Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The surface of the 80-foot wide ribbon of snow we are crossing is coated in a mushy conglomerate of ice, slush, and water. Halfway through, I realize the ineffective microspikes on my boots are mere decorations, unable to gain purchase on the 40-degree slope. Afternoon sunlight radiates from a blazing, blue, cloudless sky. It is literally cold comfort, for if I happen to take a ride down the 150-foot snowfield, I’ll be ejected into the chilled waters of a nameless Montana backcountry lake. As I struggle to keep my heart rate down, I curse my curious decision to save a pound by bringing along these useless claws on my feet.
Thankfully, Paul listened to me when I insisted he bring along real crampons, not these silly little spikes tenuously holding me in place.
It is the first week of September 2014, and we have driven up from Colorado to climb Montana’s highest mountain, the 12,808-foot Granite Peak. Located deep in the Beartooth Mountains, Granite is likely the second or third most difficult state highpoint to climb, after the obvious champion, Denali, and on par with Wyoming’s remote Gannett Peak. The route we are attempting is a class 3+ couloir accessed via the Sky Top Lakes, a rarely visited pocket of alpine glory far from anything. It’s a good 28 miles round trip with only marginal trails to treeline and beyond that, none at all.
In our case, we didn’t even benefit from the marginal trails. An unexpected snowstorm hammered the region the day we left—we caught the brunt of it as we drove over the indelicately named Dead Indian Pass. Just driving to Cooke City (the last outpost of civilization) and up the matrix of unmarked 4x4 roads to reach the trailhead was a challenge. Disembarking from the truck, we had to contend with a dense patchwork of snow to reach the redundantly named Lady of the Lake (Lake). Past that, we had to work three miles through an unfamiliar pine forest until breaching treeline en route to our campsite at Rough Lake.
In contrast to my poor decision to swap out my crampons for microspikes, I did make the last minute call to pack my winter camping gear. Even though the storm was forecast as a quick, passing flurry, it ended up being much more fierce. Temperatures hovered in the teens and snow obscured what few social trails might have been visible on the way to our camp. By the time we hiked in 8 miles to our designated overnight spot, we had done two water crossings, and night was quickly falling. Paul had gotten chillier than I did and was on the fringe of mild hypothermia. He was relieved when he saw I brought winter sleeping bags, my winter tent, and my cold-weather stove. I prepared hot drinks for us and helped warm up my companion as we plotted our route underneath the luminous stars that began to burn in the ultra-black night sky.
The next day, it was Paul’s turn to repay my favor. Confidently stomping across the snowfield in his sturdy, six-point crampons, he easily passed me and extended an arm to support me as I flailed across the mush. It was the first time in many, many years I had made a such a stupid, potentially catastrophic error in the backcountry. My buddy’s strength and support unleashed a rush of gratitude, the kind that only manifests itself in situations of real consequence. We crossed without incident and carried on.
By the time we reached the final gully only 400 vertical feet from the summit, we had lost a great deal of time trying to navigate Montana’s wintry disguise, and it was late in the day. While we both felt strong, it was 2 p.m. A torrent of rocks and sizeable boulders careened in the shadowy couloir, loosened by the sun’s radiation, creating a hazardous climb. Despite being within striking distance—maybe an hour to the top—we made the wise decision to turn around. We had lost a full day from the bad weather and had jobs, dogs and other responsibilities to return home to. We’d be back next year with plenty of good beta (and crampons. I actually returned back by walking in the frigid lake below the snowfield to bypass the danger).
I’d never felt so good about not reaching a summit. The Sky Top Lakes area is remarkable. Huge summit spires guard the crystal blue ponds and white snowfields flare up from the valley floor. Vivid memories of the feel of the place are welcome flashbacks in pre-dream thoughts before sleep. Unlike well-trodden wilderness areas in Colorado, Montana’s Beartooths are lightly traveled. Above treeline, the mountains radiate a primitive, unfinished aura—a land at the dawn of time. We didn’t see any other humans during our adventure, only a smattering birds and what I think was the fleeing hindquarter of a porcupine.
We salvaged our adventure by hiking out that same day, arriving at our truck at midnight and scoring a room in a strange gas station/casino in Cooke City. From there, we had 24 hours to reconfigure a plan to grab some sort of meaningful prize before the dull siren song of responsibility beckoned us home.
The next morning we drove the thrilling road over Beartooth Pass into the stark, desolate, farmland of North Dakota—we wanted to go home with at least one state highpoint. The 3,506-foot White Butte was a far cry from the rugged terrain of Granite Peak, but it had a raw beauty that fit the landscape. Plus it served a role contained in many good adventures: It brought us somewhere we would have otherwise never gone. Neither of us felt a hint of disappointment from not getting to the top of Granite; blah, blah, journey not the destination, we all know the philosophical mantra. But to really feel it, to really bask in the journey—that’s what made us feel alive.
