Banff or Bust
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– Photos by Steven Gnam –
“What the hell am I doing out here?” Mike Wolfe thought to himself. Wolfe, along with Mike Foote and Steven Gnam, was less than a week into a 600-mile, 23-day trek over the mountains from his and Foote’s hometown of Missoula, Montana, to Banff, Alberta.
The project, which they dubbed the “Crown Traverse,” had been in planning for a year. The logistics and funding had finally come together, and now they were a few days in, high up one night on an alpine ridge.
By all measures, Wolfe, who had plenty of experience with long trips in the backcountry, should have been enjoying himself. But on that ridgeline, his phone found a signal, and he received a text from his wife. Their one-year-old son, Colt, was projectile vomiting all over her.
“I’m out here being selfish on this stupid trip, and what’s the point?” he thought. “I should be home with my wife and kid.”
Being away from his family ended up being the hardest part of the trip for Wolfe, 38. “I hadn’t done an extended, remote trip since I’ve had a family,” he says.
The avid, lifelong outdoorsman from Montana was faced with a new sensation. Though the nights away from home would be well worth it, at that moment, he would have rather been inside, taking care of Colt. “It made me think a lot about [climbers, athletes and other explorers] who do a lot riskier things than I, with families back home,” he says. “I don’t think I could do that sort of thing anymore. I used to think I could.”
So, what was he doing out there?
The premise of the Crown Traverse—so named since it traversed an extensive, famously beautiful ecosystem called the “Crown of the Continent”—was simple: run between two major points, taking the most aesthetically pleasing line over peaks and along ridgelines, sometimes off trail. In the process, highlight the spectacular wilderness the team called home. Western Montana and their connection to its pristine, grizzly inhabited, mountain landscape had helped define the trio. Wolfe grew up in Bozeman, where he and his brother accompanied their father on hunting trips from a young age; their father, a farrier and blacksmith, had them shoeing horses on ranches with him before age 10.
“Vacation,” he says, “was always backpacking, camping or hiking.”
As Wolfe, who would live in Helena and, later, Missoula, rose though ultrarunning’s ranks—in 2011, he finished second at the Western States 100 and won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in San Francisco—he found himself spending more and more time on the trails with a more recent transplant to the region from Ohio, Mike Foote.
Foote, now 32, moved to Missoula in 2004 to finish undergrad and, as he puts it, never left. Not a serious ultrarunner until 2009—he would win The Bear 100 in 2010 and the Bighorn 100 in 2012, and finish third at a shortened Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc later that summer—he was entranced by Missoula’s superb access to trails and the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains.
“[When I was in school] I was aware of the fact that from downtown Missoula you could jump on a trail and run to Canada, crossing only a couple of paved roads,” says Foote. “During that time, I also saw Glacier for the first time, and learned about the ‘Crown of the Continent’ concept, so that idea stuck in the back of my head.”
The park itself was first dubbed the “Crown of the Continent” by the early American conservationist George Bird Grinnell in 1901, and forms part of the Crown’s preserved 28,000-square-mile ecosystem, which stretches from the Elk and Highwood rivers in British Columbia and Alberta in the north to the Blackfoot Valley—where Missoula sits—in the south.
After Wolfe and Foote met in 2010—and, soon thereafter, became training partners and teammates as ultrarunners for The North Face—they planned a trek from Montana’s southern border at Yellowstone National Park to its northern border in Glacier. But circumstances, including surgery to repair damaged cartilage and ligaments in Wolfe’s ankle, sidelined that project. Then, in October 2014, Foote was at the Montana Festival of the Book and went to a presentation by Gnam, a photographer, on his book Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies.
Gnam, also 32, had recently moved to Wenatchee, Washington, but went to school in Missoula and grew up in Whitefish, Montana, adjacent to spectacular Glacier National Park. He has spent much of his life exploring the adjacent wilderness.
“At one point, Steven put a map up, and you could see both Missoula and Banff on it, as ends connecting this wild piece of land,” says Foote. “And it just sort of clicked. I thought, ‘How cool would that be to link those two points?’”
He introduced himself to Gnam after the presentation and invited him to go on a run, where Foote brought up his idea. Gnam had long envisioned something similar and had already completed several sections of the route.
“I had originally thought of it as a backpacking trip, carrying 75-pound packs,” says Gnam. “As I got more into ultrarunning, I realized that style would be the most efficient.”
Gnam jumped at the opportunity, and, over the next year, the trio would periodically huddle, working on logistics and route planning. They agreed they would need a crew person with a vehicle, and recruited Gnam’s friend David Steele—“a dirtbag and a ski bum from Whitefish,” says Foote. “And he would gladly accept that title.”
Though everyone in the group brought ultrarunning, backcountry and climbing/mountaineering acumen, the logistics proved troublesome. “We had an idea of how we wanted to travel through the mountains, which was high up, off trail, on ridgelines when possible,” says Foote. “It was the most ambitious route we had ever tried to put together, since it tied together the expedition mentality and ultrarunning.
”We had to worry about both logistics and self care,” he continues. “Stuff like nutrition, gear malfunctioning and group dynamics for three weeks straight, all while going at a higher intensity than backpacking.”
Aches and Pains
On September 16, they ran out of Missoula, heading north. It was one of their biggest mileage days—Gnam estimates they ran 48 miles. They covered some long stretches of pavement, and even longer stretches of hard-packed dirt road.
