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Hold on the universe

One family’s push to continue a common journey



Gazing up at the clouds spread thick along the Rocky Mountain Front, I can feel my insides twisting into a knot. It’s not fear that’s nagging at me but disappointment. A few short days earlier Ear Mountain had cut the sky like a blade, its crisp outline beckoning us. Now the peak has disappeared behind a vast white curtain that continues to creep across the range, foot by foot. Somewhere up there is my family’s ancestral hold on the universe, a mountain we’ve long admired, and decided we must climb. This hump of jagged rock and jack pine we’re standing on now is as close as we’ll come this summer.

“I’m telling you, that butte to the north has to be this point here,” I say, jabbing a finger at the map. “It’s the only spot that makes any sense.”

I’ve been going back and forth with my dad, Erik, for almost half an hour about where on the map we are. We’ve got our bearings: the jeep track we followed up over Yeager Flats, the ridges feeding off the mountains in front of us. Not that our exact location matters much now. There’s no sense trying to bushwhack dense aspen and pine only to get lost in that ever-lowering cloud ceiling. We’re just trying to save face, trying to convince ourselves we could make it if we tried.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Alex Sakariassen

“No, I think we’re standing right here,” he says, lining up the compass. “But then what the hell is that tall point in front of us? Thom, what’s our elevation right now?”

My cousin, Thom Baustian, visiting from Des Moines, digs through a pack for the GPS. He informs us that we’re around 6,100 feet, far short of Ear Mountain’s 8,580-foot summit. Elevation is the last piece of the puzzle, and we conclude that Dad is in fact right about where we are. Thom’s wife, Beth, and my 15-year-old cousin, Maggie Luthin, from Pennsylvania, snap photos and take in the view of prairie to the east. We rummage for granola bars and sit on the rocks, our faces long from fatigue or disappointment, hard to tell which.

“Well, the mountain’s beaten us again,” Dad says. We chuckle. We remember our first attempt to summit Ear Mountain with my sister Emily, a few years before, a trip cut short by an impassable cliff face. ºOnly two members of our tangled clan have ever made it to the top: me, and Maggie’s father, Bill Luthin. It’s been a wistful dream to reach the summit as a group to stand, two generations side by side, overlooking our collective home.

I’m on another mission today, though. At the bottom of my pack is a small tartan container with the last of my maternal grandmother’s ashes. The summer after she died, in 2004, we spread most of her to the wind from a butte overlooking the Front. My mom, Amy, felt that a part of her should mingle with my grandfather atop Ear Mountain. He lived the bulk of his life in its shadow, and his ashes were spread upon it after his death. Grandma had lived with him in sight of Ear Mountain as well, in a modest home on the Teton River we call The Barn. I spent all my summers as a kid marveling at Ear Mountain’s odd southward slant. In my earliest years I thought it was called Our Mountain.

“Nothing to do but go back,” Dad says. The rest of us have been silent, not wanting to admit it.

“Sorry guys,” I say. I don’t know why I feel like it’s my fault.

“Don’t be sorry,” Beth says, smiling. “You can’t control the weather.”

For our sakes, and for Grandma’s, I wish I could. Instead her ashes will return to the Barn and wait, like the rest of us, for another year.

“I doubt the practical sense of claiming kinship to a mountain, but sometimes it seems to me that Ear Mountain and I are on a common journey, made relatives by times and vicissitudes. Of course its life will outlast mine, but I’d rather it missed me than that I grieved for it.”

My grandfather A.B. Guthrie Jr.—known to my family as Bud—penned those words in the late 1970s, summing up the feeling that drew his eyes time and again to Ear Mountain. Six months after his birth, in 1901, Bud came to the Choteau area with his parents and sister. A childhood in Choteau meant long days fishing and hiking on the fringes of the Bob Marshall Wilderness—long before it was named as such—and Bud developed a strong bond to the landscape. It became an inspiration for his writing, sometimes a setting, and the bond brought him back after a journalism career in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a connection that bled onto every page of his work, from The Big Sky to a little-known series of western mysteries he composed later in life. The Front was home for him, and Ear Mountain its hearth.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Alex Sakariassen

I don’t remember Bud well. I was five when he passed away in the spring of ’91, and while we continue to maintain the Barn as he and Grandma did, my memories of him there are hazy. One does stand out: The sight of Ear Mountain through the twin picture windows in his loft study, where he’d sit me on his lap before a typewriter and let my fingers hammer the keys. That view is a respite I retreat to as often as possible now, a place where my connection to both my grandfather and his beloved Front feels strongest. Grandma never called it Ear Mountain that I can remember. It was always “Buddy’s Mountain.”

Thom, Beth, Maggie, Emily, my parents—there’s a silent acknowledgment these days that we have inherited Bud’s connection with Ear Mountain. Thom and Beth were still just high-school sweethearts when they first came to the Barn together. Mom and Bill knew happy childhood days here with Grandma and Bud, and brought the significant others that would become their spouses for visits. My folks were married in the Barn’s sun room, and in the decades that followed, the youngest of us spent summers building forts or fishing the Teton for rainbow and cutthroat. Our lives have unfolded in Ear Mountain’s shadow, making it a part of the family.

