Monday, June 21, 2010

These Haunted Mountains

It's pale light at 4 a.m. I roll out of bed, start the coffee and take an aspirin. The signals blink red and yellow and only a few others are out. At 5:45 I'm at the trailhead for Lolo Peak.

I was up here a month ago, headed to the North Summit; in the 30 days since the snowline has receded by approximately 800 vertical feet -- rather astounding given the season.

5.45 a.m. in the Bitterroot.


On Tuesday morning, Chris Spurgeon followed this same trail alone on his outing to ski Lolo Peak. On Friday afternoon, searchers motioned a helicopter into place and lowered a winch down so a sling could lift Spurgeon's body from the summit.

I did not know him but we shared much of the same demographic: similar age, outing alone, skiing a big peak in summer. The coroner announced on Sunday that Spurgeon died in an avalanche.

From the looks of tracks in the snow there was a sizeable party searching for him. A party on horse tried at least three approaches to the ridge, all unsuccessfully, and other parties blazed and even marked new trails to the ridge, which is the halfway point and the dividing line between protective forest and windswept alpine. Atop the ridge itself tracks go in every direction, and there was the remains of a campfire. Notably, it was a group of his friends who went to the summit on skis who found the body.

I got lost headed downhill from the ridge toward Carlton Lake, and stumbled through mud and marshes and snowbanks as I wound across the wrong side of the water. Once I got to the head of the lake, however, the route was clear; searchers had put in a safe ascent trail and it was nice to let someone else do the route finding for a while.

Easier to just scruff your skis across rocks than take them on and off.


Final push to the summit.


I traversed the full length of the ridge, looking for evidence of a slide; I saw nothing. It's obvious, however, that the mountain took on a lot of weather last week; there was at least a foot of new snow in the areas where the surface had not been baked clean by Friday's sun. The final few trees on the way to the summit were rimed and so was the rock.

Like it always is, to be atop a beautiful mountain in spectacular conditions is a mesmerizing moment. I could not help but be happy -- and for a moment to wonder if that happiness should be accompanied by guilt. After all, I was standing near the spot where someone probably a lot like me had died a few days before.

Feels good to be on top.


"You could see that he ended up in the rocks," the coroner reported. "His skies [sic] were quite a bit farther down the slope. Very difficult terrain, very steep terrain. I think the lesson to be learned is if you're gonna ski in those kinds of places not to go by yourself. According to all his friends he was very highly skilled, very capable and he got in trouble."

There's some truth to that, but also some non-truth. Having partner can help you in case of an accident, but a partner can not prevent an accident. And, two or three or five or ten can die in an avalanche just as easily as one can on his own.

South from the summit.


I pushed off to centerpunch the bowl and got two turns into it and did not like the feel of the snow -- gloppy new snow atop a semi-frozen surface. I traversed to the north and put in 50 beautiful turns to the bowl's midpoint, then traversed south and took a rest, kicking off a small sluff that broadened as it pulled out a cornice below.

Second half of the descent.


I skied along the right side of the lake this time headed back and had a nice mud, rock and snow ascent to regain the ridge. The descent from the ridge in the serrated snow was difficult and eventually I figured it was easier to hike than ski the patches. I talked conditions with some of the hikers headed up and made it home by 2, cooked up a plate of bacon and started to work on the house.

Carlton Lake and the summit. Descent was on the looker's right shoulder, then a traverse to the center, and down the middle of the bowl from there.