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Climbing For Goats
by [?]


Near the point at which the great Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains crosses the Canadian border another range edges in toward it from the south. Between these ranges lies a space of from twenty to forty miles; and midway between them flows a clear, wonderful river through dense forests. Into the river empty other, tributary, rivers rising in the bleak and lofty fastnesses of the mountains to right and left. Between them, in turn, run spur systems of mountains only a little less lofty than the parent ranges. Thus the ground plan of the whole country is a good deal like that of a leaf: the main stem representing the big river, the lateral veins its affluents; the tiny veins its torrents pouring from the sides of its mountains and glaciers; and the edges of the leaf and all spaces standing for mountains rising very sheer and abrupt from the floor of the densely forested stream valleys. In this country of forty miles by five hundred, then, are hundreds of distinct ranges, thousands of peaks, and innumerable valleys, pockets, and “parks.” A wilder, lonelier, grander country would be hard to find. Save for the Forest Service and a handful of fur trappers, it is uninhabited. Its streams abound in trout; its dense forests with elk and white-tailed deer; its balder hills with blacktail deer; its upper basins with grizzly bears; its higher country with sheep and that dizzy climber the Rocky Mountain goat.

He who would enter this region descends at a little station on the Great Northern, and thence proceeds by pack train at least four days, preferably more, out into the wilderness. The going is through forests, the tree trunks straight and very close together, so that he will see very little of the open sky and less of the landscape. By way of compensation the forest itself is remarkably beautiful. Its undergrowth, though dense, is very low and even, not more than a foot or so off the ground; and in the Hunting Moon the leaves of this undergrowth have turned to purest yellow, without touch or trace of red, so that the sombre forest is carpeted with gold. Here and there shows a birch or aspen, also bright, pure light yellow, as though a brilliant sun were striking down through painted windows. Groups of yellow-leafed larches add to the splendour. And close to the ground grow little flat plants decked out with red or blue or white wax berries, Christmas fashion.

In this green-and-gold room one journeys for days. Occasionally a chance opening affords a momentary glimpse of hills or of the river sweeping below; but not for long. It is a chilly room. The frost has hardened the mud in the trail. One’s feet and hands ache cruelly. At night camp is made near the banks of the river, whence always one may in a few moments catch as many trout as are needed, fine, big, fighting trout.

By the end of three or four days the prospect opens out. Tremendous cliffs rise sheer from the bottom of the valley; up tributary canons one can see a dozen miles to distant snow ranges glittering and wonderful. Nearer at hand the mountains rise above timber line to great buttes and precipices.


Fisher, Frank, and I had been hunting for elk in the dense forests along the foot of one of these mountains; and for a half day, drenched with sweat, had toiled continuously up and down steep slopes, trying to go quietly, trying to keep our wind, trying to pierce the secrets of the leafy screen always about us. We were tired of it.

“Let’s go to the top and look for goats,” suggested Frank. “There are some goat cliffs on the other side of her. It isn’t very far.”

It was not very far, as measured by the main ranges, but it was a two hours’ steady climb nearly straight up. We would toil doggedly for a hundred feet, or until our wind gave out and our hearts began to pound distressingly; then we would rest a moment. After doing this a few hundred times we would venture a look upward, confidently expecting the summit to be close at hand. It seemed as far as ever. We suffered a dozen or so of these disappointments, and then learned not to look up. This was only after we had risen above timber line to the smooth, rounded rock-and-grass shoulder of the mountain. Then three times we made what we thought was a last spurt, only to find ourselves on a “false summit.” After a while we grew resigned, we realized that we were never going to get anywhere, but were to go on forever, without ultimate purpose and without hope, pushing with tired legs, gasping with inadequate lungs. When we had fully made up our minds to that, we arrived. This is typical of all high-mountain climbing–the dogged, hard, hopeless work that can never reach an accomplishment; and then at last the sudden, unexpected culmination.