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Seen from Above

In his essay, Todd Burritt writes on mountain climbing, sense of place, and the second edition of 'Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone'

From an elevated vantage point in 2014, hiker Jen Burritt takes in the view: Two Sisters in the Eastern Beartooth Mountains.
From an elevated vantage point in 2014, hiker Jen Burritt takes in the view: Two Sisters in the Eastern Beartooth Mountains.

Story and photos by Todd Burritt

In seeking to understand the motivation of the climber, the non-climber can take their choice of riddles. It was almost a century ago that George Mallory sought Everest's summit, “because it's there.” Did his words become more profound, or less, when he died for the same reason? In 1967, Art Davidson opted for an unprecedented winter ascent of Denali so he might “eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in peace.” But it doesn't matter which version of the story one chooses, the basic facts remain: Getting to the top requires time, expense and risk. And for what?

It would not be unreasonable to conclude, as many have, that these performances are basically self-promotional, or otherwise self-aggrandizing. Our collective consciousness is oversaturated with images of men, silhouetted against sunsets, raising their fists to the sky. Whether they want us to worship them, sign up for a leadership conference, or just like them on Facebook, it amounts to much the same thing.

The merit of this critical view tends to obscure just how many ascents take place in willful obscurity. For the one who climbs the mountain, the reasons for climbing tend to be self-evident, even if they don't lend themselves to words. And times of questioning remain: the contingencies of the sport ensure as much. This, it turns out, can be part of the appeal.

Lately, I've been thinking about how my sense of place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem evolved alongside my interest in climbing mountains here, and why that's probably not a coincidence. It was with a great sense of recognition, then, that I recently reread the prologue to the 2003 first edition of Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone, wherein author Thomas Turiano describes his first trip to the Beartooth Mountains. Before that visit, his mountaineering efforts had focused on the Tetons and neighboring Wyoming ranges. “I had heard the term ‘GYE’ many times before,” he writes, “but having explored only isolated portions of the region, I could not fathom its meaning.”

From the top of Granite Peak, Montana’s highest, Turiano found he had a pretty good view of the distant Tetons. He also saw a spectacular panorama of diverse geography connecting him to his home ground. In that moment, Turiano understood that the Tetons and Beartooths are not isolated destinations. Rather, they belong to an “enormous family of mountains.” It followed that this entire family would be worth getting to know.
The highly anticipated reappearance of Select Peaks should reinvigorate our region's ongoing conversation about how we balance the promotion and protection of our most cherished and fragile assets.
At about 22 million acres—the size of Maine, more or less—the GYE is no easy thing to wrap your head around. That can be a problem. Taking care of this place requires that we engage its wholeness and complexity to the greatest extent possible. But how does one even hold it in their mind? Turiano offers one answer: go through the work of climbing a point of prominence and, weather permitting, your sphere of awareness will grow. You will start building a mental and visceral encyclopedia of ridges, watersheds, cirques and basins; ranges and valleys; systems overlaying systems. You will, in short, get something of the big picture. There’s plenty you won’t be able to see, of course; some of the most biotically valuable parts of this ecosystem are among the flattest. But you could do a lot worse than considering this place from on high, from as many angles as possible, and treating each vantage as another clue as to how and why its many variations of forest, grassland and alpine knit together the way they do.

Growing up in Bozeman, I've always had some basic consciousness of Greater Yellowstone. But it took something extra for me to feel committed to landscape as a sort of life project, and as much as anything, I credit Select Peaks with giving me that push. I was lucky enough to come into a copy of Select Peaks as an 18-year-old, right when the book came out. While that means I’ve been exposed to its wisdom from a relatively young age, for many years the influence seems to have been subconscious at best. The important thing is that I kept climbing.

When I did, the uniqueness of my big, complicated home manifested into actual things I could do. I found outlets for my energies, things I couldn't explain, suffering and serendipity. Slowly and steadily, it took shape in my head: the GYE as a set of 13 mountain ranges (this being an idiosyncratic but eminently workable definition of the area, which limits its focus to the ecosystem's "core," and breaks Wyoming’s sprawling Absarokas into three subunits), each with its own unique structure, composition, ecology and history. A full disclosure of just how invested I am in this subject would include mention that I have yet to climb just three of Turiano's 107 selections.
Middle Teton, as seen from the Grand Teton, 2016.
Middle Teton, as seen from the Grand Teton, 2016.
I’ve also read most of the mountain descriptions in that book at least twice, now. But the words that have lived most vibrantly in my mind are, once again, from the prologue. It’s where Turiano shares his reservations about publishing material on wild places. While information and knowledge can be invaluable tools for getting people to care about place, they will, by the same token, draw more human traffic to specific locations. And when it comes to wildness—which might be considered the single most important resource of the GYE—obscurity and integrity tend to go hand and hand. While writing Select Peaks, Turiano confides, he experienced a crisis of confidence: “I realized that perhaps no book about Greater Yellowstone, no matter how nobly intended, could do anything but harm this magnificent place.”

Ambivalence in writers is not a bad thing. It unsettles us in our convictions, and at the same time, challenges us to do justice to the ambiguity of the world in which we live. Given the quantity and quality of the information he presented, I've always considered Turiano to have made good on his stated ambition to create a different kind of guidebook, one that is “light on route information and heavy on information that encourages responsibility and respect for people, animals, and places.” A guide, then, not so much to routes, but to understanding.
For the one who climbs the mountain, the reasons for climbing tend to be self-evident, even if they don't lend themselves to words.
After only five years, Select Peaks was taken out of print. At that very time, human presence in the GYE was exploding. Shouldn’t the market for Select Peaks have been increasing in proportion? This possibility was supported, at the very least, by the $300 price tags for used copies I was seeing online. As I watched friends over the years try (and fail) to secure reasonably affordable copies for themselves, it became all but impossible for me to imagine that Turiano’s magnum opus was out of print due to lack of demand. What was it, then? Did the publication of Select Peaks have unforeseen consequences—in the mind of the author, if not across meadows and mountaintops? How did backcountry dynamics change in that time, and the role of the guidebook? These were tricky questions for me to answer. As a Greater Yellowstone writer myself, they took on existential importance, and the ambivalence that Turiano describes in his prologue steadily gained importance in my mind.

