Darton Peak


n top of Darton Peak in the Bighorn Mountains, at an elevation of 13,000 feet, I threw an English muffin at Dad’s head and it was the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life. Here’s how we got there.

Back in the 60s, Aunt Shannon’s dad, Ezra, and Pop, who were best friends, summited an unnamed peak in the Bighorn Mountain range. In Wyoming, when you’re the first to climb a peak, they allow you to name it. They called it Glory Peak. They also left a small memento atop the mountain; a small Mason jar with a 1960 half-dollar and a foil gum wrapper with their name’s signed and dated. Years after Pop’s summit of Glory Peak, the Forest Service decided to rename the mountain Darton Peak, after a geologist who did a lot of exploring in the Rockies. Our family had always thought that was a massive injustice, because Glory Peak is obviously a way cooler name.

Dad and Larry decided we were going to follow in Pop’s footsteps and climb Darton Peak ourselves. We’d see if that old Mason jar was still up there with the gum wrapper and the half dollar nestled inside. I was thirteen years old the summer that we made the climb. I’d been on a few big hikes before, but nothing like climbing a full-blown mountain. There would be lots of steep boulders to climb around, but Pop said that we didn’t need ropes or anything. After more detailed and careful planning than we were used to, we were set to make the trip. Dad, Larry, Nicole and me. I was excited.

There’s a small lake at the bottom of Darton Peak called Otter Lake. We would hike into Otter Lake on the first day of the trip and camp there for the night. Then, on day two, we would scale Darton, have a nice lunch on the peak, and be back at Otter Lake by dark. We’d stay the night there and then hike out on day three. It was essentially a nice weekend getaway.

The view over Otter Lake

Long hikes with Dad and Larry had me in awe as a kid. The two of them were in their element when they would begin reminiscing. They’d get into their finest form as they would recount some of their brushes with the law and the outlandish activity they’d gotten into in their 20s. On this trip was the first time I heard about one of their most notable escapades, dubbed “The Shootout at the Maltana.” Here’s how it goes.

Dad, Larry, Gram and Pop were up in Malta, Montana for Dad and Larry’s college buddy, Chuck’s, wedding. A few days before the wedding, Dad, along with one of his old high school football buddies Mike Burger, and Larry, are sitting at a bar. They are minding their own business, just drinking in good spirits ahead of the wedding. In walk a couple of locals who, it turns out, played football in high school against Dad, Larry, and Burger. Larry turned to Dad and said “Look, it’s the Mustang Faggots!” The Mustang was the school mascot of the opposing team. They remembered each other, and there was obviously some bad blood there. Dad had been a great football player in high school. He played linebacker, which meant he laid some vicious hits on opposing teams during his career. Apparently, they hadn’t been forgotten.

Dad and Larry got into it with the Mustangs, started having some words and eventually they all got kicked out of the bar. Dad and his crew went back to the RV that they were staying in (Gram and Pop were staying in a hotel room). The three of them were sitting around, continuing to drink and play cards, when suddenly they heard the Mustang Faggots yelling and taunting them from outside. They’d brought a rifle with them, and had it pointed at the RV. They all hit the deck when they realized the Mustangs were drunk and might actually pull the trigger. Then Burger had the idea to rush them. Dad and Larry were skeptical. Burger said those guys were soft and wouldn’t actually fire the gun at them, so they could rush them and run them off. Dad and Larry were drunk enough to believe this was a good idea.

Burger would go through the front door and Dad and Larry would exit from the back. They would all burst out from the RV on the count of three, they said.




Dad said he jumped up onto his feet, feeling Larry right behind him, and they exploded through the back door of the RV. The Mustangs turned and ran as fast as they could in the other direction. Dad slowed down, happy that they’d run them off. Mission accomplished. But Larry was still running full steam ahead. He wasn’t ready to stop just yet. Dad realized this and started running again to catch up to Larry, who was hot on the heels of the Mustangs. They were already almost to Main Street and the Mustang with the rifle was firing it blindly over his shoulder as he ran.

Dad caught up to Larry, who was now in a stand-off with the two Mustangs on Main Street. Dad and Larry stared them down while the Mustangs pointed the rifle directly at them.

