer Scout of Spokane, Washington, was with us. Leonard Derby, Kenneth Egan, Jr, Dick Waltermire, Clifford Wordel and Donald McGowan, all Explorer Scouts from Post 8, Missoula, Montana, and I made up the rest of the party.

"On our way up Sheep's Head." George Drake nearest the edge.

We had started hiking at six that morning at the foot of the Mission Range. At first climbing had been easy but as the trail had grown steeper the switchbacks had started. Every once in a while there had been openings among the trees on either side of us. On one side we could see the sections of land in the Flathead Valley laid out in geometric patterns which, from where we stood, resembled a gigantic checker board. On the further side we had caught glimpses of the Ashley Lakes with their emerald green water reflecting the mountains around them. Near the timber line we had seen wild flowers blooming in profusion. The forest floor was virtually covered with masses of red, yellow, white and blue flowers with the early morning dampness still on them, glistening in the sunlight.

After our rest we started climbing again. In front of us were snow capped peaks, glaciers and rocky cliffs. McDonald Peak, the highest in the Mission Range of the Rocky Mountains rose above us 10,000 ft. into the heavens.

"Looking west from Sheep's Head. Ashley Lakes in foreground."

“Our party is probably the first to ascend McDonald since two scouts climbed up there in 1939, eight years ago .” Said Cy. “A party of Jesuit priests from a mission in the valley was the first to the top. They erected a large cross on the summit.”

By noon we had reached the top of Sheep’s Head, 9,000 ft. above sea level. “Where does Sheep’s Head get its name? I asked Cy. “From the valley in the winter time its snow capped peak looks like an enormous sheep’s head.” He responded. “People often climb it but they stop here. The glaciers and sheer cliffs between Sheep’s Head and McDonald Peak make the climb too dangerous for most people. You need plenty of equipment = ice axes, crampons, pitons, rope, etc” he continued.

"On the way up Mt. McDonald. August 4th, 1947."

Later we crossed a small glacier on the southerly side of the mountain and with our canteens filled we spread out and worked our way up a broad sloping incline. There was so much loose rock that it was safer not to climb too closely behind one another. Our immediate objective was a saddle in the ridge between Sheep’s Head and McDonald Peak. When we pulled ourselves over the last pile of rocks we gasped in awe. In front of us was McDonald Glacier. Before we could only catch glimpses of portions of it but now we could see the full expanse of treacherous ice. More than a mile below us was the bottom of the glacier. I shudded to think what would have happened if one of us had been unfortunate enough to go careening down the slippery surface.

"Dick Waltermire, Kenneth Egan and Cy Varnum on the edge of the glacier."

After a slight pause we turned to ascend the final reaches of McDonald Peak. The outlook was poor. We could go neither right nor straight ahead. We chose the more perilous but shorter way, along the crest of the glacier itself. Each of us put a loop of the rope around our waist and ventured out on a crest of ice sixteen inches across. To our right was a crevice at least twenty feet deep and three feet wide. Beyond rose a cliff of sheer rock. To our left was the terrifying slope of the glacier.

“Just how steep is this glacier, Cy?” Donald asked, shuddering.

“Only about 43 degrees.”

"Looking down McDonald Glacier. McDonald Lake in upper right corner."

“Is that all?” Donald gulped and stepped gingerly forward. We proceeded, one behind the other, with Cy in the lead for half an hour. Suddenly I saw Kenneth Egan slip. His feet slid out from under him and down the glacier he went. Instinctively everyone braced himself for the jolt. We dug in praying that the rope would hold. As soon as Kenny stopped sliding we pulled him back to his place in line on the ridge of ice. When everyone gained confidence once more we went on. “I have been on many hikes and camping trips in my eight years of scouting but this has them all beat” Earl exclaimed. Finally, by popular vote we decided to get off the ice and climb on the rock where we thought the going would be easier. Cy spied a ledge above us in the rock. He untied himself and with the ax went on ahead intending on reaching the ledge by ascending an icy slope. With a cry Dick Waltermire called him back. Taking the ax he smacked the ice where Cy had just been. It cracked and fell to the bottom of the crevice.

"The boy is Donald McGowan of Missoula. McDonald Peak is in the background."

