Glacier National Park (GNP) in Montana is home to superlatives. It is one of North America’s most iconic National Parks and supports a stunning variety of ecosystems and animals. It holds immense geologic and cultural history and is one of the most ecologically intact areas remaining in the temperate regions of the world. It gets flooded with visitors every year, especially during the summer months, but all of this wildness combines to keep the vast majority of visitors either in their cars or on the more-accessible trails. Once you get a few miles away from a trailhead, and certainly once you venture off trail, you enter a completely different world of a relatively untouched, pure mountain experience.
GNP is also home to six peaks taller than 10,000 feet: Kintla Peak, Mount Cleveland, Mount Merritt, Mount Siyeh, Mount Jackson, and Mount Stimson. It is an intuitive challenge, though not an easy one, to link up all six in a single effort. None of the peaks have trails to their summits, and class 3 scrambling is required at a minimum as well as other types of off-trail mountain travel like bushwhacking, glissading, and scree skiing. Also, this is grizzly bear country; anyone attempting this route should have the skills for staying safe in bear country as well as carry bear spray throughout the trip.
Aesthetically, the six peaks are arrayed in a wide range across the park. This all but ensures a fairly comprehensive tour of every ecosystem, terrain, and type of movement GNP has to offer. The variety also lends itself to creativity — there are many different ways to connect the peaks, and hopefully, future aspirants can find a style and itinerary that suits their personal approach.
For me, this challenge represents one of the purest tests of summertime mountain travel. It presents a staggering variety of movement and terrain and requires significant off-trail skills on top of a strong endurance base. It also packages this in one of the most awe-inspiring places in North America.
People have been climbing in GNP for far longer than recorded history. Here’s a limited history of FKT-specific attempts on the route, offered with humility and recognizing that I may well not have the full picture. If anyone has updates to this history, please reach out.
The earliest concerted attempt I know of for linking the six peaks in a single effort came from Eric Hallett and Nate Evans in 2017. They went north to south in 12 days.
Noah Couser made an attempt on the linkup in 2021 — the Flathead Beacon ran a story on it — going south to north, completed four of the six peaks before calling off the attempt.
There have also been two other unsuccessful attempts made in summer 2022, as well as others planned. This adventure seems to be growing in popularity within the endurance community.
I’m drawn to mountain traverses and highpoint challenges. I love the variety of terrain and movement that these types of routes inevitably hold; they engender a stronger connection with place than a race environment. I started seriously thinking about this idea in 2019 and planned to complete it with my good friend Sam Linnet. We tried for three years in a row but were thwarted from even starting; first I was injured, then because of the covid shutdown, and then last year because wildfire smoke was too thick in our only window to make an attempt.
A month ago, in July 2022, we made our first attempt. The plan was for Sam and me to do the whole thing, supported by a crew plus two friends — Emily Hawgood and Alexis Crellin — joining us at Logan Pass and partaking in the final two days. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Sam came down with a stomach bug the night before the trip and soldiered through the first day like an absolute champ, but that put us behind schedule right from the jump. And then the forecasted “scattered thunderstorms” turned into a full-on storm through most of night one and all of day two. After eight hours of rain, hail, and lightning, and miles of wet, overgrown brush, every piece of clothing we had was soaked through.
We were getting close to moving from type 2 fun to just plain dangerous. Sam and I made an emergency stop at a backcountry campsite to get into our sleeping bags, and it still took me about two hours in the bag to stop shivering. We bailed on the 10ers objective at that point, but still had an amazing five days in the park (because the remaining days had great weather!) and it was super special to share it with Alexis and Emily. Hopefully, I get around to writing about that trip soon.
At any rate, a month later I had another window of opportunity, and Sam was nice enough to give me permission to go out on our shared goal by myself (that just means we get to cook up something even crazier together next year). I pulled gear and food together, arranged for friends to drop me off and pick me up, and it was game on. The weather forecast looked unbelievably good, just warm, sunny & stable weather, and there was no or minimal smoke forecasted.
For several years now I’ve been curious about what a big, extended solo effort would feel like. Where would my mind go? How would it feel different than similar efforts with partners? Would I love it, hate it, or land somewhere in between?
The longest solo mountain running trip I’d done previously was two days crossing the Bob Marshall wilderness as part of the BMWO event in 2020. The more I thought about this second attempt, knowing Sam couldn’t make it, it didn’t feel right to do it with anyone else. But I deeply wanted to give it another try. And in a similar vein, I’d been curious about what going unsupported would feel like. Gathering friends and family together to support these trips is a special thing, and there’s a neat camaraderie from gathering great people together to accomplish cool, unorthodox things. The camaraderie and group memories from my 2018 trip linking up the Montana highpoints in the Beartooth mountains, for instance, is absolutely a highlight of my life. But at the same time, it’s a lot of work organizing all that. Schedules have to align. It costs real money for people to travel, take time out of life to support, etc. There’s a certain appealing simplicity to just going unsupported. I wanted to experience what that would feel like on a multi-day adventure.
I also wanted to connect the six peaks in a way that felt challenging, fulfilling, and ambitious. There are a ton of different ways you could go about it. Heck, a person could drive to a different trailhead for each of the peaks and just do them in a series of day trips. But I wanted to stay as much as possible in areas that inspire me, so that meant more emphasis on off-trail alpine terrain and less time on trails in the bottom of valleys. I wanted a continuous, uninterrupted wilderness experience. And I wanted more of a High Route-style experience, moving in a direct line through a mountain range and staying as high as possible with venturing into technical terrain. I think I accomplished that, with the caveat that I built in more out-and-backs to the route as a concession to how nice it would feel physically and mentally to drop all of my food & overnight gear every once in a while and go tag a peak with just the bare essentials.
Here’s what I ended up with.
A note: this trip report is a fairly literal play-by-play of the experience. I’ve included sections on my more impressionistic takeaways and a breakdown of gear/food at the bottom, if you’re more interested in those aspects.
