September 15 began as a fairly normal day for professional Missoula distance runners Mike Wolfe and Mike Foote and their friend Steven Gnam, a photographer based in Columbia Falls.
They finished breakfast and started casually jogging through Missoula, headed north.
“We started from Mike Wolfe’s house in the University District, and then we ran his kid to day care on the way to Mike Foote’s house in the Rattlesnake,” Gnam recalled. “Then we ran up and over Mount Jumbo, north into the Mission Mountains and on from there.”
And then they kept running for 600 miles, across some of the wildest country on Earth, all the way to Banff, Alberta, arriving 24 rugged days later.
The trio named their excursion the “crown traverse” because they ran the length of the so-called Crown of the Continent.
They traveled along the spines of entire mountain ranges, navigated rivers, wintry weather and glaciers in running shoes, and bushwhacked through some of the most remote nooks in the Northern Rockies.
The trip was sponsored by North Face - helicopter crews filmed some of the trek - and the guys will give a presentation about their experience at the nine-day Banff Mountain Film Festival that starts on Halloween.
Foote, an accomplished athlete who is no stranger to 100-mile backpacking trips, said this was by far his most challenging endeavor. The reasons for the trip were simultaneously complex and simple.
“That was the biggest question while we were out there,” he explained. “I feel like it had a few different reasons. I was selfishly wanting to explore this beautiful landscape in a way we hadn’t had an opportunity to before. We’ve all played in the mountains, on the fringes of that area, all the time.
"But we wanted to immerse ourselves on a deeper level. We weren’t trying to bring attention to any specific conservation efforts, but we want to let people know this is a wild and special landscape and let people learn about it through our eyes.”
They covered 35 to 50 miles a day, carrying as little gear as possible, but they always had cameras.
For some portions of the trip, they had to support themselves with ultralight camping gear and share a tent and stove. Other times, they were met by friends at trailheads with extra food.
Most of the route was off-trail on high alpine ridgelines, or they followed old logging roads. After they descended from the crest of the Mission Mountains, they came out in the Swan Valley and headed to Holland Lake, where they joined up with the Swan Crest.
They took that to the Spotted Bear Ranger Station, deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and then crossed the Great Bear Wilderness and into Glacier National Park. They traversed Logan Pass, headed through Glacier, across the international border and into Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.
From there, they ran up to Crowsnest Pass and into the Elk Range. They crossed Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia before finally dragging their weary bodies into downtown Banff on Oct. 8.
That’s when Wolfe looked down at his GPS indicator and it said they had gone 599.7 miles.
“That was crazy,” Wolfe said. “That was really wild. It was so hard to wrap my head around it. I had looked at it when we crossed into Waterton, and that had been 299.9 miles, exactly halfway. And now we’re at 599.7. I said, ‘Oh my God we’re so close!’ So we ran down Main Street and did a couple laps to get to an even 600 miles. It seemed like an appropriate thing to do.”
The guys escaped without any major injuries, besides what Foote termed “little aches and pains.” Gnam had to take a weeklong break in the middle because of a nasty case of shin splints.
The first few days in the Mission Mountains, they had stormy winter weather, but for the most part they lucked out with lots of sunshine.
“It ended up turning into an opportunity to move through such different landscapes, whether it was dirt logging roads, high alpine ridges or bushwhacking down north-facing peaks,” Foote said. “It was a mountain travel trip. We had to use every skill set we had.
"The route was really unique in that regard. It’s very much a challenging experience until you're in the moment. It’s really valuable in that regard to be challenged on all fronts.”
Wolfe said they had to bushwhack in the Great Bear Wilderness a lot more than they had anticipated.
“Consequently, we came out of that section a little bit more beat-up than we had hoped,” he recalled.
For him, the trip was a chance to explore the mountains that people who live here consider as their “backyard” on a more intimate level.
“What defines us as people involves being around mountains,” Wolfe explained. “We all had this deep connection with the mountains of Glacier and touching on Canada, but we wanted to do a trip that kind of reinforced that connection and allowed us to explore the mountains a little bit deeper and on a more challenging level, moving through difficult terrain, mountain running and trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. It was a longer expedition-type trip, but in a style that kind of rings true for us and what we like to do.”
Along the way, they spotted wolverine tracks, bears and very few people.
“One of the unique parts of the trip for us was we literally traveled on foot from our doorsteps in downtown Missoula all the way to Banff,” Wolfe said. “It felt like we were exploring our backyard, but a lot of times it felt like we were in places where no human had ever been. Which isn’t the case, but the terrain felt like no humans hardly ever went there. It was a really cool feeling.
"We saw more animals than humans. And we weren’t moving on established trail systems. That was the biggest thing for me. One of the important things about the trip was just the fact that we were moving through challenging and technical terrain, following the topography of the land. We followed the routes that seemed the most efficient and aesthetic to us, and a lot of times that meant technical terrain.”
There were route-finding and navigation issues as well.
“We were up on Swan Peak, and we crested the summit and had to figure out a way to descend off of it,” Wolfe recalled. “It ended up being three or more hours of super intricate, involved fifth-class down-climbing through complicated ledge systems, risking a fall.
"And getting down, we hit a north-facing glacier in running shoes. It was too steep, so we ended up having to climb up against a rock wall and get around that and then we were stuck in 15-foot high alder, bushwhacking for three hours to try to get to the lake.
"We were moving through complex areas of terrain where you are linking trail systems together, but moving through challenging mountain landscapes. It was really interesting.”
They stopped seeing signs of wolverines once they hit Canada, and it was there that they also came across giant, open-pit mines.
“It was pretty shocking to go from deep wilderness to full industrial complexes up there,” Gnam recalled.
“The area around Crowsnest Pass is known to be a pinch point with a lot of open-pit mining,” Foote explained. “There are huge, mountainside removal projects, with plumes of dust and smoke, and it kind of looks like Mordor from afar. Part of the trip was experiencing the potential hardships that animals encounter as they migrate through that corridor.”
The guys didn’t have a massive celebration to mark the end of their trek, but they all felt it might take time to let the gravity of what they accomplished sink in.
“We were all tired,” Gnam explained. “With things like this, we might appreciate it more in a couple weeks, looking back on it.”
To view the blog of the expedition, visit neverstopexploring.com/explore/crown-traverse/.