In the outdoor playground of Northwest Montana, first ascents and fastest known times on local mountains are the stuff of humble and undocumented legend

Story by Tristan Scott | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
On May 21, ski mountaineer and ultrarunner Kilian Jornet attempted a new record for the fastest known alpine ascent of the world’s highest peak, climbing to the top of Mount Everest in a mere 26 hours without using oxygen or fixed ropes.

Less than a week later, after recovering from a supposed stomach bug, the 29-year-old Spaniard made another attempt from a higher starting point, shaving nine hours off his previous time by summiting in 17 hours — about 18 minutes slower than the 2006 speed record set by Austrian Christian Stangl, which is the official time to beat.

Jornet, who is chasing an ambitious goal to set fastest known times on seven of the world’s most iconic mountains (and also holds the course record at the grueling endurance run The Rut in Big Sky), went ahead and staked claim to a fastest known time for his initial attempt up the longer route, for which no evidence of a speed record exists.

Mountaineering forums and social media feeds erupted with celebration and debate over whether Jornet’s feat could be counted as official, or if he should return for another attempt on the so-called “normal route” in order to legitimize the record.

The concept of setting speed records, or fastest known times (FKT), has captured the imagination of elite endurance athletes worldwide, just as achieving first ascents of big, technical mountains has held a powerful allure in mountaineering culture since its embryonic stages.

In the Flathead Valley, where the soaring peaks of Glacier National Park loom beckoningly in the near distance, climbers have been laying siege to various routes up the mountains for decades, achieving first ascents and FKTs with regularity.

But the feats are largely executed without documentation, publicity, self-promotion, or under the banner of brand sponsors, meaning the skepticism and celebration surrounding Jornet’s high-profile assault of Everest is absent on the local level.

Historically, announcing that you broke a record or accomplished a first ascent was proof enough, and in a humble region like the Flathead, where mountaineering culture promotes an “unpublished ethos” of climbing, serious feats often fall under the radar.

“In the 70s, it was what we called the oral tradition. It kept things pretty local and pretty quiet,” said legendary local climber Terry Kennedy, who achieved the historic first ascent on Mount Siyeh’s north face in Glacier National Park. “We mainly decided not to publish our climbs because we didn’t want this place to turn into a zoo, but there was a lot of local pride in establishing first ascents up the big peaks. It was important that they be set by locals.”

Kennedy and his climbing partner, Jim Kanzler, justifiably broke their own rule when they published a firsthand account of their terrifying Siyeh climb in a small newsletter published by the Glacier Mountaineering Society.

“I thought that after doing such a big thing locally we should write something up, but it was just small circulation,” Kennedy said. “It wasn’t like writing it up for the American Alpine Journal. It was a nice format to document the history. The oral tradition does get lost if you don’t write it down.”

In writing it down, Kennedy captured the menacing climbing achievement for the history books.

Over the course of three days in September 1979, the 25-year-old Kennedy and 31-year-old Kanzler inched their way up the sheer north face of Siyeh, a monolithic tower of limestone that is widely considered the most difficult climb in the park. The duo had attempted the route three times prior, succeeding on their fourth attempt after spending two cold nights suspended from the massive wall.

Depending on how you measure it, the north face of Siyeh is either the first or second tallest technical rock face in Glacier, making it the first or second tallest in the Lower 48 — the other tallest rock face, the north face of Mount Cleveland, was climbed for the first time in 1976, also by Kennedy and Kanzler, as well as Steve Jackson.

Members of the Glacier Mountaineering Society climb Reynolds Mountain

In 2008, Kelly Cordes and Justin Woods made a one-day ascent of Siyeh’s rarely climbed north face, completing a new route in just 11 hours, avoiding the cold bivies that Kennedy and Kanzler endured.

Two more routes are known to have been completed, in 2005 and 2007, including one route by Woods and partner Ben Smith.

But the mettle displayed by early pioneering climbers who pushed into unknown alpine zones of Glacier Park and up uncharted routes will never be eclipsed as climbers post faster times, nor will the gratitude they deserve be diminished.

