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Chicago Peak

"Matt,” I said sardonically, “you’re either gonna have to turn your tee shirt inside out or put it on backwards. Brittney Spears is staring at me and it’s a little unnerving.”
    He laughed and Josh chimed in, “Just turn and face me, Matt.”
    I had been trying to keep from staring at Matt’s chest, but it was increasingly difficult not to do so. And I didn’t want him to think it was his chest upon which I had locked my gaze. It’s what was on his chest: a picture of pop music star Brittney Spears with absolutely the sexiest eyes on the planet. And a rather revealing low cut shirt, with a flower carefully placed just so.
    I think even the Pope would have stared.
    We all chuckled, stared for a moment longer, then returned to our reverie about the day we had just spent with Bob Cheshire on Chicago Peak. The four of us were enjoying a fitting end to a glorious Sunday in the Cabinets with pizza at The Hereford. Bob had offered to teach anyone interested about how to climb steep, cliffy, snow-covered mountains with the help of an ice axe and how to get back down using a technique called glissading, a term used to describe the simple action of sliding down snowfields on your butt. One word of caution: you don’t want to wear shorts when doing this, believe me. Icy cold snow crystals can get packed tightly in places where you least want them.
    Bob had chosen Chicago Peak as the training site because of the easy access and the deep snow still lingering in its shadow. It was also relatively safe for novice ice-axers like myself to learn the moves that could keep you from falling off a cliff should you slip and slide to the edge of a precipice, much like Chris O’Donnell did in the movie “Vertical Limit.” We stayed away from such drop-offs, but the adrenaline rush was no less intense once you began racing downslope on the seat of your pants.
    By the way, if you are thinking of driving up to the Chicago Peak parking area for a nice summer hike into Cliff Lake, think again. On June 23, snow in the road blocked our progress about three miles from the top, so we walked from there. Four to five feet of snow still blankets the landscape on that southwest-facing mountainside at 6000 feet, and once you get into the alpine sanctuary between Chicago and St. Paul peaks the snow is twice that depth. Cliff Lake remains entirely frozen and snow-covered. Summer is still a long time coming to Milwaukee Pass.
    Patiently and succinctly Bob gave us instruction on climbing a steep-sided mountain covered in snow and how to control a fall should we lose our footing. It could not have been a more perfect day to have been in the high country. Warm, sunny, firm snow, fabulous scenery, great company.
    Once we had mastered the basics, up Chicago Peak we went. Near the top, the snowfield we were following became so steep below its cornice that we got a bit nervous about continuing that route, so we threaded our way through a bergschrund - the narrow crevasse formed between a glacier or snowfield and the rock wall it has melted away from. That brought us to a wickedly narrow gap between the head-high snow and a cliff face. But we were so close to the top we weren’t about to allow one challenging climb to keep us from it, so, carefully, Bob showed us how to maneuver past the obstacle, which we succeeded in doing without incident.
    Naturally, at the 7018-foot summit we simply sat quietly, engrossed in the magic of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. And so inspired were we by the accomplishment, we agreed to tackle St. Paul Peak after lunch.
    Add 696 vertical feet to Chicago Peak’s elevation, and you’re at the top of  St. Paul. But you might as well be at the top of the world. From Packsaddle to the Scotchmans, south across the river to the Clark Fork-Coeur d’Alene Divide, north along the spine of the Cabinets, east to the furthest edge of the horizon, the world lay at our feet; though I must say just a scant ten miles to the north Snowshoe Peak - the highest in the range - asserts its dominance and whispers in your mind, if you want the top of this part of the world, you’ve got to conquer me.
    I for one was happy with the top of St. Paul that Sunday afternoon. The assault on Snowshoe would come another day, and I already had the confidence that I’d have no trouble conquering it. Just put an ice axe in my hand, a pack on my back filled with food, and maybe tell me there’s a certain tee shirt waiting for me at the top.

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Author info

Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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Noxon, Chicago Peak, Montana, ice climbing, hiking, Bluepenciler

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