Lake County High Point Trip Report

McDonald Peak

Date: October 13, 2002
Author: Bob Packard

Note 1: McDonald Peak (9,820 ft) is in the Grizzly Bear Conservation Zone in the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Note 2: The Grizzly Bear Conservation Zone is off limits to the public from mid-July through Oct 1 every year.

Note 3: On July 29, 2002 I bought a 2002 Reservation Use Permit ($12) and a 2002 Reservation Camping Stamp ($10) at an office in Polson, MT. These were valid for my camp at St. Mary's Lake on July 29 and my climb of Lowary Peak, hp of Missoula County, MT the next day, July 30, 2002. They were also valid for my camp and climb of McDonald Peak.

Note 4: I had hoped to do McDonald Peak first weekend in October, but weather reports and telephone calls to ranger stations indicated snow in the Missions. So, I waited a week. More calls indicated that snow had been light and a fair weather window forecast October 13, 14, and 15. So, I left Flagstaff [AZ] at 7 PM on October 10.

Note 5: I had originally planned to leave the Ashley Lakes Trail at the 5260 level in western Section 26 west of Ashley Lakes, Mt. Harding, MT 7.5-minute Quad, then climb up the southwest spur ridge to the west ridge of McDonald Peak and continue on that ridge over UN 9417 to West McDonald Peak, thence to McDonald Peak itself. But a careful reading of Pat Caffrey's write-up of McDonald Peak in his "Climbers Guide to Montana" indicated climbing problems, so I took the Ashley Creek option. This turned out to be the right choice. See below.

Note 6: This is a 5,000+ foot elevation gain cohp. Here is the analysis. The western approaches are via the high clearance 4WD road leading to the Ashley Lake Trail. I was able to get my 4WD with 8-foot cabover camper to the 4,680 foot level. Without the camper I might have been able to get to the absolute end of the jeep tracks to almost the 5,000-foot level. Now, the trail goes up to 5,260 before it drops down to 4,920 in the Ashley Creek Valley before it heads up to the lakes. Thus it has a drop of 340 feet. Thus the elevation gain is at least 5160. If you go up to the McDonald west ridge the gain is even more because you then have to go over UN 9417 with a 417-foot drop to its saddle with McDonald. The eastern approaches are via a trailhead at 4900 feet which leads to Heart Lake and Island Lake, thence over the Mission Divide and an 800-foot drop down to Cliff Lake. Thus these routes all have elevation gains of at least 5,720 ft.

Note 7: McDonald Peak is 2nd in prominence in MT behind Crazy Peak.

Here is how my trip went. Got to the Mission Valley area Saturday afternoon, Oct 12, 2002. DeLorme (pg 53) is misleading. The Mission Mountains and Mission Mountains Tribal Wildernesses Map is most helpful here. The road leading to the Ashley Lake Trail is NOT the Ashley Lake Rd, but the Red Horn Rd. This road is improved for 3.5 miles east of US 93. At this point there is a house at 3200 ft where I made inquiries. I was told that the bears were still active and were eating apples in the orchards below. The road then deteriorates immediately, you pass through a gate and cross a canal on a wooden bridge. It then winds up the steep slopes in the general direction of Ashley Lakes. From the house I drove 3.4 miles to an obvious stopping spot at 4,680 ft where there was a Flathead Indian Permit drop box, clearly no longer in use. I walked up the road to its end and decided I didn't want to try to drive any further than I already had. Back to camper, camped.

Next day I started at 6AM. Got on the trail, brushy and hard to follow in spots, and got to upper Ashley Lake. Found goat trails utilizing talus-gullies-ledges to get up the nearly 1000 very steep feet of cliff just to the north of a waterfall and even steeper cliffs. Above there the Ashley Creek valley leads east and finally north for about 2 miles to the big basin south of McDonald. Some bouldering along here. I worked my way up into the basin heading west up through several cliff bands to the south ridge of West McDonald Pk.

From below this looked like the best thing to do. Grizzly tracks in the snow in upper Ashley Creek and even high up in the basin. Climbed West McDonald (9,420 ft), got down to its saddle with McDonald (only 100 foot drop) and started up the knife-edge ridge to McDonald. I soon found out about the climbing problems mentioned by Caffrey. It was more than I could handle, the snow making it even worse. From the top of W. McDonald I could see that the ridge between it and UN 9417 was horrible. Damn good thing I hadn't attempted THAT! I very slowly and gingerly worked off the ridge, lost about 100 ft, and got out onto the very steep basin wall below the summit of McDonald. Snow conditions were perfect for accepting boot and having it hold. Got back on the west ridge 50 ft or so below the summit and got up just fine. Too much snow to check on any BM. Fabulous views of the whole Mission Range and McDonald Lake. Fair skies, but cold and windy near top. I was very happy that the summit was on the west end of the summit ridge. Didn't look good getting to the east end of the ridge (only 1 contour lower).

I went directly down into the basin without reclimbing W. McDonald. The snow actually made this fast as I could jam in my heels. Snow patches down to about 7,000 ft, none below that. I didn't find the goat trails leading down to the lakes, but found a way hanging on to bushes and tree branches. Guess I was too close to the waterfall, festooned with ice by the way. It was dark when I got to the lower lake. Out came the flashlight. Felt lucky to be able to stay on track in the dark on the way back to my camper. I just camped right there.

Trip statistics: 13.75 hours duration, 10 miles distance with 6000 ft elevation gain.
Very tough hike, but climb only class 3.