I started at Bowman Lake campground just before 6:30a Sunday, Aug 14. David “Powder” Steele — he of the always-excellent Skinning With Bear Spray blog — drove me to the start after he and his girlfriend Danielle graciously let me stage out of their apartment. We talked about a lot of things in the dark, sipping coffee and bouncing along the dirt North Fork road. One was a great screening tool for prospective backcountry partners: whether they’ve shit their pants during a trip. Our rationale being if someone has spent enough time in the woods to run into that particular scenario, they’ve most likely spent enough time to not be a total junk show. I promised David I’d do my best to fulfill that particular destiny.
I hiked up to the head of Bowman lake on trail with a starting pack weight of 24 pounds, stashed the extra food and overnight gear (mistake number 1: should have stashed this stuff at the nearby campground rather than just hanging my bear bag and stuff in a tree), then started into the bushwhack with just a light summit bag. I took this line on the advice of an acquaintance, but wouldn’t repeat it. The climb along the ridge directly south of Peabody is too cliffy and chossy, and the bushwhack is not fast. I’d take the standard approach via the Kintla trail, or apparently there’s an approach to the Kintla notch (I think that’s what locals call it) via Pocket Creek that goes. I don’t know about that one other than rumor.
At any rate, the climb up the ridge just E / NE of Numa Lake was arduous, as was dropping into the Agassiz basin once I’d made the crest. I got solidly cliffed out at one point and the rest was fairly steep, irredeemable choss. It was so bad I decided to take a different descent route after summiting Kintla. But I hit Kintla in great spirits at about 2:45p and moving well, if a bit behind schedule because of the difficult ridge.
I descended the Agassiz basin to the Kintla notch, had an amazing time walking through the absolutely beautiful basin SE of the notch, and then promptly got into one of the worst bushwhacks of my life in the next unnamed basin to the south as I attempted to rejoin my ascent route. It was full-on schwacking, not touching the ground at times, thrashing while standing in water at other times, getting stung by wasps, just the full experience. It wasn’t so much the brush, or the time, but context. Fighting through this stuff meant my dream was slipping away, minute by minute. And I had no one to blame but myself. I fought to keep a level head and just methodically work through it.
My stubbornness is an asset here, though, and I eventually rejoined my line and got into some slightly easier schwacking all the way back down to my stuff at 7:30p. Definitely behind schedule, but I resolved to just make it as far on the trail towards Brown Pass as possible. I stopped and made a dehydrated meal after about an hour, then ate it while hiking on the trail, laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. I made it to the Brown Pass campground just before 11p and settled in an unused camping spot. 16h 21min on the move, 28 miles, 12,400 feet ascent for the day. One down, five to go.
First morning out, I overslept. I’d set my alarm for 6, promptly snoozed it in a stupor, and finally got out of the sleeping bag at 6:30, way past first light. The first seven hours of this day were on trail, hiking 19 miles towards Stoney Indian Pass. It gave me a lot of time to reflect on how much friendlier the trails were on a warm sunny day than they were a month ago when Sam and I did our forced march through the Overgrown Tunnel of Freezing Wet Doom.
My strategy was to avoid running with my full pack until about day three when I estimated it would be light enough to make the effort-to-reward ratio pay off. 20 pounds is the most I’ve ever run with for any extended time. These first two days, I figured any running would just wear me down more than it would help. But each day’s food weighed just a bit over two pounds, so I could count on a steadily friendlier pack throughout the trip: starting at 24 pounds, then 22, 20, 18, 16, even 14 pounds by the end of the trip. That seemed like a distant nirvana here on day two, hiking for hours on end.
I stashed my extra gear at Stoney Indian Pass and launched out on the choss side-hilling to get to the notch that folks use to cross over to the east side of the Stoney Indian ridge. I was immediately disappointed to find there wasn’t a climber’s trail at all, which would turn into a theme of the trip; expecting better climber’s/social trails than there were. But it’s only about thirty minutes of slogging to get to the notch, and then the climber’s trail starts in earnest on the east side and makes for an aesthetic, interesting climb up Cleveland. I ran into a group of three young dudes from the Flathead valley on their way down, doing a big 40-something mile day on the peak, going roundtrip from the Belly River. Freaking love to see the next generation out there dreaming big.
This climber’s trail was my favorite approach to any of the peaks. Even so, this was the hottest peak of the trip, and I definitely felt like I was just slogging up the final portions of the climb after leaving the climber’s trail. But I hit the summit at 4:20p, it was a beautiful day, and I was still moving great, all things considered. I knew at that point though that my original goal of climbing Merritt and then bivvying on the E side of the peak that day was out of the question. But I could get some distance up Merritt’s west face, bivvy in the trees, and then hit the summit relatively early the next morning.
Going down the E side of Stoney Indian Pass is some of my favorite trail in the park. It feels like you’ve been magically whisked away to Gnarnia, surrounded by towering peaks, hanging glaciers, and crashing waterfalls. I knew I wanted to go up the trail towards Mokowanis Lake but realized as I walked that I didn’t really know the beta for starting the bushwhack up to Merritt (mistake number 2). In my preoccupied state, I forgot to fill up water before leaving the trail (more mistakes).
By the time dusk caught me, a thousand feet up off the trail on Merritt’s west flank, I had only about 150ml of water; about a third of a soft flask. I poured out just enough dehydrated meal to match that amount of water (editor’s note: it wasn’t a whole goddamn lot!), and ate a semblance of dinner on the side of the hill, looking north as Pyramid Peak, Cleveland, Whitecrow, and the rest faded into silhouettes through the darkness. I felt disappointed about forgetting to fill water, but I wasn’t frustrated. There are thousands of little decisions to get right on a trip like this, and I told myself I was bound to screw up a few of them. “Just the cost of doing business” became my mantra that night, and lasted throughout the trip.
I found a great little flat spot where the base of a tree had leveled out the sloping hillside just enough for one person and slept exceptionally well, cocooned in the trees. 14h 20min on the move, 33 miles, 7,500 feet ascent.
Up at 6, on the move by 6:30. I slept well and felt great, despite being out of water and a bit thirsty. My only relief would come from getting further up in the west basin of Merritt and finding some snowmelt. So I started immediately where I’d left off the night before, uphill into the schwacking. I chose a poor line getting into the basin, getting mired in thick brush and trees. Finally, mercifully, I broke above treeline and slogged up the loose scree field to the base of a small snowfield after two hours on the move. There was no running water anywhere in the basin, so melting snow was my best option. I stopped for 45 minutes and fixed up a breakfast of the rest of the dehydrated meal from last night and a recovery shake. But with some actual food in my belly and water in my bottles I felt monumentally better.
