TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for Granite Park

Descending the Food Chain in Glacier National Park

Never mind that it was the seventh straight bluebird morning of backpacking in mountains that constantly look surreal, like a painted mural backdrop in a movie. It didn’t matter that the trip had been a parade of wildlife. We even forgot about the heaviness in our legs from 15-mile days.

The menacing snarl piercing the silence seized our full attention.

My buddy Jerry Hapgood and I stood in the warm sunshine at 7,050-foot Lincoln Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. We had stopped for a snack after passing yet another mountain goat with a kid—I’d lost track of our goat tally for the week—and had just started ambling down the trail again when the sound stopped us cold. Then we heard it a second time, and followed it with our eyes.

Below us about 200 vertical feet and three switchbacks, the authors of the menacing snarls wrestled in the sparse conifer forest beside a small tarn: two grizzly cubs. Grazing nearby was their mom, whom I’ll politely describe as a big woman. They were about four steps off the trail we needed to descend, a distance I quickly calculated that sow griz could close, at her max speed of 35 mph, in 0.16 seconds.

I felt suddenly very anxious.

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In the Footsteps of John Muir

I’m slogging up a long ramp of beach-like sand toward Cox Col, an off-trail pass sitting a few ticks over 13,000 feet in California’s John Muir Wilderness. The high-altitude sun feels like a blacksmith’s forge hovering right above my head. My breaths come faster than my steps, and I feel lightheaded. But I’m thinking mostly about the pass ahead of us—and whether there’s a safe route over it.

My friend Jason Kauffman and I are on a 32.2-mile, three-day traverse of one of the highest, harshest, and most achingly gorgeous strips of the High Sierra, from North Lake, outside Bishop, to Mosquito Flat, between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. I’ve devised a route linking up trails with long stretches of cross-country hiking over lake-studded alpine basins and six passes between 11,150 and 13,040 feet. We are exploring corners of the Sierra rarely seen by people. John Muir himself would have been pleased with our itinerary.

Granite Park, John Muir Wilderness

Our route’s not in any guidebook—not entirely, anyway. Like assembling a puzzle with some missing pieces, I cobbled the traverse together from thin descriptions of fragments of it. I like that element of uncertainty, of the path ahead being something of a mystery. It’ll be an adventure, I told Jason, who’s laboring up this slope behind me. I got that much right. We’ve logged 10- to 12-hour days, at times weaving through cliff bands, descending steep, loose scree, and scrambling over big talus blocks that could crush a Land Rover.

Cox is our highest and final pass before a long descent to the road. I can already taste the pizza and beer.

I reach the col, a corridor-width notch in a jagged ridge projecting from 13,720-foot Bear Creek Spire, and peer over the other side. My throat constricts at the view: a nearly vertical drop of 300 feet, maybe more, over a series of down-sloping, sandy, narrow ledges. If I lobbed a stone out, it would freefall for several seconds. Descending that way would be a death wish. I back away carefully, painfully aware that if we cannot find a safe route over this pass, we’re looking at a detour of more than 15 miles, partly off-trail. We’re down to our last few energy bars and handfuls of GORP.

I love a good mystery. But starring in one is not always convenient.

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