In the vast mountaineering universe, Glacier National Park inhabits its own galaxy, and for many years the man at the center of all that swirling geologic matter and explorative energy was J. Gordon Edwards, the architect of climbing in the park and an affable conquistador, laying siege to its many peaks while inspiring scores of other climbers to scramble in his footsteps.
Edwards literally wrote the book on climbing in the park, and 55 years after publishing his timeless peak-bagging manual, “A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park,” his influence continues to flourish on mountaineers new and old; some of them met Edwards through the Glacier Mountaineering Society, while others heard tales of his daring routes or read his meticulously scripted beta on the mimeographed sheets that would eventually become the bible for Glacier’s rock enthusiasts.
Today, 35 years after the club’s formation and nearly 70 years after the late Edwards first arrived in Glacier as a research entomologist, scores of climbers attribute their passion for and knowledge of the park’s secrets to the Glacier Mountaineering Society (GMS), and to Edwards’ involvement in the club, including some of the most prolific and accomplished mountaineers in the region.
“I wanted to learn the routes to the summits of the peaks in Glacier Park, and who better to follow than Gordon Edwards, who wrote the book about climbing in the park?” said GMS member Brian Kennedy, former editor and publisher of the Hungry Horse News, and an accomplished climber in his own right, having scaled more than 220 of the park’s named peaks.
The concept for GMS emerged in the late 1970s, when a cadre of dedicated mountaineers known as the “Swiftcurrent Regulars” convened each summer in the Many Glacier and Swiftcurrent region, swapping route descriptions, dreaming up big traverses and embarking on ambitious explorations of the ridges and peaks radiating out of the valleys.
The idea was simple — Glacier’s high-alpine country was a puzzle box waiting to be unlocked, and sharing that challenge with others while recording the annals of mountain exploration was a noble obligation.
One Glacier devotee who adopted that philosophy was Denis Twohig, a passionate climber who began publishing Going-to-the-Sun Magazine, featuring colorful spreads of the off-trail adventures that a clutch of mountaineers was dispatching with regularity.
“During that period of time I got to know a lot of the regular scramblers and climbers in Glacier National Park, including the pied piper of Glacier’s climbers, J. Gordon Edwards,” Twohig said. “And it was through this association that I got the idea to start a club.”
Twohig was already publishing a handbook to Glacier for motorists and hikers, and in 1980 he used the handbook to place a subscription application for the new magazine, describing it on the order form as “your introduction to the majesty and splendor of Glacier National Park.”
That same year, Twohig debuted Going-to-the-Sun Magazine, which would become the official journal of the Glacier Mountaineering Society and is still published today. In the following edition, he announced the formation of the club, describing it as “a society of backpacking and climbing enthusiasts sharing a common link with the mountain wilderness experience.”
The Glacier Mountaineering Society was still in its “embryonic stages,” Twohig said, when he used Going-to-the-Sun Magazine to publish the account of an historic first ascent by two of the club’s original charter members, legends Terry Kennedy (no relation to Brian) and his partner Jim Kanzler.
Over the course of three days in September 1979, the 25-year-old Kennedy and 31-year-old Kanzler inched their way up the sheer north face of Mount Siyeh, a menacing, monolithic tower of limestone that is widely considered the most difficult climb in the park. The duo had attempted the route three times prior, succeeding on their fourth attempt after spending two cold nights suspended from the massive wall.
Depending on how you measure it, the north face of Siyeh is either the ﬁrst or second tallest technical rock face in Glacier National Park, making it the ﬁrst or second tallest in the Lower 48 — the other tallest rock face, the north face of Mount Cleveland, was climbed for the first time in 1976, also by Terry Kennedy and Kanzler, as well as Steve Jackson.
Terry Kennedy and Kanzler grew up climbing in Columbia Falls and became acquainted through their association with the Boy Scouts. Kanzler was six years older than Kennedy and, along with his brother, Jerry Kanzler, had already developed a reputation as a talented big mountain climber, which swelled to mythic proportions for the younger kids growing up on the outskirts of Glacier, who whiled away summer days gazing up at its snow-marbled peaks in astonishment.
The gravity of the Kanzlers’ climbing feats gripped Terry Kennedy in particular.
“When I look at my heritage and think about how I became a climber, it goes back to the Kanzlers,” Kennedy said. “I mean these guys were really out there. This was back in the days of early space travel and putting a man on the moon, and I held the Kanzlers at the same level as that. We knew that the Kanzlers were mountain climbers. And that was like being an astronaut, as far as we were concerned.”
As a kid living on the fringe of Glacier Park, the peaks held a powerful allure, and they beckoned to Kennedy at a young age.
“All of our fathers worked at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant, and we’d look up at Teakettle and Columbia mountains and want to climb them. So we did,” Kennedy said. “We would go up there and shine mirrors down to our houses for our moms to see. It was pretty special.”
In 1963, Hal Kanzler led his sons up Mount St. Nicholas, a steep, technical and remote climb that is considered one of the most challenging summits in Glacier. At the time, Jim Kanzler was 15 and Jerry was 12, and rumors of the hideously difficult ascent quickly spread through the community.
“The kids at school were all talking about how the Kanzler boys had climbed some really big, scary mountain in the park,” Kennedy recalled. “We were going, ‘Wow, really? Which one?’ It turned out these kids had climbed St. Nick. That was a profound influence on me.”