This November, Select Peaks will once again be available in stores. An extensively revised and expanded second edition of Select Peaks, no less. When I first heard this announcement, a year ago now, I reached out to Turiano. Since then, I've enjoyed an email correspondence with him that has touched on many of the qualities that make our mountains unique.

I also learned that the importance I accorded to the ambivalence of Turiano's original prologue was misplaced. Turiano took Select Peaks out of print for the same reason the book has so consistently impressed me over so many years: he wants to write something that is to guidebooks what the GYE is to mountains. That's impossible, of course, but it shouldn't stop him or anyone else from trying. The second edition, which began with corrections to a few route descriptions, resulted in an almost total rewrite. While he worked on these changes, Turiano wanted to minimize the circulation of his first, and in his mind, immature, effort. Meanwhile, the densely packed page count swelled from 512 in the first edition to 630 for the second.
Jen Burritt checks her footing on Pilot Peak in the Northern Absaroka Range, 2015.
Jen Burritt checks her footing on Pilot Peak in the Northern Absaroka Range, 2015.

Many of my questions for him have circled around to the subject of backcountry ethics. It's a dry subject and one that, if I'm not very careful, can make me into an infinitely tiresome bore. I agree with Turiano's perspective and believe it's sound: model the ethic you want to see. If you see something you don't like, call it out. Hopefully (and if it really does hold the most merit) your ethic becomes the norm, and ever easier to uphold. Even as I sought the kernel of this issue, though, it often seemed to me like discussions of guidebook ethics and intentionality had become merely symbolic, if not anachronistic. Because what more, really, is there to say? It makes so much sense.

And the world we live in today ... makes so little. While working on the second edition, Turiano found that the big game changer was the internet. No surprise there. It was often a boon to his work. Not only did he have newly streamlined access to reams of U.S. Geological Survey documentation, for example, he also had an almost unlimited reservoir of user-contributed first-hand accounts, annotated photographs, and more. Among other things, these resources helped him track some of the unprecedented changes that have happened in this area over the last 20 years. Whether those changes be cultural or climatic, at the heart of it all is the internet's physical corollary of speed.

The web—the visibility it provides, the technology it enables, and the culture it creates—also incentivizes the breaking of norms. It encourages the fast and the loud while the opposition becomes progressively silent and invisible. I experience some apprehensive version of this truth every time I drive west over Bozeman Pass, away from my chosen home in Livingston and toward the explosively popular and progressively affluent Bozeman, the town where I grew up.

Such was the case early this fall when I paid a visit to Hyalite Peak with my family. It's among the most accessible of the "select" peaks. As Turiano has pointed out to me, such non-wilderness summits, which are a minority of those in his book, are the real "test of backcountry ethic[s]." People have more options at their disposal. And options are what we saw on the trail past Grotto Falls: horse parties, mountain bikes, electric bikes and motor bikes. Among our peers on foot, almost all of them, it seemed, chose to run. Despite my long fixation on mountains, I was especially taken on that trip by some of the tiniest things I was capable of noticing. Thallose liverworts, bird's nest fungi, a very sci-fi slime mold called Trichia decipiens. A den under a rock from which two weasels—already among the smallest carnivores on earth, and these two were juveniles—kept poking their heads. Every time I did so, I put myself in a position to get run over.

When one trail runner charged down an eroded user trail—leaping over logs that trail workers had placed to discourage that very practice, directly toward me and my four-year-old son, causing him to freeze in alarm—I decided to put my ethic to the test. But I had to choose my words quickly, and admittedly, I could've done better. "Y'know, when you cut switchbacks, you just make this place worse,” I said. "Thanks, dude," he replied.  A stink of sarcasm hung in the air long after he was gone.

The faster you go, the less there is to say. This simple truth drastically undermines the effectiveness of socially enforced norms.
Ellingwood Peak, Wind River Range, 2017.
Ellingwood Peak, Wind River Range, 2017.
The highly anticipated reappearance of Select Peaks should reinvigorate our region's ongoing conversation about how we balance the promotion and protection of our most cherished and fragile assets. As Turiano’s 2003 prologue reminds us, such questions are not new. They were alive and well 20 years ago, just as they have been for generations, in a conceptual legacy that points straight back to the 1872 designation of Yellowstone National Park.

Mountain climbing, meanwhile, is an even older tradition. At heart, I would argue, the appeal of the sport is all about natural consequences: as a practice, as an ideology. It takes place in an environment where the connections between your choices and the nature of the reality you inhabit should, in theory, become clearer with time. If not, you pay the price. Strangely—disorientatingly—the pace of those changes keeps accelerating. And as far as we can tell, the longer the consequences get deferred, the larger the price we will have to pay.

"I have tried to affect that balance toward positive outcomes simply by sharing my excitement, knowledge, and respect for Greater Yellowstone," Turiano wrote me. It might sound simple. It might also be the most that any of us can hope to do.
Todd Burritt
About Todd Burritt

Todd Burritt is the author of Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone. He lives in Livingston, Montana, where he's a full-time dad, and part-time everything else.
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