Mountain High 

This has been a wearisome year for Montana’s mountaineering community, with no less than four groundbreaking and influential summiteers perishing in the mountains they loved.

In early June, Montana climbers Ansel Vizcaya and Luke Casady were killed when a massive avalanche swept them off of Mount Rainier’s 5,500’ Liberty Ridge, a steep and coveted route made popular in the legendary book, Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Eager to share his skill and time guiding neophyte alpinists in mountaineering clubs like the New Rocky Mountaineers and the Missoula Alpine Club, Casady was a frequent mention in this column, offering to lead inexperienced strangers on epic adventures—like a late-winter traverse of the Bitterroot’s Heavenly Twins.

Then last week, the body of Butte-based rock hound Dwight Bishop was found in Grand Teton National Park. He is believed to have fallen more than 1,000 feet during a solo attempt of the Grand Traverse, a technical, high alpine scrambling spree that traverses 11 of the park’s massive summits. Bishop is perhaps best known as a distinguished contributor to the Rock Climber’s Guide to Montana, recognized as the definitive book on cragging in the state. His nose for excellent granite and accurate notations of routes and their difficulties have inspired hundreds of Montana’s aspiring mountaineers, myself included.

And then, last week, the man who literally wrote the book on climbing in Glacier National Park died of a heart attack en route to Divide Peak, a popular summit just east of the park. The 85-year-old J. Gordon Edwards was climbing with his wife and longtime climbing companion, Alice Edwards, when he passed away.

Long known as Glacier’s “Patron Saint of Climbing,” Edwards is arguably the most influential climber in Montana history, making dozens of first ascents, often with Alice and his daughter Jane.

He started exploring Glacier in 1947 as a park entomologist, studying the unique insect populations found only on remote, and often rugged, peaks. As his focus evolved from studying bugs to studying the mountain goats who plied routes along seemingly sheer faces, Edwards’ already immaculate note-taking skills turned into an early version of A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park.

Essentially, this book provides mountaineers with easy access out of the touristy scene that clutters many of the park’s main thoroughfares. For many of us, it has opened up an entire world of exquisite and humbling high country, where human trails, signage and tourists are never seen.

While anyone can purchase the book in Montana bookstores, in my three years of writing this column the title of this seminal publication has been discreetly—and intentionally—avoided. The fragile alpine environment, so accessible to the masses along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, is just too at risk of overuse to off-handedly share Edwards’ detailed roadmap indiscriminately. (The Park Service noted this years ago, temporarily blocking publication of his book until he included detailed information on the “Leave no Trace” ethic, as well as the importance of registering with park rangers before attempting the park’s notoriously rotten summits. It has since been reprinted with these and other inclusions.)

Indeed, great responsibilities accompany those traveling in untrailed country—rescues can be epic, endangered flora can be smothered and “climbers’ trails” are forever etched into hillsides. As people discover the pleasures of off-trail travel, we inevitably leave our boot marks, slowly trammeling the yet untrammeled. With so many people competing for solitude and humility in our ever-shrinking wildlands, the importance of leaving no trace becomes exponentially greater. Perhaps the best way we can honor the deaths of these great mountaineers—Edwards, Bishop, Vizcaya and Casady—is to keep exploring, safely, deliberately, and with reverence for the wild country where they passed away.

Keep the dream alive by joining the New Rocky Mountaineers as they scramble up, up, up East St. Mary’s Peak (9,425’) in the Missions on August 1. This, uh, “challenging” 5,400’ ascent includes a steep, in-the-trees grind followed by a high alpine ridge “walk” to the summit. Count on great views of the southern Missions and much-needed relief from summer temps—but no relief from blood-sucking bugs. Call Gerald Olbu at 549-4769 for more information.

Bob Wiesner is a Fish, Wildlife and Parks authority on Montana’s large predators, and lucky listeners attending his free program at Beavertail Hill State Park on July 30 will be treated to a detailed discussion of the venerable mountain lion. Learn how to track the great cats and stay safe at the same time, but get there early for a quick dip in Beavertail Pond. The park’s only 26 miles east of Missoula right off of I-90, but if you’ve questions give Jay Slocum a call at 542-5533.

Join the Rocky Mountaineers for a Ward Creek to Ward Peak hike on August 1. They’ll be meeting in Superior before heading to the trailhead and climbing a “very interesting” 3,400’ to the summit. Call Jim Goss at 822-5000 for information.

Anyone recreating outside should note that high temps and relatively low precipitation has crisped up much of the flammable material in our forests, and the Missoula County Fire Protection Association and the Forest Service has changed the fire danger from “moderate” to “high” for much of Missoula’s surrounding countryside. Forest users looking to burn one down in the woods are encouraged to be extra careful.

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