Glacier National Park is easily one of the most picturesque places in Montana. It’s filled with incredible mountain peaks, lush vegetation, unique wildlife, and age-old glaciers. This beautiful area was to be the setting of our latest adventure: a mountain picnic.
Our mountain picnic, better defined as a mountain triathlon, was to be comprised of a cycle to the park, a swim across one of the lakes and finally a hike to a mountain summit. Once completed we would then do it in reverse.
Going into this project we were a little nervous. My brothers and I had been training for a couple of months but had no open water swimming experience, nor had we tried to swim in cold water for such a long period of time. We spent months planning for this adventure but even with all our prep, we still found ourselves facing a number of obstacles we could not have accounted for.
The day of the picnic
Our alarms rang at 2:30 am. We arose and went through our backpacks to make sure we weren’t forgetting anything. We then loaded up the car and drove to Coram, Montana. This is where we would begin. We parked up at Glacier Highline, unloaded our bikes, and turned on our headlamps. We’d be riding for the next 22 miles, trying to stay warm and mentally prepare for the long, cold swim ahead.
At 4:40 am we rolled across the border into Glacier National Park. We still had 15 miles to go but seeing the park sign was a welcome boost to our morale. Spirits high, we were excited to swim across the mountain lake.
At 6:30 am the sun was finally starting to reveal itself from behind the surrounding mountains. We finished our first bike leg and walked down to the water's edge to change into our wetsuits. It was a brisk, chilly morning to be stripping down and pulling on a wetsuit, but the water was at least perfectly calm.
At 7:00 am we began our swim. Slowly we made our way to the other side, swimming in a group, for the most part, thankful our wetsuits were keeping us isolated from the cold water. Travis was first out of the water, followed by me and then Darren. We took a second to regroup and revel in our achievement. We had just traversed Lake McDonald - the largest lake in Glacier National Park. We stripped off our wetsuits and enjoyed a couple of well-earned snacks.
It was now 9:00 am and time to start hiking. We had opted to climb Lincoln Peak - it was familiar to all of us and offered hikers a relatively well carved out trail for most of the journey. We all felt incredibly good at the beginning of the hike. The trail was delightfully picturesque as it wound its way alongside a creek and up to Sperry Chalet. Here we were able to refill our water bottles, eat a couple more snacks and watch some baby mountain goats playing.
From the Chalet, it was 1 mile to the top of Lincoln Peak. We were close to the top when we heard some other hikers ahead of us shout out “Bear! Stop! There’s a big momma grizzly and two baby cubs with her!” We stopped in our tracks and tried to assess the situation. We couldn’t yet see the bears so we scrambled up some rocks to get a better vantage point. Once we climbed high enough we saw her. The momma grizzly was the largest bear I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She towered over the vegetation, certainly not something we wanted to trifle with. Thankfully she diverted away from the path allowing us to continue onward.
We had now been hiking for 4 hours. By this point we were tired and hungry, but the worst was the heat. It was 89°F and the 7,400+ ft elevation only made things harder. Reaching the top we rested, refuelled and enjoyed the view. Break over, it was now time to do it all over again.
We made good time hiking down, reaching the lake at 4:00 pm. It was at this point things started to take a turn for the worse. Darren looked like a zombie - he was physically and emotionally beaten. We rested to try and give him time to recover then walked to the water's edge to scope out the lake. What we saw heartbreaking. The previously calm lake was now a sea of massive waves and gnarly wind. It was an intimidating spectacle.
We chatted amongst ourselves and at this point, Darren decided that he had had enough. After 12 and a half hours of pushing himself, the heat got the better of him. He didn’t feel he could swim across the lake so we gave him some more supplies and left him to wait it out until he was picked up by car.
Travis and I continued to talk about swimming back across. I knew that I had to give it a try. I had not come this far and gone this many miles to call it quits here. Travis on the other hand had a lot more reservations. He decided to wait and see how I fared in the water and if the wind wasn't too strong he would also take the plunge.
I put my wetsuit on, prepped my dry bag and entered the water. The wind and waves made for the gnarliest conditions I’ve ever experienced. I swam and swam for what seemed like hours. The wind was against me and I continued to get mouthfuls of water. Thankfully, slowly but surely, I could see the other side of the lake getting closer and closer.
Once I finally stepped on to the shore I breathed a big sigh of relief. I looked behind me and could not see Travis. I turned to look down the shore and saw him walking towards me. He had indeed decided against attempting the swim.
It was now 6:45 pm, the swim had taken 2 hours. 22 miles on the bike remained between me and the completion of this adventure. At this point my body was feeling pretty tired. Swimming had been a nice little refresher, but I could definitely feel the toll that hiking had taken on me. Coming back down to 3,100 ft. from 7,400 ft. had made my knees a little sore.
The sun began to set just before I made it back to the car. I got to watch the sky change from blue, to orange, to pink, to purple, to black. It was a most rewarding, peaceful sight with which to finish the journey. I rolled back into the parking lot at 8:27 pm, bringing the total time of our adventure to 16.5 hours. I was tired, drained and ready for food. I loaded my bike, crawled into my car, and drove back home for a well-deserved dinner.
Looking back on this challenge I’m thankful I pushed myself all the way to the finish – it's certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever put my body through. I’m not sure what it is or how exactly to describe it, but there’s something incredible about being able to look within yourself and find both the mental and physical strength to pull off such an awesome accomplishment. It’s amazing to see what our bodies are capable of - here’s to another mountain adventure next summer!
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