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Mountain Yarns: The power of storytelling

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Bozeman author Al Kesselheim reads to the audience at The Mountain Project’s monthly Mountain Yarns storytelling series on Dec. 5. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY


BOZEMAN – Inside the warehouse walls pocked with colorful climbing holds, sit intimidating steel structures and giant weight racks used to hone the body to better move up and over mountains, locals gather to listen to stories of adventure: stories of fear, death, pain, failure and triumph.

For millennia—before we could even write—humans have gathered to bask in the art of storytelling. In Bozeman it happens once a month at The Mountain Project, a mountain athlete training gym located a stone’s throw from the city’s historic Story Mill district.

“I’m going to read you a story,” begins local author Al Kesselheim, the first of three speakers who opens a book in front of an audience of about 50, a spectrum of puffy jackets. “And we can pretend we’re all sitting together around a fire.”

Mountain Yarns, a community storytelling series organized by Mountain Project coach Colleen Shields and owner and head coach Mike Wolfe, began last year in an effort to gather the community during some of the longer, colder evenings of the year. There’s no campfire but there is beer and good company. On the first Thursday of every month from November through March, three speakers will present their tale of adventure—this month’s theme: partners.

“We created Mountain Yarns as a way to bring our community together, in person, through live storytelling,” Shields says. “So many stories and experiences these days are shared over social media and the majority of the time we only see the highlights. Our hope was to create an evening where the community could come together to connect, share and interact.”

Kesselheim opened with an intense passage of survival from his book “Threading the Currents: A Paddler’s Passion for Water.” Matt Madsen spoke of his human-powered ascent of Denali with his partner via bike, foot, ski and raft. Whit Magro shared a journey of friendship and loss following a five-year venture resulting in a new 2,000-foot free route dubbed “Gambling in the Winds,” on Wyoming’s Mount Hooker. This last project started with Hayden Kennedy, a talented climber who passed away in October of 2017.

“As soon as that death happened, there was this immediate need to put this thing back together as a sort of a way to grieve and move forward,” says Magro, backdropped by a projected photo of the crew scattering a Ziploc bag of Kennedy’s ashes.

Outside a train rumbles by, its horn piercing the quiet room for a moment. We’re close enough to hear the rhythmic clamor of the tracks. “Bad things happen,” Magro adds. “You lose friends, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up.”

The relationship of storytelling and mountain pursuits is a theme that resonates during Mountain Yarns. It’s a form of therapy we feel drawn to, perhaps more than others, in these oft-secluded ski towns.

“Mountain communities suffer a lot from mental health issues and isolation,” Madsen says. “I used to work in Summit County, Colorado, for the Family Resource Center and we’d actually work on a lot of storytelling stuff because it’s a great way to bring people together.”

Storytelling is also a source of inspiration, says Nick Traux of Uphill Pursuits, a new mountaineering shop in Bozeman. “We want to be able to share the every-person’s experience,” says Traux, who began hosting his own storytelling series at Uphill as well. The first is on Jan. 23.

“Not everyone’s a Conrad,” he said, as Conrad Anker himself held a hand up in farewell and exited the store. “Not everyone’s the sponsored athlete. A lot of people are doing those things on a similar level but those stories don’t get press. It’s a means to share that thread.”

The Mountain Project encourages everyone who has a meaningful story related to researching or exploring the outdoors. Each month the team invites a different local nonprofit to which attendees can donate, and in practice with Montana hospitality there is always plenty of beer to go around, donated by a local brewery.

“It’s a strong source of inspiration for people,” says Kesselheim just before his presentation, hand wrapped around a worn copy of his novel. “It’s important to pass on ideas and traditions and emotions. Storytelling is critical.”

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