The actual climb up Merritt’s west basin was some of the worst of the trip, in my opinion. Just a never-ending sea of loose choss. None of the bedrock ribs ever seem to last long enough to be helpful. And since I planned to go up and over Merritt, I had my full pack weighing me down. Almost four hours after I started the day, I hit the saddle and could drop the extra weight for a quick summit out and back. The morning had been entirely in the shade, which was perfect, but it was also a great morale boost to be greeted with the first sunlight of the day just as I hit the saddle. And moving light and free felt amazing! This was one of the first moments where I had a distinct sense of awe and how well my body was holding up to the day-to-day effort. I felt so good I had to purposefully hold the intensity back on this climb; everything was just clicking along perfectly.
But of course, I got wrapped up in my own thoughts and went to the wrong, southern summit. I quickly realized my mistake and got over to the correct north summit in just a few minutes. The weather was flawless again, spirits were super high, and the day was off to a fantastic start.
I planned to descend via the Old Sun glacier (see this summitpost entry) into the unnamed basin on the E side of Merritt, which would set me up to scramble off-trail up to Ahern Pass and then on to the Highline Trail. Getting off the glacier and into the basin turned into one of the cruxes of the trip.
I descended the glacier via a mixture of glissading and downclimbing the cliff bands to the side. This was easy at first, but towards the bottom I could see a significant amount of water disappearing underneath the snow and I was deeply concerned about breaking through a weak point while glissading. It was definitely a place to take things slow and try to descend over the snow that looked the thickest and furthest away from potential under-snow rivers of water. This required one short section of fifth-class downclimbing to get off the rocks at the right spot on the snow.
The ledge leading away from the waterfall at the bottom of the glacier is not difficult in itself. But you’re directly above a few hundred feet of exposure; a slip would be fatal. And at least for me, there were sections of wet rock and dirt. Maybe those aren’t present every summer. But on a sloping ledge of rock and loose dirt, this makes movement feel quite precarious. As I looked across it, I told myself if I didn’t feel 100% confident in my ability to do it safely then I would turn around and descend Merritt via the standard west side. I had a pit of fear in my stomach and felt very much alone.
It took me about fifteen minutes to cross the thirty feet of the initial ledge, slowly placing and testing each step. After that initial section, the cliff curves outward a bit and there’s a large rock you can slip behind for a brief feeling of safety. Someone has placed a small cairn on this. After this point the exposure drops significantly, back into class four “bruises and broken bones” territory rather than death. But it’s still quite steep and chossy. There’s just no fast way to get through it.
Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t descend this way again. I just don’t enjoy that feeling of soloing fifth-class terrain with fatal consequences. I’d much rather keep my mountain running exploits to the third and fourth-class terrain that I can comfortably flow through. Once the exposure or difficulty edges into fifth-class soloing it just completely changes the experience for me, for the worse.
After getting through that scary section it was just a long chossy controlled chaos step-n-slide trip down into the valley. There’s a high basin next to the one I came down in, where five waterfalls draining the Old Sun fall. The wind was catching each one and blowing the water straight up, making the whole scene feel beautiful, ethereal, and rare. I can’t imagine a whole lot of people get to see that particular scene, as it’s a dint of effort to get there no matter how you do it. I dunked my sun shirt in the runoff as homage, threw the dripping hood on underneath my helmet, and got back to the choss. I felt like a badass. Life was good.
Finally in the basin after 8.5 hours on the move, I walked down the cobblestones next to the creek and laughed out loud to myself — that was the first moment all day where I was able to take multiple steps without needing my hands. What novelty! The drainage turned out to be surprisingly nice as well, with just a bit of bushwacking before meeting up with the main trail.
I made short work of the trail up to Helen Lake, then cast off up into the rock and brush along the south side of the lake, hoping to connect with the Ptarmigan Wall goat/climber’s trail on the way to Ahern Pass. It was again slow going, but somehow I just felt in rhythm, rolling with the punches of whatever the terrain had for me and just picking my way through. As I approached the Ahern Drift I realized yet another faulty assumption: I had no idea what the actual line was to get over/past the drift. Climb the cliffs on the east? The west? Go right up the gut and climb the drift and then climb the rocks?? I settled on climbing the west side and managed to pick my way up a class 4 line. Success! After all the scrambling and choss, all I had left for the day was pure trail. I couldn’t wait.
I hit the trail at seven in the evening. I felt relaxed and happy to be through all the technical terrain for the day. Now I could just let my mind wander and leave the feet to do their thing. I jogged some of the flats and downhills, hiked the uphills, and just tried to go with what felt right for my body at the moment. I was hopelessly behind my planned itinerary at this point, so I just planned to stop and bivy wherever I ended up. That wasn’t right, it was definitely against the rules, but it was the reality I faced.
I’ve reached out to the park for after-the-fact guidance on how to handle this and will update this post when I hear from them.
I’d never been on the Highline Trail north of Swiftcurrent before, so I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this new section of trail. It’s beautiful, there’s no mystery why it’s so popular! But here in the evening it was also pleasantly deserted; I passed only one other group of three over the entire evening. At sunset, I stopped at a small stream and boiled water for dinner. The last light of the day lit up Cannon, Clements, and Bird Woman Falls in a warm, soft glow.
My move whenever I could during the trip was to put the meal in the back stretch pocket of my pack and keep walking while it warmed up, then eat it on the go. I’d hoped to make it to the turnoff where the climber’s trail to Bishop’s Cap / Pollock leaves the Highline, but by quarter past ten I was cooked and also worried about finding a flat spot that wasn’t the trail. So I bivvied on a nice slab of bedrock (camp on durable surfaces!) just off the spur trail to Haystack Butte. 15hr 38min on the go, 22 miles, 9,080 feet of ascent. Far from the biggest day of the trip, stats-wise, but the abundance of choss and technical terrain sure made it feel big.
