No easy way up: Columbia Falls climber seeks challenges among common peaks

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Denis Twohig on a challenging route up Glacier Park's Piegan Mountain (Photo provided).

Denis Twohig has been crafting routes through Glacier National Park’s peaks for decades now.

In 1979, Twohig was publishing Going-to-the-Sun, a magazine that featured Glacier National Park and had stories about climbing in the Park.

The magazine didn’t pan out, but Twohig became friends with fellow climbers J. Gordon Edwards, Rolf Larsen and Jim Kanzler and many others. Under Twohig’s leadership along with his wife, Shirley, they founded the Glacier Mountaineering Society. It became an official entity in 1981, its annual newsletter took on the magazine’s title, Going-to-the-Sun.

Over the decades there have been hundreds of climbs and Twohig and his wife, Shirley, been on, or led many of them. Twohig developed a two-part classification system for climbs for the Society. A class I, for example, is an easy hike on a trail, a class II is a low angle scramble and a class III is a high angle scramble. The scale tops out — at least in Glacier — at Class V, which involves technical climbing and ropes to reach the summit.

Only a handful of peaks are considered technical climbs in Glacier.

“The best technical climb in Glacier is Mount St. Nicholas,” Twohig said. “It’s pretty good rock.”

St. Nicholas is the spire that overlooks the Middle Fork of the Flathead and can be easily viewed from U.S. Highway 2.

While the mountain has its climbing charms, the approach is a long bushwhack. Twohig prefers shorter approaches and over the years has made some rather mundane mountains into interesting climbs by utilizing different routes to the summits.

At Logan Pass on the east face of Mount Clements he’s identified about five different challenging routes, he said. About the same for Mount Reynolds.

“They’re both really fun mountains to climb,” he said. “And they have short approaches.”

But one of his favorite routes is one he pioneered up Mount Piegan a few years back. The traditional summit route to Piegan us up Lunch Creek — a class 2 slog up a scree field.

Twohig’s route tackles the far more challenging route up Piegan’s east face that rises through the cliffs, skirts below the glacier and then tackles a Class V pitch just below the summit.

Now that’s a climb.

“It’s probably one of the shortest routes to a glacier in the Park,” he said.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a little mountain goat in you to get there.

There have been mishaps. Ten years ago, he fell off the north gendarme of Little Chief while climbing with Ken McDermott. Something let loose — Twohig thinks it was probably a foothold — and he swung like a pendulum from a rope into the side of the mountain.

Twohig doesn’t remember the fall, but his helmet saved his life. McDermott went to get help as Twohig lay on a ledge with a host of injuries.

Twhig said if he could have gotten ahold of a rope, he would have eased himself down. But a helicopter from Canada ended up plucking him off the ledge. He still does physical therapy today to deal with nerve damage in his neck from the fall.

Twohig says he isn’t a peak bagger. While he’s climbed all over the U.S. and Canada and he doesn’t keep track of how many mountains he’s summitted.

“I don’t care,” he said.

Climbing isn’t about that, he noted. It’s about friendship and challenge and ultimately, family.

“While we know that climbing demands much, in return it has much to offer. As a recreation it could hardly be a healthier activity,” he said. “As a craft, it requires control, finesse and technique. As a lifestyle, it is adventure and challenge unparalleled. The fusion of skill, craft, technique, and sound judgment when carried out in an exquisite mountain alpine setting, alone or with a few chosen companions, delivers an overwhelming feeling of euphoria and elation that is difficult to duplicate.”

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