Pushing our bikes up the final switchback, wind-blasted trees and scree drop off at our side, the cleats of our cycling shoes scraping across the talus. Four thousand feet above our starting point on the valley floor, we finally crest the 7,822-foot Mount Thompson-Seton and enter a world of limitless blue sky, jagged mountains spilling like the sea to every horizon. The weathered ruins of a fire lookout sit scattered across the summit like a memory. Much to our surprise, the mountaintop is furnished, and two ancient metal bed frames atop the ruin invite us to recline, take in the views, and consider our predicament.
Today is the first day of a grand, three-day experiment, an attempt to carry featherweight camping gear on mountain bikes while linking the mountaintops of the 85-mile Whitefish Divide Trail. We're heading south from our car parked near the Canadian border, and will loop back on day four via jeep roads lower in the valley. Currently, we're sprawled on the second highest peak in the Whitefish Range, one of northwest Montana's more untamed tangles of mountain and wilderness. We've been climbing hard all day in 95-degree heat, and although only 90 minutes of daylight remain, we've just run out of water.
Water does not come easily on ridgelines, and before we'd headed out I'd painstakingly planned the trip's water sources—primarily alpine lakes perched a few hundred feet below the divide. But today's climb has taken longer than expected, and we're realizing we won't reach any of them by sunset. We need to find water, but I'm not really sure how.
Reluctantly peeling ourselves from the rusty and battered beds, Matthew Lee, Bob Allen and I clip in for a plunge off the summit on a faint sliver of a trail before wrapping around the headwall of an alpine bowl. I stop at a switchback to study the map, which shows what just might be a stream beginning in a crease in the mountain below us.
"I swear I hear water running," Bob says, motioning into the darkening forest below. As he tromps down to check, Matthew and I listen.
"Could just be the breeze in the trees," I suggest.
Then we hear a "Woo-hoo!" and Bob calls up from the greenery, "There's a spring coming out of the ground right down here!" And with that we are saved.
Fully loaded with water for the night and next morning, we streak through the dimming forest, hoping to re-crest the Whitefish Divide by nightfall. Since we're deep in the heart of grizzly country, we work diligently to forewarn the large, toothy carnivores with a rolling chorus of calls: Matthew's booming, owl-like "Whoop! Whoop!"; Bob's piercing whistle; and my sing-song-y, "No bears. Noooo bears."
The trail is everything a wilderness trail should be—eight to twelve inches of deliciously off-camber tread, dashed with nerve-tingling exposure. Between the adrenaline rush and our newfound water, we're downright exuberant.
The sun sets, gilding the surrounding mountainsides, and we ride onward through a darkening night—whooping, whistling, and singing with increasing gusto—until we finally gain the divide itself and make camp.
A silver moon illuminates the night as we relax on the ridgeline after dinner, the day's vestigial, purplish light settling over the black silhouettes of surrounding peaks. As stars overwhelm the sky, Bob says, "If people could have seen us today, pushing up that mountain, they would have thought, 'What the hell are those guys thinking?'
"But to be here now," he continues, as if answering a hypothetical skeptic, "to be able to sleep on this ridge under the shooting stars..." He trails off, as if that's the answer itself.
The last best crest
To pull off a trip of this magnitude, I had forced myself to choose my gear—and partners—wisely. To make the effort even remotely possible, we had to pack extremely light, work well together, and be prepared for long, difficult days without complaint. So I went with the best.
Matthew Lee has twice won the Great Divide Race, a 2,500-mile, unsupported mountain bike contest that traverses the country's spine between Mexico and Canada along what's called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. He was an obvious and beneficial addition to the team, and when I explained my plan he instantly agreed to join the "bikepacking" experiment.