I woke up feeling motivated and, well, dangerous. All along I’d been hoping that I’d hit a turning point at some moment in the trip where I’d go from feeling like I was reactively surviving the effort to proactively charging through it. Day four, with my pack now somewhere around 18 pounds, seemed like a possibility. Plus, I was now moving into much more known territory. Rather than monkeying around with extended scrambling sections I’d never been to before (Merritt climb & descent, Helen Lake to Ahern Pass, etc.), I now had relatively much more time on deck in off-trail sections where I’d been before or actual trail.
Body and mind were still feeling fully healthy and engaged. I chalk a lot of that up to taking the time to actually sleep during this, and drinking a lot of specialized recovery mix stuff. There is no doubt in my mind someone could come along and complete this linkup significantly faster by just sleeping less. But that just wasn’t the experience I sought. My goal was to put in huge days, but try to move only during the daylight hours so I could actually appreciate the magnificent place I was in. And, avoiding sleep deprivation just makes the whole experience a million times better! There’s a time and place for pushing the physical and mental limits by minimizing sleep. This just wasn’t one of the moments for me. I was exceedingly happy with how well my body recovered each day during this trip, and afterwards. I’m writing this a week after finishing and I feel back to normal, I even went for my first post-trip jog last night. In contrast, after the Beartooths linkup in 2018 when I did push the sleep deprivation envelope, it took a solid two weeks of disordered mental capabilities and energy levels before I started to feel anything close to resembling normal.
For me, this trip was more an exploration of self-sufficiency than a stake in the sand of what is the fastest possible effort on this linkup. Going solo and unsupported, could I take care of myself mentally and physically well enough to string together multiple high-output days in the mountains? And my strategy to that challenge was to mix in the out-and-backs throughout the trip to lessen some of the effort required, to drink a lot of recovery mix to hopefully delay or even repair some muscle damage along the way, and to sleep as much as possible as sleep is the ultimate recovery tool.
I had an hour and a half of trail hiking before the turn-off to the Pollock climber’s trail. Predictably, I had it all to myself for about an hour, and then the early-morning day hikers started filtering by. One guy stopped me, incredulous. He asked, “My god, how long did you hike in the dark to be going back to Logan right now?” I explained that I was on a multi-day trip and hadn’t come from Logan Pass at all. He processed the news for a moment, but the confusion never left his face: he hadn’t considered the possibility that anyone on that trail could be doing something other than day hiking from Logan.
I got to the turn-off and again went through my now-practiced routine of taking all the extra weight out of my pack and stashing it. All food goes into the odor-proof sack in the Ursack, while the rest of the unnecessary overnight gear (pad, sleeping bag, tarp, extra battery, down jacket, etc.) fit into the Ursack if possible or just get stashed in the rocks. The Ursack gets hung in a tree so rodents don’t get it, or wedged under big rocks so anything smaller than a bear can’t move it. As far as bears…I’m rolling the dice a bit with this strategy. I’m mostly banking on the fact that I’d only be leaving the stuff alone for a handful of hours, and that the odor-proof bag in the Ursack would make it so a bear would have to just randomly happen upon the specific spot to find it.
For tagging summits, I’d leave in just the essentials. My emergency / med kit (I call it the OSK — oh shit kit), rainjacket, mid layer, rain pants or wind pants, work gloves, bear spray, just enough food for the out-and-back, helmet, ice ax, and poles if necessary. The summit bag probably weighed between five and eight pounds.
I charged up the enjoyable scramble to Pollock, summited, and descended via the fun and engaging Great Cleft route. After that I jumped onto some of the only scree skiing of the trip during the descent towards Piegan Pass, whooping with the joy of it all. I yelled across the basin to Siyeh, towering above the landscape: “Hey Siyeh, good morning! I’m coming for you!” It was only about 9 in the morning, I felt great, and the day stretched out with infinite possibility. I hit the Piegan Pass trail and launched into a legitimate run, also the first actual trail running of the trip without the full pack. It felt amazing.
From Siyeh Pass I scrambled to Siyeh via the third-class Cracker Benchmark route, hitting the summit feeling great at 11:45a. I got to watch a grizzly bear amble along the slopes a couple hundred yards below me, and I spent ten minutes on the summit just soaking in the views. I’d brought an external battery pack for recharging my phone, camera, and InReach, but it’d died that morning. So I took in the views but didn’t take many photos, knowing the charge I had on the camera had to last another two days. My pictures are few and far between after this point, and I stopped taking any videos.
I bombed off Siyeh via the direct southern route, which was fantastic. More good scree skiing! People use this route to ascend as well, though with all the looseness I doubt that’s particularly fun. But on the descent it’s great, and I found myself back on trail less than an hour after leaving the summit. Two hours after summiting I was just below Pollock, and I call out the times because this was literally one of the only moments throughout the whole trip where I felt like I was making impressively good time! All the rest was more or less a war of attrition against the terrain and daylight hours.
Then, I lost a friend on the scramble back down to my stuff after Pollock. At the end of day 1 a blister had formed at the base of my toes, in between my big toe and it’s neighbor. I called it Bob for two days, as in Bob the Blister. Every once in a while I’d step wrong and Bob would shout out in pain, and — here’s a free peak into my kooky mental state — I’d talk back. Like, “you’re right Bob, that was a bad step. I’ll try to do better.” Or, “Oww. Fuck. Bob, you’re being a diva. Just shut the hell up already.” Anyways, Bob died at some point on that descent and I worried that the torn blister would be worse than the intact version, but mercifully it actually made things noticeably better. Bob looking out for me from his perch in heaven. Thanks Bob.
After loading back up I waded into the tourist fray along the rest of the Highline Trail, through Logan, and up the boardwalk to the turnoff for the Reynolds Mountain trail. It was fine, all in all, but bit of a shock after spending so much time alone in wide-open country. Felt a bit like a dirty alien dropped in their midst.
The Reynolds trail ends at the saddle between Reynolds and Dragon’s Tail. At that point, there’s a sneaky goat trail that contours along the south face of the Dragon’s Tail ridgeline. It’s improbable, aesthetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I reminisced on our trip a month prior as I walked along it; we’d spent a memorable morning navigating the steep snowfields that still covered the trail in July. My friend Emily got thrown into the deep end of steep snow travel and had to show a ton of grit while learning on the fly. I felt super bad at the time that it got so full-on, so fast for her; she was having to kick steps down a no-fall snowfield about thirty minutes after starting the day. Sorry Em! (sidenote: Emily just placed sixth at UTMB (!!!), and it’s undoubtedly entirely due to the mental toughness we forced on her during that trip!)
