Montana Highpoints (Beartooth 27)

Update: the FKT community chose this adventure as one of the top FKTs of the year in 2018! Super cool honor. Check out the rest of that year’s top efforts here: https://fastestknowntime.com/fktoy-2018

Also, quick warning — this is a long write-up. Some may like all the detail, some won’t. Skip to the bottom if you just want to read the more technical details of route splits / nutrition / gear choices. Cheers.

In 2016 I set off with my friends Cody Lind and Brittany Peterson to take a crack at the Idaho highpoints challenge: nine peaks over 12,000 feet. For nearly forty hours we moved through the mountains and had a difficult, terrific, profound experience. It opened my eyes to the power of mountain projects to bring people together around a common goal in an entirely different way than structured races. I loved the camaraderie out on the route, the camaraderie with our support crew, everything. I was hooked, and that following winter I realized that I had to look no farther for my next project than my own backyard.

The more I looked into the challenge of Montana’s highpoints, the more obsessed I became. Montana has 27 peaks over 12,000 feet, all clustered in the Beartooth range of the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness in the south-central portion of the state. I felt like the more I researched online, read books, and talked with people knowledgeable about the range, the more the project seemed like a perfect fit for my interests and ability.

I loved that the route was intimidatingly long, rugged, and steep — so steep! I think because I have much more history with long days just rambling around the mountains rather than actually running fast, I’m attracted to projects and races where vertical gain and/or technical terrain evens the playing field for me against faster runners. For that same reason, I loved that it was entirely contained in the wilderness, and almost entirely off-trail (of the 100 miles, only about four are on trail). To me, the idea that I could set out from the first trailhead and for a hundred miles not see a sign of civilization more substantial than a tent made the route incredibly aesthetic and appealing. This would be the kind of challenge that tests your overall ability to move in the mountains, more than just running ability, and that struck a chord.

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Ascending Granite peak’s east ridge
 

I also loved that the route naturally lent itself to a supported style, with crew hiking in at a few keys spots to provide aid. From the beginning I wanted to promote that aspect of shared adventure, in the same vein as previous adventures in Idaho and elsewhere.

I was also fascinated by the fact that no one had ever linked all the peaks in a single effort. A handful of folks had climbed all 27 over a number of years, but linking them in a concerted effort would be a different beast entirely. With so much attention these days on FKTs of lines born from a similar genesis in other states (like Colorado’s Nolan’s 14, or the Sierra High Route in California), it felt like this was a prime opportunity to help pioneer a line of similar caliber in Montana, to showcase some of the beauty we have to offer trail runners and mountain travelers. As a Montana native, there was some pride involved.

These days there are very few things that have not already been done. There are no blank areas on the map, it seems — at least not in the US. Just about any esoteric adventure or FKT has been done, usually multiple times. Want to set the record for paddling across the Atlantic on a SUP or kiteboard or canoe or boogieboard? All been done. Paraglide traverse the entire length of the Alaska Range? Done too. Climb all the 14ers in Colorado? Take a number.

This was going to be the biggest challenge I’d ever set for myself, and I knew I had a lot of homework to do. I spent the summers of 2017 and 2018 scouting the route, logging more than 180 hours, 340 miles, and 126K vert over eight scouting trips. Steve House is a world-class alpinist, and in 2005 completed a groundbreaking first ascent of the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan. When asked if he was surprised to have pulled off such an ambitious effort, he replied no, that such an endeavor should not come as a surprise at all because it is simply the expression of all the training and preparation that preceded it. I like that view quite a bit, and endeavored to put in as much scouting and training as possible in order to emulate those words:

Success, in the end, comes to those that prepare well, work hard, have a bit of luck and possess the patience to see it through to the end. Yet the achievement isn’t important because it is the getting there that gives our lives shape, purpose, structure, and focus day in and day out. Successful, self-made people, are rarely proud. Those that I’ve known are humble. Humble because they’ve been humbled and simultaneously ennobled, by the process of careful, smart, purposeful work, day after day, week after week, year after year, and decade upon decade.

– Steve House

Six months out, based on my calendar and crew & pacer availability, I set a start date of August 10 and hoped for the best. Five days out, the weather window looked fantastic, the smoke wasn’t that bad, and everyone was still on board. After two years of planning, it was finally time to give it a go.

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notes from scouting trips
 

START

The day before liftoff, I worked the first half of the day in Missoula, then threw everything into the car and hit the road by the late afternoon. Three members of the support crew — Carson & Anastasia Wilde, and Anthony Pavkovich — were all planning on being there for the start, but they wouldn’t get in until late and I would have to drive down alone. Sam Linnet, my pacer for the first section and his wife Molli were also on the road to the start, but they were going to get in even later than everyone else. They were planning on missing the start and sleeping in late so Sam could get enough sleep and be ready for his section.

I pulled off the freeway and walked around for 10-15 min a couple times on the drive down to hopefully keep a semblance of movement in the legs. Butt kickers, high knees, ankle rolls, leg swings. All just off random exit ramps in view of the highway. And all with a TENS unit strapped to my lower back delivering its low-level electrical current. (isn’t PT fun?) Just your normal evening in Montana. Hope I gave some bored truck driver or two something to ponder over at least.

The taper the week before had been weird and rough, as they usually are. I did just about a two-week taper, and really by the first week of it I was raring to go — legs felt fresh, I was bouncing through my short runs, and all of a sudden I had energy at work I hadn’t had for six months. Funny how not being in heavy training will do that to ya. By the second week the my feeling shifted from bouncy energy to perceived atrophy, along with all the usual self-doubt. I’d dragged the taper out too long. Every day I lost a bit more of my hard-earned fitness. And just what the hell was that twinge? Never felt that before. Probably ligaments shriveling up and detaching from bone. It’s all over.

I got in to the Mystic Lake TH just after dark. Took a walk down the road to where I’d start the bushwhack up Chicken Cr the next morning and thought about how cool of a moment this was, how bright the stars were with no moon, and how I hoped I was up for the challenge. My pack was already sorted and the aid station boxes were ready, so there was nothing more for me to do. After a few minutes of drifting perfectly down to sleep my mind decided that was pretty stupid and time would be better spent irrationally & exuberantly running over every logistical possibility, piece of gear, and contingency plan I’d failed to think of, pack, or communicate. At some point after midnight I mercifully fell asleep.

Woke up at 6. Coffee and cereal with blueberries. Chatted with Anthony, then a bit with Carson and Anastasia. Anthony is a photographer and filmmaker from Bozeman, and has experience with these sorts of extended, logistically complex trips, from last year when he and friends completed a weeklong 250-mile run across the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem to raise awareness for public lands. He’d also spent some time in the Beartooths himself, so we chatted about the route choices a bit. But mostly we just idly caught up on things and I tried to keep from thinking of just how much effort lay ahead. Carson and Anastasia are friends from Missoula that just wanted to help with the project. Carson is a manager at the local climbing gym who also does a ton of freelance pack design work for various outdoors companies, and he’d helped me with making several modifications to my UD Fastpack 25; adding some extra pockets in front and trimming unnecessary weight elsewhere. And Anastasia had just recently graduated from the Rocky Mountain School of Photography and was stoked to help document a big, rambling adventure.

I felt good but absolutely full to the brim with nerves. Wasn’t quite ready at 7 so pushed it back to 7:15a, I figured actually starting out feeling prepared and collected was more important than rushing out on an arbitrary start time. I sent Paul an InReach message about the revised start time and walked over to the trailhead sign for the start.

