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.
For further counsel I tapped into the obsessive subculture of diehard gram-counters in the ultralight backpacking world—especially the eggheads extraordinaire over at Bozeman's BackpackingLight.com. With their advice I whittled my gear, including rack and backpack, down to 15 pounds, in large part because my tent, sleeping bag and pad weighed only 4.5 pounds.
Still, a few evangelical ultralighters tried to convince me to go even lighter. "You're bringing a sleeping bag?" one snorted, implying that I might as well toss in a brass bed frame and king-sized mattress. But I wanted at least a modicum of comfort, and I wasn't about to use my multi-tool as a pillow.
Now that we were light enough, we just needed one more rider. When renowned mountain bike photographer Bob Allen agreed to join the team, we were ready to ride.
That left only one question unanswered: Where to go? Bob suggested a few ranges—the Swans, Pioneers, Centennials—but for me, there really never was any question. It had to be the Whitefish Range, the wild area where I first started mountain biking and exploring on two wheels.
The range overlooks the North Fork of the Flathead River Valley, a place I'd roamed regularly as a Minnesota teenager visiting my grandparents' cabin. Riding into the mountains with little more than a map, a water bottle and a thirst for adventure, I spent countless days over the years losing myself on the network of fading trails. I have a love for the North Fork like nowhere else, and this trip felt like a culmination, a crown jewel, but also something of a farewell.
Riding remote trails is risky for anyone, but for me, taking a hard spill can be even more dangerous. I have an inherited bleeding condition that I have somehow been able to ignore successfully during many years of high-stakes riding, but now I have children to care for and the demands of my life are more complex. My freewheeling twenties are gone, and being bedridden with injuries is no longer an option. I've finally come to accept that my days of riding these trails are numbered and I'm determined to savor every minute of our adventure.
"What a goat trail," Matthew says the next day, maneuvering along another crumbling, no-fall section of crest. Sometimes we lose our way completely, shouldering our bikes to search for any sign of the trail. We'd expected easier going atop the divide, but the path alternately vaults or plunges, leaving us to muscle up and down what feels like the very spine of the earth.
Massive wildfires in the North Fork in 1910 inspired Forest Service crews to prep for the next big one, hewing a network of pathways through these mountains and erecting fire lookouts atop the peaks. Today the remnant trails are little more than rough etchings in the mountainsides—perfect for goats and the spirits of foresters long past, but intensely challenging on bicycles. We're required to use all our skill and strength to navigate the countless mini-summits dotting the divide.
Every 10 miles of trail brings another 5,000 vertical feet of tough climbing. This kind of riding has always been my favorite—rough, wild, and packed with spiraling switchbacks—and the Whitefish Divide in particular has long lived in my dreams. But over the years I've only experienced it in bits and pieces, after hours of lung-busting climbing. Now we're living on it, waking on it each morning and riding along it each day.
We have everything we need until our third and final breakfast, and although we're still on top of the divide we devour our remaining food. Clearly we've gone a bit overboard in our minimalism, and although ultralight is good, there's a point of diminishing returns. Fortunately, two trail workers near Red Meadow Lake merrily offer us beer at 10 a.m. We shrug, and chug.
Fortunately, the calorie-deficit bonk doesn't hit until we reach the roads below, the same roads that will by the end of the day deliver us, filthy and famished, to the steaks and flowing taps of the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge.
But that's still a long way off, and we still have hours astride the divide—the most spectacular stretch of ridgeline yet. Here we find a series of long and faint but rideable stretches linking cairn to cairn, high above a series of blue tarns rippling lightly in the breeze. Snow slivers cling to the scree slopes and hug the shorelines below. With temperatures nearing 70 degrees, gusty winds send a low patchwork of cumulus pillows scudding across the sky.
We begin our final descent just a few miles from the range's southern terminus. With another day (and some food), we could ride all the way to Whitefish. Bob, Matthew and I agree that in our lifetimes of great cycling experiences, this ranks as one of the best.
While the two of them roll away, I take one last look across the mountaintops, the pale blue sky stretching forever on all sides. We'd done it. I'd done it. We'd spent three days up here in the great open, in the land of mountain goats and golden eagles. I blow a kiss into the air and smile. If this is my last mountain bike ride up here, it's a hell of a farewell—85 miles in three glorious days, directly on top of the world.
Whitefish Divide Trail #26 runs for 40-ish miles along the crest of the Whitefish Range immediately west of Glacier National Park. The best access from the north is Whale Creek, though it is also possible to reach the divide on overgrown trails from Trail Creek. The Glacier View Ranger District map is the best source for studying your options. The trail can be followed south toward Whitefish Mountain, and at trail's end dirt roads will you to Whitefish itself. We exited at Coal Creek Road and looped back to our car near Ninko cabin on Whale Creek. No permits are required, but don't forget the bear spray.