Published: May 2009
By Jeff Wise
Alternating perspiration with pampering, multisport vacations are the latest trend in active travel. Jeff Wise heads to Glacier National Park for a week of biking, rafting, hiking, and . . . How much farther?
My stomach lurches as the van careens around a switchback turn. To our right, a wall of stone plummets 500 feet to the valley floor. Ahead, a panorama of cliffs and glaciers stretches upward with impossible verticality. Vertigo, car sickness, and sudden jolts toward the eight-inch-high "safety" railing are taking their toll on my nerves; then the conversation turns to the hazards of the local bear population. Our guide, Chuck, describes the things we can do if charged by a homicidal beast, such as stand there, shout, or fall to the ground. All, he points out, will likely prove useless.
"How can you tell a grizzly bear from a black bear?" someone asks.
"If you climb a tree and the bear climbs after you, it's a black bear," Chuck says. "If it knocks the tree over, it's a grizzly."
I've come to Montana's Glacier National Park seeking thrills. This tour is one of the hot new things in travel, a multisport vacation. The idea is to cram as many adrenaline-pumping activities as possible into six days. The problem is, I feel I'm already pushing the envelope—and the real trip hasn't even started.
The multisport concept sprang up in the late eighties in the form of hard-core adventure races like the Raid Gauloise and, later, the Eco-Challenge, in which competitors struggled, sweated, and crawled over hundreds of miles of desert and jungle. Those mud-caked, bleary-eyed exertions made for great TV, but not great vacations, so the gung ho quotient was watered down for the mass market. People like me.
My life now rests in the hands of Backroads, a 21-year-old company that started off with guided bike trips in northern California and has since branched out into all sorts of athletic endeavors in every corner of the globe. Our to-do list for the week calls for a day of hiking (9 miles), a bicycle jaunt (50 miles), another hike (12 miles), another bike ride (45 miles), a paddle on white-water rapids, and a half-day of bouncing down grassy ski slopes on mountain bikes. It all sounds like great fun. Great, great fun.
Did they say 50 miles?
The truth is, I wasn't paying much attention to the fine print when I signed up. The picture in the catalogue was pretty. It showed an elderly woman in front of a mountain topped with a glacier like marshmallow sauce. The difficulty rating was pegged at "moderate." If grandma could do it, I could too, right?
Fifty miles is a long way.
The van wends down another precipitous road and pulls over. Everyone piles out for our first hike, over Piegan Pass and along Cataract Creek. It's early September, and the highest crags are dusted with snow. My fellow travelers emanate a good-natured unease. There are seven of us, including myself; Jody and Paige, thirtysomething gals from Florida; Michael and Nancy, a couple in their forties from St. Louis; and Bill, a gray-haired Fort Worth neurosurgeon, and his younger wife, Dee.
As we move up through a fir forest toward the timberline, it becomes apparent that we can be grouped into two types. For some of us, the experience will be a test of mettle, an Outward Bound-style program of self-exploration. (Paige, for instance, tells us she is in the throes of a dissolving marriage and has signed up in hopes of clearing her head. It seems she read the brochure even less carefully than I did—she has an acute fear of heights, and as we walk along a narrow path through a steep and crumbly scree field, she tries desperately not to look at the dizzying drop to her left.)
The second type includes Bill and Dee. Though human in appearance, they're really genetically engineered hybrids of the Energizer Bunny and the Six Million Dollar Man. Their reason for being here is simple: in the course of their ordinary life they run 10 miles before breakfast and bike 50 before lunch. Why should they slow down for a vacation?
We cross a wind-scoured, boulder-strewn pass. High above, a ragged ridgeline saws the sky. As we descend into the next valley, a raging 50-knot gale catches us in the face. Each time it gusts, I nearly topple over, wondering: Would I bounce down the rocky slope, or just roll?
A long time later, we return to the tree line. Fir boughs perfume the air. Huckleberry shrubs stretch all around us. Grizzlies love huckleberries. "There's a map of the park with a red dot where every bear mauling took place," says Chuck. "Basically, this valley is just a clump of red dots."
But the true enemy turns out to be our own bodies: tender soles, flabby calves, tendons unused to being yanked up and down mountain trails. By the time we stagger up to the Many Glacier Hotel, nine miles and six hours later, most of us are moving like 90-year-olds.
The lodge is a creaky, drafty pile with the kind of old-world charm that makes men chase after their wives with axes. To my eye, it appears to have been built by a brigade of Boy Scouts with dull Swiss Army knives. As I turn out the light, the wind howls through the chinks in the walls. Never mind—in an instant I'm unconscious.
The morning dawns clear and cold, with the same steady wind roaring south from Canada, 10 miles away. Beyond Swiftcurrent Lake, a pair of rock pinnacles stare down at us like sphinxes. In what will become a familiar ritual, Chuck and his assistant, Kevin, have set up a folding table in the parking lot with stuff for us to pack in bag lunches: fresh-baked bread, ham, cold vegetables, cookies, trail mix, candy. We're told to eat as much as we want, since we'll burn it all off anyway on the bikes.
