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Big Sky writer dedicates book to Lone Mountain, her favorite Christmas tree laccolith

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By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – Mary Caperton Morton lived for 10 years in a homemade teardrop trailer she pulled behind her Subaru, equipped with a solar panel and Wi-Fi booster so that she could get internet nearly anywhere. She called it her “rolling office” and within those trailer walls, she began to write about the North American landscape that inspired her first book.

In September 2016, the manuscript for “Aerial Geology: A High-Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters, and Peaks” was due to her publisher, Timber Press. On the due date, Morton left her desk in her Big Sky home and hiked up her backyard peak. She says by the time she reached Lone Mountain’s 11,166-foot summit, she finally felt the manuscript was ready. She hit “send” right there on the top of the peak.

When Morton received the first copy of the printed book last summer, prior to the October release date, she took the physical copy back to the summit of Lone Mountain, paying tribute to Big Sky’s special peak, to which she even dedicated the book.

Beyond recognizing Lone Mountain as the icon of Big Sky, Morton holds a special connection with the mountain. Holding bachelor’s degrees in biology and geology from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Morton said she came across a phrase during her studies that has become her favorite geologic term: Christmas tree laccolith.

Created by a failed volcano that erupted from the side instead of from the top, Christmas tree laccolith describes the tree-like cross-section these features come to resemble. Morton says the branching arms extending from the mountain, creating long steep ridge features like Alto Ridge and the Headwaters Cirque, are what make Lone Mountain an ideal mountain for skiing.

She didn’t know Lone Mountain held that geologic distinction when she came to Big Sky four years ago. But, Morton said, “When I found out Lone Peak was a Christmas tree laccolith, it was one of the things that cemented for me that I’d found my home here.”

Morton added that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the mountain’s official name is Lone Mountain, however Big Sky Resort rebranded it Lone Peak, sealing the name of the mountain for many locals. “Either is technically fine, as the mountain certainly qualifies as a peak: a point higher than all other adjacent areas,” she said.

“The winters are obviously spectacular, but what I really stay here for is the summers,” Morton said, calling the Big Sky area an adventurer’s paradise. She and her boyfriend, Dan Whitaker, have trail maps on the walls at their house and after each area adventure, they highlight their route on the map. “There’s still so much ground to cover,” she said.


The 36-year-old decided to become a writer during a serendipitous moment while reading author Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute, this guy isn’t a scientist, he’s a writer that writes about science,’” Morton said. From there she obtained her master’s in science journalism from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, knowing that one day she would write a book.

That dream came true, and Morton couldn’t be happier. The book pairs NASA satellite imagery, shots taken out of airplanes and Morton’s own on-the-ground footage, as she has visited 89 of the 100 sites scattered around North America.

Her hands intimate with every page, Morton can easily flip through “Aerial Geology” and find the exact feature she’s thinking of, and describe in detail one special aspect of that area’s geologic story.

Of Dragon’s Back in New Mexico, Morton explained how the area was shaped by water. Turning the pages to the Chesapeake Bay Crater in Maryland and Virginia, Morton described how the crater wasn’t found until the 1990s, and that it’s what shaped the bay and directed the rivers to congregate there.

Turning to her feature of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, she pointed to a NASA photograph of the area and described the 60 different lava flows that created the landscape. “It’s one of those places where you see it from the air and it all comes together.”

That’s the reason she wanted to pair her science writing with aerial photographs. “Geology is such a big-picture subject. It involves billions of years,” she said. “Part of seeing it from the air is it helps you take a giant step back.”

Morton reached out to a number of photographers, many of which are also pilots, in order to gather aerial shots for her book. Malcolm Andrews is one such photographer, who tends to keep a digital camera with him while he’s flying as a commercial pilot.

“It’s one of those things where serendipity has a lot to do with it,” he said. “If you see something interesting and you’re able to pull [the camera] out, then it’s an opportunity to capture that.”

Morton found Andrews through his blog, AerialHorizon Photography, and he contributed photographs of the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, Hells Canyon and the Colorado Rockies, as well as many others.

“It’s a fantastic concept,” Andrews said. “For those of us who spend so much of the time in the air, you see that landscape and think it’s interesting. … You combine that with the photos on the ground, and you realize the scope of the geology.”

“What I really wanted to do was provide inspiration for people to go and see these places,” Morton said. With 100 different features, she said, “There’s a place you’ve seen, a place you’re dying to see, and one you haven’t heard of before. … I’m proud to be an American because of the land we have, especially the public land system.”

“Aerial Geology” is available at major bookstores, as well as online. For more information about Morton and her book, visit

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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