Ear Mountain lies 30 miles, give or take, west of the small ranching burg of Choteau. Few peaks of the Front Range illustrate more dramatically where the American plains end and the Rockies begin. The cliffs of Ear Mountain rise suddenly from a mass of rolling green foothills and jumbled scree, sparking in the hearts of locals a special attachment to that word Western authors so commonly employ: place. Ear Mountain is perhaps the most widely recognized peak on the Front, and a name not easily forgotten, even if its origins have been. One theory is that mountain men of the 19th century fur trade called the peak Elephant Ear.

The story leads one to wonder if those trappers ever laid eyes on an elephant. Ear Mountain bears little resemblance to an elephant’s ear, or any ear for that matter.

Ear Mountain is a tipped triangular slab with its topmost vertex pointing almost due north and its low-slung base facing south. The shape changes as one cruises through perspectives along the Front, but for my family, the truest view is that seen from the banks of the Teton River four miles east, by the Barn.

Uncle Bill was the first of us to reach the summit. In 1981 he launched a haphazard trek up Rierdon Gulch on the Teton’s South Fork, only to find himself and his crew two drainages too far west. He made the mountain’s backside by dusk and had to bivouac on Ear’s flat, slanted top. Mom remembers seeing their flashlights shining on the summit that night, visible from the Barn, miles away. Her own attempt, years later, up and around the mountain’s southern flank, was halted by one of the sudden lightning storms all too common along the Front.

Bud made it next, in a way, though he’d never really cared to see the top. He told a reporter with the Helena Independent Record in 1985, “I just want to look at it. I suppose you could call Ear Mountain a kind of a talisman.” After his death in 1991, a family friend flew Grandma and Bill over the peak to spread Bud’s ashes. Bill later delivered a tribute during Bud’s memorial service in Choteau: “To the west are the mountains that were the backbone of his work. In that range, one peak stands out: Ear Mountain. In its shadow he lived his life and wrote his books. He called Ear Mountain his hold on the universe. It holds him now.”

There are a number of ways to summit Ear Mountain, none of which follow clearly defined trails. An approach from the south requires a hike up an old jeep trail, then a steady push through aspen groves and over ridgelines until you reach the base of the lower cliff face. From the north, you have the option of bushwhacking to a fat ridgeline and skirting a scree basin or bushwhacking to a steeper ridge and hooking over the saddle just below Ear’s northern tip. Either way, you end up on a goat path along a precarious scree slope on Ear’s backside. The final push is the same from any direction: a desperate scramble up a single chimney that spits you out on the top.

The summer before I started college at the University of Montana, our family friend Jenny Barhaugh phoned the Barn, where we were vacationing, to ask if I’d be interested in climbing Ear Mountain. Grandma had passed away in May, and I felt a particular yearning to connect with the family spirits. For Jenny and the three others in our proposed party, it was a refreshing jaunt in familiar surroundings. For me, it felt like a pilgrimage. I said I’d go, and Jenny cautioned me to bring leather gloves. The scree could be unforgiving on hands.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Alex Sakariassen

“This is exhausting.” I uttered the phrase repeatedly as Jenny led us, like a mountain goat, straight up a steep ridge. We’d crossed Yeager Flats and turned off-trail at some point that made sense only to Jenny, fighting our way through dense growth until the pines thinned out. Navigating cliffy outcroppings and balancing across fields of sharp rock, we finally reached a skinny goat path. Precambrian spires rose above us to Ear’s final elevation.

“Watch your footing here,” Jenny told us when we reached the base of the chimney.

I took two steps up the scree, sank back one step, and took two more. I steadied myself against the rock face to my left and watched Jenny’s progress for hints. When I finally hauled myself onto the flat top of Ear, I let out a sigh. The plains stretched so far I imagined I could see the North Dakota line in the distance, and my hometown of Bismarck just beyond. Looking north, south and west, the Rockies lifted toward the sky like the prows of so many ships in a storm.

We relaxed for a while with our backs against a pile of rock, then wandered to the true summit. The U.S. Geological Survey marker puts the elevation at 8,580. I dared to peer over the side. The world fell away for a few hundred feet and was swallowed by a slope of scree and boulders.

Standing there, I began to understand Ear Mountain’s place in the universe. It felt like standing on the spindle of some giant record player—a metaphor Bill loved to apply to our favorite fishing hole on the Teton. The world seemed to revolve around Ear. But something was missing. When I returned to the Barn later that afternoon, I knew that only Bill could relate to what I’d seen.

Years later, in 2011, Dad and I found ourselves staring across a cliff face at the backside of Ear Mountain, cut off from the final approach by a drop of hundreds of feet. We could see the tan ribbon of a trail along the valley floor below. Above, the spires of Ear Mountain’s southwest vertex removed any hope of proceeding. We’d climbed too high, or too low. With no obvious path to follow, we couldn’t tell which.