The ride starts out fine with a 15-mile downhill, the wind at our backs. The sky is blue, and the mountains are beer-label perfect. We stop for a rest. So far, so good.
Back on our bikes, we set off up a small hill that carries us around a bend. Beyond the bend is a larger hill. Past that is a still larger hill. And beyond that…
Consciousness narrows into a Faulknerian string of impressions. Burning calves. Aching butt. Sweat. Suddenly, the acid-etched sunlight fades into noontime darkness and the hastening spatters of an infernally cold rain squall. Icy water runs through my helmet and down my face. Legs, numb. Must press on. Must concentrate on breathing.
Must. Have. Fun.
"Way to go! Doing awesome! Whoo-hoo!" shouts Chuck, materializing from behind me. He isn't even breathing hard. Bastard.
Eventually, after a trial of suffering I cannot begin to express, I arrive at our new hotel, the Prince of Wales Lodge, on Waterton Lake on the Canadian side. Everyone else is already ensconced in the lobby, admiring the view over the alpine lake and swiftly getting blotto on the hardest liquor they can find. I toddle over and collapse onto a sofa, making clutching motions in the direction of someone's whiskey.
The next day, we learn, we'll be left to our own devices. Over dinner the group decides that we'll all hike up to the hidden Crypt Lake, a 12-mile journey. Actually, the women decide this. The women are in charge. The men are here mainly to humor them. Michael, the class clown, seems not to care much for exertion and is always the first to drop out. Bill is more enthusiastic, but when he starts to fade Dee will happily pull away and leave him behind. (This pattern is the norm, apparently. "Sixty percent of our customers are women," Chuck tells me.)
The morning climb is in fact a doozy, a 3,000-foot ascent with a couple of traverses across steep rock faces, but after yesterday's ordeal it barely registers on the suffering scale. Vanished glaciers have carved the slopes into a series of step-like hanging valleys, each cupping a luminous blue lake that spills into a feathery waterfall. When we reach the highest lake, only a solid wall of rock remains before us—the end of the line. Hundreds of feet up, almost invisible against the ice, a solitary mountain goat gazes down at us.
As the week passes, the physical trials become less punishing. Or maybe we're getting tougher. On day four we bike 45 miles, and though one six-mile uphill takes me more than an hour, I finish without any post-traumatic stress disorder. From there it's downhill, literally. On day five we cycle a short way up to the Continental Divide, then whiz along an 18-mile decline. After lunch, we clamber onto rubber rafts for a float down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, where the greatest effort involves trying to spot the trout hovering among the pebbles in the streambed. The following day we get up late, ride the gondola to the top of the Big Mountain ski resort, and whoosh down on mountain bikes. Sure, I nearly break my neck, but I hardly break a sweat doing it.
As the strain eases, the luxury quotient rises. Our final lodge, the Kandahar, is an alpine chalet set in a garden of wildflowers at the foot of Big Mountain. My only lasting impression is of the bed: huge, soft, piled high with fluffy comforters and oversize pillows, so that once you're in, it's almost impossible to get out. At that moment the cunning Backroads strategy dawns on me—hit us with the worst hotels and the most grueling exercise early on, and everything else will seem like gravy.
We eat our last meal, a buffet lunch, on the patio of the Kandahar. For what seems like the first time all week, the wind has stopped blowing. The sun gushes down over ranks of coneflowers and asters. Dee, taking charge once more, orders a couple of bottles of white wine. We sit in the sun, making toasts. Chuck has printed up contact lists for us all, and some in the group are already talking about getting together for a trip next year. Maybe a jungle trek through Belize?A 70-mile-a-day bike ride in Alaska?A Moroccan camel trek?
I'm leaning back, taking in the sun, barely listening.
The six-day Montana Multisport trip is offered in July and August by Backroads (800/462-2848, fax 510/527-1444, www.backroads.com; $1,958 per person). Other Backroads trips include a biking, hiking, and sea kayaking package on Hawaii's Big Island and a walking and mountain biking journey in the Japanese Alps.
A growing number of tour companies are playing up the multisport trend, including Mountain Travel-Sobek (888/687-6235, fax 510/527-8100, www.mtsobek.com), whose trips run the gamut from sea kayaking to heli-hiking in locales as diverse as Baja California and the Himalayas; MaupinTrek (800/255-4266, fax 785/331-1057, www.maupintour.com), which arranges a week of horseback riding, biking, and river rafting in Costa Rica, among other trips; and Butterfield & Robinson (800/678-1147; www.butterfield.com), which this year introduced a heli-rafting and hiking excursion along the remote Klinaklini River in British Columbia.