Racing Through Glacier National Park with the Kauffman Brothers

Racing Through Glacier National Park with the Kauffman Brothers

A little over two years ago my brothers and I stumbled upon an article written by David Gonzales. He described a self-supported endurance challenge that involved biking from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Jenny Lake, swimming across it, summiting the Grand Teton, then doing it all in reverse to get back to where he started. He coined the adventure a Picnic (since he ate half a pizza at the top of the mountain); and learning about this immediately inspired us to find our own similar challenge nearby. 

A couple months after reading about David’s adventure, we attempted our first picnic in Glacier National Park. I was the only one able to complete it, and my brothers have regretted not trying to accomplish the final swim since. Now that enough time has passed to forget about the fatigue from the first ordeal, we decided it was finally time to try again… but this one would involve a much harder and more intimidating objective.  

Our goal for this outing consisted of pedaling from the iconic McDonald Lake Lodge to Logan Pass, hiking to Hidden Lake, swimming the primary length of the lake, summiting the mighty Bearhat Mountain, and doing it all in reverse to get back to the car. In total, it would entail a self-assisted effort of 53 miles and 7,000 feet of climbing–a monster day that we knew would test our limits and redefine our understanding of the capabilities of our bodies.  

Leg 1: The Midnight Launch 

Leg one of the Kauffman brothers on their triathlon across Glacier National Park.

My youngest brother, Darren, has never been fond of biking. For years he has complained about not having the body proportions to be good at it and he knew the only way he would have any chance of completing this massive day would revolve around pacing. In order to give him the best chance of success, we decided to start at 1am. After a few very short hours of sleep, we unloaded our bikes, pushed record on our GPS, and our picnic was underway. 

Headlamps illuminated our path as we set out on our bikes, embarking on a 21-mile ascent up the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Road (GTTSR). During shoulder seasons in the park (the time of year when most visitors are gone) the road is closed to vehicle traffic and you can find many people biking this route. It’s a local-favorite for good reason, with an elevation gain of 3,500 feet, it’s an incredible workout. You’re rewarded with stunning mountain views during the entire pedal, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see some wildlife too! 

We admired the stars overhead while we climbed and were thankful for a still night. When we finally made it to The Loop (the main switchback on GTTSR), we ate our first round of snacks to refuel. Temps hovered around 45 degrees as we pushed on towards Logan Pass and it made for the perfect combination to regulate our body temps– our fingers were not too cold, our bodies gathered minimal sweat, and the high-altitude air brushing against our faces kept us refreshed. 

Four hours of steady biking later (we certainly weren’t out to set any speed records), we rounded our last turn for the final push to the top of Logan Pass. It was just past 5am; we were right on schedule and feeling great! We knew that the first light was an hour and a half away, which gave us some time to take a breather, enjoy another round of snacks, and get ready to start the first part of our hike into Hidden Lake. In the parking lot we found our friend from Canada, Ben Prescott, sleeping in his car. When he heard about our picnic endeavor he drove 14 hours to meet us at Logan Pass, and tagged along on the hike and watched us swim across the lake. After catching up for a couple minutes, we set off for stage 2 of the adventure. 

Leg 2: The Overlook

Leg two of the Kauffman brothers on their triathlon across Glacier National Park.

The transition from cycling to hiking certainly brought a shift in energy. We welcomed the opportunity to exercise different muscles and it felt good to give our rear-ends a break. As we walked between the wildflower-dotted meadows and towering peaks, the sky started to get brighter and brighter. 

As we approached Hidden Lake Overlook (one of the most visited hiking trails in the park due to its epic views), another shift in energy took place. This would be the first moment of the day where we could see what we’re about to attempt. When the four of us crested the top, a combination of incredulous laughs and “wows” immediately came out of our mouths as we took in the view before us. Bearhat Mountain towered above the lake with the 1.2 mile swim waiting for us at the bottom. The trail put a sick little twist in our stomachs. A little more than a mile of hiking was all that remained before it would be time to swim.  


Leg 3: Swim the Gauntlet 

Leg three of the Kauffman brothers on their triathlon across Glacier National Park.


We reached Hidden Lake’s shores just before 7am and the crystal-clear waters created an incredible visual display. Bearhat was perfectly mirrored, more or less taunting us with how tall and mighty it was. The four of us sat on the rocky beach for a little while shooting photos and joking around about how miserable this was about to be, especially considering that we’d spent little to no time in the water in an aerobic capacity all summer. 

While the hike to Hidden Lake Overlook is one of the most popular in the park, the trail down to the lake itself is typically closed for most of the summer due to bear activity. For whatever reason, grizzly bears love to roam around in this portion of the park and are very common to see. We all couldn’t help but have a small inkling of fear that a bear might get curious and come out to meet us while we were in the water. The lake itself isn’t very wide, so surely a bear could get to us in very little time if it wanted to.  