“End of the line, folks,” Dad said as we returned to Emily, Maggie and the rest. They were snacking on the last of the bread, cheese and salami we’d packed. Those over 21 were passing around a bottle of Pinot grigio. A glance at the map told us we’d made it to about 8,200 feet—380 feet short of the summit.

After an online review of several suggested routes, we’d decided to try the southern approach. All morning we’d trudged methodically uphill, each step steeper than the last. What we found below Ear’s southern cliffs was breathtaking: a boulder-strewn basin speckled with jack pine that offered a thrilling view of the Deep Creek drainage and Chute Mountain beyond. As demoralizing as it was to reach a dead-end, the hike was worth it.

The trip down, however, proved terrifying. We somehow misjudged the layout of drainages and wound up farther south than we’d intended. We hoofed it over first one ridge and then another, bushwhacking dense streamside growth that seemed like prime habitat for grizzlies. I kept one hand over my bear spray, imagining the tongue-lashing I’d get from Bill and my aunt Kay if something took a bite out of Maggie. By the time we reached the base of the third ridge, our water had run low. The temperature rose as the afternoon wore on. Beth started to feel light-headed, a clear indication that dehydration was setting in.

“Well, this is a lot of fun,” Thom said as we climbed over a log next to a stream. “Anyone know where we are?”

“Ho, bear,” I shouted, not wanting to admit I was lost. “Hey, bear. Go away, bear.”

Maggie picked up the chant. Emily followed suit. With little else to lift our spirits, we put the words to music.

“Okay, this looks pretty familiar,” I said as we crested a particularly tiring rise. A trail appeared around a bend. We passed a wide clearing. The jeep trail materialized before us. By the time we reached the car, we’d overshot dinner by an hour. We vowed that next time we’d ask for better directions.

That’s the task I was charged with early this summer, as we discussed on Facebook what Fourth of July weekday would work best for another try. I’d hoped to line up an actual guide to take us, ideally someone like Jenny who knew the route well. I had to settle for directions and tips from several sources. On July 5, the night before our trek, I dug out the old quadrangle map and drove to a neighbor’s house up the road. Several of us bent over the map, tracing the jeep track across Yeager Flats to a stream crossing. There, I was told, the route peeled off through the aspen and up one of the ridgelines.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Alex Sakariassen

“Where exactly do we turn west?” I asked.

“Oh, you just follow your intuition,” said Dave Carr, a longtime friend of Grandma and Bud. “It’ll just feel right.”

I’d gotten similar directions from Jenny over the phone a little earlier. She’d said to leave the jeep track “when it makes sense to” and simply go up. “When you cross the fence going north-south,” she added, “you’ll know you’re going the right way.”

None of this instilled much confidence. Still, I’d been told the northern approach was easier, and I felt that with a map, compass and clear line of sight up each ridge, I could get us to our destination. The next morning, we awoke to clouds on the horizon.

“Amy, we’re heading back down.”

Thom is holding his phone above his head. My mom, seated comfortably back at the Barn, is on the other end. Apparently cell reception has finally come to the Front, a fact I’m regarding as a travesty. Thom puts Mom on speaker.

“Did you make it already?” she asks. There’s a teasing tone to her voice. We’ve only been gone three hours, and it takes at least four to reach the summit.

“No. The clouds are too thick. We’re heading back.”

“Yeah, we figured. We can’t even see the mountains from here.” It’s my sister’s voice now. They’re clearly having a bit of a laugh at our expense.

“How about we meet you back at the car for lunch?”

“See you there.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • David Spear

Thom hangs up and tosses his phone back in his bag. I continue munching on a granola bar, fuming a little.

The hike back down proves largely uneventful aside from the cloud ceiling’s continuing descent. If we continued to climb, lack of visibility would merely add to the danger. I’ve flirted with foggy mountaintops before. I reassure the group with some authority that we’re making the right call.

“Next year,” Thom says, “why don’t we hire a helicopter to take us up?”

I can’t help thinking, as we plod back down the jeep track, that Bud had more sense than us in ignoring the call of Ear Mountain’s summit. Somehow the family’s common journey with that peak has gone from looking up to climbing up. Perhaps it’s how we seek to console the mountain in whatever grief it might feel for Bud and Grandma’s passing. Perhaps it’s how we’ve decided to deal with our own grief, to gaze down on the world with our ghosts instead of gazing powerlessly up at them.

In 1986, the year I was born, Bud wrote a final poetic ode to Ear Mountain. It became the title piece in his single chapbook of poetry, Four Miles From Ear Mountain. It goes like this:

Ear Mountain stands four miles away,
crow-flight, from our house.
No day passes but I gaze on it
as my father did when I was young.
I see him looking out the window west,
his eyes fixed and his body still.
Restive, he found peace there perhaps,
or in it some continuation of himself,
some promise of foreverness.
I did not know his thoughts,
nor am I clear about my own
as its lift invites my eye,
and somehow I am part of it,
a mortal partner to eternity.

I only wish I’d brought a copy to read in the shadow of those clouds.

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