GPHY 441: Mountain Geography

Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Class on Sacagawea Peak, September 2009

Course Overview

Instructor Information

Dave McWethy, Ph.D.

Office: Traphagen Hall 218
Office Hours:  Wed. 10 am - 12 pm, Thursday 1-3 pm.
E-mail: dmcwethy[at]
Phone Number:  994-6915

Course Description

In Mountain Geography we will study the processes that shape the landscapes that surround us and learn how global change is affecting mountain systems. The course builds on the content of ESCI 112 (Intro. to Physical Geography) and will emphasize connections between physical and biological geography. Over the semester we will learn about the following topics:

  • Global, regional, and local distributions of mountain ranges
  • Physical and biological processes shaping mountain environments over a range of time scales
  • Major forest types in southwestern Montana and their bio-physical controls 
  • Sensitivity to and impacts of climate change in mountain regions 
  • Human use and impacts in mountain regions


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Locate and describe the features of local mountain ranges, including geologic origin, major vegetation communities, and human impacts.

  2. Describe the hierarchy of processes controlling the physical and biological patterns we see in mountain landscapes, locally and globally, and how these processes are affected by global change.

  3. Access and evaluate primary scientific literature.

  4. Identify a research question, collect and analyze data to address the question, and summarize findings in standard scientific formats (text and presentations).
  5. Evaluate the work or your peers in a constructive and respectful manner.


The course depends heavily on field trips and hands-on experience but also includes lectures, in-class discussion, and student presentations. As a "Research" course (link), there is significant focus on the process of generating scientific understanding, including developing testable hypothesis, designing and implementing a research plan, and communicating findings orally and in text. 

The main text book provides a general background to the key processes shaping mountain environments. You are responsible for the main points, but we will not be spending significant class time going over the text. Supplementary readings will go into greater detail on a given topic. These readings serve to both provide a greater depth of knowledge about particular subjects and provide opportunity to learn how to read primary scientific literature.   

Field Trips

Field trips will depart promptly at 1:10 pm from in front of the Motor Pool (Sixth and Grant) and will require the full class period scheduled, and possibly more time depending on driving conditions. Please do not schedule activities until after 7 pm on field trip days. Private cars will not be allowed to accompany field trips because of liability and MSU policy.

Field trips require that you are in moderate physical condition and can hike up to 4-6 miles in an afternoon. Please contact the instructor is you have any special needs regarding backcountry travel.

Course Requirements


ESCI 112 or BIOL 101, senior standing, or permission from the instructor.

The course depends upon an introductory understanding of climatology, geology (mountain building processes in particular), geomorphology, and ecology gained from ESCI 112. Topographic map reading skills are also necessary. Please refresh your memory of these subjects with your ESCI 112 material and/or ask the instructor or TA for guidance.    


Required Text
Price, L. W. (1981) Mountains and [Hu]Man[s], A Study of Process and Environment, University of California Press.
    - available at the MSU bookstore as a course pack for $24.05.

Required Map

Bozeman, Big Sky, West Yellowstone Outdoor Recreation Map. Beartooth Publishing. Available at stores throughout Bozeman, including Barrel Mountaineering, and Northern Lights Trading Co.

Supplemental Text

In addition to the text book, we will read primary scientific literature throughout the semester. These paper will be available via the course web site, linked to in the calender.

Computer Access

You will need a reliable Internet connection to keep up to date with course materials (though this class web site) and to successfully complete your research project.

Required Field Trip Materials

You are required to have proper clothing and equipment for our field trips, and you must be prepared for rain, no matter how sunny the current weather. Please bring the following equipment for every field trip:
  • "Rite in the Rain" all-weather field notebook and pencil (available at MSU bookstore)
  • sturdy hiking boots or shoes (we will be going off trail)
  • long pants for field work
  • day pack
  • wool/synthetic socks
  • rain jacket and rain pants
  • water bottles (2 liters, filled)
  • food / snacks for an afternoon
  • sunglasses, sun hat, and sun screen (for the warm/dry times)
  • warm, non-cotton hat, jacket, and gloves (for the cool/wet times)
  • compass (optional)
  • GPS (optional)
  • altimeter (optional)
  • camera (optional)


All assignments should be handed in via e-mail (to both the instructor and TA), unless otherwise noted.

