How Nate Bender Channels his outdoor pursuits into climate action


By: Stacie Sullivan

Photos by Nate Bender

We all connect with the outdoors in a special way—whether it be to seek solitude, connect with ourselves or with others, complete a goal or challenge ourselves. For Nate Bender, one of our newest POW Trail Alliance members, seeking out long days (and nights) in the mountains for all of the above provides the added bonus of a way to learn about climate-related impacts in his backyard and inspire action through storytelling.

Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Bender explored the nooks and crannies of Montana’s vast landscapes but had a front-row seat watching how climate change is affecting his backyard and the natural playgrounds he loves most. Bender recently set the Glacier 10k Fastest Known Time (FKT), by connecting all of Glacier National Park’s peaks over 10,000 feet. This adventure lead him through some of the park’s most remote corners and places few people see. Bender gave us the inside scoop on his experience, including his primary motivators, challenges, eye-opening experiences, what environmental impacts he’s seen in the park and why Montana residents need to use their vote to protect these beautiful landscapes. 

What was your main motivator for setting out on the Glacier 10k unsupported?

I think adventures like this often have several sources of motivation. For me, I think it comes down to two main sources of motivation. I get a lot of value in those longer immersive wilderness experiences on foot, traveling through the mountains both on and off the trail. I find a lot of joy in the physical and mental challenges. I also like the idea of trying to use an adventure like this one to talk about climate change or to talk about the importance of climate advocacy through the lens of an adventure.

I like the idea of using a trip like this to talk about how I connect, refresh and then center myself and my work around climate advocacy. 

A glacial basin in Glacier National Park

What was the most inspirational part of your journey or biggest takeaway?

I think there’s a lot of value in setting stretch goals for yourself—no matter if they’re in the mountains, at work or in your personal life.  We all have these things that we may sit up at night and dream about. It’s kind of right on the edge of possibility. It wasn’t one single moment, as it was the totality of the whole journey of just going out there and having this wild, immersive experience in a way that I had never had in the mountains before. I’d never done anything by myself and unsupported for that long.

A single moment of inspiration came on day three. Towards the end of the day, I’m climbing up through this glacial basin called Sperry Glacier. It’s golden hour, and I’ve had a couple of great experiences in and around that basin in the past. At that point, I kind of felt like I might be able to finish this.

That feeling coupled with being in this very awe-inspiring place where you have this glacier melting into the glacial basin, these high peaks surrounding you and infinity pools of glacial melt water at the edge of it dropping off into nothingness. It’s just a gorgeous place and it just gave me a euphoric kind of moment that was very inspiring.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while you were out there?

There were a couple more technical sections and about half of the route was off-trail, so it was a very different type of mountain travel. I saw every type of terrain and ecosystem that Glacier has to offer. Everything from bushwhacking and scree, to ridge lines and valley bottoms. 

Nate Bender navigating Glacier National Park in the dark

One of the crux moments came on the last night out there. I was at the tail end of a 20-hour day and had about 1,500 feet of climbing left up to the final 10,000-foot peak. It was a technical class four rock climb that I had to scramble up in the dark and I got cliffed out a couple of times. I had to be thoughtful and methodical with myself about keeping a level head and not making any hasty decisions or doing anything that would make a bad situation worse.

There was an interesting moment in that climb where I would turn off my headlamp every once in a while to try and get a sense of how far the summit was above me just based on the silhouette of it in the darkness. For about 45 minutes it never felt like it was getting any closer. It was always towering above me and it was really hard to tell the distance in the dark. You’re having this moment of like, ‘God, I feel like I am just on a treadmill to nowhere here climbing up through the darkness.’

Were there any specific climate-related impacts you noticed on this journey through Glacier National Park?

I passed by several glaciers along the way, and all of the glaciers in the park are dying or had already shrunk enough to no longer technically be glaciers. I did a similar trip, and a similar route, back in July, and it was much snowier. I passed by a couple of these glaciers and glacial basins, in particular, when they looked fat with snow and very healthy in July. Then passing by them again a month later, they looked historically different. It’s not necessarily something that you can attribute to climate change, but it felt like a microcosm of climate change. I was looking at a stark example of what this melting really can look like. Even if it’s more or less the typical summer melting as summer goes on, it felt like this metaphor for the larger issue of climate change. 

Lingering snow in Glacier National Park

Growing up in Montana, you’ve had a unique opportunity to watch the landscapes change. What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the places you recreate due to climate change? 

Wildfire and wildfire smoke are the biggest impacts that I see in the mountains. It reshapes how people try and interact with the landscapes, over the summer months especially.

How have your adventures in the mountains shaped your climate advocacy journey?

Ultra running and running around in the mountains has just given so much direction to my life. It’s helped shape my identity and helped make me the person that I want to be. It’s also given me a foundation for something that I identify with and am passionate about. It’s given me that foundation of something that I know and care about a lot and use those stories to talk about why I care about climate advocacy. The short answer to your question is that it has given me everything.

Nate Bender, pictured second from the left, lobbying with POW Action Fund last June in Washington D.C. outside Montana Senator Jon Tester’s office

How would you encourage someone to get involved with climate advocacy who isn’t quite sure where to start? 

I love the quote from Bill McKibben, “The best advice I can give individuals is to stop being individuals.”

I think what he means is to find your opportunity for collective action. I think for people who are unsure where to start, it’s to look at themselves and to think about what groups they identify with, what interests they are passionate about and then find groups that are already doing this work. And if there isn’t anybody already doing that work, then try and start the work yourself. Come at it from the idea of how we can work together as a group for collective action from whatever angle it is you’re passionate about.

Why do you think it’s important for Montana residents to vote in the midterm elections?

Voting is the single best way for Montanans to make their voices heard and to ensure that our elected representatives reflect our values and hopes for the future. And if you need a little extra motivation, consider this: every voter in a rural state (like Montana!) has several orders of magnitude and more influence over our state and federal elected offices than non-rural voters, because of the Electoral College and how the United States population is distributed. As a Montanan, you literally have one of the most powerful votes in the United States to protect the places and lifestyle you love. So make a plan to vote and make sure your friends do too.

Stacie Sullivan

Author: Stacie Sullivan

Stacie always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the ski industry from a young age, having first clicked into skis at the age of 4 and writing her 8th grade career project on being a professional skier. While her dreams of becoming a professional athlete didn’t quite pan out the way she planned at […]