Reflections of Mount Villard

Monday, July 16, 3:30 p.m.

It is pouring rain again for the third day in a row. A small lake has formed outside our tent, and inside we can feel ourselves beginning to float. The sharp rock that kept me awake jabbing me in the ribs last night has breached the nylon floor, and the accumulating water is starting to seep in. Our water purifier substitutes as a makeshift sump pump. I use it to squeeze a couple liters of rainwater into our cookstove, but it’s literally a futile drop in the bucket.

My brother Scott flashes his trademark toothy grin as he records the action on video. “Just another day in the ‘Tooths!” he proudly exclaims. After living in pancake-flat Florida for the past six months, he had been starving for some high-mountain adventure.

A flash of lightning, a clap of thunder. The deafening sound of raindrops pummeling our tent intensifies. These are the untamed Beartooth Mountains of Montana, and we are having the time of our lives!

Photo by Scott Handlin

* * *

Tuesday, July 17, 8:00 a.m.

“All right, let’s put the camera away and get the hell off this rock!” I am anxious to get this over with. Tooling our way up the steep snow couloir had been strenuous and exciting, but the mid-morning sun is turning the snow to shit. We will be struggling through post-hole hell all the way back to camp if we don’t get moving.

Compared to climbing Villard, I knew that Glacier Peak would be the more formidable objective. I was right. Last night’s clear skies froze yesterday’s rain into a thin icy glaze making for precarious footing as we scrambled across the knife ridge to reach its summit. I am feeling extremely gripped at the prospect of climbing back down the slippery rocks.

* * *

Tuesday, July 17, 1:45 a.m.

Something stirs in the dark outside the tent and my sleeping eyelids snap awake.

“Probably just that stupid marmot,” I think to myself. I had been hearing nighttime noises since the beginning of our trip, no doubt some small animal investigating our alien presence. I check my watch. One forty-five. I can see bright stars and a clear night sky peaking through the mosquito mesh. I get up to answer nature’s call and take a few moments to gaze at the twinkling lights and wonder about their ancient secrets untold.

In a few hours the dim light of dawn will come over the mountain, and we will arise to face our final challenge of the trip. Yesterday on Mount Villard we spotted a narrow snow chute on the shoulder of its taller western neighbor, Glacier Peak.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to climb up that?” we wondered.

I crawl back into my sleeping bag and settle into restless slumber.

* * *

Tuesday, July 17, 8:30 a.m.

“Hey, how does that finale to the Star Wars soundtrack go?”

The question comes from over my shoulder. Ordinarily, it would seem like a ridiculous query, especially in a situation like this. I am seated precipitously on a narrow ledge searching for the next hidden foothold down. The wall behind me presses against my bulky pack, theatening to push me off to my death. I grip the ledge with my buttcheeks and contemplate Scott’s distracting nonsequitor.

We’ve both been Star Wars geeks since boyhood, and we occasionally revel in ironically humorous discussions involving the movie’s most minute nuances and details.

“I think it goes like this…”

Next thing I know, we’re both obnoxiously belting out the Star Wars theme music Peter Griffin style. Somehow, my brother always finds a way to make things fun. I relax and ease myself down to the next hold, then the one after that, and then another one.

We continue down the tricky talus in this way, echoing George Lucas’ space opera off the rocky walls of this gazillion-year-old granite amphitheater to fall on the ears of an absent audience below. We are the quintessential action heros in our own minds, yowling like Wookies and using The Force to glissade snowy slopes like Luke Skywalker cruising the Death Star’s equatorial trench in his X-Wing fighter.

* * *

Monday, July 16, 6:30 p.m.

Soon, the storm passes and we evacuate our tent to survey the situation. Several days past, we established a makeshift outpost here at the outlet of Upper Aero Lake. From this vantage, we watch the storm that had threatened to drown us fleeing quickly over the mountains to the North. In contrast to the previous cacophony of rain and thunder, it feels eerily tranquil.

This is a wild, lonely place. Since our wives dropped us off at the trailhead days ago, we have seen no sign of man nor beast, save for a few goat turds and mosquitos. The backdrop of ominous Mount Villard has been our daily wallpaper, and I stand in awe at its spectacularly bizarre spires, suddenly illuminated in evening orange parting the clouds. It soon fades to memory as abruptly as it appeared, leaving behind lingering shades of pink and purple.

Early this morning we tested ourselves against the mountain. We took a gamble by climbing up through the cloud cover, and we were rewarded by evaporating skies over panoramas of icy lakes and the snow-clad Beartooth Plateau stretching to distant horizons.

Winter is king in this place, allowing only a forty-five day growing season. But on this July day it was beginning to loosen its grip. The snow we climbed to the peak was quickly turning to sloppy slush, and in a few days our summit highway will have melted into an impassible dead-end road of hazardous, loose scree.

Mount Villard is actually two peaks, the main eastern summit rising to 12,350 feet elevation. Some guidebooks list the western peak as a separate summit altogether, noted as Hidden Peak at 12,320 feet. As we ascended them both, we saw views of other twelve-thousand foot peaks in every direction including Granite Peak, Montana’s 12,799-foot patriarch. Over its shoulder we glimpsed other notable twelvers, Mt. Wood, Mt. Hague, and Mt. Peale, to name a few.

I planned to climb them all.

“Someday,” I dreamed. “Someday.”

Photo by Scott Handlin

* * *



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