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Ascent of McDonald Peak on 2019-06-30

Climber: Connor McEntee

Others in Party:David Hart
Renee Ernster -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Date:Sunday, June 30, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:McDonald Peak
    Location:USA-Montana
    Elevation:9820 ft / 2993 m

Ascent Trip Report

McDonald is a spectacular peak, but you really have to work for it. There is mild bushwhacking, plenty of blowdown, a lengthy sidehill complete with cliffy obstacles, and a slightly exposed snow climb/scramble. However, conditions and logistics for my trip worked out fantastically. On short notice, Dave Hart graciously allowed me to join him on a climb he had planed with Renee. The weather could not have been better, and the temperature was very comfortable. I can imagine just a few weeks later that intense sun on the south facing traverse along with warmer air temps could be brutal. Despite how warm it had been for the past month, there was more snow than expected. However, the snow may have actually been easier to climb than the rock once it had softened up in the morning sun. Overall, I suspect that late June is an ideal time to climb McDonald and more enjoyable than mid-July.

It’s also worth noting that we met a party of two that ascended from the east. They said it was wild, but it sounds like they quite enjoyed their route. I wonder if inertia is responsive for the disproportionate number of ascents from the west side and if someone should try and write up an east side trip. The sidehilling and bushwhacking are tedious, and it would appear that the east has neither of those things.

We met up midday at the Conoco in St. Ignatius, which sells conservation permits for the reservation. From there it was a short drive to the turnoff, which was easy to find thanks to Rob Woodall’s track. The road at first is paved, which then becomes gravel, but it’s great all the way to the last farm where I presume official maintenance ends. The next short stretch is dirt to a cattle gate joined by a sign stating that there is a high concentration of grizzlies in the area. On the other side of the gate, the road is still pretty good all the way to the canal. The hill up to the canal is a little steep, but shouldn’t be too bad for most vehicles. It took Dave a few tries to coax his rented AWD SUV up, and so we decided if any vehicle was going to get further up the road, it would be mine. On the far side of the canal is parking for 4-5 vehicles alongside the road. So, we consolidated into my car and continued up not sure if we’d make it all the way.

Since I couldn’t find recent trip reports commenting on the state of the road, I optimistically hoped that an increase in usage had improved things and hence a lack of warnings or complaints. That hope was misguided. It’s not a terrible road, but it’s also not a good road. The worst part is that the road is significantly encroached by vegetation, and any vehicle is going to get plenty of scratches. It’s steep and rough in places; clearance is mandatory. The road is also very narrow most of the way with few opportunities to turn around. In the end, I was able to drive my Subaru Forester all the way to the end of the road, but it was hard on the vehicle and I would advise against it. My AWD engaged just a couple times, and I probably would have used 4-Lo if I had it, but I did a pretty good job of maintaining speed when I needed it. The two toughest sections of the road are near the beginning after leaving the meadows (it’s got rocks in the road and is steep) and from the lower trailhead to the end (there’s a steep banked turn). Upon reaching the end of the road, we were surprised to find 3 trucks parked there. But, there was still plenty of room for me to park.

By early afternoon, we set out up the ridge. Much to my surprise, the use trail has been well flagged, and the brush was pretty mild. Apparently, there was a fire a few years back, so there is a lot of blowdown to step over. We only lost the trail in a few places, but it was always easy to pick up again. However, for those that climb McDonald in a day, descending the ridge at night certainly would be tedious. Annoyingly, we acquired some ticks from the brush on the ridge. It’s also worth noting that the flagging continues up the ridge past the point where the traverse starts. Consequently, we started the traverse a little higher than many previous parties, because we hoped in vain that the flagging would lead us to a good use trail on the traverse. The traverse itself isn’t that bad as far as steep sidehilling goes. (For comparison, Silvertip and Misch are noticeably worse.) The first major obstacle is a cliff band on the far side of a couloir. We took a lower path through it and found it relatively easy. Eventually, we arrived at treed terrain and had been hoping for a while that travel would be easier without grass and the shade would be nice. Wrong. The trees were dense and brushy. Though by going up a little, we found a decent path through that ultimately ascended a dirty gulley to the far side. Once out of the trees, it was only a little further to mellower terrain and a short ascent to Duncan Lake, which is the first reliable water source on the route.

The lake was largely snow-free, and we camped on a small peninsula near the outlet. There were no signs of bears near the lake, though we did find some scat higher up the next day. I bivied with a 20F quilt and actually was so warm in the middle of the night that I was sweating. However, temperatures did drop and part of the lake was frozen in the morning.

Around 6:30 we left camp and began the climb to the summit. Almost immediately we encountered snow, which was quite solid in some places thanks to an overnight freeze. However, the snow was not continuous as there were constantly rock bands or stands of trees to cross. Generally, though, the travel was very easy and we made good time up to the shoulder at 7800’. From there we traversed across small patches of snow to a nice limestone talus field that took us up to 8000’. We could finally see the climb to the summit, and the south face was largely snowbound and appeared maybe a little intimidating. I even spotted a party of two lower down. After watching them for a few minutes, they appeared to be climbing a very indirect line, and eventually, one member of the party bailed on the snow entirely disappearing into the rocks. The south face was just starting to get some sunlight, so we hoped that conditions would be pleasant by the time we reached it.

Finally seeing a continuous path of snow to the summit, we strapped on crampons and approached the base of the south face. As we’d been encountering all morning, the snow was quite solid and icy in places. Crampons made a huge difference, especially for me since I wasn’t wearing rigid alpine boots. However, even then the climbing still felt exposed. We measured the grade around 35 degrees, and it’s probably 40 in some of the steeper sections. There wasn’t a great runout, and a fall could easily take you into rocks below. So, it wasn’t hard to understand why the party ahead of us was taking their time. Ultimately, I ended up climbing the upper portion of the face in the rocks, while Dave opted for the snow. The rocks were a little loose, but overall it was a pleasant class 3 scramble all the way to the summit. After spending a little time on the summit, I did descend the snow. It had softened up enough that I was able to walk face out the entire way. In retrospect, we probably should have just taken a later start for easier conditions.

Getting back to camp was easy, and we took a different route down, which I would not prefer for the ascent. But due to the snow, it was a nice descent route even though it has a small climb at the end. At camp, I popped a celebratory beer, and after lunch, we made the tedious trek back to the car.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4860 ft / 1481 m
    Total Elevation Loss:4860 ft / 1481 m
    Round-Trip Distance:15.5 mi / 25 km
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Ski Poles, Bivouac
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:4860 ft / 1481 m
    Distance:7.5 mi / 12 km
    Route:Duncan Lake
    Start Trailhead:Ashley Lakes Trailhead  4960 ft / 1511 m
    Time:8 Hours 19 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:4860 ft / 1481 m
    Distance:8.1 mi / 13 km
    Route:Duncan Lake
    End Trailhead:Ashley Lakes Trailhead  4960 ft / 1511 m
    Time:6 Hours 15 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


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Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Connor McEntee
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