Treasure Hunt: Skiers and a Mining Company Compete for Natural Resources in the Absarokas
It was dark when we filled the bed of the pickup truck with our ski gear and packed ourselves into the cab for the 45-minute drive from Bozeman to the trailhead. Max Taylor, a decade-long Bozeman resident and longtime Bridger Bowl skier, drove and discussed the anticipated route with me while Tyler Baumberger, another longtime Bridger Bowl skier originally from Philipsburg, Montana, slept off a late night in the backseat. Work had picked up for all of us. We knew this would likely be our last tour of the season and, mixed with the fact that none of us had climbed or skied around Black Mountain before, charged the air with uncertain anticipation.
The parking lot at the trailhead was empty when we arrived and fitted skins to skis. After a mile the trail picked up and headed toward the glacier-carved hanging basin that cupped our objective. The rising forest swaddled us with quiet and, before we knew it, had safely returned us to a less complex world, one populated by decisions with clear cause and effect, and scored with a simple step-breath-step-breath beat. Soon enough we found ourselves safely atop the couloir.
The first hop turn showed the snow to be as good as it looked. The second and third revealed the steepness of the slope. By the time Tyler stopped above the crux to examine the narrow, runnel-framed isthmus all Max and I could see were the top of his head and shoulders. A few swooped turns out of it tucked him into a protected area just east of the forked couloir.
I flapped my skis against the small platform dug into the top of the chute and looked out at the peaks that surrounded our perch on Black Mountain. Beyond the rocky western rim the mountains fell away to U.S. Highway 89, packed with tourists on their way to Yellowstone. Mount Cowen and Emigrant Peak loomed to the south. The town of Livingston sat fifteen miles to the north. We weren’t particularly deep in the roughly 1,500 square mile expanse of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. A seven-mile hike separated us from the modern world. But edged into the side of the mountain, one pioneered by the likes of Doug Coombs, Hans Saari and Alex Lowe, civilization might as well have been fifteen hundred miles away. So we stood and basked in the immense wealth and luxury that lay before us and drank in the power of the mountains, blissfully unaware that four months earlier the sweaty hands of society had lifted the sword of progress over our heads.
A Canadian mining company, Lucky Minerals, purchased mining rights last year to more than 2,500 acres of the northwest Absaroka Range around Emigrant Peak, just outside the western boundary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Company officials filed in January for permits to perform exploratory drilling on that land, a process that, according to those permits, would involve the creation of up to 60 drill holes on 35 drill sites worked each day by two 10-hour shifts. Because a few of the proposed drill sites fall in an inventoried roadless area, the proposed plan also called for the sites to be serviced by a helicopter ever other day for a month and a half. The drilling is “expected to be a major component of an aggressive exploration program” to produce a multi-million ounce gold resource for the company, according to the project’s technical report. Representatives from Lucky have denied that the end goal of exploratory drilling is a gold mine.
News of the proposed drilling went unnoticed by almost everyone in southwest Montana until the summer. Part of the reason was because the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality didn’t inform the public about the plans until June when they started the clock on the 45-day public comment period. Another part of the reason is because, well, despite the dry winter, the snowpack was about as stable as it’s ever been. People were out exploring lines that had beckoned for years.
“Some local skiers were telling me a story about how because the stability was so good this year they started seeing these hot shots from Bozeman, people coming up from Jackson even,” said Joe Josephson, conservation associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and one of the world’s premier ice climbers. “At first they were like, ‘Err, this is our secret spot.’ Then they were really proud. This validates what we’ve known for years… when it’s like this, this is the place to go in the northern Rockies.”
With some of the best known ski destinations in Montana nearby — the Bridgers, Gallatins, and Madisons — the Absarokas tend to fly under the radar in the backcountry crowd despite holding nearly a dozen easily accessed peaks peppered with routes that offer thousands of vertical feet. The range runs north to south along the eastern edge of Paradise Valley and is mostly ensconced in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which stretches from the range’s northernmost peak to Yellowstone National Park. The largest portion of the range outside the wilderness area is around Emigrant Peak. It rises more than a vertical mile above the valley floor about five visually unobstructed miles from the highway leading into Yellowstone, making it the most prominent peak in this stretch of mountains even though it isn’t the tallest.