The repetitive motion gave Gnam shin splints, and he joined Wolfe and Foote intermittently for the next several days. The rest of the time, he caught a ride with Steele in the Sprinter they had rented. “But my shins just got more inflamed, and I had full-on ‘cankles’ and a stabbing pain that would shoot up my shin whenever I tried to run,” says Gnam. “We decided it would be best for me to take more time off.”
So, for the middle of the Crown Traverse, Wolfe and Foote were on their own. Their days consisted of anywhere between 17 and 46 miles, depending on how much off-trail bushwhacking was required, and between 8,000 and 15,000 feet of vertical gain. On its first major test since surgery, Wolfe’s ankle was thankfully holding up.
They would typically start and end each day at the Sprinter van, where Steele would prepare food and they could spread out and organize their gear. “[Steele] is a strict vegetarian, but every morning we had him cooking a pound of bacon,” says Foote. “While we would be battling the trail, he faced all these roadblocks of his own. One time, the refrigerator went out, and all this elk meat Wolfe had brought along thawed, so there was blood everywhere.”
Some particularly remote sections required multiple days—up to three overnights—away from the convenience of the van, so Wolfe and Foote would load their packs with up to 30 pounds’ worth of food, water and extra gear, and bivy where they ended up. The extra weight and steep, uneven off-trail terrain made for cumbersome going, which wore on their knees and hips. Foote’s Achilles tendon flared up. “It was to the point where I couldn’t sleep well,” says Foote. “This was only a week or so into the trip, and I was beginning to question whether I could handle 15 or 20 more days of that.”
But at the end of a long stretch, Wolfe and Foote would again have van support, and found themselves not only relieved after ditching the heavy packs, but feeling stronger from their efforts.
“My body would come around, and, by the end, even the hard off-trail days didn’t hurt any more,” says Wolfe.
For the group to collectively endure the trek—Gnam joined them again, about a week from the finish, with tenuous but runnable shins—they couldn’t push too hard. Wolfe estimates they moved at about 75- or 80-percent effort.
“It was much more like an expedition than a race or an FKT,” says Wolfe. “We couldn’t risk going into the hole and giving 100 percent on any one day.”
They also needed to keep their wits as they trekked deeper into grizzly bear country and, wearing nothing but running shoes, occasionally crossed sketchy, ice-laden peaks and passes. “There were a few times where it was like, ‘OK, this has to have our full attention,’” says Wolfe. “‘You cannot slip.’”
For the most part, Wolfe, Foote and Gnam had kept a lid on conflicts, despite testing their patience with each other in close quarters for three straight weeks. Though the initial “majority rules” method for decision-making was thwarted with Gnam’s absence, Foote and Wolfe kept tension to a minimum on long days by simply keeping quiet.
“I think Mike and I have a really good governing system—if we’re getting to that point [of tension], we just won’t talk to each other,” says Foote. “When we went four days without seeing other people, we would go hours without speaking to each other. I think we’re both comfortable with that, and it allowed us time and space to not build up those annoyances.”
But after Gnam rejoined them, on one exposed mountain pass, as snow flew around them, a small rift opened up. “We couldn’t see where we were going, and we were arguing about where we were, whether we should turn around,” says Foote, noting that “arguing” with this group never once entailed raised voices. “I wanted to grind forward, while Steven, who is a great athlete with an incredible tolerance for suffering, wanted to talk it out.”
“I thought we should bail, that things weren’t getting better,” says Gnam. “But those guys wanted to ride it out.”
He was overruled two-to-one, but Gnam says these differences in approach did not lead to major contention.
“I appreciate their tenacity and wanting to stick it out in crappy conditions,” he says. “It’s a testament to their personalities; it’s how they win 100-mile races, and I got to see their inner workings—how they handle stress, taking challenges all in stride.”
Across the Border
Once they crossed into Canada, Wolfe, Foote and Gnam planned to follow a rough amalgamation of routes known collectively as the Continental Divide Trail; anticipating singletrack trails and vistas befitting the name, they instead found ATV trails and fresh mining roads. Stuck in the lowlands with outdated guidebooks, they had to constantly readjust their route.
“We were perpetually lost and route finding for four or five days,” says Foote. “The aesthetic was gone, it felt convoluted, and it really wore us down.
“We slept one night on the side of a mining road,” he continues. “And the sounds and the light coming from the mine made it feel like Mordor.”
On one stretch, they spent 18 miles slogging and slipping on a slimy, rain-soaked mining road. They burned their guidebooks for the area afterward. “It was probably good we found the Crown of the Continent isn’t all pristine ridgelines, but also involves resource extraction and cut-up public lands,” says Foote. “It helped us reflect on our reasons for the trip—enjoying this immense wilderness but also inspiring others to protect it.”
After 23 days—22 running, with a day off in the middle—Gnam, Wolfe and Foote rolled into downtown Banff. Sitting, victorious, in a parking lot, Wolfe glanced at his SPOT tracker. Initially, Foote says, they anticipated the whole trek would be around 400 miles long, though by the outset of the trip, they had upped that estimate to 600 miles. The tracker read 599.7. So they rose from their seats and took off down the main street, going out-and-back to record the extra 0.3.
“We thought it would be funny to make it exactly 600,” says Foote. “And part of us as runners needed to make it 600. We’re dorks.”
Alex Kurt has never been to Canada, despite having been raised next door. He lives in Minneapolis.