“We felt really fortunate that we were around at that time,” Kennedy said. “You think about early climbers in Glacier, guys like Norman Clyde, and you have to think that must have been a really fun time to have been around. Nobody had even been to the summit of those peaks. They didn’t have a gauge of whether they were even possible.”

Kennedy and Kanzler grew up climbing in Columbia Falls and became acquainted through their association with the Boy Scouts. Kanzler was six years older than Kennedy and, along with his brother, Jerry Kanzler, had already developed a reputation as a talented big mountain climber, which swelled to mythic proportions for the younger kids growing up on the outskirts of Glacier, who whiled away summer days gazing up at its snow-marbled peaks in astonishment.

The gravity of the Kanzlers’ climbing feats gripped Kennedy in particular.

“When I look at my heritage and think about how I became a climber, it goes back to the Kanzlers,” Kennedy said. “I mean these guys were really out there. This was back in the days of early space travel and putting a man on the moon, and I held the Kanzlers at the same level as that. We knew that the Kanzlers were mountain climbers. And that was like being an astronaut, as far as we were concerned.”

As a kid living on the fringe of Glacier Park, the peaks held a powerful allure, and they beckoned to Kennedy at a young age.

“All of our fathers worked at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company plant, and we’d look up at Teakettle and Columbia mountains and want to climb them. So we did,” Kennedy said. “We would go up there and shine mirrors down to our houses for our moms to see. It was pretty special.”

In 1963, Hal Kanzler led his sons up Mount St. Nicholas, a steep, technical and remote climb that is considered one of the most challenging summits in Glacier. At the time, Jim Kanzler was 15 and Jerry was 12, and rumors of the hideously difficult ascent quickly spread through the community.

“The kids at school were all talking about how the Kanzler boys had climbed some really big, scary mountain in the park,” Kennedy recalled. “We were going, ‘Wow, really? Which one?’ It turned out these kids had climbed St. Nick. That was a profound influence on me.”

Brad Lamson, a local ski mountaineer, climber and endurance athlete, gained much of his knowledge of climbing Glacier’s peaks from the early climbers, and said the early generations achieved soaring achievements quietly and to little fanfare.

“There are a lot of super under-the-radar folks out there who don’t partake in FKTs or using social media to promote themselves,” Lamson said. “The FKT thing is definitely fun to watch, though. It’s free entertainment.”

Inside the Local FKT Trend

In the 1960s and 70s, a tight-knit group of mountaineers were pushing the limits of climbing in Glacier National Park. Reports of their mountaineering feats were whispered in the hallways of schools and over beers rather than in online mountaineering forums, while social media and mobile record-keeping apps like Strava didn’t exist to capture digital proof.

Today, a multitude of smart phone apps provide a high-tech platform for GPS uploads on quasi-established routes, making record-keeping easier than ever before.

Locally, top endurance athletes have made a fun and competitive practice of foregoing race bibs and chip times in order to set speed records up some of the region’s most formidable peaks and cycle up the steepest climbs.

Although the records are unofficial — there is no governing body or oversight committee — athletes have set a host of fastest known times, or FKTs, along some of the gnarliest routes in and around the Flathead Valley.

Do you have what it takes to best their times?
Here are seven FKTs from ripping local athletes, according to Strava records.

Mount Brown Summit Run
Athlete: Ben Parsons
Time: 1 hour, 34 mins, 33 secs
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,339 feet

Mount Brown Lookout Run
Athlete: Joel Shehan
Time: 1 hour, 8 mins, 46 secs
Distance: 4.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,222 feet

Great Northern Mountain Run
Athlete: Brandon French
Time: 1 hour, 11 mins
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,400 feet

Reynolds Mountain Run
Athlete: Brandon French
Time: 1 hour, 10 mins
Distance: 5.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,520 feet

Danny On Trail Run
Athlete: Mark Handelman
Time: 37 mins, 3 secs
Distance: 3.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,005 feet

Big Mountain Road Ride
Athlete: Joel Shehan
Time: 28 mins, 16 secs
Distance: 5.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,864 feet

Going-to-the-Sun Road Ride
Athlete: Joel Shehan
Time: 1 hour, 43 mins, 21 secs
Distance: 29.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,335 feet