Montana Headwall » Head Lines & Features

Hold on the universe

One family’s push to continue a common journey



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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.

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“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.

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