There’s a dark irony I like that the steepest, most rugged project I’ve ever attempted starts of with jogging downhill on a road. At least I could start with a light pack — I’d meet the crew that evening at the head of Mystic Lake to pick up more food and the heavier overnight gear. The road running only lasts for 200 yards or so, though, then you veer uphill and start the bushwhack up Chicken Cr to Pyramid mountain.

 
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I had ridiculous nerves for the first two peaks. Straight-up sewing machine leg all the way up Pyramid and on to Wood. But what can you do besides just try hard to take things easy and enjoy the moment. I got up Pyramid an hour ahead of my estimate, surprised myself at the top because I thought it was only a false summit. But that’s a good way to start things off, and I felt a huge sense of happiness that one peak was down, I was feeling good, and things were underway. It was a beautiful sunny day, but warming up fast.

I’d scouted this section of Pyramid, Wood, and Hague the year before, but in June rather than August. Then, it it was freezing cold, with strong winds and rime ice on the rocks. Suddenly it wasn’t quite so scary as last year. Now it was just fun class 3 with sun and no snow. The easy boulders out to Wood’s west summit make for enjoyable scrambling, and quickly two peaks were down. (There is controversy over whether Wood’s west or east summit is the tallest. Since the USGS quad for the area lists the west as the summit that is what I am going with. From both summits I tried to judge which is taller but couldn’t decide).

There’s a steep, unstable rocky chute to drop off Wood into basin between it and Hague. This is pretty representative of the range, where there is pretty minimal scree glissading to be had. You’re either working rock-to-rock on boulders large enough to generally stay in place, or you’re moving on a mixture of loose baseball- and basketball-sized rock that’s too large to glissade and too small to stay put. This mixture usually includes small bands of bedrock, so you end up stepping on solid rock for maybe a couple steps downhill, then to the unstable small rocks, and back. What scree skiing you do get is limited to a few lucky steps in amongst this mixture. I think either A) more people need to get out there so better lines get formed, or B) those mountain goats need to get working a lot harder.

I was moving well, but feeling the heat amongst the huge SUV-sized boulders in the basin. I worked up the slope to Hague first with poles, then put them away as it got steeper & rockier. There’s a fun class 3 ridgeline to the top and I even was able to work on to the north aspect to stay in the shade. The top didn’t catch me quite as much by surprise as Pyramid, but it still came faster than expected. Shot off my first InReach message to Paul and started downhill after only a couple minutes on top.

I mostly walked down the south ridge of Hague, but found sections to jog and these felt amazing. Just that feeling of being on a mission, feeling good because it’s still early in the effort, and it’s a beautiful sunny day. All was right with the world.

The ridge doglegs to the east towards the creek, and I crossed it to try and find the climber’s trail Anthony had told me about that morning. Last year while scouting I’d stayed to the skier’s right of the creek and the bushwhacking wasn’t horrible, but I was keen to find a trail if there was one to be had. I found the trail for a few minutes on this run, but it quickly petered out, or maybe I just didn’t have the patience to keep on it. I jogged/walked/slid across the steep sidehill to the left of the creek, catching on to trees at intervals to help keep the downward momentum in check. As off-trail goes, the section wasn’t bad and I figured it was better than getting funneled into the creek bottom. But in steep, loose V-shaped canyons like this sometimes you can only hold out for so long, and after maybe a mile I was in the bottom working my way down beside the creek, jumping log to log in the deadfall.

Hit a short section of stinging nettle just before Mystic Lake. Oh joy of joys.

I peered through bushes at edge of Mystic lake, and the waves are lapping to the right. What the actual fuck. The water should be draining left, from Island to Mystic. Was I that far off route? I pushed through the bushes to the right several hundred yards and found the spot where I’d crossed last year. But where last year the crossing had been 30 yards of rock-hopping and knee-deep wading, it was now triple that distance and much, much deeper. Like going to have to swim it kind of deep. The trail on the far side beckoned, so close yet so far. I stood in knee-deep water at the edge of the shore for a few minutes, swearing to myself and considering options. Mystic lake to my left was obviously not an option. I was at the narrowest point of water; it only got wider and deeper if I went left.

To my right, Island Lake hardly looked better. From my vantage, it looked like I was at the narrowest point of water between the two lakes, and that the exceptional snowpack we’d had this year and raised the lakes so much that the creek between the two was gone, replaced by this neck of relatively shallow water. Problem was, there actually was a creek crossing between the two — with an honest-to-god log bridge, I later learned. I just couldn’t see that from where I was at, all I could see was a long bushwhack around the edge of Island lake if I went right, and I was in no mood for that.

I waded back to shore and was exceptionally surprised to find I actually had a waterproof stuffsack in my pack. Pretty lucky break, that one. I took everything that couldn’t get wet, packed that little bag to the brim, and stripped off all the other gear from the outside mesh pockets that I didn’t want to possibly lose. I packed everything into the main compartment. “Well, you wanted a fuckin’ adventure” I thought to myself, and began wading chest-deep, then swimming, across the channel. A kid fishing on the far side gave me a quizzical look. I was messing up his fishing area, plus it was just weird. “Heck of a snowpack this year, huh?” I yelled out. He was not particularly impressed.

I jogged the couple minutes to the aid station dripping wet, and with feet waterlogged and suddenly painful. Not ideal. I’m a fan of running in wet feet and just embracing it, but something was different this time, like my feet had just absorbed a ton of water from the swim. At least the aid station was right around the corner and I could sit down and reset things.

Sam, Molli, and Anastasia almost didn’t recognize me as I ran by; since Anthony was waiting at the creek crossing for me they were expecting two runners to come in. But we all quickly figured it out and I veered off the trail to their tents, sat down on a log and immediately pulled my shoes off. In short order I’d wrung out my socks, pulled the insoles out of the shoes, and set everything in the evening sun to dry. I spent a half hour eating a bunch of food of catching everyone up on the day. Which was just about right; the half hour was just what my feet needed to reset for the next section. This would become a theme of the trip, where my feet would begin to hurt or the skin start to deteriorate but I was consistently able to get into an aid station or bivy sack and get my shoes off long enough to get my feet in a better place.

 
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It was a warm bluebird day, and everyone was in great spirits to be together doing something a little crazy, a little out there. I dug into a container of huckleberries Anthony had picked while waiting. Pro support crew move, that. Anastasia and Anthony took some photos and video, I repacked gear and food, and Holly the one-eyed pirate pup (Sam & Molli’s dog) ran around getting pets from all.

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I got in to the aid station at 5p and left at 5:30 with a full overnight pack and food for 24 hours on the move. I’d say it weighed between 10-12 pounds. Sam and I didn’t know if we were going to go straight through the night or find a place to bivy, but we were ready for either option. Nine hours and three peaks down.

I’d met Sam six years before on a running trip, appropriately enough. Sam’s a solid runner and one of those crazy ski mountaineers who thinks that skiing gets more fun as you add incline, ice, and rappelling, so I knew he’d be fine on the more technical sections in the Granite group. What I consider scary he’s used to doing with gloves and a heavy ski pack, you know? Plus, we’d spent some long days in the mountains together over the years and we got along pretty effortlessly. Two years before this we’d run the River of No Return 108k together with the intent to have as much fun as possible and not race, because we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. We caught up on life, heckled other runners, hung out at aid stations, and generally had a blast all day. We called it our 19-hour bro date. I joked that with this Sam was just signing up for another stupid-long bro date.

Our plan was to move out of the aid station up the Huckleberry Cr. climber’s trail to Princess Lake (after which the trail dies out), then make the short but steep push up to the Froze-to-Death plateau. Just before 9p, sunset fell behind Granite, West Granite, Mystic, and Glacier as we hiked up the plateau, lighting them up in a crimson glow.