Cy, wiping his brow, started for the ledge again, this time making a wider circuit of the crevice. After a successful leap he tied the tope on the ax which he wedged securely into a crack in the rock. Then he let down the rope to us to climb to join him. Have you ever climbed up a rope suspended over a rock ledge? Your muscles tighten and you swallow hard. There is no real choice but to hang on. You are too frightened to think of the consequences of letting go. So it was as we went, one by one, up that rope dangling over the icy crevice below.

With everyone safely on the rock we continued the short, steep climb that lay ahead of us and accomplished it with some strain and puffing. Only a narrow ridge remained between us and the last upward thrust of the peak. At that point two of the fellows dropped to the ground exhausted. They decided to wait where they were for us to come back. The others dashed on ahead. Cy and I followed about 100 yards behind. When we were half way across the remaining narrow ridge we all froze in our tracks. Directly in front of us at the far end of the ridge two young grizzly bears popped up, seemingly from nowhere. The bears, too, stopped movement at the sight of us. Not until they had turned and scampered away did we dare to move. Further up near the peak we found some shallow spots in the rock that showed evidence of the bears having slept there.

At last we reached the top of McDonald Peak. We seemed to be standing on a cloud with the world at our feet. To the south we could see row upon row of mountain ranges and snow covered mountain peaks. We saw the Glacier Peaks with snow and ice on their slopes. High up in the mountains was the Lake of the Clouds. Nearby was Mountaineer Glacier, largest in the Northwest. To the north rose Mt. Harding. Flathead Lake was visible in the distance. To the west were the farm lands of Flathead Valley and near our feet, the Ashley Lakes. On the other side of the ridge leading up to Mt. McDonald was McDonald Lake.

"Cy Varnum and Kenneth Egan on top of McDonald Peak add a rock to the cairn on top of the peak."

Cy took a mirror out of his pack and started signaling toward Ronan, about fifteen miles away. Cy had told his father to look out for signals. Presently tiny flashes of light came back, telling us that someone knew we had reached the top. I wrote all of our names on a leaf of my notebook, wrapped it in a bit of foil and placed it in a can that we buried in the cairn on the summit of the mountain. Then we headed back down the mountain.

Instead of trying to cross the ice again we went down the south side of the peak. Even though the slope was frightfully steep we descended with some speed on the loose rock. Soon we were again at the timber line.

It was evening when we reached the first of the Ashley Lakes where we picked up a trail. Shortly, though, the trail ended on a rock ledge. All efforts failed to regain it failing we sruck out on the same level for the ridge where Cy knew there was a path. To cut across a mountain side in the dark, making your own trail is no easy task as we soon found out. In many places the hillside was so steep that we started sliding. In the darkness we grabbed the most convenient tree, shrub or bush which often turned out to be a briar bush or wild rose. What carried us forward I will never know. It seemed as though we had lost all our senses. We couldn’t see, had no energy to talk nor could we think. We just threw one foot in front of the other and gravity did the rest.

Suddenly, with a cry of victory, Darby fell exhausted on the ridge trail, solid beneath our feet and easy to follow even in the dark. At 11:05 p.m. we reached our base camp after seventeen hours of rugged hiking and thrilling adventure.


Gregory Crow said...

McDonald Peak is 9,820 ft in elevation with a good 5,640 ft sticking up beyond Sheeps Head.

Anonymous said...


As another old scouter, but not as "old" as you, I really enjoyed your story of climbing in the Missions in 1947. Some of the article reminded my of my first hiking expedition into Molman Lakes circa 1960. Short version, I slid about 1000 feet down a snow field, snapped off several small trees, stopped by falling into a shallow crevass. I was rescued by fellow hiker about an hour later who roped down to get me and cut foot holds into the snow field, and literally saved my young life. This adventure was on the North face of Richards Peak about ten miles North of your mountain and around the 4th of July. Molman lakes were completely frozen and the valley full of snow, but we four young kids had a ball regardless. Nearly died but we were young and immortal!

Thanks for the memories, and your lifelong support of Scouting.

David C. Gray
Missoula, MT
35 years of Adult Scouting, from Cubs to Council.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Drake: I believe you failed to assure us that you picked up the two exhausted fellows on your way back.. I am concerned.

Bill Ballard

Anonymous said...


Gad zeukes! You are right! I wonder if they could still be up there? :-)