After shaking off the thought and getting our wits about us, we crawled into our wetsuits, stuffed our important “do not get wet” items (phones, cameras, clothing, food, shoes, etc) into our dry bags, stashed our main backpacks, and plunged into the unknown. 

The chill was an immediate shock factor even in wetsuits, but the glassy water made swimming feel effortless. After an hour and fifteen minutes of swimming a medley of different strokes, we FINALLY made it to our 1.2 mile destination and found Ben sitting on the shore cooking himself a warm freeze-dried meal. Travis was the first to make it, I came in second, and Darren was shortly behind. When we all got within talking distance, the first thing out of Darren’s mouth was, “I think I am going to lose my toes. They have to have frostbite.”

When we were packing our gear the day before, Darren and I opted to not bring or use “booties” on this swim and that turned out to be a huge mistake. Darren came out of the water and every single digit on his foot was as white as a sheet of printer paper. He limped onto shore and was in a very dark mental state while trying to warm them up. We made countless jokes to try and cheer him up, but with little effect. The outside air temp probably hovered somewhere around 50-ish degrees and the surrounding cliff bands hid the sun from us. Even in our wetsuits, it was FREEZING cold. Then things got worse. 

Before the swim, Darren had entrusted Travis with his shoes, which he promptly placed into an extra dry bag for transportation across the lake. Somewhere during the frenzy of the morning and getting into the cold water, Travis didn’t completely roll his dry bag all the way, resulting in close to a gallon of water filling the whole interior. Inside the bag was Travis’ clothes for the hike (shirt and shorts) and both his and Darren’s shoes. Everything was soaked and worst of all, unable to dry due to the lack of direct sunlight. 

It was at this point that Darren’s dark place got even darker. Everything had been going so smoothly up until this point and suddenly it was looking like the day would be ruined. Darren, worried about the state of his toes and disheartened by the dry bag fiasco, was ready to call it quits and hike back to his bike and go to the car to sleep. After more than an hour of talking and working on getting his feet back to life, we convinced him to wait a little more before making the decision to quit.  

Leg 4: Summiting Bearhat Mountain

Leg four of the Kauffman brothers on their triathlon across Glacier National Park.

After gathering our things and deciding to move closer to the mountain, we could all tell that Darren was hurting. He wasn’t walking normally and still couldn’t feel his toes. When we finally reached the base of the mountain where we would start our ascent, the sun peaked out over the far headwall and brought with it the most rejuvenating warmth. It was at this moment when everything changed for the better. We pulled apart all our wet gear and scattered it across a big rocky area with the hopes it would dry by the time we finished our hike. Darren finally voiced a desire to push through the pain and hoped his toes would warm up while he hiked. We switched into our alpine gear and began to climb the mountain, sopping wet shoes and all. Bearhat Mountain dominates the landscape around Hidden Lake and the ascent involves a blend of hiking, scrambling, and a touch of climbing. Since this was the first time any of us were attempting to climb this peak, we surveyed the landscape as we went and trusted our gut while working our way up the layers of rock. Other than wet shoes, things were looking promising. 

As we slowly picked our way towards the steeper section of the route, we discovered we would have to go up a small vertical section. Travis went first and Darren went second. Ben got into position to go third and was slowly navigating his way up when Darren yelled, “ROCK!” We all turned to look and Travis quickly dodged a baseball-sized rock that was hurling down the mountain and aimed right at his head. Immediately following the fast pitch, two more bigger pieces of shale (bigger than a laptop) came barreling down. With quick thinking, Ben flung himself down into the bottom of the cleft and tried to ball up and protect his head. Even though he was mostly protected, the second rock bounced in such a way as to make it over the ledge above him and blast him in the leg. He yelled out in pain and we all got to a safe position to figure out the scope of the damage.

Thankfully, Ben had no serious issues other than a quarter-inch cut and some future bruising. He was rather shaken from the whole ordeal of almost dying (rightly so), but decided to see if he could continue up the mountain. We found several goat tracks a hundred feet above and were certain the rock was set free from him walking above us. Each step appeared to get harder for Ben, so eventually he decided to call it and Darren opted to help him back down the mountain to a safer zone. 

With only 400 vertical feet remaining to the summit, Travis and I decided that we would run up and finish it off. We picked our way up the scree and rocks and reached the summit at 1pm. The vistas from the top were unbelievable. With a 360-degree view, we could see the tip of McDonald Lake (where we started), Logan Pass (where we left our bikes), and the hiking/swimming route that we had just accomplished. It was a rewarding feeling, but the journey was only halfway complete. We would have to retrace our steps to get home.  

Leg 5: The Reverse Odyssey

Leg five of the Kauffman brothers on their triathlon across Glacier National Park.

