Bell Mountain Calling

A Forty-Year Intrigue

By Tom Lopez

Time is relative; its only worth depends upon what we do as it is passing. —Albert Einstein 

Mountain climbing, like life, is more about the journey than reaching the summit. My journey with Bell Mountain, one of Idaho’s iconic landmarks, began in 1978. I had just started working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Salmon. On my first weekend, I drove to Idaho Falls to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle. The trip was my first drive down Idaho 28. This highway traverses the wide mountain valleys between two large fault block mountain ranges, the Beaverhead Range and the Lemhi Range. As the highway leaves Salmon, the valley quickly widens and the mountains on either side rise in height. The view from the road is filled with attractive peaks. As a climber, I made mental notes of many of these peaks as I drove. 

Sixty-five miles south of Salmon, the highway crosses Gilmore Summit and then begins a long sweeping descent toward the Snake River Plain. The land is open, treeless terrain with huge alluvial fans pouring down from the mouths of dark, tree-filled canyons crowned by windswept summits. Suddenly, I spotted a stunning, Liberty Bell-shaped mountain. It towered over its otherwise impressive neighbors. I stopped the car and pulled out the road map. There were only two peaks identified by name on the map, Bell Mountain and Diamond Peak. The northernmost of the two peaks was Bell Mountain. An appropriate name, I thought. This moment was when my infatuation with the mountain began. I knew I had to climb it.

There are many reasons to climb a mountain. There is the challenge, and we wonder if we will measure up. There is the lure of exploring the mountain’s wild, remote, and possibly unexplored terrain. We ask, “Has anyone climbed that peak?” There is the promise of stunning vistas from the summit. We wonder about, and long to discover, what might be found up there. And there is the inexplicable inspiration that an attractive mountain plants in our minds. Its shape, height, or remote location might create the desire to unlock its secrets. Perhaps all these factors combined will create a sense of foreboding or mystery that somehow overwhelms our better judgment and draws us upward.  But maybe I’m overthinking the process. Maybe why we climb is less complicated than all that. When George Mallory was asked why he was trying to climb Mount Everest in the 1920s, he answered simply, “Because it’s there.”

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Tom Lopez

About Tom Lopez

Tom Lopez is the author of Idaho: A Climbing Guide and the website In the last fifty years he has climbed more than a thousand Idaho peaks and completed a total of 3,500 ascents across the United States, including several first ascents. His writing has appeared in the Idaho Statesman, Summit, Rock and Ice, and Climbing magazines, among others. He strongly believes that the secret to successful aging is to keep moving ahead, “Otherwise, you’ll fall behind.”

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