At the end of the goat trail you climb up to the Dragon’s Tail ridge, and I sat down for a minute to take in some food. I felt myself slipping into an interesting mental state. Not quite pissed off, but close. Focused. A little, annoyed, even. Everything was just taking so long. Back in the morning I thought I even had a chance to summit Jackson that day, but there was just no way. I still had to get through the Floral Park Traverse, up the Sperry Glacier, over Gunsight Mountain, and down to Gunsight Pass before I could even think about Jackson.
The pissed off feeling came from not wanting this dream to slip away. I was working too damn hard, for too many damn hours, to let this just slowly slip away. I just had to want it enough. To this point I’d been purposefully pacing myself a lot, mentally and physically, very much sitting in easy gear throughout the days to make sure that I didn’t burn myself out before the end. But it was 6p as I sat on that rock, about three and a half hours of daylight left. I resolved to really focus and get absolutely as far as possible before stopping.
A section of my mind was constantly bored throughout the trip. I listened to music a couple times the first two days, but by day three my extra battery pack was out and I wanted to make the electronics last as long as possible. So my phone stayed off most of the time. I craved some distraction, music, someone to talk to, anything. My mind flitted back and forth between being darkly serious and focused, and pop culture. That scene in Wedding Crashers where Vince Vaughn tells Owen Wilson “hey, you need to lock it up” kept replaying in my head. Focus. Lock it up.
That mental state only intensified as I moved through the Floral Park Traverse and up the Sperry Glacier. But then halfway up the glacier, a beautiful moment hit me. The evening light painted the basin and surrounding mountains in a gorgeous, friendly warm glow. I was moving well. The glacier and basin itself just felt like this wild, beautiful thing welcoming me and sharing this amazing scene. A wave of joy and gratitude, even euphoria, washed over me as I hiked through the fins of rock and snow. A feeling like this always hits me at some point if I spend enough time in wild mountain environments. But I can never predict exactly when. I felt deeply grateful that it had happened here, on this trip. Just like a big hug from a good friend you haven’t seen in a long time.
The feeling lasted all the way up Gunsight Mountain, and I hit the saddle between Gunsight and its eastern neighbor (fake Gunsight? it’s labeled wrong on several maps) at the last light of the day. From there I threw my headlamp on and launched into a fairly full-on mixture of glissading hard late-summer sun-cupped snow and downclimbing rock and glacial moraine on the way to Gunsight Pass. This was all on the north side of that prominent, cliffy ridge that leads down from Gunsight mountain towards the pass. This section is a bit of a blur in my memory. It was difficult and intricate in the dark, and I wouldn’t recommend it in that state even to my enemies. Back on the July trip, with way more snow and in the middle of the day, it was great! Timing made a big difference.
I hit the Gunsight Pass trail after sixteen hours on the move, about 10:30 at night, fairly done for the day. I again made up a dehydrated meal at one of the small stream crossings and ate it while walking down the trail. I found a flat spot to bivvy a little ways off the trail and threw in the white flag.
One interesting aspect of these first four days is that I never got physically worn down by the effort (until Stimson, that is, but I’m getting ahead of myself). I’d get tired at the end of each day, but it was a regular kind of tired, like it’s 11 o’clock and you’re supposed to get tired then because it’s the end of the day kind of tired. I don’t say this to brag or anything but as a testament to training hard and being mentally prepared for this kind of extended effort. It was a real neat feeling to go through these days at a sustainable aerobic intensity level (I didn’t go anaerobic once over the trip), and never really get any more tired than I’d be just sitting at home. Sure, I could feel some deeper fatigue every day after the first day, but I didn’t get sore at any point and it was a magical feeling to be moving just as fast through the second half of the trip as the first half.
16h 50min on the move, 28 miles, 13,500 feet ascent. Big day.
As I went to bed on night four I debated just sleeping for a few hours and getting up at three or four to put myself in the best position to finish on day five as planned. But I didn’t start to fall asleep until after midnight, and I knew I needed the rest. I compromised and set the alarm for five. By 5:20 I was on the move again, walking down the Gunsight trail briefly towards Gunsight Lake before angling off-trail uphill to wrap around the base of Jackson. I wanted to get over on the standard east ridge approach and stash my extra stuff as low as possible on the ridge before setting off for the summit. The side-hilling was tedious but I marched on, somehow buoyed by the pre-dawn start to the day.
Like on Merritt two days previously, the first sun of the day greeted me as I crested the east ridge. I found a good nook in the rocks, stashed gear and food, and lit out for the summit as the line of shadow to sun rose further up the surrounding peaks. I felt totally like a marble in a groove, cruising up through easy class three terrain that I’d been on before. No unpleasant surprises here, just steady movement. I did see a grizzly a couple hundred yards below me when I was about a thousand feet below the summit. It had its head down, shoveling rocks around and digging for grubs of some sort, oblivious to me. I continued on, careful not to dislodge any rocks and give away my presence. I figured avoiding any interaction was the best move available.
The rest of the climb was uneventful and enjoyable. I hit the summit at quarter after eight, an hour on the nose and two thousand feet above my extra gear. Another flawless day in the park. I silently crossed my fingers that the perfect weather would continue to hold.
On the way down I quickly saw the grizzly had worked its way uphill much closer to the ridge. Too close to pass unnoticed. Dropping off the descender’s right side of the ridge isn’t really an option there due to cliffs, and I’d have to drop a few hundred yards downhill out of my way to pass below the bear; not an attractive option. I opted to just slowly work my way closer to the bear, talking to it a bunch and making sure it didn’t show any signs of agitation. It stopped digging and looked at me every once in a while, but never showed concern. Meanwhile, I got to practice downclimbing and scree skiing for half an hour while holding bear spray. Finally, I got far enough past the bear to feel comfortable putting the spray away, and I could speed up again back down to my gear. One more obstacle overcome.
