Sunday, September 26, 2021
79.0°F

Teacher attempts Glacier's 6 highest peaks in 6 days

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | August 8, 2021 12:00 AM

On a cold day in February 2020, Noah Couser and a friend were brainstorming how they might spend their summer when an idea emerged: What if they attempted to climb the six highest peaks in Glacier National Park in just six consecutive days?

As far as they knew, no one had attempted such a hike before. The six peaks — Stimson, Jackson, Siyeh, Merritt, Cleveland and Kintla — are each taller than 10,000 feet, meaning their combined elevations are more than twice the height of Mount Everest. Summiting any one of them could take multiple attempts for an experienced mountaineer. And reaching them all in so little time would involve bushwhacking and traversing snowfields to get from one trail to the next — a slog spanning roughly 145 miles.

"That's stupid," Couser, a 36-year-old physical education teacher at Kalispell Middle School, recalled thinking.

"And that's kind of what drew me to it," he said. "Just the audacity of it."

So began more than a year of endurance training, studying the terrain and meticulously plotting a route connecting the six summits. Couser, who lives in Whitefish, said he and his hiking partner, a friend from college, Greg Burfeind, of Red Lodge, would have attempted the trek last summer if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't closed down most of the park.

Couser stayed motivated to make the attempt through another cold winter, waking up early and staying up late to run and hike while juggling his responsibilities as a teacher, husband and father of two boys ages 5 and 2.

"When I lock onto something, I kind of obsess about it until I either give it a shot or succeed or fail," Couser said. He recalled what he often tells his students in P.E. class: "No challenge, no change."

COUSER PLAYED basketball growing up in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and has always stayed in shape, but said he had never deliberately trained for an outdoor challenge like the six Glacier peaks. He described the train of thoughts that nagged at him before almost every early-morning run.

"We are such creatures of comfort," he said. "I'm in my bed, I'm nice and warm, the alarm goes off and you're like, 'God, no. Anything but this.' It's like, 'Do I even really want to do this trip? I'm probably not going to finish it anyway.' Just all these mental games that you play with yourself."

But all that training paid off, and soon he was able to run up to 20 miles at a time.

"It was definitely a long journey, but it was really cool to see my body adapt," he said.

Beyond all that training, Couser spent a lot of time reading hiking blogs and books on Glacier, and even had a pilot friend fly him over the route to get a better idea of what he was in for — which is why he emphasizes no one should attempt a similar trek on a whim. He said he revised the route many times before attempting it.

"We wanted to try to make it as easy as possible, meaning more on-trail miles, even if it meant going a little bit longer, to try to minimize that off-trail beatdown," he said.

COUSER AND Burfeind finally began their journey on July 11 in the Nyack area near the southern edge of the park. They quickly realized progress would be slower than anticipated.

"The Nyack is just not used. It's not maintained like the rest of the park. It's pretty wild," Couser said. "Even the trailed sections, there were a couple times where we lost the trail completely because the brush just completely engulfed it."

"We were moving great, we were feeling great, but it was like, dang — it's just slow," he said.

Couser summited Mount Stimson late that afternoon while Burfeind stopped to rest lower on the mountain. They had intended to go back the way they came, but after regrouping around 7:30 p.m. they decided it was too late and ventured off the mountain saddle into a snowy drainage area.

"I had only heard of one other person trying to go down through there, and he just said it was the worst bushwhacking he'd ever experienced in his entire life," Couser said.

Thankfully, he said, they were able to skirt around the area where the brush was thickest. They finally set up camp after 1 a.m. and got a few hours of sleep.

IT WAS a similar story on the path to Mount Jackson. The pair arrived at the base of the mountain and began their ascent around 7:30 p.m., knowing they were short on time. Then one of their headlamps broke near the summit ridge, and neither Couser nor Burfeind thought it wise to try downclimbing in the dark.

"We just didn't feel safe pushing it," Couser said. "It was already getting dark, so we slept there with … no water, no chance to rinse off. It was a miserable night."

On Day 3, they awoke to thunder and lightning around 4:45 a.m. and spotted ominous dark clouds in the distance.

"We just looked at each other and instantly started throwing our stuff in the bags," Couser said.