Our descent down went incredibly smooth. Minus some sore legs and knees, there were zero issues. We dropped down from the slightly technical cleft and regrouped with Darren and Ben. The remainder of the hike back to the wetsuits was a matter of picking our way down a moderately steep field of large rocks and scree. Looming over all of our heads was the transition from mountaineer to swimmer, swimmer to hiker, hiker to cyclist. Only 3 transitions remained between us and picnic completion: a 1.2 mile swim, a 4 mile hike, and a 21 mile bike ride back to the car.   

With Ben hurt and Darren feeling exhausted, there were many points at which we began to talk ourselves out of the second swim. “No way am I crawling back into that wetsuit or getting into the water,” came out of each of our mouths at least once. The temperature throughout the day had been relatively cool, which was awesome for hiking, but with how frigid the water was, it felt like a death sentence to have to get back in after everything we had been through. 

When we reached the wetsuits, it was time to make a decision. Now 14 hours into our day, it was clear that Darren had approached his mental limit. He hadn’t slept in 36 hours and had been battling a significant head cold for the previous 2 days. He was genuinely concerned he might fall asleep while floating in the water and feared for the survival of his toes which had finally warmed up. He made the smart decision to walk back along the bank of the lake with Ben and wait at the far end where we would finish. Travis and I wanted to do the same so badly, but the fact that we had accomplished everything up to this point made it feel like it was impossible to not complete the last step. We would have to hike and bike out regardless, which we knew would make us really regret not completing the final swim. 

Reluctantly, Travis and I packed our things and headed towards the launch point. We jumped into all of our gear ready to get it over with. We zipped each other up, triple checked our dry bags, and set off into the freezing cold water. 

The swim back was nothing short of miserable. For the first quarter mile, we battled a headwind that created significant resistance and brought with it an onslaught of ice-cold water into our ears. When we finally rounded the slight bend in the lake, the distance looked unattainable. Travis unexpectedly took off and kept getting further and further ahead of me. He managed to complete the swim in an hour and five minutes. I finished 15-20 minutes behind him and was on the verge of developing hypothermia by the time I got out. I couldn’t stop shaking and had a deep body chill that would not go away. I had finally hit my own dark place. As I went to open my dry bag and find clothes to warm up with, I discovered the unthinkable: this time MY dry bag wasn’t fully sealed. My clothes were absolutely drenched!  

I scrambled to look for dry items and by chance discovered the backpack I stashed at the head of the lake with all my bike gear contained a puffy jacket. I threw that on and began the struggle of getting warm.  

While we were swimming, Darren used his backpack as a pillow to lay down and take a nap. He fell asleep immediately and slept so deeply that when he woke up, he was terrified and without a clue as to where he was—definitely a sign he needed the rest. Once we were all awake and warm, we gathered our items and started the quest out of the lake.

We had successfully survived the swim.  As we left the lake and approached the overlook once more, we came upon what we had feared all morning. Below us on one of the cliff bands was a full-sized adult grizzly. We took a glance, thankful none had been around during our swim, and smiled to ourselves because it was truly a small victory to only see one this late into our adventure.  

Shortly after 7pm we made it back to our trusty steeds. We threw on jackets, gave a final Hail Mary that none of us would blow a tire while cruising down GTTSR, and set off to enjoy the descent we had so rightfully earned. The ride down was nothing short of magical. A beautiful glow on the mountains welcomed us as gravity pulled us down one of the most scenic roads in the US. Every end and curve in the road provided a little reflection about the early morning ascent and the views that had hidden themselves from us. We listened to the whir of our tires and couldn’t believe we might just pull off the unthinkable.  

LEG 8: Completion

At 8:30pm we finally crossed the finish line and arrived at our car—much more tired than when we started. We were thankful to be done and could not believe all we had been through. Even though we had several moments of desperation throughout the day, the true joy of these picnics is they are more than just a challenge or race. They’re a testament and reminder to the importance of staying dedicated, adapting to whatever is thrown your way, and constantly pushing past your own limitations or boundaries.

When I look back on long days like this, my favorite aspect is just how quickly the pain fades away. We all climbed into the car and spewed a myriad of comments about never doing one of these again… but not even two days later, new whisperings started to make their rounds saying, “That was truly epic. What are we going to do next?” 

To view the entire route on, click here.

Gear List: 
Nomadix Towels
Original Towel 
Bandana Towel
Ultralight Towel 

Hyperlite Mountain Gear 
Southwest 40

GPS Devices
Garmin InReach
Coros Vertix II

Zone 3 Wetsuits
Vanquish Wetsuit
Aspire Wetsuit 

Solomon Speed Cross 5
Danner Trail 2650 


Follow their journeys: 

Travis Kauffman - @babytraven

Justin Kauffman - @justindkauffman

Darren Kauffman - @dkauffman55

Ben Prescott - @itsbigben