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Sam in Huckleberry Creek
 

At the edge of the FTD plateau we dropped all weight except the emergency kit and enough food & water for the couple hours it would take to get to Peal and back. Over the course of the trip, these moments when my pacer and I could drop all weight except the essentials and tag and out-and-back peak became little presents within the larger adventure. Christmas in August, you could say. They were one of my favorite things to think and talk about. I guess when you get tired enough, any small thing that makes the effort easier becomes magnified in importance far beyond what they’d ever be in normal life.

I don’t think there have been many nighttime ascents of Peal. There are only a couple short sections of class 4, but in a way the sustained crumbly class 3 is worse. There’s just not a lot of it that inspires a lot of confidence in the rock. There was also an obvious wide class 3 chute leading up to the Peal plateau, but it was guarded by a narrow but steep, high-consequence snowfield. A slip there would send you sliding for two thousand feet or so. We opted to skirt above the snowfield into some class 4 climbing — I was damn happy I’d scouted it earlier in the summer so we could at least keep a semblance of efficiency in the dark. We hit the summit at 10:30p and only spent a minute or two on the summit.

I’m not a big fan of building cairns, putting up flagging, etc. out in the woods. There’s a time and place for them, but by and large they’re overused. However there were several places throughout the route where I’d built cairns during scouting trips. Even with the cairns I built last year, I’d be surprised if anyone else passed through to see them. The Beartooth peaks just don’t see a lot of traffic. Aside from Granite, Tempest, Silver Run, Whitetail, and Rearguard (Granite because it’s the crown jewel, the others because of relatively easy trail access) the other peaks don’t get much love. The summit register of Point 12,540 has only two entries from 2017, and one of those was mine. At any rate, these infrequent cairns became little supportive beacons, telling us that we were dropping into the right chute, or on the correct knife-edge ridge. Each time we’d come to one we’d scatter the rocks. They were built for one reason only, and they’d served their purpose well. We found the one I’d built earlier in the summer at the edge of the Peal plateau, kicked it over, and dropped back into the steep chutes.

After loading up our packs again the push up to Tempest is just a walk-up. We hit the top just after midnight, and again spent only a minute or two at the top. After 45 minutes of unstable descent we were in the Tempest-Granite saddle. My original plan was to push through this first night and climb Granite, West Granite, and Mystic in the dark. But I felt more fatigue than I liked to admit, and I’d developed two small blisters on my right foot as well as several other hot spots. We decided it would be best to bivy there in the saddle until just before daylight. I had misgivings — it was only the first day, and here I was, already falling behind schedule! — but ultimately the long-view won out.

We found a small rectangular bivy spot on the lee side of the side, just wide enough for two people shoulder-to-shoulder. We each had top and bottom synthetic down layers and the foam back panel from our packs to place under our hips. I wriggled into a bivy sack, and Sam wrapped up in a space blanket. There on August 11 we were exactly at the new moon, so there was absolutely no illumination to dull the stars. The Perseid meteor shower was picking up steam as well (it would peak the night the 13th, according to the internet), we both felt pretty lucky to be out there. Not for the first time that day I enjoyed a surreal moment of actually being out on the route, actually going for it, after two years of only thinking about it.

Neither of us slept any of the four hours we bivyed. I’d switch between one semi-comfortable position to another, and jealously listen to Sam’s deep breathing. That bastard was actually sleeping! It was only the next morning that I realized he’d been just as awake, thinking the exact same thing about me. Fun adventures in bivy-land…

DAY 2

I finally pulled my head out from under the bivy a few minutes before the 5am alarm, damn well fed up with all the shivering. Time to move. A large party was making its way along the climber’s trail connecting the Tempest plateau to the saddle. By quarter after five we were packed and on the move. Miraculously, my feet felt a lot better — a bit sore overall from tromping on rock, and the blisters — certainly much better than just a few hours before. The group had beat us to a lower portion of the saddle, but were stopped & resting as we passed. We exchanged maybe four words apiece; for some reason they weren’t very talkative that early.

 
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We made slow but steady progress up Granite, first in the dark and then enjoying the sunrise light. We topped out to a clear, calm morning, took a minute to sign the summit register, and kept moving along the ridge to West Granite. There’s a narrow chute on the east side of the ridge that keeps the downclimb out of class 5 territory in my opinion, though the Summitpost entry lists it as mid-class 5. We may have been on a slightly easier than is described, though, it’s tough to tell for sure.

After dropping into the “notch” between Granite and W Granite there’s about half an hour of contouring several rocky finger ridges coming off the main ridge. W Granite is farther back than it seems, and it’s easy to commit to going uphill in a chute only to find that you reach a false summit on main ridge and have to drop again to avoid cliffs (in fact what we did just that, despite my scouting earlier in the summer). But other than that trickery, staying to the obviously easier terrain will put you on the summit without issue.

We’d been out of water for about an hour by the time we summited W Granite, so re-filling was top priority. A snowfield a ways off the summit looked promising, but we had no desire to drop to the bottom of it to see if there was any flow, and it wasn’t yet warm enough to melt the snow we pulled from the top. We dropped as much weight as we could at a saddle before the traverse over to Mystic, then contoured below the serrated ridge guarding the summit. We were still behind on water, and started getting behind on calories too because we couldn’t really eat with dry mouths. This was easily the low point of the day for us both. Ten o’clock in the morning is way too early for things to start feeling shitty when there’s still a big day ahead. It didn’t help much that Mystic is a fairly uninspiring peak compared to its neighbors, an easy walk up jumbled boulders to a plateau summit. On the bright side, the views are tough to beat and you get the sense that not a lot of folks make it up there.

From Mystic we retraced our steps to the gear we’d dropped and found water flowing out of a snowfield before the traverse to Villard. We took fifteen minutes to top off morale with food & water. We accessed Villard by traversing a snowfield on its east face (instead of getting up on the serrated east ridge).

From Villard Sam and I decided to divide & conquer. He would take all the overnight gear and drop a thousand feet or so to a lake, and I would continue on to Glacier with a light pack. After hours toiling with the relative weight of extra food & overnight gear, suddenly I felt weightless and I got into one of the best rhythms of the trip — so much so that hitting the summit plateau came as a surprise. I stopped just long enough to record a short video thanking the AAC for granting me a Live Your Dream for the adventure. The sun was high & warm, and spirits were high.

I met up with Sam just before the final push up to the Villard Spire, and again he waited at the base while I tagged the summit. The Villard Spire is one of my favorites of the 12ers. It just feels like such a happy accident of geology that it’s climbable without ropes, like if any one thing along the way was a little different you’d be bringing a rope and rack instead of running shoes. Near the top, there’s a neat section where you traverse on slabs to the head of a gully, but there’s a narrow grassy/rocky ledge that spans the entire head of gully in a wide semicircle. Without this two foot wide ledge you’d be doing a lot more climbing!

The narrow ledge is briefly shown at the beginning. It’s just wild how you’re so close to being pretty exposed but the route is only class 4.
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Descending into Skytop Lakes basin on the way to Cairn

I was feeling great through the evening, and made it up and back to Sam in just over an hour. We skirted around the toe of the Villard Spires formation, descended into the Skytop Lakes basin, and found a good place to again drop pack weight. With light packs, Cairn turned into a quick, enjoyable class 2 climb, straight up its west flank to the summit.