The mountain was among the first places in Montana mined for gold. A prospector found gold dust there in 1863 in a creek flowing out of a north-facing gulch, according to Thomas Turiano’s Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone. The prospector recruited more people to work the reserve, and in short order up cropped a community of a few hundred people. The migration to the gulch led people to call winsome mountain that punctuated the encampment ‘Emigrant Peak’. Some of the roads cut by miners in those early days still mark the surrounding gulches and were part of the reason it was excluded from the wilderness area. The search for gold was so pronounced in the area for so long that it even played a significant role in some of Emigrant’s first ski descents.
A large avalanche in the spring of 1983 buried the road that led to an area pocked with mining claims. One of those claimants was an engineering professor at Montana State University. He had to work the claim or risked losing it, so the professor turned to one of his students, Jim Conway, and Conway’s ski mountaineering partner Tom Jungst to measure the snow depth on the road and get an estimate on when it would be accessible. Jungst and Conway haggled a bit, told the professor they could do it for $100 and the professor readily agreed, Jungst recalled over lunch in Bozeman.
The steep slopes falling away from Emigrant Peak’s 10,921-foot apex were too inviting for the pair to pass up, so after probing snow depth — Conway worked up a report, Jungst said — they climbed a couloir and tunneled through a cornice to reach the summit ridge. Once they topped out and put their skis on, the pair descended from the summit to a steep east-facing couloir that brought them back to where they started in Emigrant Gulch after about 4,000 vertical feet of skiing.
“I guess we were like pro skiers, sponsored by a gold mine prospector,” said Jungst, now an adjunct professor in MSU’s engineering department. “We measured snow depth up the road from all these avalanches. Over the course of a couple days we climbed and skied the peak and it was a fantastic trip up there… we just thought we were kings of the world. Didn’t tell any of our friends (about the money).”
He did tell Doug Coombs about the descent, however, and Coombs visited Emigrant the next spring and repeated Jungst and Conway’s descent. And the spring after that Coombs pioneered a 5,000 vertical foot route on Emigrant’s western flank, according to Select Peaks.
The variety of beautifully long descents and challenging terrain — the ridgelines leading up to the peak are peppered with steep technical routes — make Emigrant and the Absarokas as a whole a classic backcountry ski area. In addition, if you time it right, you can ski back to the car. And from your car it’s only a couple miles to Chico Hot Springs Resort, where you can soak and have a beer.
“It’s a hidden kingdom for backcountry skiing that has world-class terrain and is one of the most aesthetic ski tours in all of Montana,” said Charles Wolf Drimal, conservation associate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and board member of the Montana Backcountry Alliance. “To just work your ass off, sweat like hell, ski some huge ass lines and know that you’re going down to Chico Hot Springs at the end of the day. You couldn’t really ask for a better locale for a backcountry ski.”
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The most convincing argument for allowing exploratory mining on Emigrant is simple: there’s almost nothing used by an average American on a day-to-day basis that was produced without mining on some level; if mining isn’t done here it will be done somewhere, and likely in a place with fewer considerations for its impact on the environment.
“We have a choice as people: do we support mining locally?” asked Scott Close, president and chief geologist of Ethos Geological. “We do farm to table. We do local produce. We do local meats. Why not local mining?”
Close posited that exploratory drilling is a comparatively noninvasive, necessary step to take before anyone can come to a reasoned conclusion about whether it’s a good idea to put a gold mine in the Absarokas. Exploratory drilling involves pushing what is essentially a straw into the ground and pulling out a sample of whatever it passes through, explained Close, whose company does exploratory, sampling and drilling programs. About 50 drill holes is a typical amount to bore before an area can be developed as a resource. After samples are taken they’re tested to determine the component materials, whether there are toxic chemicals, or the amount of pyrite (which reacts with oxygenated rainwater or groundwater to create sulfuric acid), or mercury, or arsenic amid the prospective mineral source. Any argument about whether mining should be done is meaningless without that knowledge, Close said.