Larry walked closer to them, taunting, and then he said, “I’m going to take that rifle and shove it up your ass.”

The Mustangs faltered, who the hell were these guys?

Before they could react to Larry’s declaration, they were swarmed with the entire Malta police. Which was a total of two cars, but still. They were all thrown in cuffs and taken to the station. Dad and Larry were in a cell at the Malta police station when for the first time they realized that Burger, the one whose idea it was to rush the Mustangs in the first place, wasn’t with them. He later told them that just as they were all getting up to rush the Mustangs he “couldn’t get the front door open” They never let him live that down. Gram and Pop came down to the station and picked the two of them up. Turns out the brother of one of the Mustangs was one of the arresting officers and he was pretty pissed at his little brother. Dad and Larry were released without issue, but they did have to deal with the wrath of Gram and Pop. They made it to Chuck’s wedding the next day with a hell of a story. The newspaper with the headline “Shootout at the Maltana” is still in the family archives somewhere.

With the fire at our Otter Lake camp dying out, it was time to get to sleep. We had a big hike ahead of us the next day.

We got an early start after a quick breakfast. It was about a three mile hike along the ridge leading up to the base of the mountain. We took a few photo ops along the way, but still made good time and got to the base of the peak by mid morning. As we approached the base, we stopped for another photo and a quick snack. There on the ground next to us we noticed a bunch of papers scattered. They seemed to be in pretty good condition, so they couldn’t have been out there for too long. We picked them up and discovered they were pages that had been torn from a wilderness handbook for a youth outdoor adventure group called NOLS. One of their mottos is “leave no trace,” which we thought was pretty ironic. The motto was displayed right there in the handbook we picked up that they’d left behind, aka, trace. Finding the NOLS trash sent Dad and Larry into a tirade. They weren’t huge NOLS fans to begin with, since the groups somehow always managed to encroach on our solitude when we were out hiking. You’d almost always run into one of their adventure groups out on the trail if you were on an extended hike in the Bighorns. Not that we felt like the whole forest belonged to us or anything, but once you start seeing the same people every time you go hiking, you start to think that maybe they are following you. Once we’d gotten a sufficient amount of cracks in on NOLS, it was time to begin our ascent.

Ascending Darton Peak. Frozen Lake below

As we continued to scale, the trees around us grew more and more sparse. Eventually we climbed high enough that we had reached timberline where trees could no longer grow. From that point on, it would be boulder-hopping all the way to the top of Darton. Boulder-hopping is a term we used to describe hiking through massive boulder fields, where you have to jump from boulder to boulder, usually for miles at a time. Boulder-hopping was a part of pretty much any hike we went on in the Bighorns, so you had to master the skill at a young age. Which at a young age is a high risk activity. I remember one of my first hiking injuries happened when I was about five or six. We were hiking to a group of lakes called Seven Brothers. I attempted a jump from boulder to boulder and slipped and bashed my shin off of the rock. I started wailing, and Dad had to carry me on his shoulders for the rest of the hike. Practice makes perfect, I guess, because after a few more years of hikes and boulders I had it down enough to take on Darton, albeit slowly. Larry was the tallest, so he made it through the boulder fields pretty easily. He was up ahead while Dad, Nicole and I scrambled to keep a good pace.

After a few hours of boulder-hopping we were already nearing the summit. We turned around and looked out over the forest and hills below. The views from Darton were incredible. The trees below were so small, they looked like lichen growing on an immense boulder. The sky stretched until it turned white on the endless horizon. It was still only early afternoon so we were all pretty pleased that we were making such good time. We’d be having lunch in no time. We moved closer and closer; Larry up ahead of us had already disappeared over the top of the peak, so we figured he would be waiting for us with lunch ready to go. We clambered to the top. As I crested over the last few rocks, I saw Larry ahead, standing and staring in front of him. Then I saw what he was looking at. We weren’t at the peak, not even close. We were standing on what would later be dubbed the FFP, which stood for Fucking False Peak. We liked making acronyms for things. One of Dad’s favorite acronyms was MFWIC (pronounced “mifwick”), which stood for “Mother Fucker What’s in Charge.” Dad would often ask who the MFWIC was in an establishment we were at, which was met with confusion.