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Sam descending off Cairn. Villard Spire in the middle-left, Villard and Glacier peaks on the right

We joked about all the other peaks farther on in the range we could see from the top, that those were all problems for another day. I said I sure hoped that Tomorrow Nate had a lot more energy than Today Nate, because Today Nate didn’t fuckin’ want anything to do with those beasts. Sometimes with these big efforts you have to break things up into more manageable chunks. Through the whole trip, I endeavored to only focus on the next peak in line, or at most just what I had to cover on a particular day. Thinking about the whole thing did no good at all.

But anyway, we dropped off Cairn and headed for camp like horses smelling the barn. We could feel the end of the day getting closer and stepped things up accordingly. Right up until we got a bit…turned around. I’d made a mistake and hadn’t actually downloaded the topo maps of the route, and all I had to navigate against was the route line over a white background on the InReach. So much for Mr. Logistics. The section from Cairn to the Fossil Lake aid station was the only part of the day I had not previously scouted, and of course that’s where trouble crops up. We got confused by several creeks flowing where we didn’t think they should’ve, and ridgelines not aligning with our mental maps (because your mental map is always correct, right?), but all in all probably only lost 20-30 minutes from dallying around with compass and GPS. On the last climb out of Sky Top Creek I told Sam I’d do some pretty embarrassing things to see the headlamps of our crew, but quickly changed the subject before he could pin down exactly what those things would be, or worse yet extract any promises.

All in all we came down the correct hill we’d planned and rolled into camp at a quarter after midnight. Hugs all around, then burrito, Skratch drink, rinse & repeat. I packed my bag as best I could, then crawled into a sleeping bag for a few hours of sleep. The forecast had been so good the crew hadn’t even bothered to put up the rain fly on my tent, and a whole universe of stars stretched above my head. 41 hours on the move, 12 peaks down.

DAY 3

The alarm woke me up at 5:30a, first light. Forrest was already up. I packed everything, put some SNB on my feet, and drank the best cup of tea I’ve ever had at 10,000 feet (thanks Sara!). After 15 minutes of stress the blisters and sore spots on my feet softened up enough that I could walk normally.

I’d roped my good friend Forrest Boughner in to pace this day. If you’re familiar at all with running in MT, you’ve heard of Forrest, and it’s always something good. He’s everywhere: working at the Missoula’s local running store Runner’s Edge, putting on events, race directing, guiding running trips through his business Alpine Running Guides, and of course crushing races himself. He is the most well-rounded runner I know, just as much at home sprinting through a 5k as he is scrambling a technical ridge. It’s still a mystery why he likes slogging through the mountains with me, but I’m damn glad he does.

From Fossil Lake the route follows five miles of undulating canyons and small basins on the Beartooth plateau along the west side of the range. There are dozens and dozens of lakes in this area, each separated into its own little basin. People could be camped in each of these basins and feel like they had the whole place to themselves. It’s a special place.

By 12:30p we’d topped off Snowbank and Darlene, and after dropping weight on the Castle Rock plateau we made it out to Point 12,090 by the early afternoon. Dark storm clouds had taken over from the clear skies of the past two days, and by the time we reached 12,090 the rumblings started behind us.

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Forrest, just before the lightning started

On the ridge back up to the Castle Rock plateau the hair on Forrest’s arms started standing on end, and static electricity started pinging amongst the rocks. Quietly at first, then building to the sound of hail. We ducked into the most overhanging part of the not-very-overhanging ridge. With each lightning strike above us the static sound would dissipate, then build anew. I’d like to be cavalier that our attitude our jovial and carefree, but it really wasn’t. We were both concerned about our overnight gear up on the plateau getting rained on, about the lightning, and just what the delay would do to our day. Thankfully, the storms were most isolated cells than a large system. We only had to wait about twenty minutes before the cell above us had passed on far enough for us to keep going, and though other cells continued to threaten throughout the rest of the afternoon, we didn’t have to wait out any other lightning.

I felt like Forrest and I were really in a groove in the saddle between Castle Rock and Point 12,540 — moving efficiently, not talking too much, just focused on the task at hand. I distinctly remember feeling proud that I wasn’t slowing him down too much. Then I caught a toe on a lip of rock and took a bouncing, 20-foot fall down the side of the ridge. The rock there is steep enough that once you start going, there’s no hope to recover your balance. I took two stumbling steps as my momentum threw off to the right, landed on one large rock, went airborne again and landed on my back in a small stretch of shale. I was incredibly lucky that I didn’t get injured. Forrest said later I fell long enough for him to have the conscious thought that it would be really nice if I would stop falling. Any time a fall is long enough that conscious thought enters the picture it’s usually not a good sign. Ultimately I walked away with only a deep bruise in my right glute and several superficial scrapes.

I won’t spend a ton of time here talking about risk in mountain travel — that’s worthy of a long separate post by itself — but I do want to stress how dangerous these kinds of projects can be. This is not trail running, and it’s certainly not trail running at an event, where SAR teams are often on-call and medical facilities are accessible by driving. This route covers serious, rocky terrain up to class 4 / low class 5, and mistakes cause real consequences. Adam Campbell and Mike Foote are two mountain athletes that I look up to tremendously, and both have written about the increasingly popularity of mixing climbing and running, people setting off on projects that blur the lines between the two. They both like to think of movement through class 4 rock not as scrambling, but rather easy free-soloing. I agree. The word scrambling denotes a bit of carefree whimsy, whereas free-soloing describes the activity — and the consequences — more accurately. It’s an important distinction to keep in mind when weighing the merits of a long-term project or just a fun day out in the mountains, both to yourself and to the people affected if you were to be hurt or killed.

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Obligatory butt shots

Before the trip I had several conversations with my insurance provider to understand the coverage and limitations of my policy. In addition to my regular health insurance, I also bought temporary rescue insurance from Global Rescue. I called the local FS ranger district and sheriff’s office and let them know about the project so they would at least have an idea of what was going on should the need for a SAR operation arise. I organized all communications while I was out on the route through my coach / crew chief for the effort, Paul Lind. This helped make communications among all the support folks efficient when things were going well, but crucially it ensured that Paul would function as the single, organized point of contact if something went wrong and we had to contact SAR. Personally I carried an InReach for emergency comms, and a small, light “oh shit kit” of waterproof matches, signal mirror, whistle, and folding knife, in addition to a small med kit. For dealing with an accident, your knowledge and experience is much, much more important than any logistics or gear.

Important tangent, but that’s enough for now. Forrest and I stopped for a few minutes where I’d landed just to take stock of the situation and collect our thoughts. The climb up to Point 12,540 has a few class 4 moves that require the right mindset. When we started moving my right glute ached with each step of that leg, but luckily it lessened as the day wore on. As my dad likes to say, it was a long way from my heart and I’d be fine.

From 12,540 we descended off the south of the plateau to a narrow saddle where a finger of snow snakes up from the Castle Glacier. The year before when I’d scouted the section there was significantly less snow and I’d been able to chimney in a couple crucial sections with rock wall on one side and snow on the other. This year, however, was a solid year for snow and this time around the snowfield hadn’t melted back from the rock wall enough for safe downclimbing. I weighed the consequences and decided that stepping out on to the steep face and kicking steps down was risky, but acceptable. Forrest opted not to join, and we made a plan for him to bail off the opposite side of the ridge, then circle around the toe of it and we would meet back up at Omega Pass after I had summited Castle.

I liken things in the mountains like kicking steps down a steep snowfield to back when I used to guide whitewater rafting trips. Things on a river often don’t seem especially dangerous at first, but when things would go wrong it’s amazingly how quickly they shift, and how much power the river holds. I thought about those things, (and about what it would feel like to slide out of control for a thousand feet down), for the ten minutes I slowly, cautiously kicked steps down a hundred yards or so until I could get back to the relative safety of the chimney area between the rock wall and snow.

