Dutch Pelger was only a mile from the finish line of a two-week trek when his strength started to fail him. Pedaling up Going-to-the-Sun Road alongside his father, the 11-year-old looked up at Logan Pass, where the cars looked like ants coming back down the road toward him, and thought maybe he wouldn't make it.
The trip with his father, Jim, and some family friends had been an adventurous one, but it had a bigger purpose. Dutch has a mild hearing impairment and uses hearing aids to listen and talk. Without them, he can lose track of sounds in his immediate area, and the mid-level voices seem washed out and hard to understand.
His family members count themselves among the lucky ones; insurance made a big difference in obtaining his hearing aids at $3,500 each.
So Dutch made a lot of noise on social media this summer with "The Montanathon," a two-week, three-leg trip through the western Montana backcountry to raise awareness and money for children like him in developing nations. His family partnered with the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss to maximize the fundraising potential. The money would go to the largest children's hospital in Mongolia, where an auditory testing room is needed for children to get tested for hearing loss.
Erin Pelger, Dutch's mom, said they knew Dutch's hearing would be a complication in his life at an early age when he didn't pass the newborn hearing test at the hospital. But they didn't know how bad things were until he was returned home from preschool and cranked the television volume to the max to watch Thomas the Train.
The family soon had the hearing aids, but speech therapy and plenty of help from his teachers was needed to ensure Dutch was able to keep up in school.
"It was scary," Erin Pelger said at their Rattlesnake home last week. "Third grade was tough. The issues that came along with it were front and center. It was hard on him and for the family."
As time went on, however, Dutch grew up speaking normally and adjusting quickly. His teachers wore a little microphone and he had a small amplifier in the back of the room.
This will be his first year in middle school, and Dutch wants to ditch the microphone and just sit in the front of the class.
"In school, I feel like I'm ready to make more decisions" about the accommodations for his own hearing impairment, he said.
He's grown into something of a public speaker, presenting in classes on his own hearing impairment. Although it was unintentional, these presentations turned into a sort of introduction point for other students to talk openly about their own challenges with attention deficit disorder, autism and more.
"He's learned that by helping others he's empowered himself," Jim Pelger said.
It's clear Dutch sees his condition as an impairment only by definition. With it, he knows he can drive change, even in a fifth grade classroom.
"It's this special thing about me," he said.
So Dutch and his father decided to take things to the next level, inspired six months ago when they saw Braden Baker, a Texas kid about the same age with the same hearing impairment, raising money for children's hearing aids on "The Ellen Degeneres Show."
"I thought, 'We could do that, and we could do it with some Montana flare,'" Jim Pelger said.
So began the planning, countless trips to REI and the social media campaign to grab some attention for the fundraiser. In late June, Dutch, his father and some family friends disembarked from the Woods Gulch area in the Rattlesnake and headed west, toward Mineral Peak, where a vehicle would be waiting for them.
Erin Pelger was on social media duty, tracking her husband's GPS and posting as they went, stirring up support on Facebook and the GoFundMe page.
The second stretch of the trip was a 35-mile backpacking jaunt through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and then a several-day float on the South Fork of the Flathead River heading toward Hungry Horse Reservoir. Outfitters and guides set them up along the way. Dutch remembers the spaghetti dinners and spending nights in a 40-person tent with a handful of other kids along for the adventure.
"It was insane," Dutch said.
Dutch and his Dad excitedly jump over each other when talking about the trip. It was one of those excursions where passing over each ridge and coming around each river bend produced a new challenge, and in turn a new story.
The third and last leg of the trip was biking up Going-to-the-Sun Road from "The Loop" up to Logan Pass. There had been days and nights at home between portions of the trip, but Dutch's legs and shoulders were well worn. This leg, the shortest by far, would be the most challenging.
"It was really tough," Dutch said. "I was starting to get super tired and wanting to stop. I just thought, 'We're never going to make it up there.'"
Within a mile of the pass, Jim Pelger saw it was time to refocus. Tears were streaming down Dutch's face, but his father had prepared for this moment with a quick speech about perspective.
"I said, 'Let's talk about why we're doing this,'" Pelger said, locking eyes with Dutch in their kitchen as he recalled that moment on the side of Going-to-the-Sun Road. "What would it be like in Vietnam or Mongolia with a hearing impairment as a kid? You have this incredible gift that you were able to get these hearing aids and other kids can't. Even if we help just four kids get hearing tested and hearing aids, then this is going to make their lives so much better and those four kids can help 100 other kids.
"He just totally dug in and just focused and hit it and we made it to the top," Pelger said.
The grand prize was more than $9,300 raised for the children's hospital in Mongolia. The Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss also shipped Dutch an award and a letter from executive director Paige Stringer.
"You can feel very good that the funds you raised will enable the largest hospital in Mongolia to effectively help thousands of young children with hearing loss get the correct diagnosis and appropriately fit hearing technology they need to listen and talk and reach their full potential — both now and in the years to come," she wrote.
That's a big contribution to a community that Dutch understands better than his parents. There's much more work to be done, he said, and he hopes to connect with Braden Baker, the Texas youth doing similar work, to help others around the world.
Pelger is plotting a trip even bigger than the Montanathon: a visit to the Mongolian hospital to see their impact up close.
"Isn't that on the other side of the world?" Dutch asked.
He will be a sixth grade student at Washington Middle School this year.