Looking for Blue Sky

Column by Jack Bavaria Pearson
Posted 5/18/22

To me, the names Everest and Evans were interchangeable. As a boy brought up under the billion-year-old granite massif of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, both signified the tallest mountain, either of the world or of my world.

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Looking for Blue Sky

Posted

To me, the names Everest and Evans were interchangeable. As a boy brought up under the billion-year-old granite massif of the Rocky Mountain Front Range, both signified the tallest mountain, either of the world or of my world. Both were the focus of a landscape: Everest, declared the world’s third pole, and Evans, the alpine height of my home hills. The difference of 15,000 feet is larger than Evans is high. Yet besides being linked in one kid’s imagination, there are important similarities between the mountains and their names besides starting with the same letters.

The mountain held an aloof presence in my childhood, occasionally popping into view around a bend in the road when I would exclaim that “I could see Mount Everest,” only to be corrected that I could see Evans. Even now I can feel my eyes roll at the nitpicking. No land extended above that little arched peak extending from the high ridge. What was the difference?

Much of my life I would hold memories of a drive to its top — not possible on Everest — that I assumed had taken place far from my home, not simply above it. Visions of meadows and wide vistas crowded my mind, displaying a new and confusing sight. A view of familiar territory instead of from it. I was on the horizon looking back.

These memories are stored in a specific folder of local memories that feel alien, meadows that I have searched for with a zeal, never finding them but knowing they were nearby. The drive is still my only experience of altitude sickness and the elevation lent them a fairy quality of idyllic beauty.

This wonder has long been found in mountains, on both Evans and Everest. Both went unascended until foreigners arrived. For me it was a visit from my Indiana cousins that prompted the ascent. For Evans in general, the painter Alfred Bierstadt was the first recorded to walk to its top, though one of the many Native Americans that crowd his painting of the mountain or their ancestors may have summited first. He referred to the peak as Mount Rosalie or Mont Rosa after the woman who he would marry and the famous Alp respectively, firmly planting the mountain in a colonial space. This was a mountain dedicated to people on the East Coast and a culture from Europe.

Mountains are the loci of landscapes. From their peaks you can map and survey new territory and change the cultural story of that land. The name Everest ties back to the British Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, a blatantly colonial occupation of mapping for political power. The name Everest ties back to Mallory and the tragic British attempts at the summit. It grounds British history in the Himalayan landscape.

The names imprinted on the landscape of my home tell a similar story — one of conquest and native erasure. The peaks, in order of ascending elevation, were Squaw (the racist term for Native women), then Chief (the male equivalent), and above them Evans, which was renamed from Mount Rosalie to honor John Evans, the second territorial governor of Colorado who was forced to resign in 1865 for his participation in the Sand Creek Massacre which killed 230 native people. Stories rarely get clearer than that.

Although they are set in stone, the stories of a landscape are always changing. Earlier this year, Squaw was renamed Mestaa’ehehe Mountain, meaning Owl Woman in Cheyenne and honoring an influential translator in Colorado’s history. The Mestaa’ehehe coalition behind the name change is made up of members of the Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Hinono’eiteen (Arapaho) tribes and now have their eyes set on Mount Evans, the proposed name being Mount Blue Sky. They say this “signifies the Arapaho as they were known as the Blue Sky People and the Cheyenne who have an annual ceremony of life called Blue Sky.”

As someone who has spent much of their life below the mountain, it is also accurate. While I now live in Montana, the big sky state, I have thought of home as blue sky country. The sunshine and pure blue sea of sky a calling card of the mountain’s ridgelines. The 14,271 peak is a true skyscraper.

Peaks define land. The name Mount Evans is carried by the peak’s ridgeline, the batholith beneath it, and the wilderness area surrounding it. Renaming it to Blue Sky will help to recognize the native peoples still part of this land and its future and in so doing set the mountain squarely in its own setting.

When the German-American Bierstadt painted what he would call Mount Rosalie, he depicted it like its namesake Alp, the summit rising dramatically into the sky and out of reality. But Blue Sky is a name grounded in Colorado and the Front Range. It serves to sever the connection with Everest and dissipate some of the settler colonialism that remains embedded in the mountains of the American West.

For this mountain is not like Everest or even like Pikes Peak to the south. It is not a well defined separated summit, isolated and reaching towards the sky. It is the tip of a much larger area, simply the highest point on a large ridge. First among near equals. It is not the alps-esque spire of Bierstadt’s imagination, significant due to its isolation, but a slower build that points to the verticality and sloping nature of the land all around it. It does not jutfrom the landscape but is holistically part of it. It is defining yet driveable. It is a monument not to itself but to the land around it. It is an indicator or landmark of a place, not only its own dramatic beauty. This is Mount Blue Sky.

Jack Bavaria Pearson is a freelance journalist and writer from Evergreen, Colorado who studied Science Writing and History at Montana State University. He is a passionate skier and biker.

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