Pack Animals on Two Legs

By Beacon Staff

Most summers in Glacier National Park, a pack train of mules ferries provisions to and from the Granite Park and Sperry chalets. But due to an exceptionally brutal winter leaving deep snow hanging on high in the mountains, the concessioner managing the chalets has been forced to experiment with an exotic and untested animal to haul supplies: human beings.

Since early July, Greg Fortin, head guide and owner of Glacier Adventure Guides, has, along with several porters he has hired, been filling backpacks with anywhere from 65 to 80 pounds of supplies and hiking from the Loop to the Granite Park Chalet.

“It’s a pretty neat undertaking and somewhat historic,” Fortin said. “I’m pretty honored to be taking stuff into the chalet.”

The 4.2-mile trail climbs 2,200 vertical feet along the way, so the roughly 1,800 pounds of supplies Fortin estimates have been brought to the chalet – the equivalent of two pack train loads – has been no small undertaking. When they first started, the snowline began about a mile from the chalet, where the porters would strap on snowshoes for the final stretch. Eventually they downgraded to the small “Yaktrax” cleats. And though the snowline hasn’t receded much yet, there’s now enough of a solid path that porters can get up with only boots.

“If it wasn’t for people carrying in people’s stuff up there on their back, the chalet wouldn’t now be open, I imagine,” Fortin said. “We’re glad to help out.”

He is committed to carrying in 500 pounds per week, though he thinks they often exceed that. Most of the porters guide for Fortin during the winter, or are otherwise experienced backcountry travelers in good shape. Some make the hike twice a day.

“We’re getting faster all the time,” Fortin said. “I think every time you do it, you get a little bit stronger.”

“Most of the porters that are doing what we’re doing are strong,” he added.

Belton Chalet Inc., the concessioner for the Granite Park and Sperry chalets, typically contracts Swan Mountain Outfitters to carry supplies in and out. But this year the trail conditions simply made it too easy for a mule to step in a hole and break an ankle.

“Usually our crew is able to shovel the snowpack necessary for the mules to go through,” Kathleen Larson Phillips, of Belton Chalet Inc., said. “With the epic snow year, that was just impossible.”

Though crews shoveled 250 hours to get the chalets open, Larson Phillips realized she needed another way to ferry in supplies. She had Glacier Guides haul a few loads, and worked out a longer-term agreement with Fortin.

“They’ve really stepped up to the plate,” she said. “I’m sleeping well at night because they have met my need.”

The porters leave the Loop loaded down with linens and concession food, as well as special items pre-ordered by guests, like Gatorade, soda pop and candy bars. They usually start hiking around 6 a.m. to avoid the late day heat.

“We took a fresh load of strawberries from my garden for the people who were working up there,” Fortin said. “They were extremely happy.”

The porters are allowed to stay the night at the chalet if a sudden storm blows in, but so far, that hasn’t happened. And though they don’t carry out garbage, the porters descend from Granite Park Chalet back down to the Loop with slightly lighter loads of dirty bed linens.

“So it stacks up when you do two trips, for sure,” Fortin said. “You just have to plan your day right.”

According to Larson Phillips, a mule train has been ferrying loads to the Sperry Chalet up to a particular point, then humans have been carrying supplies in from there.

“We’re carrying less weight with humans but we’re carrying a lot of weight anyway,” Larson Phillips said. “It’s a different process.”

“If we continue to have late, wet springs like this, we do need to look at other alternatives for the chalets,” she added. “We’re always subject to what Mother Nature does, and we have to be open to new ways of doing things.”

A lead rider planned to test the trail to Granite Park Chalet over the weekend to see if it’s ready for mules, but until the mules take over, Fortin and his porters will continue to be the two-legged pack animals of choice.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.