Justin's MTNTOUGH Story: From Packing Out Elk to Climbing 20,000 ft Peaks in South America

MTNTOUGH'er Justin Helvik is a school principal, educator, father. and husband.... he could choose the comfortable life, but he knows that "comfort is the killer."

Aware that growth comes from risk, he continues to challenge himself, from climbing 20,000 ft peaks in South America to hunting wild sheep in grizzly country.

He is a humble beast and we are lucky to have him here at The Lab.

After just having a limited entry Mountain Goat tag the year before, Justin was lucky enough to pull his Bighorn Sheep tag this year, his 3rd once in a lifetime tag in 6 years.

He’s one of the most humble, strong men that I know.  

MEET JUSTIN: Father, High School Principal, Backcountry Hunter, and Mountaineer… this is his story

I'm Justin Helvick, and I am currently the middle school and high school Principal in Three Forks, Montana, which is just outside of Bozeman.

I grew up, I'm a Montana native, I've been living in Montana my whole life, I believe I'm the fourth generation. I'm a father, and my daughter will be a fifth generation Montanan. I grew up hunting and fishing, I was totally immersed into it since I was probably three years old, so I grew up in the outdoors.

I grew up mule deer hunting, antelope hunting, not a lot of elk hunting because I lived in the Eastern half of Montana, the rolling flatlands, rolling hills and flatlands, so did a lot of mule deer and antelope hunting. It wasn't until I got to college where I started exploring elk hunting in the mountains and got a little more serious, where I became more of a mountain hunter.

Growing up shooting pheasants, turkeys, all that kind of lot of species that when people think of Montana they think of mountains. I have to remind them that 70% of Montana is not mountainous.

So I grew up on the other half. But since I've moved to the valley here, in the Gallatin Valley, which was about five years ago, I really got into the hardcore mountain hunting.

I used to do a lot of weight training, just general running, because I came from a sports background.

I grew up playing football, I even went on to play a little bit of college football, and so I carried over a lot of that, which was a lot of strength-based, powerlifting.

Then I decided that I no longer needed to bench press 400 pounds, so it was like, "Okay, it's time to change modes and get a little bit lighter."

But I could never really find that perfect medium, I guess, so then I actually started running and ran a couple of marathons. But then I found I couldn't pack as much as I used to, so it was touch for me to find that perfect rhythm for being a mountain hunter, and that was definitely a challenge.

I first learned about MTNTOUGH through some friends once I got in the valley here. 

I met some other hunters who were passionate about hunting like myself, and we went out a few times, and they told me about this program, and they said, "You know, just knowing you, you would be into this, it's pretty intense, it's geared for the mountain athlete."

I dabble in mountaineering and climbing, and then I looked them up on Instagram, of course, and I saw them, and I was like, "That looks like that could be the real deal."

So I reached out to Dustin and the first thing he told me, of course him not knowing me, he goes, "Well, it's not necessarily for everyone, but I think you should just come down and give it a shot." So I came down and I've been hooked ever since.

My first impression of the workouts was really, "This is the ticket."

Honestly, I'd done some crossfit before, I'd just dabbled with that, and I felt like that wasn't quite conducive to what I was trying to accomplish in my career at this point.

Not gonna lie, I got worked over pretty good the first time I came to MTNTOUGH, but I think it was at that point in my life where I needed someone to give me just a little kick in the butt, and MTNTOUGH certainly did that for me.

What I liked about it was it really focused on the traits that I was looking for as a hunter, and even just feeling good about myself.

MTNTOUGH has really challenged me, not only physically, but I think mentally more than anything.

I'm not one of those mountain athletes you would see on TV, or that has their own hunting show or podcast. It seems like everybody's got their own podcast these days.

I'm just an office worker. I work from a desk, I'm pretty active, but at the same time I'm not out there training every day, or climbing mountains every day, kind of a weekend warrior, so to speak.

So when I joined MTNTOUGH it kind of re-kindled or re-sparked my passion, I've always been passionate about working out and staying fit, but I was at that point in my career, I was a new dad, got married, had a beautiful daughter, and I think we get a little stagnant sometimes, and every once in a while we need someone there to kind of push us along and I think the MTNTOUGH community more than anything is what did that for me.

Once I got in and met a great group of people and had this program that really had tested me like no other. And I did some pretty intense training growing up, but this, from all aspects, from physical to mental, I think it challenged me.

And really now it's just totally re-ignited the flame, and so I'm pretty excited.

Now I find myself wanting to come here more and more, and pushing further.

When I do get that opportunity to hunt, which, working the hours I work as a middle school and high school principal, I don't have a ton of time, so when I do have that opportunity I just wanna take full advantage, and now having the physical traits that really are geared for the mountains is awesome, because now I can go in, go full boar, and actually feel pretty good about it, pushing further, and make the most of my time out there.

I would say the biggest thing is being able to, obviously beside pushing in further and deeper, is just how fast I can recover.

I can throw 100 pounds on my back, pack out an elk and in the past, I would be almost wiped out for a couple of days, now I feel better after a 20, 30 minute break.

This year was a perfect example. Packing out, quartering out an elk, I was solo when I shot it, but I was able to get that whole thing out pretty much by myself in a day, where I think in the past that would have taken me two to three days, or calling the lifeline for someone to come save me.

And I felt, nobody's gonna feel awesome after packing out hundreds of pounds of meat, but I actually felt pretty good and I recovered the next day and was able to go out with friends again the next day, and I think that's a testament to what this program can do for people.

I think one of the biggest differences about MTNTOUGH is being able to find that middle ground, between having the endurance piece and having the strength piece. 

