‘Shining Mountains’ Digs Deep into Glaciers, But Keeps it Light

A groups of ultrarunners chase melting glaciers in Glacier National Park — but it’s not all doom and gloom.

By on May 19, 2023 | Comments

It’s only human to feel a little heartbreak at the thought of chasing a thing in retreat. We’re not good with endings, generally speaking. Breakups, funerals, the death of a pet. It’s a lot easier to process continuity than The End — we want to be here forever.

So you’d think that a film about a few mountain runners hunting the last vestiges of Glacier National Park’s namesake natural features would strike a melancholy chord.

Somehow, it doesn’t.

In “Shining Mountains,” Mike Foote, Jennifer Lichter, and Steven Gnam range through the national park, located in northern Montana, to capture photographs in service to a United States Geological Survey (USGS) program that seeks to track the evolution of the park’s permanent ice. Called the Repeat Photography Project, it tasks groups to take pictures — as identical as possible — of each of the park’s glaciers on a rolling basis.

The project began in the late 1800s. At that time, as “Shining Mountains points out, 150 glaciers coated the park. By 2015, only 26 remained.

How do we know? Well, seeing is believing.

“Humans believe what they see. You see the transformation of the landscape, you have instantaneous understanding of what is going on. So, the way that we communicate the changes is by using repeat photography of glaciers,” Dan Fagre, a retired USGS research ecologist, says in the film.

Getting the snaps isn’t as easy as you’d think. The skills of an ultrarunner play well above treeline in Glacier National Park — talus scrambling, bushwhacking, and side-hilling describe the work. Over the course of their 12-day trip, the team tagged scenic locations like the Blackfoot Glacier, the Salamander Glacier, and the rapidly disappearing Boulder Glacier.

“All of these are going to end up like this,” Lichter says in voiceover. “It was just — it was sad. It was nothing, man,” she says of the Boulder Glacier.

Ok, so some mourning does creep in. However, the three athletes’ joy in regard of the natural world wins out.

A runner on an icy trail

A scene from “Shining Mountains.” Photo: The North Face

Witness Lichter leading a feast of wild huckleberries, and the group’s shared delight that a mother grizzly bear is also chowing down on the berries (at a distance that doesn’t raise alarm.) There’s plenty of awe when they explore some glaciers from the inside out. And of course, they experience the general vigor any runner would enjoy in the national park’s wide-open spaces.

“Shining Mountains” is named for the visual effect of alpine ice fields under unfiltered sun. If there’s a message in the film about our sensitive juncture in the planet’s history, that’s about as close as it comes to codifying it.

Don’t expect to be beat over the head with heavy hands in this one. You’ll draw your own conclusions and emotions from the melting glaciers, just like the team does. But instead of an exercise in finger-wagging, the film exists as a document of (sedate) wonderment.

Caught up on the big picture? You could be missing the forest for the trees — or fruit.

“It’s sobering, to be honest,” Foote says, summing up his take on the vanishing glaciers. “And yet at the same time, I’m just so thankful for places like this that have an abundance of wildlife and still water and … huckleberries.”

Call for Comments

  • Did you watch the film? What were your thoughts?
  • What are some other stories out there of runners using their skillset to enhance scientific understanding of our world?
Sam Anderson
Sam Anderson writes any articles he can talk his way into, amid a life of traveling the United States and Mexico in search of adventure and margaritas. Follow him on Instagram.