Weekly Readings

Weekly readings are assigned in the calendar below. It is essential that you read the material before the class meets on Tuesday, and I will assume you have some familiarity with the topics being covered in class or in the field. Selected students will be responsible for presenting journal articles, when they are assigned. 

Field Trip Reports

Each field trip is designed as an individual research project, and we will collect data individually and as a class to help us answer specific research questions. A field trip report, in the format of a scientific paper, is required from each field trip. These will be due 1-2 weeks after each trip.   

Grading rubric for field trip reports is here.

If you receive a C or lower on a field trip report, please see me during office hours.

Research Project, Paper and Presentation
In addition to the four field reports you will write over the semester, you will also develop a research project based on a subject of your choosing (but related to mountain geography). These papers will be written in the "IMRAD" format: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion. You may work individually or in teams of up to 4 students on these project. Additional details will be discussed during the first two weeks of the course, but each project must adhere to the following criteria:

  1. Based on quantitative data, either collected via field work or from existing data sources.
  2. Data are analyzed and summarized graphically and/or numerically, using some form of statistical description or comparison.
  3. Primary scientific literature is cited in the introduction, methods, and discussion sections of your final paper, using at least 10 primary references.
  4. Literature cited is presented in a consistent format, adhering  to the format of the Journal of Biogeography



There will be one in-class exam covering materials from our field trips, readings, and lectures. The final exam is cumulative but will focus on the second half of the course. Each exam will consist of a mixture of multiple choice, true/false, short answers, and/or essays.

Dates & Locations
Midterm Exam: 1:10 pm, TBA, Traphagen 116
Final Exam: TBA December xx, xx pm, Traphagen 204

Course Policies & Grading

Course Policies

(1) In-class expectations: Please respect your fellow student's learning experience. Do not talk amongst yourselves during class (but feel free to raise you hand to ask a question), arrive on time and do not leave class early, and please turn off all electronic devices unless they are being used for note taking.

(2) Absences will not be excused unless you have contacted me 24 hours or more in advance of the class. This includes missing an exam: there are no make up exams.

(3) Assignment due dates are firm. Late assignments will be penalized by 5% per 24-hour period. For example, a perfect assignment handed in 3 days late would receive 85% of full credit. As with attendance, late assignments will be penalized unless you have made arrangements with me, at least 48-hours prior to the due date.

(4) Out of class inquiries: Coming to office hours is the best way to get questions answered, but I will make ever effort to answer questions posed over e-mail within two weekdays of receipt. In order to do this, you must: 

(a)  include GPHY 441 in the subject line,

(b)  sign your message with your full name.

(5) Academic Dishonesty of any form is unacceptable and will be taken serious by the instructor and Montana State University. This includes plagiarism, when you copy materials for other sources without citing the source or copy someone else's work, and cheating, copying material from other students during tests or quizzes. In both cases, you will fail the assignment/exam and the information will be passed on to the Dean of Students.For more information see:

(6) Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact the instruction and Disabled Student Services ( to work out any accommodations necessary to make this course a success.  


Final grades will be based on the following weights:
  • Attendance and Participation - 10%
  • Field Reports - 20%
  • Research Paper - 25% 
  • Mid-term exam - 20%
  • Final Exam - 25%
Break points between number grades and percentages will be based on the following:
Grade Percentage Required
F below 60

Calendar - subject to change

Date Topics / Field Trips Readings Assignments
Sept. 1 Course introduction

What is a mountain? Attitudes towards mountains.
Field Trip Preparation.
 Chapters 1-2 Agreement of Understanding

Assignment #1
Sep. 8 Origins of Mountains,
Mountain Climate
- OR -
Sacajawea - Fairy Lake Field Trip#1:
  1. Field Trip Handout [pdf]  
  2. Most references from handout are on MSU online reserves
  3. Locke and Lageson 1989
  4. Weaver and Perry 1978
  5. Field Trip Photos
  6. Excel spreadsheet for data entry (save file)

