In which I discover Montana mountains March 15, 2010Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir.
Tags: Absaroka Mountains, Beartooth Mountains, Lakes Plateau, Montana hiking, Mt. Douglas
Note: Thanks to Peter for helping me fill in some of the details.
In the summer of 1983, my husband Chris and I went to visit my brother out in Montana. Peter lived in a cabin that he had built himself up in the valley of the Boulder River in Mcleod, right up where the ranges of Absarokas and the Beartooths come together, southeast of Livingston. It was the first time I’d been hiking in Montana.
Chris and I were living in Knoxville then, and we’d been doing a lot of hiking in the Smokies. We were having some pretty challenging adventures and starting to get into interesting off-trail stuff. But I would have to say that Montana, well, um, kicked my butt.
There was something about the space, feeling engulfed by huge basins of space, being a tiny creature crawling like an ant over enormous humpbacked, razorbacked, sideways slanting, upward soaring, crazy tilted contortions of rock. I was impressed by it all, I was awed by it, in fact I think the problem was that I was a little bit too in awe of it.
I sort of figured that out after I got home. You can’t just be thinking about how overwhelming the mountains are! You might also think about your own capabilities and what you can do with a pair of good strong legs and a bit of determination. But I will say that I’ve always had a bit of a problem out west, something verging on phobia. Nevertheless, I’ve been back out west many times since this first trip and have climbed quite a few mountains in the Rockies and the Sierras.
My brother took Chris and me on a backpack up to the Lakes Plateau. I think that was the trip where Peter made us up a batch of tasty beef jerky in a smoker behind his cabin. The beef was not completely dehydrated, so it wasn’t going to keep forever, but it was well enough preserved that it could last through our overnight trip. So we threw our gear into Peter’s truck, drove up the Boulder valley, and started our hike at Upside Down Creek. Looking at the map, I see that we passed Horseshoe Lake and then Mirror Lake, leaving the trail and cutting cross-country. We passed through meadows spangled with wildflowers and entered the hall of the mountain kings.
The Lakes Plateau is a high alpine meadowland studded with dozens of sparkling, shining lakes at an elevation of between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. Stepping among tiny red, blue, yellow flowers, we entered a valley at the headwaters of Hawley Creek. Myriad tiny streams crisscrossed the spongy ground.
In the late afternoon we crossed a height of land and came to a lake that presented an obstacle. I believe it is called Squeeze Lake: a deep pool of dark blue water that fits neatly into a slot where the valley pinches in and creates rock walls on both sides. Getting around the lake is fairly challenging, but Peter looked at the pieces of the puzzle and put together a route to the left. We scrambled over some slabs and got well up above the elevation of the lake. I found this difficult and a bit scary. But once past, we found a good place to camp.
In the morning our objective was to climb Mt. Douglas, elev. 11,300. We passed around the shore of a second, larger lake and made a steep climb up to a saddle between Douglas and a knob to the south. The loose rock came in all shapes and sizes—scree, talus, boulders. By the time we got up to the saddle, I was feeling queasy and exhausted. The altitude was bothering me—and maybe something more than the altitude.
From there the climb to the top of Douglas only amounted to a few hundred vertical feet up a broad easy ridge, but I decided not to go any further. Not one more step! It seems pretty pathetic to me now. Many times since then I have done fine at altitudes above 10,000 feet with little or no acclimatization. But, on this particular day, all I wanted to do was to sit and wait while Peter and Chris went to the top. I soaked in the sunshine and watched the pikas skittering among the rocks.
Then we worked our way back down, returning in stages to the outside world: the valley, the meadows, the footpath, the road. But even as we descended I was already tormenting myself with the thought that if I’d just tried a little harder, I would have made it to the top. The whole place, that whole valley that ran beside Mt. Douglas, haunted my memory over the following months. I kept thinking about those high, hidden lakes, the tiny twinkling wildflowers, the cold rivulets running through the meadows.
We had another expedition on the west side of the Boulder up to Sheepherder Peak. Peter’s idea was to give us a feel for the different ranges: Sheepherder has the volcanic rock of the Absarokas, while on the other side of the valley, Douglas has the granite of the Beartooths. Although it was August, the most snow-free month, we saw some old dirty snow.
The air had a soupy look, threatening a thunderstorm.
But it was the picture below that I looked at with pride when we returned home. We found a route between the two guardian spires and churned up the scree. To me, it was amazing to go into a place that looked so hostile and to perform a kind of conversion—what I mean is, converting the impossible into the possible. For me, it was the very beginning of a sense of that I could do these kinds of things, though the mountains of Montana would give me plenty more trouble in years to come. Still to come were my ignominious turnaround on Iddings Peak and my pointless defeat on Big Timber Peak (both in the Crazy Mountains), and my whimpering on the descent of the north face of Mt. Blackmore (in the Gallatins) … ah, Montana!