Traveling fast, far, and on foot through the rugged backcountry of southwest Montana.
A mix of blood, sweat, and mud soaked into the shoes of four runners as they began their descent from Hyalite Peak. It was the 25th of June, and Eric Schneider, Connor Hult, Kael Van Buskirk, and Renn Meuwissen were 30 miles into a six-day, 200-mile traverse through the Custer-Gallatin National Forest when they discovered how unforgiving a familiar place can be.
An unexpected snowstorm confronted the runners on the summit. Soaked from head to toe and shivering, they were forced to seek lower ground. The Lewis Creek drainage, comprising a disorganized network of game trails haphazardly labeled as FS Tr. 181, only made things worse.
Reluctantly, they followed grizzly tracks through the snow to the muddy drainage bottom. The wet forest consumed them. Nightfall took the sky, and anxiety soaked into their minds as the cold crept into their bones.
Manically they searched for any sign of an obvious trail. Bushwhacking through the forest, they began to lose sight of each other. The rush of the creek silenced their voices as they tried to regroup. Eric fell behind.
Hours late, delirious and hypothermic, Eric stumbled into camp. It wasn’t until two in the morning that the crew was able to crawl into their soaked tents, uncertain of how they could possibly complete this route now.
"We each faced our own challenges and had to decide how we would overcome them on and off the trail."
A harsh tone was set on the first day, an intimidating nimbus that the boys would soon overcome. “I really wanted to run the next few days,” Connor recalls, “but if that had happened every day, there’s no way we’d have kept going. It takes multiple people to tackle something like this, and if someone isn’t feeling it, his mindset can definitely spread.”
Only a few days prior, the plan seemed set in stone. Beginning just outside Bozeman in South Cottonwood Canyon, the crew of four was set to summit Mount Blackmore and Hyalite Peak before meandering along the Devil’s Backbone to the Big Creek trailhead. The following days would take the group south to Yellowstone National Park and on toward Hebgen Lake. From there, the route would point them north past Cedar, Lone, and Fan mountains to Jack Creek Preserve. Eventually they’d circumnavigate the Spanish Peaks before heading south once more toward Big Sky and the finish line at the North Fork trailhead.
While the four intrepid fellows faced the trail alone, each evening brought a reward: resupply. With the help of a GPS, a support crew was able to track the position of the runners to intercept, uplift, and refuel them.
During the long, hard days ahead, the runners would experience some of the finest wilderness in southwest Montana, hence the name “SoWeMo” (SouthWest Montana). The high-alpine snowpack meant only a slight deviation from the original route.
“We each faced our own challenges and had to decide how we would overcome them on and off the trail,” Eric reflects. The run did go on after the trials of day one, but not always with Eric. A hip injury sustained from rock-hopping through Lewis Creek hindered his ability to complete the route in its entirety.
In the spirit of their friend, Connor, Kael, and Renn continued. The dark mood that haunted their minds from the first day on the trail was left in Lewis Creek.
Uncertainty turned into hilarity. Every creek crossing became another opportunity to watch Connor slip off a log and into the creek like a lame-legged deer. After a few too-close-for-comfort encounters with grizzly bears, they knew better than to continue north through the Taylor Hilgards without placing Renn as their point guard. His bloody-murder-like shrieks every 15 seconds were enough to ward off even the biggest of bears.
The days flew by, mental states shifting like the wind. “I think by day five we all kind of lost it, because we had gotten mixed up and turned around every single day at some point,” says Renn Meuwissen, the youngest runner of the group. “Connor got really grumpy, and we were all a bit delirious. I just couldn't help but find it all absolutely hilarious.”
It didn’t take too long for the four friends to completely destroy the 400-square-foot bathroom provided by Jack Creek Preserve at the end of day five. Fumes rose from their gnarled clothing and mixed with the steam from the showers. Despite inhaling their own rancid stench, the hot showers and Connor’s politically-incorrect humor were a nice relief, providing them with the energy to finish strong on their last day together.
“Going into day six, I had this feeling of being profoundly bummed,” Renn says in retrospect. “There was a moment where I looked back over Jack Creek Preserve and had the closest thing to an out-of-body experience during the whole trip. The alpenglow on Fan Mountain was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
If there was ever a time for the adventure to come to a close, it was then. While the morale of the group was high, their bodies had already endured the pains of five back-to-back days of backcountry marathons. With muscles bruised, skin blistered, and minds exhausted, the runners were about to complete one of the biggest physical feats of their lives.
Twenty miles of rugged trail through the Spanish Peaks remained. While Eric’s hip would only get worse, not running the final leg would hurt him in other ways. He pushed through the pain.
At approximately 7pm on June 30, the restless figures of the runners emerged from the forest. Some dropped to the ground to catch a breath while others immediately fell into the arms of loved ones. And just like that, the six-day adventure of the SoWeMo 200 came to a successful, blissful end.
"During the long, hard days ahead, the runners would experience some of the finest wilderness in southwest Montana..."
|Day 1 (Red):
Day Total: 39 miles
Trek Total: 39 miles
|Day 2 (Orange):
Day Total: 41.2 miles
Trek Total: 80.2 miles
|Day 3 (Yellow):
Day Total: 32.3 miles
Trek Total: 112.5 miles
|Day 4 (Blue):
Day Total: 25.6 miles
Trek Total: 138.1 miles
|Day 5 (Green):
Day Total: 24 miles
Trek Total: 162.1 miles
|Day 6 (Purple):
Day Total: 39 miles
Trek Total: 201.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 56,697 feet
Total Elevation Loss: 50,960 feet
Total Elevation Change: 107,657 feet
Authors Andy Woodward and August Schield followed along the runners' journey, documenting their progress and providing support.