#1 Field Handout
#2 Locke and Lageson pg. 5-8
#3 Weaver and Perry

Assignment #1 Due
Sept. 15 Sacajawea - Fairy Lake
Field Trip #2
  1. Field Trip Handout [pdf]  
  2. Locke and Lageson 1989
  3. Weaver and Perry 1978
NOTE: Field Trip for Tuesday is On!
Meet at Motor Pool 1:00 pm
#1 Field Handout
#2 Locke and Lageson pg. 5-8
#3 Weaver and Perry
Sept. 22 Mountain Vegetation, Landforms and Geomorphic Processes
- OR -
Eagle Creek - Whitebark P.
Field Trip #3
with Jesse Logan
1. Bentz et al. 2009

*Prepare questions for Jesse L.

Note-only 1 reading but make sure and read in entirety

Suppl. Readings:
1. Sammon and Logan 2000
2. CFRI 2006
DUE: Data from Fairy Lake

Eagle Creek Field Trip:
Bring extra food or $
Sept. 29
Mountain Economies, Tourism and the Impacts of Resorts on Mountain Environments
- OR -
Lone Mountain - Big Sky
Field Trip #4
    1. Gallatin Canyon/Big Sky NEW

    2. Gude et al. 2006

    3. Hansen and DeFries 2007

    4. Big Sky history according to MRA
    (Pages 7-8 ONLY)

    5. Rivera and de Leon 2004

     Big Sky field trip:
    Impacts of Resorts on ecology and economy of  Mt. envs.
    Oct. 6

    Writing and presenting scientific papers
    Fairy Lake field reports
    using web of science
    Lecture [pdf]
    Be prepared to discuss main points of Gude et al. 2006, Hansen and DeFries 2007 and Rivera and de Leon 2004
    Fairy Lake Field Reports
    Oct. 13 Bridger Field Trip

    Link to great tree-ring website with lots of links:

    Bridger Field Handout-
    PRINT OUT: pdf

    Bridger Data Collection Sheet-
    PRINT OUT ALL 4 SHEETS for data collection
    - xcel file
    Chapter 5;
    Reardon et al. 2008
    Kulakowski et al., 2006

    Johnson 1987

    Butler 1979

    DUE: Fairy Lake Field Reports

    Research Project Outline 
    Oct. 201. Guest Lecture Angela Patnode-Avalanche Center

    2. Drivers of treeline levels

    3. Glaciers and Regional Climate

    3. Exam info.

    4. Tree-ring mounting and prep.

    Tuesday, October 20th lecture [pdf]
    5. Link to field photos: photo_page

    Due: Research Project Outline

    Mount tree-ring cores
    Oct. 27 Midterm Exam

    counting tree-rings

    Nov. 3 Hyalite Hydrology
    Field Trip
    Hyalite Field Notes

    1. Examples for calculating two estimates
    2. Monthly mean 1935-95
    3. Daily measurement 1935-95
    4. Peak Discharge
    5. Source of data

    References for Hyalite report:
    1. Dunne and Leopold 1978

    2. Ritter et al. 1996
    Please bring waders if you have them and can get them to school 
    Nov. 10 Mountain Peoples and Mountain Culture
    Guest Lecturer
    C. Bunting
     1. Chapter 10
    2. FAO 2003
    3. Schoennagel et al. 2004
    4. Westerling et al. 2006

    Nov. 17
    Pederson Presentation:
    Climate change, Fire and Carbon stocks

    1. Krawchuck et al. 2008
    2. Kashian at al. 2006
    3. Hurteau and North 2009

    Supplementary readings:
    1. Donato et al. 2006
    2. Schoennagel et al. 2009

    Readings for Tuesday's discussion!
    Nov. 24

    Work on projects
    Dec. 1 Meet in rm 204 at 3:00 pm
    No class from 1:10-3pm
    Karl Birkland Guest Lecture:
    Presenting scientific papers
     review grading rubric for final project
    Paper draft due: (optional)
    Dec. 8 Student Presentations
    [pdf-Dec 1 lecture/grading rubric]
    Presentations and Final projects due Presentations and Final projects due