One hour into a swim that would take him 20 miles across seven lakes, Tim Walther’s left calf cramped up into a ball.
The cramp was soon accompanied by a severely blistered neck, a shoulder injury that had him angling to the right, and a hole in his wetsuit that nearly led to hypothermia.
From Aug. 24 to Aug. 26 Walther swam each of the major lakes that grace the valley floor of Grand Teton National Park. An accomplished alpinist, Walther has never been much of a swimmer. His summer in the water consisted of only five training swims before his Aug. 24 plunge into Jackson Lake.
The longest swim he’d ever done before the training runs was 1.8 miles across Leigh Lake while completing the Moranic, a triathlon based around climbing Mount Moran and swimming Leigh Lake. A 6-mile swim five days before launch was his final preparation for what he thought would be a two-day adventure.
That two-day plan quickly turned into three even before Walther made it halfway across Jackson Lake. He chose to hug the shore on the west side of the lake and quickly realized it to be colder than the east side where he had trained previously.
The chilly water flowed in and out of the hole of his black wet suit. He had a new swim cap that was supposed to keep him warmer than the one he trained in. The cap could do nothing for the hole but it did do a number on Walther’s neck. Friction led to blisters as problems began to stack up.
An uncomfortable trip
He fought through the neck pain and an old shoulder injury exacerbated by every stroke. Determination drove him, but it couldn’t do much to fight the frigid water. Roughly every 2 1/2 hours he’d leave the water, remove his wet suit top, throw on a sweatshirt and drink warm tea heated by support member Erik Kampe, who followed in a canoe.
Walther, 46, shivered through 11 1/2 hours of lake time before Kampe advised him to bivy at Bearpaw Bay, just north of Jackson Lake’s south shore. The decision ensured that a third day would be needed to complete the challenge. But that night at camp, Walther was unsure if he’d even get to day two.
“It took me most of the night to warm back up,” he said. “I had a hot water bottle between my legs, and I’m in my sleeping bag eating hot soup, and I was shivering. I was borderline hypothermic basically. At that point I was like, ‘If my body doesn’t warm up, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get back in the water in the morning.’”
When the sun rose Saturday, Walther felt warm and rested. He swam the length of the bay and hiked an un-maintained trail to Leigh Lake that was built in the 1980’s for a visit from former President Jimmy Carter.
The next member of Walther’s support team, Marshall White, met Walther and Kampe on the north end of Leigh Lake, just in time for early-afternoon choppy waves that would add another obstacle.
Walther knocked out Leigh Lake and then String Lake. His duty done, Kampe left the park, confident that his friend of 21 years would finish — safely — at Phelps Lake.
“I had no doubt,” Kampe said. “Tim is a honey badger. He has good judgement. He goes to his limits, and he knows when he has to peel himself back.”
White’s final task was to get an exhausted Walther one and a half miles across Jenny Lake after a full day of swimming. Heavy winds often pushed the kayaker away from the tired swimmer he was supposed to stay within close range of.
Walther struggled across Jenny — the hardest stretch of the weekend.
“It was a full-on battle getting across Jenny Lake,” he said. “I had to dig deep.”
He made it across and was urged to stop by his girlfriend, Neesha Zollinger. White, though, encouraged him to keep going. He’d accompanied Walther on similar adventures, such as a multi-sport circumnavigation of Jackson Hole that they dubbed “Around The Hole.” White knew what his friend and Grand Dynamics coworker was capable of. When he looked into Walther’s eyes, he saw a man who still had gas in the tank.
“If I saw any sign whatsoever that it was unsafe for him to keep going, I would have advised him not to,” White said. “I had faith he could do it. If there was anyone that could do it that I know, it would have been Tim.”
Walther slept in his truck in the Jenny Lake parking lot, woke up and headed for Bradley and Taggart lakes. He swam those solo before hiking to Phelps, where he was met by friend and final support crew member David Gonzales.
A wrong turn added 3 1/2 miles to his hike and he had trouble finding Gonzales on the lake’s north shore. Soon enough, he linked up with Gonzales and the two swam together toward the finish line. Walther stood up on the lake’s south shore at 8:20 p.m on Aug. 26, the third day of a journey that included 20 miles of hiking and another 20 across seven of the country’s most scenic lakes.
A brand new ordeal
The Lake to Lake Link, as Walther calls it, was completed. It’s added to the list of other Teton adventures tackled by Walther: the Around the Hole; The Complete, a stand-up paddleboard float from Jackson Lake Dam to Palisades Reservoir; and The Picnic, Gonzales’ name for the mountain triathlon that includes the Grand Teton and Jenny Lake.
Of them all, Walther called the Lake To Lake Link the hardest. Some of the others suited his alpinist skills better, such as The Picnic or The Moranic. This challenged him unlike any other, so much so that he even spent time learning a new swim technique before he attempted the feat.
“I’m not anything special, I’m not a great swimmer,” he said. “Yeah I’m determined, but anyone can be determined. I think people can do a lot more than what might be in the perception of the realm of possibilities.”
The not-so-great swimmer said he’d do a lot different if he had to swim the lakes again. He’d swim the east shore of Jackson Lake and avoid the cold water streaming down from the mountains. He would have organized his training schedule to swim earlier in the summer when the temperatures were at their peak. He would travel south to north so he could swim with the current that often times made him feel as though he was swimming in place. A remarkably difficult adventure was made more arduous than it had to be.
He might not have had the Olympic swim stroke, but what he lacked in efficiency he made up for in resolve.
“Ninety percent of it is [expletive] willpower,” he said. “The only limitation is the mental one.”