Skip to main content

Reflections on Climate Hike and an Unforgettable Trip to Glacier National Park in Montana

Guest blog contributor, Brandon Sutton, is a 2015 Climate Hiker and Climate Ride Ambassador from Atlanta, GA. Read on for a personal account of his time spent in Glacier last summer. 

When I heard the words ‘Climate Hike,’ there was no question I was in. Two of my biggest passions rolled into one experience – yes, please! It was late winter of 2014 when I first heard of the hike from my friends at Citizens’ Climate Lobby — a Climate Ride Beneficiary. I’ve been a CCL volunteer for over four years now and have been to Washington DC three times to lobby Congress for carbon fee & dividend legislation.

The idea of spending time with my fellow climate champions in a place as spectacular as Glacier National Park was something I couldn’t imagine missing.

I did have one hesitation though. I was concerned about meeting the minimum fundraising amount – not because I couldn’t raise the money, but because this came on the heels of another big fundraiser I do every year for the Hunger Walk/Run. But in the end, I was prepared to write a check for whatever I couldn’t raise just so that I could have the experience.

Much to my surprise, people really stepped up and I exceeded the minimum fundraising requirement in plenty of time.

A little context: I’m a big fan of wilderness and remote backpacking. My ideal trip is getting so deep in the woods that there isn’t so much as a hint of civilization. No cell service, no light pollution, no facilities. Nothing. Just wilderness. Climate Hike was a great warm up to ‘part two’ of my big trip to Montana, more on that later. 

The night before the hike began, I stayed the night at the Belton Chalet in West Glacier. I awoke to a stunning view of the park from the balcony out front, had some coffee and a pastry, and drove down the street to meet up with the group at the Glacier Guides office. The vibe was right from the beginning – everyone was in sync and ready to have an incredible experience in the park. We piled into vans and headed into Glacier to start the journey.

Quick note about the guides: they were friendly, knowledgeable, and generally fun to be around. And they know how to cook for some hungry hikers, too!

Reflecting on it now, it’s actually pretty amazing all of the things that were packed into that first day: swimming in Avalanche Lake, seeing a young black bear, hiking roughly 14 miles, swimming in Lake McDonald, and having an awesome dinner prepared by our incredible guides.

Each day was more incredible than the last, and it was almost hard to take it all in.

Patrick from Climate Ride and I made an unofficial deal the first day that we would swim in every lake that we came upon. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, even in August, these lakes are still very cold – they are fed by glaciers, after all. I think we managed to swim each day except for day 3. But still – a good run of ice-cold swims.

The beauty in Glacier is far beyond anything I had experienced before. And that’s saying something! I’ve been to Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon in the National Parks system. I’ve hiked in national forests and wilderness areas in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Oregon, Vermont, New York, and Tennessee. But Glacier – there is just nothing that compares.

We had the option to do a ‘short’ hike or a long hike every day. Not everyone wanted the extra physical push with the longer hikes, but everyone was dedicated to learning how climate change was altering the park. It just so happened that there was a wildfire burning in part of the park during our visit, so some of the experiences that were planned had to be altered. The impacts on the warming climate were ever-present, and the guides did a great job of explaining the changes taking place all around us.

Certainly the highlight of the trip for me was the hike up to Grinnell Glacier. It happened to fall on the day that some rain and thundershowers moved through. Not to be deterred, the ‘long hike’ group made the ascent up the rocky mountainside past two stunningly beautiful lakes, all the way to the top where the retreating glacier revealed itself. When I crested the final rock outcropping that hid the view of the uppermost lake on the ascent, I stopped dead in my tracks. I was speechless. The scene was beautiful beyond description. And not just beautiful – hauntingly beautiful.

The sight of a melting glacier that only has a few years left before it’s gone was almost too much to take. As I stood there absorbing it all, I immediately thought of my young Nephew, my Godson, and his little brother back home. They will likely never see what I saw that day. It will be gone by the time they are old enough to do 12-mile hikes in Glacier.

The harsh reality of climate change was staring me in the face, and all I could do was soak it in.

It was cold and wet. Very cold and very wet. I had every layer on that I brought for the hike. Warm hat, gloves, rain shell, sweater, you name it – I had it on. It was the most poignant experience of the entire trip.

After the hike down from the glacier, we met back up with the ‘short hike’ group in the lodge at the lower lake. There is a gallery of images of the park that date back to the early 1900s, and seeing the photos of these magnificent glaciers’ tragic retreat was a real eye opener. Sure, I’d seen these photos before, but not in the context of what I had just experienced.

Being there in person made it so much more real.

I can’t say enough about what a fantastic experience it was to participate in this event. From the hiking conversations to the campfire sing-alongs, from the early morning coffee (that I didn’t have to make) to the delicious dinners after a long day’s hike – it was just fantastic!

All of the guides were first-rate. I got some excellent advice on where to venture out on ‘part two’ of my 2-week Montana adventure. Patrick told me about a great ~45 mile loop hike in the Bob Marshall Wilderness that sounded really fun, and after getting tips and advice from the other guides during the Glacier hikes, I was well-prepared for the experience that lay ahead.

I won’t go into great detail here, as you can read about part 2 of my trip and my experience in ‘The Bob’ on my personal blog, but I’ll just say that it was truly the experience of a lifetime – right on the heels of another experience of a lifetime in Glacier! Literally, every moment was breathtaking. It was a strange thing to leave the group that I had been with for 5 days and venture into the vast Montana wilderness alone, but it almost felt like everyone was with me in some way.

I tested my limits on this adventure. 50+ miles of hiking in Glacier over 4 days was amazing, but that was all with a lightweight daypack. Hoisting a 65-liter backpack on my shoulders loaded down with food and gear for another 45 miles felt like what I imagine Olympic triathlons must feel like when it comes time for the run.

For anyone contemplating the Climate Hike, I can say for certain it will be life-changing. I am different than I was before, now that I’ve had this experience. I learned a lot about nature, about the changing climate, and about myself. I’m even more acutely aware that these experiences are not to be missed when they present themselves. This is one to say ‘Yes’ to without hesitation. And the fact that the whole thing helps raise money for climate-related causes is icing on an incredibly delicious cake.

Our small group raised ~$50,000 for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which feels pretty awesome!

I want to say a special thanks to Patrick, Jeff, Vince and Morica – the guides that made the experience as amazing as possible for all of us. They nailed it.

Thank you for letting me share my experience with you here. I hope it gives you the motivation to join the fun! I promise you will not regret it.

-Written by Brandon Sutton

Experience Glacier for yourself on one of our three events in Glacier this summer! 

July Glacier Ride

July Climate Hike 

August Climate Hike