THREE FORKS — As John Muir once said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Three Forks principal Justin Helvik has taken the saying quite literally, scaling some of of North and South America’s largest mountain peaks.
“I climbed Granite Peak, and that’s been probably over 10 years ago,” said Helvik. “Kind of caught the climbing bug, and since that time I’ve gone on to climb quite a few peaks around the U.S. — from Mt. Rainier in Washington to Gannett Peak in Wyoming to the Grand Teton in Wyoming. Then took the venture farther south this last summer and went down to South America in Ecuador and climbed some volcanoes, 20,000-foot peaks.”
Helvik grew up in Wibaux before playing football at Rocky Mountain College. Helvik then became a science teacher at Harlowton High School before taking the principal job at Three Forks.
Over the course of about 10 days, Helvik and his partners climbed three peaks in Ecuador — Iliniza Norte, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second-tallest mountain and is an active volcano. The Chimborazo is the tallest mountain in Ecuador, an ice-capped inactive volcano and is the farthest point from the center of the earth.
No matter how many mountains he climbs, Helvik knows how important it is to be prepared for any sort of situation, including sliding down the mountain. Knowing how to self-arrest, a technique employed in mountaineering in which a climber who has fallen and is sliding down a snow or ice-covered slope arrests the slide by themselves without a rope, can be life-saving. Self-arresting can be performed by using an ice axe and a combination of a climber’s boots, hands, feet, knees and elbows.
“I think it’s always important to respect the mountain. You should never go into a climb like that, or any climb for that matter, unprepared,” said Helvik. “You should practice those things, too. You should know how to self-arrest if you do start sliding down a steep slope, and you better be prepared, too. We did have to exercise that, it came up once. A guy took a tumble in the fall, and he had to self-arrest or it could have been bad news. Those are situations that you’ve got to be ready for. You do your best. You should be fearful to a certain extent, but I always say it’s best to be prepared and respect the mountain and be prepared for those situations if they do come up, and they do.”
Being 100 percent committed to the climb, both mentally and physically, is just as critical as being prepared for any situation a climber encounters on the mountain. No matter how difficult, using good judgement and avoiding summit fever are also key to safety.
“If you don’t go in committed mentally, or physically for that matter, your odds of a mistake or something critical happening are far greater,” Helvik said. “You’ve got to be prepared, I’d say so more mentally than anything.”
“(Helvik’s wife) has been very supportive and great through the whole thing,” Helvik added. “I don’t always tell her all the technical details, but she knows I work hard to prepare, and I think she trusts me that I’m not going to make a stupid decision.”
For Helvik, his love of the outdoors started with his father. When Helvik was 10 years old, his father took him on a backcountry wilderness backpacking trip over The Beaten Path in the Beartooth Mountains.
The duo recently commemorated that backpacking trip by hiking the same trail to celebrate Helvik’s father’s 70th birthday.
“It was a 30-some-mile trek, 10 years old with a pack that probably weighed more than me,” the younger Helvik laughed. “I was hooked from that moment on. I saw a mountain goat on that trip. My father took me out and exposed me to the outdoors. … I thank him for that.”
Helvik’s love affair for the outdoors isn’t limited to mountaineering. He considers himself a hunter before anything else, getting hooked at a young age.
“I love hunting. I’ve been fortunate in my time since living in the Gallatin Valley here to go on a moose hunt, to go on a mountain goat hunt last year and this year, very lucky to have drew a bighorn sheep permit,” Helvik said. “Hunting is something I’ve really always loved. It’s how I provide food for my family, number one, and I think it’s just a way to connect with Mother Nature, so to speak.”
Helvik has found his passion in life. He can routinely be found in the outdoors, whether it’s mountaineering, ice climbing, hunting, backpacking or going for a hike. As late climber Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
The mountains keep calling, and Helvik must go.
Reporting by Alec Bofinger for Montana Sports