There is an amazing cirque of snow at the top of the Castle Glacier formed by a winter’s worth of wind, a forty-foot-deep scoop with a vertical wall on the downhill side. This year, at least, there was a flat-ish walkway of sorts along the lip where you could peer down over the edge. Impressive.

I started the rocky walk up Castle in more of an angry funk than I’d experienced yet. I realized that since Forrest and I split up my mental state had shifted to a darker, more simmering anger/determination — kind of a me against the mountains sort of thing. I looked forward to meeting back up with him and restoring the happier, more positive mindset I’d had for the last two days.

Little did I know that the atmosphere in Red Lodge was a complete contrast to my moody, solo experience on Castle. Unbeknownst to me Paul had rented a house in Red Lodge and it had quickly become the base camp for all involved. It was a chaos of activity during the day, with people prepping to go into an aid station or recovering after coming out from another. And at night everyone spread out wherever they could, sleeping in beds, futons, and in the front yard out under the stars. Paul had written “Beartooth 27” on a big sheet of butcher’s paper and hung it up outside over the front door. Each time I summited a peak, he’d go outside, add another tick mark to the tally and ring the cowbell — no matter the time of day. I can only hope we made more friends than enemies with all the shenanigans, but I’m not totally certain on that one.

The afternoon thunderstorms had given way to full overcast and a cold wind by 6:30 on Castle’s summit. I hurried off the summit to meet Forrest at Omega Pass. From Omega, we dropped as much pack weight as possible and set off to tag Sky Pilot as an out-and-back.

The traverse and climb up to Sky Pilot was some of the more frustrating movement of the route, with steep, loose sidehilling, then steep, loose uphill (sensing a theme yet?), but honestly this is one of the more memorable sections for me, in a good way. I think it comes down to a combination of reuniting with Forrest after the difficult, solo sections, and also just the general camaraderie from sharing an outlandish experience with a good friend. He started blasting some throwback 90s/00s rap, and we just leaned into that crappy loose rock chute and enjoyed the moment for what it was, having a good time despite ourselves. Sometimes the most memorable moments in the mountains are not the sunset summits.

Originally my plan was to tackle Sundance and then Bowback before dropping to the W Fork Rock Cr aid station to end the day. However, I was several hours behind my estimates, and I could feel my feet starting to disintegrate from the several hours of crossing snowfields. The Scott Kinabalu Enduros I was wearing are amazing off-trail shoes; super stiff, aggressive traction, and a full soft-plastic cage surrounding the entire outside of the shoe for durability. Problem is, they really don’t drain water or breathe well. So my feet were starting to feel the pain. With all that running through my head I made the call to drop straight down to the aid station once we got back to Omega Pass. I figured a couple hours of sleep and the chance to take care of my feet was more important than the extra distance and elevation I was giving up by going this route. In hindsight and from the long-run view of just trying to complete the project, this was 100% the right move. I’m pretty sure my feet would have fallen apart if I’d tried to push on through the night.

Omega Pass was clear of snow, but only a couple hundred yards below the pass you drop onto a large snowfield. In the dark, Forrest and I couldn’t quite see how big, but we walked down to an inflection point where it got too steep to walk and realized that we were smack dab in the middle of the snowfield, and it was huge. Our headlamps on their brightest mode only illuminated the snow curving away on both our left and right, with no ends in sight. Traversing out of our spot to rock, if there was usable rock, would be a long, tedious trek that would also involve climbing back uphill. But peering straight down we could just barely make out that the angle of the snowfield lessened right at the end of our lights. We discussed the pros and cons, and decided that it was worth the risk to slide it.

I went first, sliding on my butt and leaning heavily onto the improvised self-arrest tool of my collapsed trekking pole. I slid ten feet under control, stopped, and slid another ten. Heck, this’ll actually work. I had just turned to yell back up to Forrest when I heard a disembodied “Oh FUUUCK!” and he went careening by already at a fast clip and only gaining speed, heels kicking up huge rooster tails of snow above his head. Turns out he’d hit an icier section from the start, and didn’t even have a chance to start slow and in control like I had! But he gave a big whoop from the bottom, no worse for wear. I slid down to meet him, feeling like a slow and cautious grandma.

Twenty minutes later we got we got an InReach message from Paul: “Warning! Omega glacier very slick. Anthony tried to come up it earlier and could not with regular shoes.” Ha! Oh, you don’t say! All we could do was laugh with the giddy ridiculousness of it all, feeling so full of ourselves for a good day in the mountains, risks taken and mishaps avoided. I sent him back a quick, flippant message: “Roger. We slid it.”

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My mom and dad packing in food for me and beer for the crew. Living the dream.

We arrived at the W Fork Rock Cr aid station at 2a pretty pleasantly worn out. My mom Nancy was headed out for a multi-day horseback ride directly after this trip, so she and my dad Joel had taken the opportunity to pack one of her horses with all the food and gear needed for the station (and then some… lookin’ at you, support crew PBR…) Forrest and I took our headlamps off and shined them on ourselves to help convince the highlined horses that we weren’t scary ghosts, and toed our way around the skittish horses into camp. Soon everyone — Joel, Nancy, Carson, Anastasia, and Anthony — were up, and chicken soup and Skratch was on the stove. I took my feet out of the shoes and they were white from lack of air. Definitely good to give them a couple hours overnight to reset. We laid around for an hour, telling stories from the day and taking in as many calories as possible. I swear that was the finest chicken soup I’ve ever had in my life.

At 3a Forrest and I crawled into one of tents, I muttered something about thanks for an awesome day, and then all was black. 68 hours on the move, 19 peaks down.

 

 

Day 4

Cody ran in on the W Fork Rock Cr trail early that morning, arriving fresh & happy a bit after 6am. Cody Lind is an absolute beast of a mountain athlete and one of the quietest, most down-to-earth badasses you’ll ever meet. He’s somewhere around the top 10 internationally in the Skyrunner World Series, but you’d have to drag those kinds of details out of him. I’d actually first met him on the same running trip six years before where I’d met Sam (that was a fruitful trip!), and he had been on of my partners in 2016 when we’d tackled the Idaho 12ers highpoint challenge. Cody and I don’t get to spend time in the mountains together all that often, but when we do we like to joke that it’s usually pretty epic.

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We ate a breakfast of egg muffins & Skratch then took off for Sundance and Bowback. Saving these two peaks for this day rather than yesterday also gave the added bonus of allowing us to tackle them with light packs, as we would pass right back through the aid station before heading up Sundance Pass. We made quick work of both, tackling Sundance first, then Bowback. I got off my scouting line a bit on the class 3 ridge connecting the Sundance plateau to Bowback and unexpectedly turned it into a sketchier class 4. In addition to being a world-class runner competing internationally on the Skyrunner circuit, Cody’s an Idaho mountain guy through and through and exceptionally solid on all the higher-consequence scrambling/climbing.

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We made it back to camp just before 1 in the afternoon and enjoyed a second round of good food and camaraderie. It was another clear, sunny day and everyone’s spirits were high. I think we all started to feel the end was in sight. From camp we loaded up with 24 hours of food and overnight gear and headed up the longest stretch of trail on the route, two miles of switchbacks up to Sundance Pass.

