Across this house of sky – a short story on linking the Montana highpoints

The stars above shine brighter than seems possible, the Milky Way interrupted only by the silhouette of Granite Peak’s north ridgeline to one side and the Froze-to-Death plateau on the other. I lay shoulder to shoulder on the cramped, rocky platform with my friend and first pacer Sam, shifting occasionally to find the least-uncomfortable position on the thin foam pad scavenged from my pack. I listen enviously to Sam’s deep, even breathing. That bastard is actually sleeping, I think to myself, and scrunch up tighter to conserve heat in my emergency bivy sack. Unbeknownst to me, two feet away he’s thinking the same. And hours later, all we can do is laugh at ourselves in the predawn chill and start moving to get warm again.

The path to that cold night started two years before, when I fixated on the idea of linking together Montana’s tallest peaks — 27 in all over 12,000 feet — in a continuous traverse. No one had yet linked them in a single effort, though a handful had climbed them over several years. I obsessed over trip reports and maps until I’d look up and see it was 2 a.m. and my girlfriend had gone to bed hours earlier.

I was captivated by how the peaks are grouped solely in the Beartooth range of south-central Montana and surrounded by the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The few trails in that wilderness provide little help in linking the peaks. Instead, the route is predominantly off-trail, an aesthetic mix of craggy ridgelines, glacial valleys, and soaring plateaus through some of the oldest rock on Earth. Rock that’s been uplifted through millennia and carved by glaciers, setting a wilderness stage for the most intimidating outdoors goal I’d ever set.

The difficulty comes from the route’s combination of verticality and ruggedness — 48,000 feet of ascent over its 100-mile expanse. This is nearly 17,000 feet more than Hardrock, and 96 of the 100 miles are off-trail.

The route intersects three trails, inviting exactly the sort of supported adventure I wanted. I craved the meaning and fulfillment that sharing an adventure brings. A dozen friends and family volunteered as support crew, and they delivered flawlessly — hiking dozens of miles, cooking delicious food, and staying up all night. I also recruited three good friends as pacers for camaraderie and safety. All this support was priceless, motivating, and spurred my preparation to a higher level than ever before.

I’d long been inspired by similar niche linkups like California’s Sierra High Route or Colorado’s Nolan’s 14. “Niche” being the key word. Though awe-inspiring, this traverse won’t be the next great ultrarunning testpiece. The movement required appeals only to a subset of mountain athletes; too easy for climbers, too ruggedly off-trail for runners. It occupies the middle of a Venn diagram of these disciplines, requiring an ultrarunner’s endurance coupled with a climber’s technical skill.

I set out on a clear August morning, nervous as hell. Buzzing with excitement. With sewing-machine nerves in both legs I ascend through a giant’s playground of house-sized boulders on the way to the first peak, Pyramid.

That afternoon Sam Linnet, my first pacer, joins. Sam’s someone who thinks skiing gets really fun when you add crampons and rappelling, so he’s a perfect fit for the upcoming technical sections. We gain the Froze-to-Death plateau as the sunset bathes our world in crimson. Looking south, the rest of the range stretches in an expansive sweep farther than we can see. I try to put the overall effort out of mind and instead focus only on the moment.

We hike, scramble, climb and down-climb through the night until we hit the saddle at the base of Granite Peak, Montana’s highest point at 12,799 feet. Which takes us to the shiver bivy that kicked off the story.

The next day we find a rhythm in both movement and conversation. We catch up on everything: careers, successes, frustrations, past trips, adventures yet to come, and what this trip means to us both. At midnight we drop into the Fossil Lake basin, our crew’s headlamps flickering in the distance.

“I love this feeling,” Sam says, eyeing the lights below, “everyone coming together to make this happen. That team aspect…that really puts it over the top for me.”

After 43 hours of movement and twelve peaks down I crawl into a sleeping bag for three hours of sleep, surrounded by friends. Friends who’d spent most of the day hiking to get here, and then stayed up most of the night waiting for Sam and I.

“Helluva day buddy! You up yet?” Forrest’s voice rings out in the morning air.

My second pacer, Forrest Boughner, is a staple in the Montana running scene who does everything from directing events to guiding running trips. We’d first met at a trailhead parking lot before an all-day wilderness ramble, and that fact pretty much sets the tone for our friendship.

It’s the moments between peaks with Forrest that stick with me the most: fear from afternoon thunderstorms pinning us down, standing awestruck at the Beartooth Plateau’s enormous vista of alpine lakes, the stretches of comfortable silence borne from the trust and history of hours spent in the mountains together. And a good partner’s ability to keep morale up, even through endless talus…even when that ability comes in the form of enthusiastic late-night rapping along to throwback hip-hop.

His positivity kept driving me forward through exhaustion and deteriorating feet to the third and final aid station. Thankfully, Momma’s cookin’ cures all evil. My parents had packed supplies in on horseback, which meant they could pull out all the stops. We eat like kings on homemade chicken soup and thick bread slathered with butter, then crawl side-by-side into sleeping bags. I try to tell him how much I appreciate his help, but I don’t think any words actually come out before I’m dead asleep.

Three days through — 19 peaks down, eight to go.

Cody Lind joins in the morning as my final pacer. He’d just spent the summer in Europe racing the best in the world, but he’s an Idaho guy at heart raised on mountain challenges like this. He appreciates mountain travel in all its forms.

On top of Whitetail Peak, we marvel at sun rays slanting above the scattered peaks rising like islands from the foggy sea obscuring the valleys. I realize I’ve traveled far enough I can’t see the start, and I can feel the moment deep in my chest. Cody gives a quiet nod, and I can tell he’s feeling some of the same.

The next morning, after we’d bivied for three hours underneath midnight thunderstorms, after an alpine start to summit the fourth-to-last peak before sunrise, we finally begin to talk about finishing.

“This is insane,” Cody says softly as we pick our way down the final canyon. “I can’t believe everything came together so well.”

We run down the final half-mile in a surreal haze. I think of his words, of all the people who’ve come together to make this moment possible, the sacrifices in time and energy. But also what the project has meant to everyone involved, separate from my aspirations. For Sam, a chance to be on a team again. For my parents, pride in seeing their son accomplish a lofty goal. For Anthony, a renewed sense of inspiration for running and mountain adventure. For others, inspiration for their own projects. Hearing about the varied ways everyone involved drew meaning from the trip gave me a deep sense of happiness.

I round the last corner through a cheering gauntlet of friends and family, touch the trailhead sign, and hug everyone in sight. Sometimes it’s the small moments of camaraderie along the way that sear into our memories the strongest, stronger even than the beautiful sunrises or towering summits we expect to remember best. Sometimes, enlisting friends for an adventure is both the only way to pull it off, and the best way to make it unforgettable.

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