6 min read

Dispatch № 11 · Alpine Adventures

A visit to Montana's alpine.

Where to begin.

The wonderful thing about adventures is that one never knows where they will lead.  Navigation is the delight.

Jeannie on the summit of Beehive Peak.

The mountains are dry, terribly, shockingly, terrifyingly dry. The grasses and mosses are crisp and crunchy underfoot.  Berries are shriveled and desiccated, if the plants have borne fruits at all.  High alpine ponds are bone dry, cracked mud where glaciers once pressed their heavy bodies into the earth carving these mountains.  It feels very viscerally that we are witnessing the end of something.  The end of the ice age and the coming of something different.  The transition will not be easy, in fact it will be painful. Many creatures will die.  We will be witness to this.

The animals will be hungry.  Especially the large ones.  Bears cannot survive the winter on shriveled berries and the few pine cones that the water-starved trees have produced.   One can sense the desperation.  A dry forest means many things.

Parched succulents at the top of Beehive Peak.


So here we begin.  Headed up the trail on a 9 mile hike to Cowen cirque, to camp for a night, climb Mount Cowen, sleep one more night, then head back down the mountain.  Pretty straight forward adventure.

We made our way up the valley on a trail cutting along the side of the mountain, steep and densely vegetated.  A mile or two up the trail we came around a corner and I immediately saw a brown-black furry back rising above the drought stricken rose bushes just 15 feet in front of us.  In a clear and loud voice we called -hey bear- to make our presence known, and she looked up at us.  For one quick instant we locked eyes with this big beautiful creature, and she ran off through the brush, up the mountainside.

We stood for a moment, hearts pounding, talking loudly so that she could continue to know our location.  Know that we were staying put and not pursuing her.  After about five minutes, and no further sign of her, we continued slowly up the trail.   Much to our dismay the trail began to switchback, heading in the direction the bear had moved.  After a few switchbacks the trail leveled out and continued contouring the steep, brambly mountainside up canyon.  As our hearts were beginning to slow we heard more crashing below the trail.   Instead of seeing the big bear moving up canyon ahead of us, we saw two bouncy little bear cubs running up the hillside and down the trail ahead of us.  Not good.  Momma is still behind us, up mountain and two babies are in front of us.  The only thing to do was get the heck out of that situation as calmly and quickly as possible.

Full retreat.  There was no hiking up around, or down and past. Mount Cowen will be there standing tall outstretched into the sky next summer.  

Luckily we didn’t see the momma again as we headed back out.  Three days of supplies still in our packs we arrived back at the camper.  Wanting to fulfill our desire to be in that place, but knowing it was a bad idea we decided it was best to go somewhere else. Chances are, even if we went back in a few hours they would still be there and with harsh fall weather expected to roll in in just a few days, waiting until the next day wasn’t an option either.  

The night before we left for our backpacking and climbing adventure I couldn’t sleep.  My mind was swirling with fear about bears.  This is not normal for me, and had never happened before.  I have spent a very large chunk of the last twenty years in the wild, and have never felt anticipatory fear before an adventure like this.   As soon as we saw those bear cubs we knew that our only option was to abandon the mission and heed the warning of the dreamworld.

Course change, there are plenty of other mountains to climb so we chose another one and moved on.

Jeannie on the approach to the base of the Beehive.

With time compressed, and only two days until the predicted rain, our choice was Beehive Basin.  Another high alpine wonderland of jagged cliffs and alpine lakes.  This adventure could be done easily in two days, one night backpacking as the hike was only about 4 miles to the cirque.

Heavy packs, backpacking and climbing gear.  
Alpine lakes. Dry.
Marmots and Pikas.  Their sweet little squeaks.

Asleep in our tent, surrounded by silvery stones and gnarled pines, sometime in the middle of the night thick, heavy, acrid smoke woke me up and I lay awake, listening to the quiet of the night. The charred forests of The West were rolling into my tent, burning my senses. Sometime in the darkness, between smoke and sunrise, the call of a Mountain Lion to her mate came echoing through the cirque.  She was close and the sound traveled through the canyon sharply and clearly.  Even though I knew we were safe (I’m sure she was just looking for a mate and not interested in us) there is something deep in the biology of our being that that speeds up the heart and sharpens the senses. She called her primal lion’s bark for nearly five minutes, an amazing thing to be witness to.  I've heard them call a few times before, but never that close, clearly and for that long.

Moonset over the Beartooth Mountains.

Shortly after the lioness moved on and I began to drift into sleep again, a raucous pack of wolves came barreling up the valley.  Howling and excited they filled the basin with their frenzy.  I love their crazy song.  (It was definitely wolves and not coyotes, Ive spent many nights listening to the song of coyotes.  In fact, I hear them many nights when we are home in Truth or Consequences in the desert behind our home)

The next day proceeded with all the wonder and awe we were hoping for in our alpine adventure.  At dawn we set out toward The Beehive, a gorgeous 1000 ft gneiss formation.  As we scrambled up the the boulder field we came across a momma mountain goat and her baby.  She was huge, strong and utterly uninterested in us. Majestic is the perfect word to describe her.  Her baby watched us pass with its head cocked to the side, curious and adorable.  

We climbed.  Five pitches to the top. Spectacular views. Smoke receding, storm creeping quickly toward us, wild intense wind and short staccato bursts of rain.  Indeed, as the the route description said, the descent was not trivial.  A delicate rappel followed by 500 feet down climb scramble in  loose rock dodge mini rock slides.  Down safely. 4 mile hike out.  Full-filled. Exhausted.

The non trivial descent.


Our summer travels are nearly to an end and we turn our sights back to home, to studio and art. Soon the shuttle will be flying through the warp of weaving and brushes will dance on the linen canvas of paintings.  

A marked turn towards art is to be expected in this space during the fall and winter seasons as we get back to our studios. We also have an entire summers worth of material to work through and share with everyone, what we have thus far has just been the glimpse between feverish adventures. Our vision of where to take this new project is solidifying; a summers worth of contemplation has left us full of ideas with the winter ahead to work on them.  

Art, at it's purest essence is about the process of creation; we thank you for joining the journey.  

Raven.

Jeannie has been working on a logo for this intentionally confusing project - the raven will be our guide going forward as the raven story has much to do with the name of this project.  Of the many ways which ravens exhibit extreme intelligence one particularity interesting behavior is thus:  ravens will pretend to hide food in one place and then secretly hide it in another, intentionally confusing any other ravens looking on.  

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