Dad and Nicole climbed onto the FFP and were as shocked as Larry and I that we weren’t at the top. The climb up had been steep enough that the rest of the mountain hiding behind the FFP had been completely invisible to us. From where we were standing, it appeared to be another two or three hours to the top. We awarded ourselves a snack of beef jerky to help muster the will to keep ascending. After considerable griping, we started back up; the true peak in our sights this time.

We were completely exhausted when we reached the real peak, but it was the actual top this time and that’s all that mattered to us. The four of us hugged and high-fived, then each took some time to simply gaze out over the landscape below. We were at about 13,000 feet above sea level, and I could swear I was able to see all of Wyoming from up there. I could see so far that the earth and the sky blended into one in the distance. Dad set up a camera so we could take a group photo at the summit. Larry wanted to smoke a ceremonial cigar at the top to commemorate our achievement, but he didn’t have any cigars. Fortunately, I guess, he had brought some cigarettes. He pulled out four Marlboros from his pack and we all stuck them in our mouths for the photo op. None of us actually smoked, we just thought it looked funny. I’m not sure if my mom ever saw that photo, but I don’t think she’d have been too pleased to see her 13-year-old son with a cigarette in his mouth, no matter the occasion.

At the summit, Darton Peak

Once the celebrating had concluded, we had business to attend to; the main reason for the entire expedition. We started combing through the boulders at the peak in search of Pop’s Mason jar. We were determined to find it and take photos back for Pop so he knew it was still up there.  We searched every nook and cranny around the summit, but there were so many rocks it could have fallen into a deep crevice somewhere and become impossible to retrieve. Hope was fading, when suddenly Dad called out, “I have something!” We rushed over to find him reaching down into a large crack in a boulder. He pulled out an object and held it up for us. A small PVC capsule. Weird, we thought, but maybe someone had scaled the mountain sometime after Pop and found his Mason jar and decided to put it in a more protective capsule? Made sense to us. Dad opened the capsule. There was no Mason jar inside. Instead, there was a single notebook. Dad extracted the notebook and turned it over so we could see the cover. There, written in big black sharpie, were four letters. NOLS.

“NOLS? NOLS!!!” Dad yelled out in outrage. “We climbed all the way to the top of this damn mountain only to find Pop’s memento has been replaced by a ledger from fucking NOLS??”

We completely lost it over this appalling act. NOLS had summited the peak and stolen Pop’s Mason jar, only to replace it with their crappy PVC notebook. There was no character in that, no charm. They had destroyed history. This was unacceptable. In our fury, we slammed open the notebook, grabbed the supplied pencil from the capsule, and took turns writing hate messages in their ledger. “My father climbed this mountain years ago and left a memento which has been taken. This is unacceptable.” Dad wrote. “Who’s the stoopnagle (a term Gram used on Dad and Larry as kids when they were acting like idiots. It’s a family favorite) who took the original ledger and replaced it with this one? I’m mad and it’s go time,” was my entry. Once all four of us wrote our angry entries into the ledger, we placed the book back into the capsule and returned it to its original location. We were still flabbergasted and now felt totally crushed.

We dejectedly sat back down by our packs and pulled out our lunch, trying to overcome our frustrations with NOLS. The view was still gorgeous, we were still at the top of a mountain, for god’s sake. We climbed out of our mental funk and got back to enjoying the achievement. We’d followed in Pop’s footsteps, literally. Things were looking up again. That’s when it happened.

As we sat, Dad pulled out, one by one, all the items he’d packed us for lunch. Leaving Dad in charge of lunch, we knew, was a serious gamble. So far, it had been looking pretty good. Trail mix, granola bars and sandwich accoutrements. I asked if he packed any bread and he pulled out a package of squished English muffins. Hmm, I guess that will work, we thought. He handed me one and I took a test bite. It was the most stale, dry, chewy piece of bread I’d ever put my mouth on. For all I knew, Dad had had that package of muffins in his bag for two years. It was more than I could bear. All that boulder-hopping, the FFP, the NOLS imposter ledger, and now this! Stale muffins for lunch?! I couldn’t contain myself. I hurled the muffin at Dad’s face. It wasn’t out of anger at him or anything, but more just a statement that this is an unacceptable lunch option and justice must be served. The muffin sailed across the low density airspace with ease and smacked Dad clean on the side of the head with an extremely satisfying “SPLAT.” Dad’s large, curly hair bounced and recoiled from the impact as the muffin ricocheted off his head and flew into the abyss off the side of the mountain. Nicole and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Dad, realizing what had happened, couldn’t help but join in. We were all hysterical, lying on the rocks laughing until it hurt. I think the altitude had affected us at that point because it went on for at least five minutes. I don’t know if I’ll ever laugh that hard in my life again. It was the one time I’m thankful that Dad packed one of his crappy lunches.