From the pass we did another quick out-and-back to Silver Run peak with light packs, and neat, low-lying clouds began moving in as the afternoon wore on. They started as isolated bits here and there, but as we climbed up Whitetail became thick enough to show the prevailing winds. They gathered along the cliffs of Silver Run’s west face, spilled over Sundance Pass into the W Fork Rock Cr., and shrouded Castle peak entirely. Cody commented how much it all suddenly looked like Norway, rather than arid western Montana. It was beautiful, and I had the self-centered thought that nature was putting on a show just for us. But mostly, it was just beautiful to see those mountains in such a different light than their usual summer clothes.

Whitetail was difficult. I was carrying much less weight than Cody, but my tired legs felt every ounce of the heavier pack filled with a day’s worth of food and overnight gear. I could keep a steady pace climbing up through the jumbled rock, but it was neither fast nor particularly enjoyable. I could only take solace in the fact that at least I could keep a consistent pace, however slow, and was not reduced to taking breaks. I told Cody the story of Earnest Shackleton’s epic aborted expedition to cross the Antarctic continent, with the months of boredom, frostbite, their survival across the pack ice and open sea. Tired as I was, I was a long way from eating seal blubber and losing toes to frostbite. It could be a lot worse.

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The summit was gorgeous, easily the most awe-inspiring of the route. Clouds hung low in the valleys and alternately covered, then revealed peaks. Sun rays pierced through, giving the scene a kind of celestial happiness. We stood and admired for much longer than usual. Cody discovered he actually had phone service, and called Paul to give an update. To our surprise, Paul’s voice came on the line cutting through the din of a bar in Red Lodge. Sam (pacer from the first section) yelled encouragement from the background. They’d taken a cowbell and a mountain of enthusiasm to the bar and had just finished ringing in our summit of Whitetail with the whole bar. What a contrast. We let him know our plan to bivy early and get an alpine start to finish off the route, then dropped off the top.

Back in July I’d glissaded the chute off Whitetail in a pleasant twenty minutes or so. No such luck this time, the snow had completely melted and left behind one of those more tedious mixtures of small unstable rock, medium unstable rock, and large unstable rock, the kind where you can’t scree ski, but also can’t step down from rock to rock without constantly fighting to stay upright. Ah well, that’s the nature of the beast.

After an hour we left the chute behind and started into the basin proper (top of Lake Fork drainage). A sprinkling but ominous rain started just before dark, and we felt highly motivated to find a thicket of trees that would offer some protection from the wind and rain. Five minutes after having to turn our headlamps on we ducked into the first likely candidate we’d come across. We spread bivys out, put on all our layers, and Cody had just gone to gather a bit of firewood (we thought a small fire would be good for morale) when the rain started in earnest. So much for best-laid plans. We both jumped into our bivy sacks as quickly as we could and pulled the tops up over our heads. Thunderstorms rolled in unseen overhead, and in minutes lightning lit up the high peaks surrounding the basin. We could only laugh at our good luck to be in the relative safety of the basin, rather than up on the ridgelines three thousand feet above. I’d been concerned about my ability to find the exact gully up to the Forget-Me-Not plateau that I’d used the year before, scared that if we had pushed on through the night I wouldn’t be able to find the right gully and we’d get cliffed out unnecessarily. With the bumper snow year, I was also worried about a snowfield we had to cross, if it would be larger than last year and a problem in some way. With bivying early, we figured we could get up to Beartooth in the dark the next morning no problem, and then would get the sunrise at some point after that summit to help guide the remaining peaks. In the end, I feel like our luck with missing the thunderstorms was a bit of good decision making mixed in with just plain good luck — as is often the case in the mountains.

At some point we both fell asleep, sleep being more important apparently than the thunder booming above. 78 hours in, 23 peaks down. Still not quite thinking about the end, but optimistic that this would be the final night out.

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Cody is a badass

DAY 5

We got up at 1:30a, and were on the move by 2. The thunderstorms from earlier in the night had moved on, and stars shone intermittently through clouds. Our good luck was holding out.

We traversed southeast across the Lake Fork basin to a finger ridge of rock coming off the glacier in the north basin of the Avalanche plateau, then just started climbing the ladder of never-ending rock up to the glacier. At the glacier we found a stream of water pulsing down the ice to refill at. I felt about as excited and full of energy as someone can at three in the morning, there on the glacier downing that icy water. Now this is livin’, I thought, and promptly led Cody into a mushy, waterlogged section of the glacier where we sunk in the icy mush up to our ankles. We hurried through, suddenly not quite as exuberant but still happy and full of energy.

After the glacier there was a long rock slog up to a saddle in between the Beartooth and Avalanche plateaus. We dropped gear, tagged the Beartooth summit, and started seeing the first hazy outlines of the morning on the way back down the Beartooth plateau. At this point the possibility of actually finishing the route started to become very real, and more than a little nerve-racking. For a while I couldn’t stop thinking about how close the end was, yet how much potential there still was for something to catastrophically go wrong: I could break a bone, tear a ligament, get a sudden bad nausea attack — my mind went rampant.

By the time we made it back to the gear we could turn off our headlamps and bask in pink early morning glow on the horizon. After the Avalanche plateau, all my worries about finding the right chute and crossing a monster snowfield were unfounded; we found the chute I’d used the year before and made it up onto the FMN plateau without issue. FMN down, then Spirit in quick succession. Spirit wasn’t quite a low point, but I wasn’t setting any land-speed records either. The whole morning I’d felt like I was just barely keeping up on calories, my stomach growling for the fifteen minutes before I’d eat at the top of each hour. I pulled out the PVC pipe summit register at the top (one of the few peaks with a register of any sort), but there was no pen inside and the paper was damp through and through anyway. Oh well, pictures would have to do. One peak left! I took a moment to stop and look back north at the rest of the range. There’s a heck of a feeling of accomplishment in a moment like that, looking across miles of rugged mountain range and not even being able to see far enough to see where you started. And to know that you covered all that with just your own two feet.

I hadn’t scouted the descent off Spirit’s south ridge, and it nearly derailed us. The first quarter went just fine as we picked our way down the rock and scree, but then the ridge narrowed and tightened into bedrock, with cliffs dropping away on either side. It was either go straight down, or straight back up to the plateau; there was no escaping to either side. And the ridge dropped away steeply enough that we couldn’t see if we were going to get cliffed out. I was sweating bullets on the inside. I didn’t want to commit to anything stupid, but I also really, really didn’t want to climb back up to the plateau to find another way down.

“Dude, I’m really sorry. This is way sketchier than I hoped it’d be. Let’s just keep picking our way down this and hope for the best, but if we get into anything really scary I’m pulling the plug and we’re going back up, it’s just not worth it.” I said softly to Cody, and kept working our way down, probing different lines. There isn’t a whole lot of room side-to-side on that ridge, but there was enough that sometimes Cody would find the better line, and sometimes I would. With good routefinding it never gets above class 4, but man looking back up at it from the bottom you’d be hard pressed to guess that without knowing beforehand.

So we had a healthy dose of elation when we finally got to a point where we could see that the rest of the ridge went. The dream was still alive and kickin’.

We worked our way down large boulders and glissaded a couple isolated snowfields to gain the Moon Lake basin. It was 10:30a on a beautiful sunny morning, and I dropped pack weight for the final time, cranked some music on my phone, clicked poles into place, and started up the last climb. I wouldn’t have ever bet on this in a million years before the trip, but I felt great on the climb. Happy, full of energy, and cranking out a solid pace up through the boulderfields. It had everything to do with the mental boost from being so close to being done, and it was revelatory. That last climb is 1,800 feet up, and we round-tripped it in two hours. Sometimes all the stars align.