In December 1969, tragedy rocked the climbing community around Glacier Park when Jerry Kanzler, then 18, and four other young climbers were swept to their deaths while attempting to scale Mount Cleveland’s unclimbed sheer north face.
The tragedy would leave an indelible mark on Hal and Jim Kanzler, who both committed suicide years later, as well as on Kennedy, super-charging the climbers’ ambitions while saddling them with grief.
“That really messed Jim up, but it also made him more driven,” Kennedy said. “The north face of Cleveland became his obsession.”
In 1966, Jim Kanzler wrote his father in Butte asking him to send some pitons, and a few weeks later he received a box full of the climbing hardware, as well as an attached note — “These pitons will not be used on the North Face of Mt. Cleveland or the North Face of Mt. Siyeh,” Hal Kanzler warned.
“So, by that summer of 1966 my father knew my interests,” Kanzler said in a 2005 interview with Going-to-the-Sun.
But the teenager was already spellbound, and his devotion to pioneering routes up the unclimbed faces only grew fiercer.
Achieving a first ascent of Mount Cleveland’s north face was widely regarded as the most difficult technical mountaineering project in Glacier Park, and it was important for both Kanzler and Kennedy that it was set by locals. Indeed, it was Edwards’ description of both the north faces of Cleveland and Siyeh as “unclimbed” and perhaps “unclimbable” that so entranced the Kanzlers and Kennedy. Both peaks loomed at the forefront of their imaginations.
“We all had the 1966 edition of Edwards’ book, and in it he wrote ‘the north face of Mount Cleveland will almost certainly be climbed someday, but it would be a most arduous route,’” Kennedy said. “That was it for Jim and Jerry. They were off to the races. It was Edwards who spun that for them. Here were these two eager guys and they were like, ‘let’s get after this thing.’ And then the Mount Cleveland tragedy happened.”
Following Jerry’s death, achieving Cleveland’s north face became critically important to Jim Kanzler, and he launched an all-out assault on Glacier’s tallest mountain.
“In my mind, it was important that these unclimbed faces be climbed by Montanans,” Kanzler said in the 2005 interview.
“There was definitely a lot of local pride,” Kennedy agreed.
In 1976, after the friends finally succeeded in summiting the north face of Cleveland, they decided to commit all their energy to climbing the park’s other big unclimbed face, the north face of Siyeh — a Blackfeet word meaning “Mad Wolf.” The ascent required 3,500 vertical feet of technical climbing (the Nose of El Capitan, by comparison, is about 2,900 feet high), 22 pitches and two cold nights on the rock face.
The climbing partners’ preparation for the historic journey required years of training.
“Jim and I both referred that period as being the Siyeh years,” Kennedy said. “Everything we climbed, every mile we ran, every pull-up was in preparation for that climb. It was a single-focus vision kind of thing.”
Kanzler described Siyeh’s north side as “a dark and foreboding place that got to you after awhile. It’s the most serious and dangerous climbing I’ve ever done. It’s a death route.”
As leading forces of Glacier climbing in the 1970s, Kanzler and Kennedy set a standard that endures today.
“We were really fortunate to have been there at the time,” Kennedy said.
Even while a handful of Glacier Mountaineering Society members were making history in the park, the spirit of the club was one of inclusion, not elitism, and its members exuded a warmth and affection for the art of climbing that Edwards helped foster.
“I first came across Glacier Mountaineering Society in 1991 when I was working as a waiter at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn,” said longtime GMS member Stephen Smith.
Edwards and his acolytes gathered each morning at Swiftcurrent for breakfast and coffee, and Smith could often overhear the park’s elder statesman regaling the group with stories of his past climbs.
When Smith asked Edwards to sign his copy of “A Climber’s Guide,” the older climber happily acquiesced, scribbling, “Hope to climb with you this summer” on the book’s opening pages. Smith was fortunate enough to join the “patron saint of climbing” on numerous GMS climbs before Edwards passed away in July 2004, dying of a heart attack while hiking up Divide Mountain with his wife and frequent climbing companion, Alice.
“He was always open to sharing his love for the park and climbing in the mountains,” Smith said. “That experience certainly inspired me to climb more and eventually I moved here permanently.”
Last year, Smith and three other GMS members, including Brian Kennedy, climbed Denali, which Smith described as a culmination of his years of climbing in Glacier.
“In a lot of ways I feel very indebted to the club,” Smith said. “Being able to climb Denali last year represented an evolution after years of climbing with the club and gaining experience. I just feel like you can take it as far as you want it with the club, whether you are looking for some non-technical scrambles or the climb of a lifetime.”
On a recent climb leading up to GMS Week, an annual slate of coordinated climbs, social events and volunteer work that runs July 25-31, a group of nine club members set out to summit Reynolds Mountain via the north diagonal route, requiring a traverse along an exposed goat trail that is clearly visible from the parking lot at Logan Pass, and which Edwards has described as his favorite route in the park.
Some of the members had summited Reynolds a dozen times or more, including longtime member Jeff Young, who joined the club 25 years ago as a young man.
Gazing out at the peak-studded view from atop the mountain, Young pointed to Fusillade Mountain and recalled a climb Edwards coordinated in 1994, and which drew more than 60 GMS members eager to climb with the Godfather of Glacier Park (after that episode, GMS imposed a group limit).
“That was Gordon,” Young said. “He really was the pied piper of the park. People were just drawn to him.”
Learn more about becoming a GMS member at http://www.glaciermountaineers.com.