Shangri-La is a hanging basin located at 6,500-feet of elevation in the Many Glacier region of Glacier National Park in Montana. Despite lying only a few miles from the popular Many Glacier Hotel, Shangri-La is accessed only by an adventurous scrambling route. There are no marked trails leading to it, nor does it even carry a name on any map of the park. The basin contains a shallow emerald lake at the eastern base of Mount Wilbur, and has been given the unofficial name of Shangri-La in reference to the mythical Himalayan utopia described in James Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon.
Shangri-La is a sort of hidden secret of the intrepid mountaineers of Glacier National Park. The approach is outlined in A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park by J. Gordon Edwards.
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 18th, 2014
There’s a thick haze in the air today, a smokey indicator of late-summer wildfires. Giselle and I decide to set off from Swiftcurrent Camp on an excursion to find the mysterious Shangri-La mentioned in J. Gordon Edwards’ guidebook.
We begin up the gentle Swiftcurrent Valley trail alongside scores of casual hikers. Just short of Redrock Lake, the two of us turn north and begin scrambling up the nearest ridge. With some creative navigation we achieve the crest of the ridge, but then the real bushwhacking begins.
We set our compass to the northern landmark of Bullhead Point (a prominent tower of rock that forms the eastern subsummit of the magestic Mount Wilbur) and proceed to plunge into the spruce forest. Giselle and I take turns leading the way, often needing to swerve around impassible patches of vegetation. The going is scratchy and tedious but we remain patient, trying our best to not stray from our compass bearing.
After some hacking around in the forest we locate a small game trail. We follow this trail to an open meadow on the banks of a small creek. This creek does not have a name, but we know from looking at the map that it drains from the ‘Shangri-La’ hanging basin. Above us are the intimidating 2,000-foot cliffs of Bullhead Point. We ascend the meadow, aimed for a deep notch in the cliffs where the small creek has carved a weakness.
The two of us climb the right (east) side of the creek, utilizing a series of 3rd-class gullies. The shale is surprisingly solid and the scrambling is nothing but fun!
It’s a scramble of about a thousand feet, bringing us rapidly up to the 6,500-foot mark. With little difficulty we top out onto a flat grassy meadow, taking a moment to rest and breathe in the smokey air.
Giselle and I follow the babbling brook to its source, a large serene lake of emerald beauty sitting calmly below the walls of the glacially-sculpted giant Mount Wilbur. The two of us sit in complete solitude, Giselle watercolouring and I simply meditating on the simultaneous grandeur and tranquility of our surroundings. This is a setting indeed fit for the title Shangri-La.
Reluctantly we must depart from the warm utopia of Shangri-La. Instead of descending the same path, we decide to find an alternative route back to Swiftcurrent Camp. We notice on the map that we are not far from Iceberg Lake – in fact, there is only a low ridgeline separating the Shangri-La basin from the Iceberg basin. We cross to the opposite shore of the lake and ascend a bare 2nd-class slope to the 7,000-ft crest of the ridge.
From the top we are rewarded with a unique vantage point of Iceberg Lake squished into the most impressive cirque one could ever imagine. The dark shale of the Iceberg Wall – measuring 2,000 vertical feet at its shortest point – forms a dramatic enclosure for the cerulean-blue lake. As the name suggests, there are chunks of snow and ice floating on the surface, remnants of a once-grand glacial system.
After a brief ridgetop rest, the two of us take to descending the slippery scree slope to Iceberg Lake. It’s an exhilarating 1,000-foot slide down to the eastern shore of the lake. From the bottom, one can truly appreciate the monstrous scale of the Iceberg Wall.
From Iceberg Lake we take the normal trail down to Swiftcurrent Camp, a mellow six miles of descent down the wide mouth of the Ptarmigan Valley. The upper section of the trail boasts big views of the valley and contains a number of intriguing sedimentary outcrops.
We continue southeast along the Ptarmigan Valley trail until we’re below the 6,500-foot treeline. The forest is dense; National Park signs warn us of recent grizzly bear sightings in the area. With emergency pepper spray ready at the hip belt, the two of us engage in boisterous conversation so as not to startle any bears that might be around each next corner.
Around 6,300 feet the trail crosses Ptarmigan Falls, a multicoloured cascade of gushing clear water. The stream shoots off the first ledge as if from a powerful cannon, tumbling over each successive ledge of colourful shale in mesmerizing rhythm.
Sure enough we encounter a grizzly bear further down the trail. As we’re humming along blissfully, a fellow hiker calls loudly, “Careful! There’s a grizzly just below you. Come quickly towards us and don’t look down towards him.”
As we’re shuffling frantically towards the group of hikers, I steal a glance below the trail at the great intimidating silverback. I see his massive muscular hump nonchalantly munching on delicious autumn berries not twenty yards away from me! My heart skips a beat and I put a bit of extra pep into my step.
We join the group of hikers at a safe 100-yard distance from the bear. The hikers say they’ve been watching the bear for the entire afternoon. Some hours earlier, the bear apparently made a bluff charge at a group of passersby. Luckily for us, the creature never once looks up, evidently focused on bulking up before hibernation. In this time of year they are known to spend twenty hours a day foraging for food!
Back at camp we brew a pot of green tea and sit riverside in the dusk air. Our blissful afternoon at Shangri-La now seems like a dream.