The top of Rearguard poses an interesting challenge. There are two 40-foot-ish rock towers on top, but they start in a slight depression lower than the highpoint of the broad plateau. But, they both top out slightly higher than the plateau highpoint, and of the two, the east tower is the taller by a foot or two.

Problem is, the last 10-12 feet of the east tower is guarded by a large summit block. You can climb 30 feet up off the deck to a large rock poking a few feet out from the jumble, but the last bit requires four or five good #2 hand jams to boulder your way onto the summit. Just the kind of thing that sounds appealing after four days on the move with minimal sleep. Earlier that summer I’d scouted Rearguard and backed off those last moves. I was up there solo, I’d walked over to the plateau highpoint, then up the west tower, and both looked shorter than the east tower. But I scrambled the 30 feet on the east tower to the point where the climbing started, and it freaked me out. It just felt too scary and risky.

I’d been doing my best for the last three days to ignore the fact that the whole trip was going to come down to the final 10 feet of the final peak, and that I’d already chickened out of it once. But as nervous as I was, I also couldn’t help but chuckle at what an interesting twist of fate it presented. 49,000 feet of climbing across this whole dang thing, and it was all going to come down to a pivotal ten feet.

I’m sure as hell there have been a lot more graceful climbs up that crack, but I’d be pretty surprised if I wasn’t the most determined. I scraped my way up the hand jams and half-mantled, half-flopped on the summit.

Then Cody took a couple initial stabs at the crack. But as comfortable as he is in the mountains, he doesn’t have experience specifically with crack climbing and he backed off it. But shit, we were both so close, and neither one of us was happy with just me on the summit.

So with a trick right out of the stupid moves hall of fame I sat on the edge of the summit block, then leaned back and got a good left hand jam in at the base of a boulder behind me to hold steady. Cody reach as high as he could and grabbed my ankles, then climbed up my legs until he could grab the lip of the rock and my right hand. He grabbed the lip, we locked hands and I helped pull him up.

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We celebrated briefly on the summit, and god damn did it feel good, but there was still the matter of getting down. Again, I’m sure there have been far more graceful downclimbs off that rock. There was a fair bit of grunting (Cody can attest to that), but I got it done. Cody reverse-mantled onto the lip of the summit block and stretched as low as possible, then dropped as I spotted him safely onto the little rock platform. I let out a huge whoop, and gave him a hug. With all the major obstacles out of the way, now we could celebrate a bit!

We cruised the downhill back to our extra gear as fast as my legs would allow, packed everything up in a few minutes, and started working our way around the head of Moon Lake so we could drop down the basin to the Glacier Lake trail. Above us, afternoon clouds were taking over from the clear morning and again we marveled at our good fortune and timing.

At some point around Shelf Lake a faint climber’s trail forms, and it slowly but surely morphs into a actual trail the farther you go downhill. I started jogging short downhill sections, then settled into a legitimate run, flat sections and all. My legs were tired to the core, but I was giddy with the feeling. I was actually running at the end of this thing! I’d had a lot of time over the previous two years to think about all the ways the project could shake out, but even in my most hopeful fantasies I only imagined I would be able to approximate a run down this final section, maybe do one of those ultra-shuffles where if I moved my arms fast enough Cody might think for a moment I was running.

But somehow I actually managed to actually run. I think those rare moments when your body truly surprises you is part of what is so addicting about ultramarathons and these types of projects, and this was one of those moments. I was in awe of what my body was allowing me to do and the fact that I had zero joint or acute muscle issues.

Just before the social trail connected with the Glacier Lake trail we ran into a nice couple backpacking their way down from Shelf Lake. They’d actually spotted us coming down the Spirit ridge, and asked if we were out day hiking. I was pretty overcome with the whole moment, and it took a few moments to stumble through explaining what we were doing. But they were immediately ecstatic for us, and completely understood why we couldn’t stick around to chat!

We hit the junction with the main trail and all bets were off. It must have been a pedestrian jog for Cody compared to his race pace, but I felt like we were absolutely flying down the trail. We came around a corner, and Sam was there with a huge smile and a big congratulations. Soon after, we heard the rest of the crew before we saw them, whooping and clanging the cowbell. We rounded the last corner, ran through the gauntlet of cheering friends and family, and I ran up and touched the trailhead sign to finish it off.

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Route Videos

Day 1 – Start to bivvy on Granite. Day 2 – Granite bivvy to Fossil Lake
Day 3 – Fossil Lake to West Fork of Rock Creek
Day 4 – W Fork Rock Creek to bivvy in Lake Fork drainge. Day 5 – bivvy to finish at Glacier Lake TH

LAST THOUGHTS

I’m proud of my time of 4 days, 6 hours, 44 minutes, 19 seconds for this, but I definitely think it can be beat. I made several decisions along the way to maximize my chances of completing the route, rather than minimizing my time. I think someone could stand to take a significant chunk of time off by cutting down on sleep and time at aid stations. And, there’s always the difference between doing something for the first time versus setting out to do something you know is possible because it’s already been done.

All in all, this was the most intense, amazing adventure of my life so far. It was magical to get out there with pacers and crew in this big experience and have everything come together so well. There are a lot of variables in a project like this, and thankfully it was one of those trips where everything aligned — both the things I could control, and things I couldn’t. We had a fantastic five-day weather window of stable, warm temps, only got pinned down by lightning once — and that only for about 20 minutes — we weren’t affected at all by the August wildfire smoke, all logistics went off without a hitch for the support crews, everyone avoided injury, and everything came together well for myself and pacers physically and mentally.

LOTS OF THANKS

I had a ton of help in pulling this off and a ridiculously fun support crew out there keeping me going. Thanks pacers Sam Linnet, Forrest Boughner, & Cody Lind, and support crew Nancy & Joel Bender, Paul Lind, Anastasia & Carson Wilde, Molli Linnet, Emily Hawgood, Anthony Pavkovich, Ben Johnson, Hans Fisher, Sara Boughner, Dan Guinn, and Ty Bender. You all are the friggin’ best.

Thanks to my three pacers for putting up with me for ungodly hours with enthusiasm. Sam Linnet, Forrest Boughner, Cody Lind — I owe you guys some time in the mountains. Just let me know when I can repay the favor.

There were also several people who helped with pre-trip planning and beta on the Beartooth range. Thanks for dealing with my endless questions Beau Fredlund, Loren Rausch, Justin Angle, Jenny Helm, Justin Willis, Matt Lemke, Ben Hoiness, and John Belobraidic.

And lastly, thanks to the organizations who supported the project in various ways: the American Alpine Club for awarding me one of their Live Your Dream grants, the Runner’s Edge for gear, and PartnersCreative, the marketing firm I work for that was incredibly supportive throughout the whole project, both with monetary support and in understanding why I was always coming into work so tired on Mondays.

PHOTO GALLERY

Some photos from the trip that didn’t quite fit into the flow of things above but help tell the story.

