Nevada High Points #103 — Montana Mountains

Coyote dust. Evening above Coyote Point, Kings River Valley, Great Basin Desert, NV


7129 ft (2173 m) — 418 ft gain


Motivation is hard to find in the long, repetitive days of summer. The Great Basin Desert seems to curl and fold within itself, even as hazy heatwaves dance across the expanse. The high-pressure domes that keep moisture at bay seem to press downward and inward, sapping energy and making the horizons of endless days barren of interest. I have been in a holding pattern of field days on projects, day-after-day, rarely home for any comfortable time; the repetition threatening to deplete much interest in pursuit of geodata, of photography (either documentarian or creative), and – I’m surprised to admit – of exploration. I typically look forward to the long drives, on-road and off, from project to project or to trailheads leading to peaks and wilderness. Not lately though, this summer is burning me out – not to mention the hordes of black ants that have invaded our home, a summer nuisance, among other chores, that sucks the remaining energy from seemingly every home-time quiet.

And yet, as I make my way up Pole Creek Road into the Montaña Mountains, the air cools and the depth of evening shadows washes some of the stagnant sweat from my eyes. Even if only momentary, the wildland heights heal the ills of summer doldrums and repetition. I am here to walk the range’s high point, “Mining VABM,” a rolling swell in the Montaña escarpment rising above Kings River Valley. Because I am working with a fieldcrew nearby, it made sense to plan this walk to coincide with my visit, and now I see it might do me some good.

Caldera remnants. Outcrops on the western escarpment of the Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV

Montana Mountains Collection

The Montañas are a crumpled and dissected block of uplifted volcanic rocks, with deep canyons splitting rolling tablelands where an occasional butte preserves an old eruptive vent or cone. There is still a little water in the higher streams, and a few of the ponds – often augmented for ranching – hold shallow pools. Although summertime in the sagebrush steppe can seem depleted of wildlife, and many species are definitely hunkered down or simply elsewhere, slow pauses on a canyon rim or along the transition between sage and a grassy burn scar can reveal hints of wild. Walking among rimrocks at the head of a canyon that drops steeply to Kings River Valley, I find a young mule deer, velveted antlers glowing in the setting sun. I step backward to let him be to find a rattlesnake quietly in my way. It does not seem to be bothered by my presence, neither rattling nor posturing, and I can easily bypass it in the quiet.

Sound attention. A mule deer peers from a shady alcove in the rimrock of the Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV
No trail. A Great Basin or Western Rattlesnake waits on an evening hunt, Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV
Motionless. The Great Basin Rattlesnake waits, Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV

The high point walk is a simple wander along the escarpment edge to a broken-down cairn guarding the summit register. From the rolling summit knoll, I can look down into Kings River Valley and southward into the expanse of Desert Valley. The agricultural imprint of the valley bottom is a regularized pattern of green and brown, but an altered wild surrounds the regularity, and only the sprinkler pivots and ditch irrigation keep the inevitable arid squeeze at bay.

Mine VABM. The unassuming high point of the Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV
Fading distance. Kings River into Desert Valley from the high point of the Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV
Pivot and bins. Kings River Valley, Great Basin Desert, NV
Summit register at Mine VABM, Montana Mountains, NV

Although a well-traveled dirt road traverses close the summit, the cairn seems rarely visited. I register as usual, and the hike back to the truck parked well down the road. There is little elevation gain, but it is a good walk nonetheless. It cools into the evening as I camp on the escarpment edge, where a half-moon stares at me throughout the night, washing the stars in a blue-grey blur, an echo of the dusty haze that bled the color from the day.

Escarpment camp, Montana Mountains, NV

Six hens. Sage Grouse in the Montana Mountains, Great Basin Desert, NV

Montana Mountains Collection

While the high points and wild lands, whether protected wilderness or the altered wild that forms so much of the Nevada outback, bring refreshment even at the height of summer, I worry that the altered wild is taking an unsustainable beating – federally protected wilderness being the one true refuge (for now) from development. As our infrastructure picks and prods at the remaining open space, and all wildlands (protected or not) breathe the global heat of economic and societal engines, I am part of the problem. I live and work in that infrastructure; and though my work seeks to understand and mitigate some of the adverse effects of local development, I am torn by opposing forces and my obvious hypocrisy. Like so many other wild places, the Montaña Mountains provide momentary surcease in the midst of the turmoil of climate change, environmental degradation, and political short-sight. What can these small, non-descript ranges teach me about adapting to and mitigating the pressures of the coming heat and aridity? There remains much beauty and refuge in the altered wild, our impacts are certain and may sometimes be necessary, but we must also proceed with caution, critique, and care.

Keep going.

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