They waited briefly on the ridge of Mount Jackson, counting the seconds between lightning bolts and thunder strikes to estimate how far away the storm was. Determined and running on an empty stomach, Couser decided to scramble up to the summit while Burfeind again waited below.

"I spent probably about 35 seconds on the summit and just bombed down to Greg, who was actually right at the top of our down route," Couser said. "The nice thing about that is you can descend about 1,000 feet of scree in minutes, and so we just got down as quickly as we could."

SAFELY OFF the mountain, Couser and Burfeind tried to replenish themselves with food and water as they walked along the Gunsight Trail, questioning whether they had made a safe decision. Then they were caught in a downpour of rain.

Couser said he was sobbing and shivering when they arrived at Gunsight Lake to meet his wife and some friends for a resupply of food and gear. He considered going home, but his wife convinced him to keep hiking. Feeling refreshed and wearing dry clothes, he climbed Mount Siyeh with Burfeind and two other friends, Colton Born and Charlie Hoving.

Couser and Burfeind had planned to find a campsite that night, but then — to their immense relief — they received a message on their satellite device that Burfiend's wife had found them a room at the Many Glacier Hotel. "Jumping up and down, mildly delirious," the pair began running toward the hotel for their first rejuvenating sleep in days, Couser said.

They ate some Philly cheesesteaks, passed out and woke up feeling ready to hit the trails again.

But Mount Merritt posed another daunting challenge. Couser said it was "beautiful and terrifying" to hike above the Old Sun Glacier, which clings to the northeast side of the mountain. The slick face of the glacier appeared to Couser like the edge of an "infinity pool" — a slide that could send a weary hiker thousands of feet to his death.

"It was so mentally taxing to slip and not let yourself freak out," Couser said. "Your vision is, here's your path; here's death," he said, gesturing to illustrate a narrow trail immediately above a rocky slope and the face of the glacier.

THEY MADE it partway up the fifth and tallest mountain, Mount Cleveland, before calling it quits on July 15.

Filthy, exhausted, beginning to bicker with one another, and doubting their own ability to make safe and sound decisions, Couser said they didn't see a reason to keep hiking. They messaged their friends to come and meet them, traded their packs for their friends' lighter ones and got back to civilization as quickly as they could.

"Everything that adrenaline had kind of put to sleep just came crashing on our shoulders," Couser said.

In all, Couser hiked just over 128 miles and climbed 43,688 of elevation, according to his GPS device.

Couser said he's made peace with the decision to call off the attempt. He and some other friends now are considering climbing the last two peaks over two days, just for fun, if this season's wildfire smoke dissipates before it starts snowing again.

But even if that doesn't happen, Couser is proud to have taken on the challenge. And as a religious man, he said the trip made him feel closer to God.

"It was less about the achievement and more about the growth," he said. "The goal was to kind of find the edges of my possibilities."

Four mountains in four days is no small feat, anyway.

Couser is posting photos and videos of the adventure on his Instagram account, @noahcouser.

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.

photo

Greg Burfeind climbs along the outer edge of a snowfield blocking a chimney at Almost-a-Dog Pass in Glacier National Park. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)

photo

Greg Burfeind makes his way up the eastern ridge of Mount Jackson in Glacier National Park. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)

photo

From left to right: Greg Burfeind, Colton Born, Charlie Hoving and Noah Couser pose for a photo in Glacier National Park. Born and Hoving tagged along during part of Burfeind and Couser's attempt to summit Glacier's six highest peaks in six days. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)

photo

Greg Burfeind walks up a trail toward Ptarmigan Pass on the way to Mount Merritt in Glacier National Park after a rejuvenating night's sleep at the Many Glacier Hotel. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)

photo

Greg Burfeind hugs a cliff wall during a climb up Mount Merritt in Glacier National Park. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)

photo

Greg Burfeind hikes along a goat trail on the eastern face of Mount Cleveland, moments before he and Noah Couser decided to turn back during an attempt to climb the six highest peaks in Glacier National Park in six days. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)

photo

Greg Burfeind surveys a chimney half-filled with snow required to access Almost-a-Dog Pass in Glacier National Park. (Courtesy of Noah Couser)