When we climb mountains, there is no time to read books. When we climb mountains, that is when the books are written.
I swear I could write novels in my head while skiing if I had the means to write it all down. And not just fiction; essays in defense of land, essays in defense of human rights, poems and songs, open letters to senators and thoughtful articles for outdoor magazines. Ideas for this inconsistent yet consuming writing project, The Beartooth Chronicles. A dozen drafts saved, all unfinished. In her recent work, When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes that from an early age she has lived two distinct lives: one in which she experiences the world and one in which she re-experiences the world, with a pen in hand. I agree with this notion. To describe a time and place, you must return.
Yesterday was a full day on skis. Our goal was to summit Electric Peak in Yellowstone National Park. The map tags Electric at 10,969 feet above sea level, making it the tallest mountain in the Gallatin Range. It feels higher than that when you view the jagged, snowy peak from the bottom of Paradise Valley – the Yellowstone River. We sleep at the trail head. I say we – I am with Anthony. Our philosophy in the mountains is similar: go light and fast, respect the land, and set lofty goals. Years ago, before I came west, I found a mantra that I live by to this day: tell your dreams to anyone who will listen. Anthony is someone who listens.
Four in the morning and my alarm sounds. That same Eddie Vedder song, it’s been my alarm for nearly two years, since my trip to the Himalayas in 2015. I’ve tried other alarms since, but they have proven to be ineffective. I can’t listen to the song casually anymore. The van windows are frosted from our breath. Headlamps on, coffee brewing. Today is a big day. In less than an hour, we are on the trail.
Almost immediately we skirt past a herd of sheep, their green eyes reflecting the light from our headlamps. They are aware, yet unconcerned. I feel the same. We work our way in the darkness on skis, with barely enough snow to justify them, in a true desert landscape comprised juniper and sagebrush – some of the largest I’ve seen. After a few miles following a creek, we begin ascending the prominent ridge that will lead us into the alpine. For now, we remain in the trees, picking out way higher and higher. We find a skin track, perhaps a week old judging from the powder blanket. The tracks of wolf we see are only a few hours old. We continue.
My roommate has a dog named Koda. She is completely black. Even her tongue is black. She is a blend of many breeds, resulting in short hair and plenty of loose skin. Being a rescue, she will eat anything semi-edible within reach, if left alone. She cannot shake the past terrors of food insecurity, of fighting to get enough. Many dogs are like this. Many people are like this.
Coming from a part of the world that is starved of mountains, I often feel insecure about them. I fear they will vanish, eroding in a matter of days, the sediments destined to rest in the basins of the Pacific, and the plains of North America. This paranoia contributes to my drive to go out – to run and ski, spending as much time in the mountains as I possibly can. I remember, too well, the feeling of being starved of these mountains.
We are well above the trees now, in an alien world. The bitter wind and stormy clouds remind us why life is sparse up here. The broad ridge we have climbed all day is now rocky and barren, with a thin icy crust of snow. We navigate the jagged rocks that poke through the snow, careful not to damage the skins on our skis. We are nearly in the clouds now.
My fear of losing this land is not unrealistic. Looking down into the valley, a few miles from the invisible border of Yellowstone National Park, there are claims staked by two mining companies: Lucky Minerals Inc., a Canadian mining company, and Crevasse Mining Co. Both seek to extract gold in low concentrations using open-pit mining in Paradise Valley. Additionally, members of congress are taking unprecedented measures to sell off public lands in the American West to private interests. This era will make activists out of all of us.
The representatives of these companies, and the politicians who collaborate with them, claim that projects like the gold mine proposals in Paradise Valley represent Montanan heritage, promising job growth in the region. It’s a familiar siren song, which can be heard from the Berkley Pit in Butte to the fallout of vermiculite mining in Libby. “Hunger is a powerful reason to stay with someone, no matter how badly they treat you,” says Montana writer Russell Rowland in his essay, The Battered Wife. “Mining has consistently kept Montana hungry, while quietly telling her that he is taking the best care of her that he can possibly afford.” More on that later…
What brought me to the mountains is not what keeps me there.
Ahead, at the edge of the world, a solitary elk stands watching us. “What are you doing up here?” I ask. He does not answer. Instead, the great bull slowly turns away and continues into the clouds. At the time, I was too focused on our objective to fully appreciate this encounter. In retrospect, I realize how surreal the experience was, to find a lone creature standing on an exposed ridge in Yellowstone in the middle of winter. This image is burned into my memory. There are some events in life that I realize, in the moment, I will never forget. This was one of those moments; a living being – a mammal – high above the trees, walking slowly into the storm.