It seems like I was on both ends of the spectrum before this program where when I was younger, more football strength training, I was very strong, but my endurance was very poor, and then I kind of swung the other way where I started running marathons and that kind of thing, and I lost a lot of weight, but I couldn't strap on even a 50, 60 pound pack and go for miles.

When I started this program I think it taught me both those disciplines, the strength and the endurance. I could go high intensity where if I needed to, for a moment, sprint up the mountain, or make that move, I was able to do that and then recover and go back at it, so I think that was the biggest thing.

When I first started this program, I was actually training for climbing some big mountains over in South America, and when I showed up I'd been doing the high intensity training with MTNTOUGH.

You have to have a guide over there in South America and those are big mountains obviously, we're talking steep grades, snow, ice, glaciers, and I got there and you have to have a guide, and he's always worried when some gringo shows up, and they're like, "Hey, if you get tired just let me know."

So we're in teams of two, and I was with the lead guide, and we're going up the Cotopaxi, which is a 20,000 foot volcano.

We leave at one in the morning, and he turns around and looks and I'm nipping right on his heels and he just looks at me and he goes, "You're in better shape than me, you need to slow down."

Which was pretty cool, and I truly believe that was because I'd totally dove right into this program, but I think that was one of the biggest compliments I got.

The strength program, on the flip side, was able to maintain that cardio piece.

And then I also was fortunate this year, I drew a big horn sheep tag in Montana.

Once in a lifetime tag.

Having the confidence knowing that I was in great shape going into this season meant a lot and I could make the most of those opportunities. And that ended up being a solo endeavor, and so I got back in there, I was in pretty deep, probably 12 miles, and got a sheep down on the ground by myself, and it got me two days to pack it out but I was able to get it out confidently.

If I wouldn't have been in that good a shape, I don't know if I would have got it out.

On the flip side, I did totally deplete myself, and that was right as MTNTOUGH was launching their strength-based program, and I was excited because I'd lost prob 17 pounds from the beginning of sheep season to the end if you count the scouting, and that was right when I got back from Ecuador and climbing, I got right into scouting for sheep.

So I never really gave my body time to recover, I lost a lot of weight. Like I said, 17 pounds, and I didn't really have 17 good pounds to lose, and I knew I didn't just want to go back to eating cupcakes and whatever and put on a lot of unneeded mass, so this program definitely built me up.

I'm back up to where I should be, I feel strong, put on good muscle mass, and yet maintained that endurance piece, which is really nice.

I think at any moment you have to be Always Ready. 

Like as a father, you have to be ready to, whether that's going sleepless nights with a newborn, you have to be ready the next day to go to work, and I work one of those jobs that's considered really high stress.

Being a principal, I always have to be ready for anything that walks through the door, whether that be parents, dealing with students, you always have to be on your game, so to speak.

And people are like, "What does that have to do with MTNTOUGH?"

But I think MTNTOUGH keeps you sharp.

Because life in general can wear on you, and kind of like a knife blade, you can get pretty dull in a hurry, and I think MTNTOUGH more than anything keeps you sharp.

I would say more so mentally than even physically. And if you look at the physical side, it's just the example of packing out an elk, or a buddy calls you the next day, "Are you ready to go?" And I am, I can say it doesn't take me long to recover, and just give me a text or a phone call and I'll be there to help you pack out or anything like that.

And the same thing when climbing mountains.

The very last mountain we climbed in South America, in Ecuador had three peaks, the first one was 17,000, the second one was just under 20,000, the last one was the largest volcano, which was over 20,000 feet.

I got really sick to the point where I hadn't eaten any food for about two days, over two days, I couldn't hold anything down, just completely depleted, and here I am with that decisions, and the guide was like, "Well, maybe you should stay back." And I'm with some buddies who I climb with every year, and they look at me and they go, "Well, we're never gonna be able to make it back here. So are you ready or are you not?"

It's one of those gut check times.

I can say because of the condition I was in not only physically but mentally, I was able to suck it up and actually make the summit that day.

Of all the crews that were climbing that day, I think only two made the summit.

A nasty ice storm moved in, it was well below zero, came out covered in about an inch of ice at the summit.

But that's being always ready. No nutrients in my body, just completely depleted. It was completely mental at that point.

So I think in a nutshell that's what MTNTOUGH does for you, both mentally and physically.

I've always been in decent shape, but MTNTOUGH has a good way of humbling you too, and just to see other people at the level that they're working at, and there's so many different twists, and so many different workouts.

I also think one of the surprising things is just how real applicable it was to being in the field. Because I can sit there and you can do squats, you can do cleans, you can go out and you can even trail a run, or go run 10 miles, 12 miles, and it never really translated over that well, in my opinion, to packing out a 70 pound elk quarter, or moose quarter, or whatever it may be.

So I think that was the thing that surprised me the most, is just how it did translate to, from being in the gym or wherever you're working out, to being in the field.

I've never had a program do that.

You don't have to be an endorsed mountain athlete to do MTNTOUGH workouts.

That seems to be a lot of the hype in today's society, is people think that you've gotta be able to go out and leap over buildings to go out and hunt public lands, and chase down elk, or mule deer, or mountain goats, or sheep, or whatever it may be.

I was in the position when I came in here, I was not in the best of shape. I'm just a regular Joe who works an office job. A lot of hours. I work 50, 60 hours a week sometimes, and I was able to come here and really have zero regrets.

If anything I wish I'd have started sooner.

So I'd say, get off your duff and come try it out. And don't be afraid of what people are gonna think.

It's a great community too, that's one thing with the MTNTOUGH program, whether you're able to do it here at the lab, or on the online community, there's a lot of people just like you who realize that they can do it, so get out there and do it.

It's really inspired me, it's re-lit that flame, and I'm already planning my next hunt, my next climb, and I think a lot of that's attributed to MTNTOUGH.