This fall, world-renowned ultrarunners Mike Wolfe and Mike Foote partnered with photographer Steven Gnam to run across some of the highest, wildest mountain ranges in the Lower 48, with as little gear as they could get away with. The trio left Missoula, Montana, on September 16, traveled roughly 600 miles through the northern Rocky Mountains—hoofing between 35 and 40 miles a day—and arrived in Banff, Canada, 600 miles and 24 days later. It’s called the Crown of the Continent Traverse.
Why did they do it? “We like to suffer, and to challenge ourselves physically. In the end, that's reason enough,” says Foote.
As their backyard playground, traversing these mountains was a long-held dream for the two men, who live in Missoula and train together. The expedition finally became a reality when the ultrarunners met Gnam at the debut of his photography book, Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies. One year later, the trio set out.
Photo: "As a photographer I wanted to show what the trip looked and felt like, which meant I had to be part of it and not just a spectator,” says Gnam, who trained hard for the trip. But a 20-mile road section during a 50-mile day left him with debilitating shin splints that forced him to sit out the middle of the expedition. Although he was disappointed, the unplanned rest days allowed him to capture aerials from a helicopter. (He took this shot, of Wolfe and Foote atop Mount Northover in Alberta's Kananaskis Country, from the ground.)“The Mikes,” as they're known in the running world, have podiumed at the biggest ultramarathon races in the world. Foote, 32, and Wolfe, 37, are also best friends. After a year of planning, they ran out their front doors in Missoula (dropping Wolfe's toddler off at daycare on the way), and hit the Rattlesnake Wilderness trailhead. On October 9, they arrived in Banff, jogging a few quick laps through town to reach the 600-mile mark.A Sprinter Van manned by Flathead Valley native David Steele served as the expedition's sole support crew. Steele met the runners as often as he could, but limited road and trailhead along the Crown meant they often had to carry heavy overnight packs. The runners' longest self-supported stretch was four days, and their shortest stretch was 11 hours.The Mikes both struggled with pain throughout the expedition, since neither were accustomed to running with fully-loaded packs. “I've never had knee problems before, but our knees got really beat up this trip. A couple nights in a row, I could barely sleep with the throbbing,” says Foote.Squeezing three guys into a one-and-a-half-man tent wasn't the most enjoyable part of the journey. But it sure helped them stay warm during whiteouts on ridges, a common autumn scene in the Northern Rockies. During dry nights—like this one on Montana's Swan Crest—the runners spread out to sleep alone.“I think this was our most common pose, other than running,” jokes Foote. “We knew which mountain ranges we wanted to traverse, and that we wanted to end up in Banff. The rest was left up to weather.” Constantly changing course to find the best route meant that the runners had to be extra-prepared with maps, guide books, and trail options—and willing to talk calmly through orienteering hurdles as they went.Most of the time, the best and fastest route meant staying high. Cruising along this ridgeline in the Great Bear Wilderness just south of Glacier National Park was the highlight of Day 8, which “turned heinous” when the runners had to descend steep, loose talus and bushwhack through thick timber to make camp.Mike Foote gazes down at Sunburst Lake, nestled in the craggy Swan Mountains. The Mikes had to down-climb a fifth-class face, and then stem between a glacier and its bergschrund to get through this section. “We were definitely at our limit at times,” Foote says. “But that's why we did it.”Weather could have easily cut the trip short, since it's risky to traverse alpine country in the Northern Rockies in the fall. Several summer scheduling conflicts required the expedition to start later than they would have liked. Although the runners hit snow as early as day one from Missoula and camped in snow most nights toward the end, they never encountered enough to shut them down.On Day 5, the trio ran into two elk hunters in the lowlands after getting bumped off a too-snowy ridge in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The two groups camped on the same lake, a few hundred yards apart. “We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of a gunshot, and one of the hunters screaming, 'Get outta here, bear!'” says Foote. “That kept us awake, waiting for the bear to come crashing through our camp.” It never did.Calories were the first order of business back at the Sprinter Van. Everyone took turns cooking. But Steele, a lifelong vegetarian, had a steeper learning curve in the kitchen. “We had David cooking us a pound of bacon every day. One day, the poor guy had to clean up blood when Wolfe's elk meat thawed and leaked all over the fridge,” says Foote.Mileage varied each day, depending on the heaviness of their packs and the type of terrain. “It felt like the majority of our time was spent off-trail. But that's because we could run 45 miles in nine hours on a trail. Bushwhacking with packs, we might only get 15 miles in the same amount of time.”Nightly fires helped the runners warm up and dry out their soaked and stinky running shoes. Thirty-plus-mile days are tough enough on running shoes. Add in the rocky terrain and constant drenching in snow, mud, rain or ice, and those shoes don't stand a chance. “Wolfe and I destroyed four or five pairs each during this trip. We'd switch out to a new pair whenever we got to the van.”Wide-open, high-alpine routes like this one in Alberta's Kananaskis Country were smooth sailing compared to some of the terrain the runners encountered. Their longest day, ironically, was also their lowest mileage day: “an 11-hour, 18-mile, 100 percent off-trail slog through steep, thick terrain while carrying heavy packs,” Foote recalls with a shudder.This forest was still smoldering as the Mikes ran though it. The Spotted Bear Ranger District in the Flathead National Forest reopened only days before the expedition arrived, the 70,000-acre Bear Creek Fire finally at bay. “It was really stark here, with tiny flames on some of the logs. But it was cool to see blades of grass already coming back, and the forest fighting to rejuvenate,” says Foote.Foote uses the brief respite from running across mountains to catch up on life back home. The trio only took one rest day at the halfway mark. More rest days weren't an option if they wanted to get to Banff before the winter snow set in.Passing through logged forests and near open pit mines was the least pleasant and most unexpected part of the trip. The trio planned to walk the Great Divide Trail once they crossed the border into Canada. Instead, they wandered valley floors for four days, perpetually lost in a maze of muddy roads, looking for a trail that no longer exists. “We burned the Great Divide Trail guide at the end of the trip,” says Foote. “So much has changed since that book was written, and our false hopes made the reality even worse.”While running on an obscure ATV trail on the border of Alberta and British Columbia, the Mikes ran into two Canadians hunting for “sheep or goats or deer or black bear.” The hunters were fascinated by the expedition, and followed the traverse on social media when they got home. Here, the hunters cautioned the runners to be careful, since “a grizzly chewed on a guy” a few miles away.Gnam, an acclaimed photographer, grew up in the Flathead Valley and has a special bond with the wildlife and wild lands in his backyard. He snapped these portraits on the Mikes' only rest day. “I was documenting the trip on the go, trying to give a feel for the whole expedition. I chose black and white since it was the easiest to set up on the side of the campervan.”On the last day, the trio crossed this river just a handful of miles from Banff. Not only was the water icy, they had to wade in first thing in the morning after a particularly frigid night. Though the Mikes are best known as ultrarunners, it was important to them that this expedition feature more than just hoofing it. “It was about scrambling, climbing, wading rivers—the full spectrum of mountain travel skills, which is why we loved it,” says Foote.“This was the worst day of trip in terms of tough travel, bad weather, and being let down a lot,” says Foote with a grimace. “We were supposed to be on a trail, but ended up running 18 miles on this road.” The logs in the background were cut just days before the Mikes ran by—this section of public land in Alberta has no environmental protections in place.This view just outside of Glacier National Park is the perfect example of why the trio undertook an epic backcountry traverse. “We wanted to show how much wildness is still in the lower 48, and inspire people to experience it themselves,” says Foote.