After picking up my stuff I joined the Jackson Overlook trail briefly until it ran out, then began picking out my line to get up into the Blackfoot Basin. I’d done this twice previously, once just leaving the basin at the end of linking up the Norris and Scenic Death March traverses a couple years ago, and once a month ago on the July trip. Neither time felt like a particularly good line, but the third time was a charm. I found a great route up that placed me in the basin with no bushwhacking. The Blackfoot basin is one of my favorite places in the park, and I reveled in the swirling colors in the rocks, the little runoff streams and waterfalls everywhere, and the microclimates scattered throughout the various snowfields and rock outcroppings.
During the hotter middle part of the days, I’d either stop quickly and shed my pack so I could take off my t-shirt or sun shirt and dunk it in streams. A few times though little waterfalls jetted far enough out from the rocks to let me just lean over and dunk my head in the water. If my helmet was on the water would pool in the top while I leaned over, only to cascade down as I straightened and walked away from the stream. Such joyful little moments, they broke up the long hours of effort and stand out vividly in my memory.
I planned to climb the basin to a saddle between Logan and Blackfoot peaks, then glissade down the Pumpelly glacier to access the Scenic Death March goat trail en route to the Nyack valley and the final 10er, Stimson. But while I’d glissaded into the Blackfoot basin from this saddle before, that was earlier in the summer with significantly more snow. I knew this time around I’d have to get more creative with mixing snow and rock climbing, as climbing only snow would likely require crampons and I only had an ice ax. But I pieced together a class 3-4 line to the climber’s left of where I’d previously glissaded, and reached the saddle with a sigh of relief. One more unknown section completed.
The problem with my plan to glissade the Pumpelly glacier, though, was that it is heavily guarded by cliffs. From my vantage I couldn’t see a workable way to gain the snow without sprouting a pair of wings. So I opted for plan B, to traverse low on Logan over to its eastern ridge and then downclimb to the SDM goat trail from there. That would be significantly slower and more difficult than glissading, but better the devil you know, you know?
A couple hundred feet higher on the hillside, I looked back over my shoulder at the Pumpelly. Lo and behold, the new vantage point and curve of the terrain now revealed a slanting ledge traverse out to the far edge of the snow. Game on! I backtracked down the slope and traversed the ledges until I was below the main cliff band and out to the snow. From there I had to traverse back to the east to connect with the main tongue of snow and the semi-enjoyable glissade to the bottom of the Pumpelly (August snow is just not that soft, no matter how ya cut it).
The SDM goat trail was just as cool and improbable a line as I remembered it from three years previously. It was nice to hike along and reminisce about the great day I’d had the last time I was there. But all good things come to an end when I reached the end and started the descent down the ridgeline to the west of Red Eagle Pass. I’d mentally checked out from scrambling, expecting just bushwhacking and scree until the upper reaches of the Stimson climb. But suddenly I found myself standing at the top of a cliff, with no obvious escape on either side. I reluctantly put my helmet on and forced myself back into the right mindset. It was some of the worst scrambling of the trip. Just extremely loose, dry, chossy class four, and I ended up going through two short class five sections. I thought a lot about making good decisions. I was hurrying a bit, annoyed with the unexpected, shitty scrambling. I had to stop a couple times and double-check myself, trying to make sure that I wasn’t committing to something because I just wanted it to be over with instead of it actually being the right move. There was about thirty minutes of this bullshit before the terrain released me back to the relative comfort of standard deadfall bushwhacking.
That ridge is deceiving. It’s only about a 1 3/4 mile from leaving the goat trail to stepping on the Nyack trail. But it took me two and half hours. That area burned some years ago, and the head-high fireweed looks as pretty as it is devious. Copious ground-level deadfall hides in its cover, making progress blue-collar work at the best of times.
At Nyack creek I lay chest-deep in the water, sipping a chocolate recovery mix smoothie I’d held out for myself as a reward for making it through the deadfall. After those calories, I had only a Snickers bar, a half-handful of Skittles, and a small bag of Cheez-its left. I was wary of what the night would bring once I ran out of food, but determination and focus overshadowed that feeling. At that moment, I felt on the cusp of real adventure. It was 6:30 in the evening, so I was guaranteed to get caught in the dark at some point on the 6,000-foot climb up Stimson. I was also going to run out of food. It was the last of the 10ers, a momentous point in the trip, and it felt like the challenges were stacking up to meet the moment. The little giddy rush I get when tackling something big started gathering in my stomach.
I lay in the creek until I started shivering, dunked my sun shirt a final time, then crashed off into the deadfall. There’s about an hour of deadfall hopping before you break above treeline into the easier class 2 and 3 section of the ridgeline. But somehow I was perfectly happy and moving surprisingly well. I munched on the Snickers when I hit the 3,000-feet-climbed mark of the climb, and again a thousand feet higher at the 4,000-foot mark. There, the gathering dusk finally gave way to darkness. I fixed the headlamp on my helmet, took a last look north at the last remnants of the sunset, and kept on truckin’.
About 2,000 feet of climbing remained, 1,500 feet of which was more technical class 4 scrambling. I was super happy and surprised with how I’d climbed the first 4,000 feet in only three hours, which felt quite springy, given the circumstances. Extrapolating from there, I should be standing on the summit in another hour, right? Right??
This is where one of the biggest assumptions of the trip almost wrecked me.
I’d scouted this ascent the summer before and found it perfectly reasonable, but that was in the daylight on fresh legs. Turns out, it’s a helluva lot easier to find a workable line through class 4 rock during the day than it is at night when every section is indistinguishable from its neighbor.
I got cliffed out three or four times in the darkness. I’d turn off my headlamp and look upwards at the silhouette of the summit looming overhead. In the dark, distances lose meaning. It could have been 200 feet or 2,000 above me; it all looked the same. Every time I’d look, it never seemed to get any closer, no matter how much I climbed. At some point I realized my risk tolerance had shrunk so much that I was making minimal progress, spending lots of time traversing back and forth on ledges and looking for the easiest way up rather than climbing up the class 4 options. Stuff that I would normally climb without a second thought I was backing away from, convinced that if I just kept searching I’d find some magical easier route. But there wasn’t one, and deep down I knew it.