Once the hysteria had worn off, it was time to make our way back down the mountain to camp at Otter Lake. It was late afternoon and we didn’t want to be in the boulder field at night, so we needed to get a move on. We packed up our gear and moved out, slowly descending off the summit. Larry and I were maybe a hundred yards off of the summit when we heard Nicole call out.

“Guys! I think I see something!”

She was about twenty yards in front of us. We all rushed over to her as she stood on top of a large boulder. She pointed deep into a crevice where we all saw what appeared to be a small Mason jar wedged about as far back into the crack as it could possibly be.

“We have to get it!” Larry exclaimed.

The crevice was tight, way too small for a grown adult to fit. However, I was a scrawny 13-year-old. I could fit. The crevice was slightly vertical, so the only way I could get down in there was by having Dad grab me by the feet and dangle me over the edge of the rock and down into the crack, like a mobster threatening a gambler who owed him money. There was no question I’d do it. Dad hoisted me up by my legs and slowly lowered me as far as he could reach. I stretched out, barely grazing the jar with my fingertips. It was just out of reach. Dad gave one last heave and I shot forward another few inches. It was just enough. I wrapped my fingers around the jar and pulled it close.

“Got it!” I yelled, and he reeled me back in.

I handed the jar to him and he set it on the boulder in between us all. Slowly, he unscrewed the lid and dumped the contents onto the rock.

The half dollar and wrappers spilled out. It was all still there, even after all these years. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Dad peeled open the gum wrappers. The cursive handwriting was smudged and faded, but we could still make out the word Herzog. We all spent a moment in awe that we had actually recovered Pop’s piece of history. A 60-year-old relic, lost on a mountain, was in our hands.  After a while, Larry finally broke the silence.

“Well, we’d better go take our entries out of that NOLS book.”

Oh, shit, we had left all that hate mail in the NOLS ledger which, it turns out, was completely unwarranted. Who would have thought we could overreact like that? Sarcastic voice. Larry took off back up to the summit while Dad packed up the Mason jar. Moments later, Larry was back, clasping in his hands a few torn out pages of notebook paper. All evidence of our transgression had been erased.

Ironically, we were now taking the Mason jar off of the mountain, the very thing we had gone berserk at NOLS for doing, or at least, for thinking they had done. However, we were only taking the jar down to photograph and laminate the wrappers to add to the records of the Buffalo Museum. We vowed that we would all make the same trip to the top of Darton to return the jar to its proper place. It’s been over seventeen years and we’ve yet to make the re-ascent. The Mason jar still sits with Pop’s things in his room. And now Dad is gone. The next time we return to the top will be not only to return history to its proper place, but to relive it as well.

The view of neighboring Bighorn Peak from below Darton

I consider this trip my first big adventure out in the Bighorns. It felt like a big undertaking from a physical standpoint; obviously, climbing a 13,000 foot mountain isn’t a walk around the pond. But it felt big emotionally as well. We had some connection to that mountain and I knew that Dad and Larry wanted to accomplish what their Dad had done years earlier. After it was all said and done, we could see why Pop had named it Glory Peak. It felt like the right name for us too.

I wish Dad could be there with us when we make the long journey to the top once again. I definitely won’t be able to return the Mason jar into that same crevice without him dangling me down into it by the feet, so I suppose we’ll just have to return it to the summit where it belongs. When Pop first climbed that mountain, he left a little piece of himself up there for us to find. I hope when we go back we can leave a part of Dad up there as well. From that vantage point, he’d certainly be able to keep an eye on us all.

about my dad