A drive along Highway 83 from Condon to Seeley Lake offers views of the Swan Range, the wall of stone that forms the western border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The contiguous ridgeline is the gateway to a rugged, pristine landscape but also offers a navigable, nearly direct line across the mountain range.
It’s easy to imagine what it would be like to traverse the spires and walls that are glimpsed from the road. With a little route finding, and knowledge of the area, it’s possible to stay on the crest for the length of the range, something Nate Bender has wanted to try completing for years.
The COVID-19 outbreak has turned 2020 into a year of unknowns and canceled races, and so far has offered little in the way of official outlets for mountain athletes looking to push their limits.
Bender, a graduate student at the University of Montana, decided to make the best of the situation this summer to check off the route that has long been a bucket-list item: traversing the Swan Crest.
“I’m attracted to lines in the mountains that make sense to me,” Bender said. “I look at things like the crest of the Swans and it looks logical: you can start at some point A and just move along the ridgeline.”
Bender, 31, is an endurance mountain runner and Montana native who grew up in Hamilton. He is no stranger to long mountain traverses through Montana’s wild lands. In 2018, he pioneered a route that linked up the 27 peaks in Montana over 12,000 feet, all in the Beartooth Mountains. He pulled off the route in a four-day push that covered more than 100 miles.
This summer, however, Bender had been dealing with a lingering ankle injury, and questioned whether he would be able to fit in a long adventure-style route through the mountains. He hadn’t run regularly throughout the summer, but instead found that he could handle hiking, walking and slow off-trail running without overstressing his hurt ankle. That gave him a narrow window of routes to satisfy his desire to spend time on his feet outside.
He keyed in on the Swans as a route close to home where he could talk friends into hiking in to meet him for the overnight. A version of the passage has been on his adventure bucket list for years, and he made the decision, almost on a whim, to tackle the route in August.
“Looking at something like this unbroken crest of the Swans, that sounded like a pretty cool adventure, trying to puzzle that together,” Bender said.
His initial plan was to set out from Napa Point and head south, but closures in the Flathead National Forest from the Lion Creek Fire curtailed the longer option.
Instead he made a pre-dawn start from Rumble Creek, on Aug. 22, ascending several thousand feet, along one of the only trail sections of his route to reach Holland Peak. Initial worries that the trek would be hampered by wildfire smoke were cast aside as the sunrise broke clear when he popped onto the Swan Crest.
“That was a high point right away: the morning light on Holland was amazing,” Bender said. “And the ridgeline out to Holland Peak is a cool slanted slab — it feels really aesthetic — that was the perfect start to the adventure.”
Other than Holland Peak, and a few mountains around Holland Lake to the south, the route along the ridgeline was a question mark for Bender.
“That challenge of adventuring into the unknown and onsighting was part of the allure,” Bender said.
Part of the unknown was just south of Ptarmigan Peak, an area Bender had been unable to traverse during a hike two years ago. This time he figured out the route between peaks, solving another piece of the puzzle.
“It was nice to go back there to the same section that had turned me back before,” Bender said. “It’s cool to feel like you’re progressing.”
Bender was in such good spirits on the first day of his trek that he reached the rendezvous point with his crew early. He decided to tack on a few extra miles and an extra peak while he waited for them.
“Having friends who are willing to support me just adds to the experience,” said Bender, who was able to travel with a light pack and still have a full camp and hot meal at the end of his first day with the help of two friends who hiked in to spend the night. The full camp let Bender sleep comfortably after his first 31 miles.
The second day involved scrambling through brush and boulder fields and ripped shoes and an unfortunate lack of clean socks, but Bender completed the rest of the 60-mile trek in high spirits.
The end of the venture occurred without a finish line or fanfare. Bender made it to Morrell Peak, and then decided the lookout a few hundred yards away was a better ending point. He ran up, gave the building a quick slap of appreciation, trotted down to his car and drove home.
“The fun thing about these trips is that you think you’ll have this time to solve the world’s problems, or your own problems at least,” Bender said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I was moving for 17 hours and what did I accomplish? Absolutely nothing mentally.”
All told, Bender covered just over 60 miles and more than 30,000 vertical feet of elevation gain.
“It feels good as a mark of personal progression, to go to a place like this and put a goal together, cover cool country, do it safely, and feel in control the whole time,” Bender said.
Four years ago, Bender did a linkup of high points in Idaho that was similar in distance and elevation gain, but was “physically and mentally crushed by it.” This time he felt merely felt “appropriately fatigued.”
The Swan Crest is part of a bigger goal Bender has to one day link up the entirety of the Swan Range, from Columbia Mountain in the north to Morrell lookout in the south, a roughly 130-mile trek.
“There’s part of me that really wanted to do the comprehensive traverse, because it makes logical sense as a route, but I’ll line that up for the future,” Bender said. “They’re not going anywhere.”