I stopped and shut off my light. I stood in place for a few minutes, calmly telling myself that all I needed to do was to keep slowly, methodically working up through the scrambling. The summit would come eventually. Quit looking. Just focus on the handholds and footholds in front of your nose. Don’t make a bad situation worse by making hasty decisions or by overthinking. Either end of the spectrum is unhelpful. Just flow.
Finally, mercifully, I topped out on the long ridgeline leading to the true summit. I threw on my rainjacket to guard against the chill wind and made my way along to the summit. At 11:30 on the dot at the top, I kissed the metal summit marker out of sheer relief and gratitude. I snatched two summit photos before the camera unceremoniously died. It’d been running on fumes since the morning, but at least it had the presence of mind to die after grabbing the last summit shot! Just like the script called for.
I tucked into the leeward side of the ridge out of the wind, snug in a small space between the rocks. To the north, the Big Dipper hung in the sky larger than I had ever seen in my life. Wildly, improbably large. Hallucination? Maybe. Situationally-induced warped vision? Likely. Whatever the cause, I sat in the rocks and pulled out my most prized possession, the last of my food: the best Cheez-its I’ve ever tasted.
But what goes up must come down. I was getting tired, and as good as the Cheez-its tasted they did little to stave off the caloric deficit I’d been digging myself into. I knew this was a crucial moment in the night, that if I got mixed up and dropped off the ridge the wrong way it would exponentially multiply my discomfort. And at this point, all my electronics — phone, camera, watch — had died, except for the Inreach mini. So I couldn’t rely on any gps guidance from the phone or watch, and I had nothing loaded on the InReach. If I wasn’t so tired, I would’ve laughed about how I was like an old-world sailor, navigating fearlessly by the stars. But I was tired, and far from fearless. I got to the end of the ridgeline and talked myself through the right way to go out loud, judging off of the Big Dipper to the north and the vague silhouettes of the surrounding peaks. This move is child’s play in the daylight, but in my state and in the dark it was a different story.
After fifteen minutes of doubt, I started seeing scuff marks in the dirt and scree, tracks from previous climbers. I knew I was on the right track. The only humor I managed was thinking the technical nature of every other descent off the Stimson ridge except the standard southeast face was actually a blessing in disguise; if I’d chosen wrong I’d be cliffed out already. Since I wasn’t standing on top of a cliff, I thought ruefully, I must be on the right route.
Even though I was headed in the right direction, the descent quickly devolved into a junk show. My physical ability to handle the rocks and scree dropped off a metaphorical cliff, I was tired, moving slowly and hesitantly. I ran out of water at some point. This was the first time all trip where I’d lost the ability to efficiently handle the physicality of the challenge, and it coincided perfectly with running out of food — no surprises there. But I kept moving in a hazy mixture of resignation and determination, fixated on reaching the saddle connecting Pinchot and Stimson.
After some interminable time I reached the saddle, where — sensing a pattern yet? — the route threw another of my assumptions straight back in my face. I’d figured there would be an intuitive trail of some sort leading to the saddle. The standard approach starts from a saddle south of Mount Pinchot, then I’d heard a climber’s trail contours around the west of that mountain before connecting to the Stimson-Pinchot saddle. Enough people do this climb, I figured, there must be some sort of a trail. But I stood in the dark, looking in vain. I had a vague memory that perhaps it was a bit higher on the Pinchot side of the saddle, so I trudged up the hillside for…some unknown time. Fifteen minutes? Thirty? At some point, I gave up. This was not working, I was too strung out to be making any valuable progress. My best option was to bivy until first light and figure things out then.
So I found the flattest part of the hillside that was reasonably around the corner from the wind and curled up in my sleeping bag a bit after one in the morning. I shot a message to Sam, who I knew would be following my tracker and could pass on the message to anyone else. They’d at least know that even though I hadn’t planned to spend this night in the park that everything was fine.
I lay awake in the bag for quite some time, running over the day in my mind and enjoying the beginnings of feeling like I’d actually pulled off the linkup. I was still 20+ miles from civilization and out of food and water, so still far from being out of the woods both physically and metaphorically. But I’d connected the peaks, and I felt deeply happy that I’d done it with a wild, ambitious line. Certainly, the line I’d chosen was wilder and more difficult than what was minimally necessary to connect the peaks, and that made me smile. It had been a true adventure, and it wasn’t over.
19hr 55min on the move, 21 miles, 14,100 feet ascent. Biggest day yet, and the only double-10er of the trip.
I started moving at 6:30, tired, with a dry cottonmouth feeling in my mouth and a hungry belly. But I was quietly, determinedly angry, too. No stupid climber’s trail was going to get the best of me. I was getting the hell out of this spot, I didn’t care if I never found the trail and side-hilled the whole damn thing. Now that I could see the terrain, though, I guessed that it was below me. And after 30 minutes of poking around, I finally found it and immediately felt better about myself because it was a faint trail at best. It would have been impossible to find in the dark. It was on-again, off-again all the way to the saddle south of Pinchot, and by the time I reached the saddle I was thoroughly ready for some time on trail. A little ways after dropping off the saddle towards Martha’s Basin I ran into Greg Notess of the Glacier Mountaineering Society, who was out to climb Stimson with his wife and daughter. I’d met Greg three years before when I gave a presentation for GMS’s annual meeting, though in my depleted state I didn’t recognize him and felt bad. He’ll forgive me, I hope. He congratulated me on the linkup and I wished them luck on the bid for the summit.
After a final bushwhacking section to Buffalo Woman Lake, I finally stood on an actual, honest-to-god trail. So stoked. I leaned against a tree and poured rocks out of my left shoe. The outside toebox edge had split open about four inches the day before, so rocks got in constantly. And my foot was held in by maybe a half-inch of fabric. On the bright side, the gaping hole also meant I could shake rocks out just as easily.
From Buffalo Woman lake it is 16 miles of trail down Coal Cr to the finish at the Coal Cr ford of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. There isn’t too much to say about these hours other than it was some kind of intensive practice in zen and acceptance. My stomach had shrunk to a small, tight ball, and my hunger was insistent but manageable. I mentally settled into a state of quiet determination, alternating somewhere between irrational happiness and humorless focus. I broke the distance into half-hour chunks, sang songs, and just kept moving forward. It felt like an unnecessary coda to a movie, a final chapter tacked on for no discernable reason after all the real action had come and gone. But in the end it was great mental practice in perseverance.