If there aren’t many dangerous chemicals in the exploratory process, it’s unclear what type of mine would go in. That depends on the concentration of gold per ton and the price of gold at the time, Close said. If it’s above, for instance, four grams per ton then it would be economical to put in a less invasive underground mine. If the concentration were below that benchmark it would be more economical to extract the minerals from an open pit.
Close emphasized that he simply believes it is worth investigating whether it’s viable to mine the area around Emigrant Peak. He’s a Montana native, a backcountry skier and climber, and loves to visit Chico Hot Springs with his family.
“We all have the same at stake here,” he said. “Mine to table; it can happen and it can be done well. Skiing, for instance, and mining can coexist.”
Josephson and Drimal, however, have a hard time swallowing that argument. The thought of drill pads running for consecutive ten-hour shifts, lights burning through the night, daily helicopter trips just outside the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, that 16 miles is enough of a buffer to prevent potentially corrosive mine runoff from reaching Yellowstone and its maze of interconnected underground waterways, provoked a visceral reaction in the two environmental advocates. It’s habitat occupied by grizzlies, lynx, peregrine falcons, and wolverines. Twenty hours a day of drilling could not be more disruptive to those protected species, they argued. Beyond that, Josephson and Drimal expressed concern about the interconnectedness of the watershed. Chico Hot Springs was built around a natural hot spring and over its more than 110 year history has become one of the largest employers in Paradise Valley. If affected by acid mine runoff or other toxic chemicals associated with mining, it would have an outsized impact on the community.
Josephson and the GYC organized a few impromptu meetings on the subject after news of the permit applications became public. Roughly a quarter of the valley’s population attended the meetings despite the short notice. The Montana DEQ was inundated with more than 5,000 emails within a few weeks, and as a result the comment period was extended through August. It’s unclear when the department might render a decision. It could be in late October, or it might not be until December, Josephson said. He and Drimal recommended that people concerned about the issue reach out to the Montana DEQ, to the U.S. Forest Service district rangers, and to any or all elected officials from the county level to the Congressional delegation.
“There’s artesian wells in multiple places, these old drill sites, that are just pouring water today,” Josephson said. “Even though Emigrant Creek only reaches the Yellowstone about five weeks of the year, groundwater’s still running and we believe it’s a significant contributor to the aquifer of the Yellowstone River. We want a full environmental impact statement, so that those impacts to that would be understood.”
It can be hard to quantify the proper worth of a mountain compared against the established measures, price per ounce, grams per ton, man hours. Max, Tyler and I didn’t venture more of an attempt at valuation beyond laughs and celebratory pole clicks once we re-grouped below the apron of the Y Couloir and clicked poles in celebration. A section of rolling slopes smoothed by the small amount of snow that fell throughout the morning lay below us. We crossed the alpine lake and retraced our ascent across a hanging snowfield, down the streambed. The mountain had rooted itself deep in our minds by the time we reached the snowline and scrambled up a small cliff to regain the trail. We distracted ourselves from the long dry slog back to the truck with talk of future trips to ski the couloir’s east fork, the snowfield north off the summit, couloirs that lined the neighboring gulch.
Mountains hold a certain cache with the imagination. No matter what you’ve experienced among them, when you look up at a distant peak it sparks something inside. A paradoxical combination of the real and unrealized possibility. Past surgeries and illnesses prevent him from chasing what remains to be done but Emigrant Peak still stirs that in Tom Jungst.
It seems an unbalanced tradeoff, the ethereal possibility of a steep slope for its finite contents. Particularly given its proximity to such unique and weighty resources, like Yellowstone and Chico Hot Springs.
“Even today it’s one of my favorite,” Jungst said of Emigrant. “Let’s say skiing is bad and it’s a dry winter, I love walking up there even if it’s just icy and a little bit of snow. Walk up that canyon and look up the face, you know, and dream.”