Montana was already back on the calendar for 2015 before we arrived home in Colorado
In March 2015, Paul was rushed into surgery for an unusually enlarged spleen, an annoyance that had plagued him throughout a winter of snowboarding, hiking, and ice climbing. “The docs can’t find anything, so I must be faking it,” he mused. When the engorged, football-sized organ was extracted from his body, Paul made a convincing case that something was indeed awry. The wake of relief at the extraction of the offending organ was rudely dissolved when doctors connected the symptomatic dots and confirmed a frightful diagnosis: Paul had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer.
Here, I will steer the narrative away from my own feelings and defer to Paul’s impressive reaction to this horrifying reality. He’s faced every step of this life-or-death battle with great humor, unflinching courage and not an outward ounce of self-pity. It has been amazing to see his quiet resolve throughout the months. Rushed into an intense program of chemotherapy, I’d visit him in the hospital, where he’d be joking with nurses who often shared his jovial attitude—and stern-faced doctors who did not.
More than once, he’s apologized, through the drug-induced haze of toxic chemicals coursing through his body, that he won’t be able to make the Montana trip this year. That’s right, the guy with a network of rubber tubes piercing his body, bald as a melon and puffy from anabolic steroids was apologizing to me, as if I would be bummed out that he was being such a slacker.
There is something like shame that sometimes washes over me, with my able but aging body, when I see how strong Paul has been through this ordeal. He’s been one of my closest friends since we met in college in 1995 and after 12 years of visits to Colorado, I finally convinced him to move out here (or at least I made a pretty good case). The drift of life is notorious for fading old friends away from us; this was a reversal of process.
It’s not said often enough among friends, but I love the guy like a brother. His sharp wit, biting humor, and eagerness to be up for almost anything are a perfect complement to my brooding, over-serious, and over-analytical traits. I didn’t realize how much our adventures—both in the wilderness and the front country—brought real balance to my life. This whole lymphoma thing was turning out to be quite the inconvenience. The ambiguous nature of cancer means the only answers, the only plans we have are those in the immediate future. The biological reality is that the outcome can range from full recovery to “get your affairs in order.” Hope hovers between the two, not knowing what will come but nonetheless making plans, weighing the prognosis, and logically extracting a favorable result. Fear occupies the same space.
This past November, Paul was almost out of the woods—which, of course, is the gateway to going back into the woods. But as he blithely put it, there was “still a touch of the cancer” in the form of lymphoma-based brain tumors that decided to make themselves known after the six months of initial chemo. There’s a lot of science behind the blood-brain barrier, what causes lymphoma tumors and so on, the result of all this is he’s back on an even more intensive chemo regiment—but the prospect of full recovery is still the expected outcome. To anticipate anything else would be foolish.
And that’s where we are today.
In the past year, I’ve spent many hours recalling the Montana adventure. We’ll be back, we have to go back. It’s not like I’ve been lacking for adventure in the space between then and now; in fact I spent most of the summer of 2015 in the mountains of Colorado working on a guidebook. I’ve also endured the loss of another close friend from breast cancer, a reminder that precious mortality remains at the center of Paul’s fight. I’ve pored over maps and GPS tracks from Montana, though in a suspicious cosmic event, a computer crash erased all my photos from the adventure—in fact, they were the only pictures I permanently lost in the incident.
But Paul still had his—the ones used in this article.
Montana has come to embody the long road, the unexpected detour that changes all things that come after it. It is hope, longing, and futility all in one, custom-made emotion. There is one moment in particular from the trip that I often recall. As Paul and I drank our hot tea in the early night at that first, cold camp near Rough Lake, I felt what can only be described as a previously unknown brotherly intimacy. A similar feeling was captured by Erich Maria Remarque in his poignant World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front. A passage describes how the coincidentally named Paul, a German soldier, shares an unexpected meal of goose with his commanding officer, Kat. The connection in that moment was unintentional and profound, and Remarque describes it:
"We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death."
At first, the quote seemed too melodramatic and perhaps too pretentious; to contrast a recreational hiking trip with trench warfare requires a bit of context. It is not the circumstance, therefore, but the sentiment. It has been difficult to watch my friend’s spark fade in the past months, to see the life itself diminish and return throughout the cycles of drugs, all with the end goal of a return to simple normalcy. I feel my own spark has been dulled without the company of my friend for normal things, not to mention the extraordinary things that are yet to come.
This outcome remains undetermined. Both Paul and I, optimists that we are, feel that Montana isn’t far away now. There will be lots to do in the meantime. There’s a way back, there has to be a way back, and there will be more mugs of hot tea under the towering spires of rock. There will be a tent standing like a rebellious, colorful boulder by the lake that nearly swallowed me whole when I neglected my crampons. We may or may not make the summit.
We will be changed. We will find our way back to Montana.