I stopped at the turnoff, 0.3 miles to the river, and congratulated myself on a job well done. A lot of other things in life haven’t exactly been going to plan lately, but goddammit I pulled this thing off well and I spent a few minutes purposefully focusing on that. Celebrate the little (and not-so-little) wins along the way. I forded the river, sunk in for a final full-body dunk, then walked up the short hill to the train tracks and the end. 2:20p. Done! 7h 50min, 19 miles, 1,100 feet ascent for the final push. Pretty damn special place.
I started at 6:22a on Sunday, Aug 14 and finished at 2:20p on Friday, Aug 19, for a total of 127 hours 58 minutes. And interestingly, the route broke down almost evenly between on- and off-trail. 77 miles on trail, 74 off trail. So let’s say an even 128 hours total, or 5.3 days. I’m almost as cool as that Aron Ralston guy, eh?
Takeaways & lessons learned
- These immersive experiences fuel my passion for climate advocacy. There is something about the mixture of wild places and physical & mental challenge that combines into something greater than the sum of its parts. The experience delivers a cocktail of emotions: a yin and yang of purpose, belonging, awe, and euphoria on one side; and fear, uncertainty, discomfort, and fatigue on the other. Together, they combine to enhance my perceptions of myself and my surroundings. I feel everything more deeply. They fill my soul and are one of the strongest ways I connect with the natural world that sustains us. They reaffirm the value of advocating for climate action so we may avert climate catastrophe. This grounds my work in climate advocacy, like with Protect Our Winters and Footprints Running, and fuels me to strive for an even greater positive impact.
But they’re not the only way to make this connection. This specific brand of challenge, of interacting with the mountains, is not attainable for everyone — nor desired! I understand that completely. We are beautiful, wild, varied creatures, inspired by an unfathomable number of things. My hope is my experience here can serve as an inspiration for anyone to chase their own version of this connection with place and motivation for taking climate action. What fuels your connection to the natural world? What keeps you awake at night, your mind burning with potential? Go explore it deeply, maybe even unreasonably. Let the experience fuel you and your work.
- So many life experiences prepared me for this moment. I worked in Alaska for a hunting outfitter in 2013 and ’14, just playing the role of mid-twenties grunt help. We carried heavy packs, worked long days, and did a helluva lot of bushwhacking. Growing up hunting with my dad also helped with bushwhacking. These experiences instilled an ability to mentally and physically roll with the punches of moving off-trail in wild places. It’s definitely a different skill than pure running ability.
Other ultramarathons and non-race trips helped with the ability to run and carry a pack. In 2021, I had to unexpectedly, and voluntarily, walk (it’s a long story) 25 miles of dirt and paved road at the end of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open event. That was a huge mental test that undoubtedly helped with the final trail section here.
Other times, I’ve run out of food on scouting missions out in the mountains. I vividly remember one time in the Beartooth mountains out of food for several hours and a full mountain pass from the car. Being familiar with how my body would react while continuing to hike and run on no food was invaluable.
Several years now of rambling in the mountains have helped me hone my decision-making. Reading terrain, route-finding, managing myself physically like with blisters, etc. It felt like every obstacle I encountered I had faced in some way previously. Don’t discount the value of building up your skills and experience in small steps, in whatever realm you’re in. It can take years. Be patient but persistent. Let small wins compound over time to something greater.
- This was something I’d dreamed about for a few years, that I thought I was capable of in my heart but didn’t want to speak about it too much until I’d done it. It felt like one of those dreams you’re afraid to speak of out loud, for fear it would slip away, amorphous and elusive. It’s incredibly fulfilling to achieve these stretch goals for yourself, whether in the mountains, in work, romance, or any other area of life. To be able to say to yourself that yes, you are capable of great things right at the edge of your grasp. Life is full of these opportunities, but chasing them is often the epitome of delayed gratification, if you get to gratification at all. It’s this journey that keeps me coming back to big, immersive experiences in the mountains more than any stopwatch or race line.
- Interrogate your assumptions. A trip like this has a great way of laying bare every assumption you’ve made. Usually for the worse. So, try to sort these out before you’re committed. I found myself in this situation several times throughout the trip, and I resolve to call up a trusted friend or two before a big trip, people who know about logistics and moving around in the mountains but aren’t familiar with the trip. I bet spending an hour on the phone going through my plan in detail for each day and asking them to question everything they feel is fishy would help me avoid most if not all of these pitfalls. Sometimes just getting a fresh set of eyes on an assumption is enough to uncover and squash it.
Gear / Food
Here’s the link to my gear spreadsheet. While extremely nerdy, I find this type of granular detail damn helpful.
I didn’t detail the food in that spreadsheet beyond the total weight for each day. But my goal was 3,000 on-the-move calories each day, plus a dehydrated meal for dinner. I packed clif bars, clif bar nut butters, snickers, cheez-its, energy gels, energy chews, recovery mix, electrolyte mix, and skittles. My biggest regret was not packing more cheez-its. Those were awesome.
Learn more about GNP
I encourage everyone interested in this adventure to deepen their connection with GNP before starting out. There has been so much written, photographed, and filmed about GNP I don’t do anyone justice by attempting to recreate it here. Instead, here are some good resources to start with.
People Before The Park — fantastic book on the rich indigenous history in the GNP area before the park was created.
National Park Service GNP website — good starting point for all things GNP.
The Wolverine Way — Great book that reveals the natural history of this amazing species and the forces that threaten its future, via recounting a five-year wolverine study in GNP in the early 2000s.
The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers — another great book chronicling the effect of climate change on GNP’s glaciers and of the consequences to people and the natural world that will entail.
Lastly, I echo Mike Foote and others who have called for anyone setting FKTs to contribute back to local conservation organizations doing good work in the area of the FKT. The Glacier Conservancy is the official non-profit fundraising partner to GNP and funds vital work to protect the park. They are a good beneficiary for anyone interested in donating. I donated to the Conservancy and FKT.com after completing this trip.