VERIFICATION

TrainingPeaks data
 

SPLITS

Aug 10
Start Mystic Lake TH: 7:15a
1) Pyramid: 10:28a
2) Wood: 12:16p
3) Hague: 2:22p
— Aid #1: Mystic Lake: arrive 4:40p / depart 5:01p
4) Peal: 10:30p
Aug 11
5) Tempest: 12:18a
— Bivy in Tempest-Granite saddle: arrive 1:02a / depart 5:16a
6) Granite: 6:59a
7) West Granite: 8:34a
8) Mystic: 10:52a
9) Villard: 1:10p
10) Glacier: 2:39p
11) Villard Spire: 4:35p
12) Cairn: 7:22p
Aug 12
— Aid #2: Fossil Lake: arrive 12:15a / depart 6:10a
13) Snowbank: 10:43a
14) Darlene: 12:29p
15) Point 12090: 2:03p
16) Castle Rock: 3:31p
17) Point 12540: 4:43p
18) Castle: 6:25p
19) Sky Pilot: 9:50p
Aug 13
— Aid #3: W Fork Rock Creek: arrive 1:49a / depart 6:45a
20) Sundance: 9:13a
21) Bowback: 11:06a
— Aid #3: W Fork Rock Creek, round 2: arrive 12:46p / depart 1:30p
22) Silver Run: 3:48p
23) Whitetail: 6:23p
— Bivy in Lake Fork drainage: arrive 8:28p / depart 2:05a
Aug 14
24) Beartooth: 5:11a
25) Forget-Me-Not: 7:31a
26) Spirit: 8:43a
27) Rearguard: 11:40a
Finish Glacier Lake TH: 1:59p

GEAR

– Scott Kinabalu Enduros: 2 pair
– Saucony Peregrine
– Fitsok socks: 3 pair
– Dirty Girl gaiters (ultralight, reliable, simple. Why mess with a good thing?)
 

– UD Fastpack 25: with modifications. My friend Carson Wilde of Gneiss Designs did a great job adding two additional pockets in the front and cut pack weight by stripping out the chest strap adjustment system, then fixing those two straps in place. He also cut weight by trimming the total amount of roll-top fabric, so the final pack is probably more like a 15L capacity.

Pack weight varied along the route. The only time I actually weighed it was at the start where it was loaded for only the first three peaks: 8.5 pounds. For out-and-back sections where we could drop weight and get up a peak with as little as possible, I’d guess it weighed 4-5 pounds (unloaded, the pack is 2.5 pounds). For heavier sections, like just after leaving an aid station with overnight gear and 24 hours’ worth of food, I’d say it was more in the 10-12 pound range.

– Med kit: stripped-down kit of essentials, mostly aimed at stopping major bleeding and stabilizing a sprain or break. Included SAM splint.
– OSK (oh shit kit): waterproof matches, small folding knife, signal mirror, whistle
– Garmin InReach SE+
– Suunto Ambit3 Peak watch
– Suunto Ambit3 Sport watch
– Black Diamond Distance Z collapsible poles (totally invaluable for this)
– Salomon 500ml softflask (2)
– Katadyn filter bottle: very little need to filter water along this route as most refills are from small trickles coming directly out of the mountain, or snowfields, so this bottle functioned as extra water capacity more so than for its filtering. Probably could have cut an ounce or two by substituting this for just another softflask.
– Chapstick
– Squirrel’s Nut Butter: for reducing foot chafe / blisters
– Half-Buff
– Light wool gloves – 2
– Black Diamond Vapor helmet: used only for Granite group. Should have used it for the whole thing.
– Petzl NAO headlamp
– Ultraspire Lumen 600 waist light: rigged via rubber bands to attach directly to pack, rather than the waist belt it comes with. The extra illumination & depth perception was well worth the weight.
– Rechargeable USB battery stick & cords: for charging watch, phone, and InReach on the go. The crew also had additional recharging packs at the W Fork Rock Cr aid station.
– SOL bivy sack
– Scott Vector sunglasses
– Ultimate Direction Ultra Pant V2
– The North Face Ventrix synthetic down jacket
– TNF Flight Series rain jacket
– TNF arm warmers
– TNF short-sleeve tech shirt
– Patagonia Nine Trails shorts
– Patagonia MicroPuff synthetic down pants
– Patagonia Airshed pullover
– Patagonia duckbill mesh hat
 

NUTRITION

I aimed to take in 3,500-4,000 calories each day. At each aid station I had a bag of food equalling roughly 3,500 calories for the next day, plus additional food I’d take in at each station. I’d guess I took in the most calories on the third day, because my mom had packed in some fantastic home-cooked food to the W Rock Cr aid station, and how can you not pig out a little bit when it’s momma’s cookin? I ate only one gel over the four days. For this kind of long duration and relatively low intensity adventure gels don’t feel appetizing at all. Instead, I lean towards more satiating fuels and “real” food. At the first two aid stations (Mystic and Fossil) I re-fueled with burritos I’d pre-made. Nothing too fancy here: elk burger, bacon, hummus, red & yellow pepper, spinach, egg, cheese, all wrapped in a flour tortilla. At the third aid station (W Rock Cr) I lucked out with some of my mom’s cooking: breakfast egg muffins, chicken soup, bread with lots of butter. Good goddamn there are few things better in life than homemade chicken soup from your mom at 2am after a huge day in the mountains. At Fossil and W Rock Cr I also took in a couple cups of Skratch recovery mix mixed in with water and heated. Just like a nice cup of hot chocolate. These were absolute lifesavers.

Each bag of food that I’d pick up at an aid station for the following day contained:

– ProBar meal bars

– ProBar nut butters (these were a favorite, I attribute it to the great flavors and the balance of fat & carbs made them very satiating)

– ProBar Bolt energy chews (used pretty sparingly, like the gels)

– Clifbar nut butter-filled bars (also a favorite. The solid bar with a nut butter center made them easy to take in while on the move)

– GU Stroopwafels – (used sparingly, they started feeling too sugary & light after the first day and were not appealing)

– Trail mix (standard bulk-section-of-the-grocery-store trail mix)

– Snickers (what self-respecting trip would be complete without?)

I drank Tailwind (lemon lime FTW) mixed in with water throughout each day. At each aid station I had a small plastic screw-top bottle of the powder prepped that I’d take for the next day. There were sections were I’d purposefully fill up a softflask with just water to give myself a change of pace, but for the most part I like to go with the Tailwind fairly diluted so I was able to drink it all day without issue.

13 thoughts on “Montana Highpoints (Beartooth 27)

  1. so AWESOME!!I I followed your journey and was in awe!! Thank you for sharing!! Can’t wait for the next adventure…..

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  2. Badass. Inspiring to read about the dream and planning and making it all come together! I need to get out into the MT mountains soon. It’s great to see new, aesthetic, wild, difficult routes going up. Congrats on getting it done!

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    1. Thanks Joffrey, I appreciate you taking the time to write those kind words and I’m happy to hear that the project inspired you as well. If you ever make it MT and would like some hiking recommendations I’d be happy to help.

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  3. You have just successfully made me jealous. I gee up wandering these hills and mentally followed most of your route from memory. The peaks I haven’t summited I have studied at length on maps. Well done. Although I hope it doesn’t bring much attention to the beartooths.

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    1. Hey Darren – I love connecting with people who know the Beartooths intimately, and that’s so cool that you can follow the whole route from memory. There’s something special about knowing a place so thoroughly like that. So thanks for the compliment!

      I think there’s a balance to be had with the whole thing about attracting extra attention to the Beartooths. On one hand, I strongly believe that the more people can be inspired to get out into wilderness / open spaces / public lands and recreate responsibly, the more people will fall in love with these places and become advocates for their protection and conservation — which is a crucial part of starting to mitigate all of the damage we’re doing to our world. On the other hand, you’re right, there’s a more selfish part of us all that doesn’t want to see special places overrun with people. The good thing about the Beartooths (and Montana) is that there’s so much open space and so few people that it will take a rather enormous increase before we start to notice big usage changes.

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  4. Great write-up! I’d like to try this with a couple of ladies next year and might hit you up for some beta! Good on ya!

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    1. Do it! I’d love to see more people take a crack at this so I can have more people to share stories with. And an all-female team would be super cool. Happy to help if I can.

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