Sundance Lake in the Beartooth Mountains, below a talus slope

The author perches atop a boulder, looking out over Sundance Lake. Photo by Danny Savage.

By Sarah Capdeville

The stone slab had dried from the afternoon’s rain and pressed roughly against my palms and bare feet. I peered up the steep face of the boulder I was attempting to summit and hesitated, my toes curled into a subtle ledge of rock. Wind rushed through a pocket of krummholz above and gusted against my face. Then the sun returned, low and the color of honey, and I scrambled up the boulder’s sharp flank.

The view from the top of the boulder revealed a landscape characteristic of the Beartooth Mountains: spired peaks, rolling plateaus, sky-blue mountain lakes fed by whitewater steams. Above, Silver Run Peak jutted into the evening sky, and switchbacks cut down its side from Sundance Pass. Wildflower-rich fields sloped below to the rocky rim of Sundance Lake, and below that the valley holding the West Fork of Rock Creek fell gradually before turning east behind the plateau.

I took a deep breath as another rush of wind buffeted the rock and sent a clump of clouds shadowing the fields and lake. A windy weather system was blowing through the area; earlier that day, I had leaned over the edge of the pass and let the gusts hold my weight, forty-pound backpack and all. Here at the bottom of the pass the wind was less severe, but at just below 10,000 feet I sat in the midst of high currents of air that flowed above most of civilization. The clouds rushed past like a time-lapse film; sun gave way to a peppering of rain and back again in a matter of seconds.

The geology of the Beartooths did not give way in a matter of seconds, but rather in a matter of millions and in some places billions of years. Many of these long valleys are U-shaped, smoothed away by glaciers from the most recent ice age, and quite a few still cling to high peaks today: Grasshopper Glacier, Castle Rock Glacier, Granite Glacier. These icy tongues deposited moraines below mountains and valleys, forming ridges and piles of sedimentary rocks sometimes hundreds of feet high. In the thick of forests and burned areas, huge boulders have rested among conifers and wildflowers for thousands of years, dropped haphazardly as the glacier grew and retreated across the slope.

Some 100 million years ago, a seaway stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Sea, gradually blanketing the Interior West in layers of sedimentary rock. In time, uplift and erosion drained the sea and broke apart these crumbling layers, revealing the Beartooths’ rocky heart: a solid mass of metamorphic rock from the Precambrian Age, stone warped by heat and pressure over two billion years ago. Metamorphic rock forms when sedimentary or igneous deposits become compressed beneath grating tectonic plates, or when they edge too close to the earth’s scalding core. When the stone emerges from the crust after thousands of years, its mineral composition has been altered; the extreme conditions of its formation make it the last type of rock to weather and erode away over time.

wild mountain peaks in the Beartooth Mountains, with patches of snow, beneath blue skies and puffy clouds

Beartooth peaks: a glimpse of two billion years. Photo by Sarah Capdeville.

A band of white quartz about the width of my hand circled the boulder, surrounded by rougher grains of black, olive, and smokey hues. My gaze followed the lines of scree and talus slopes up Silver Run Peak, and I imagined how this massive chunk of mountain had come to lie at the plateau’s more verdant base: dropped by the finger of a glacier or toppled for thousands of feet from the summit in a roaring tumble that rivaled the echo of thunder. I laid my head back against the level top of the boulder, stared up at the turbulent sky, and tried to fathom the entity of two billion years.

There are moments, especially in wilderness, when time seems to stop, perched on some rim of contrast to our rushed lives in the valleys below. I’ve sat on the shore of Carter Lake in the Rattlesnake Wilderness and felt that hush of time: the narrow spruces and skeletons of whitebark pines and shards of snow filling the cliff gaps had stood timeless below the descent of the solstice sun, and I felt the swelling stillness of that instant tipping forward like the glossy water of the lake’s outlet.

On that boulder at the base of Sundance Pass, there was no pause in time. It was mid-July, and yet wildflowers had just reached their peak blooms in the pockets between talus fields. Buttercups and grouse whortleberry bushes grew low to the ground among clumps of soft grasses munched down by scampering marmots. At the base of the boulder I had found a stash of dry forbs tucked beneath some rocks, a sign that pikas were already preparing for winter. I turned my head westward, where the clouds were racing past golden spurs of East Rosebud Plateau, their wispy bellies and billowing heads level to my gaze. Time was gusting past in the buckling of rock layers, in the retreat of glaciers, in the flare of wildflowers, in the swirling and invisible currents of wind, holding at once the weight of billions of years and the seconds between spits of rain.

As I lay on my back atop that ancient Beartooth stone, I saw the facade of that static image of wilderness brush away with the wind. Change is scrawled across domed plateaus and glacial valleys, voiced by the chirp of a marmot and the eddy of a trout, etched down the mountainside where rocks have tumbled and split. It’s easy to overlook these details, difficult to see two billion years as a dramatic passage rather than a single point in history. It takes an acute awareness, one I won’t pretend I have reached, to understand both the life of a mountain and the life of a stonefly. It takes time.

The rays of evening sun had left Sundance Lake below and were seeping ever higher up the mountainside, and the wind ran cold across my bare feet. I wanted to stay on that rocky vista and watch the sun turn to the Milky Way, the Milky Way turn to morning, the morning turn to winter, the winter turn to decades, the decades turn to epochs. But time, at my scale, would not allow that. I let out a long breath and rested my palm against the boulder’s grainy face. In my mind, I tried to hold the expanse of plateaus and blue-silted lake and smooth valley, not as a single image, but as a changing landscape, one rolling ahead in all its constant metamorphosis.

Sarah Capdeville is a recent graduate of the University of Montana. You can find her backpacking, running, or traveling to wild places in Montana and beyond, or writing about them with a cup of tea in hand.


This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Montana Naturalist magazine, and may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written consent of the Montana Natural History Center. ©2015 The Montana Natural History Center.

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