A powder hound checks out Glacier’s backcountry in winter and comes back humbled
About half way up our ascent of Elk Mountain, Greg Fortin stops in a small grove of trees and waits for me. When I get to him, I stop and hang my head between my trekking poles, trying to catch my breath. My throat aches for moisture. I chug about half the Gatorade I brought for the trip. This wasn’t how I’d conceived my first backcountry snowboarding trip into Glacier National Park.
Fortin’s got a knowing smile on his face.
“So you were thinking about doing this without snowshoes?” he asks me.
The question goes far beyond my thoughts on snowshoes. He was pointing out the folly of the casual approach I’d taken toward tackling Glacier National Park’s backcountry in the winter.
I laugh and answer “yeah.”
“And with your sleeping bag, and extra clothes and food for three days.”
“Yeah…” I say, having already pictured the long slog I would have faced had I followed through with my initial plans to explore Glacier’s backcountry during the winter. “You know…I thought you were kind of a downer the first time I talked to you.”
Fortin’s smile broadens. He looks down at the snow and pokes at it with his ski pole.
“I’m sure I can be kind of a downer,” he says. “But I’ve seen a lot of people…” he pauses to consider his words for a moment, “I’ve seen a lot of people try to do things that are beyond their skill level.”
Fortin, with his wife, Mistie Fortin, co-owns Glacier Park Ski Tours, one of two companies licensed to do overnight backcountry tours in Glacier National Park.
Fortin has spent the last 20 years exploring the backcountry, and that experience hasn’t always been pretty. He’s had friends killed in avalanches, and he’s recovered the bodies of avalanche victims while working on search and rescue teams. This fall, he became the avalanche advisor for the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol.
Fortin and I rest in the woods for another minute or two, until Mistie catches up, and the three of us head out of the grove and up a ridge, where the wind has scoured all but a fine layer of snow from the rocky ground.
My original idea involved spending three days and two nights in the park, camping, snowboarding, learning something about winter survival skills and avalanche safety along the way, and getting paid to write an article about it. I procrastinated on the planning until late-December, then made a few phone calls to local outdoors enthusiasts, hoping to find one willing to take me on a multi-day trip into Glacier National Park.
I was quickly referred to a tall, wiry man named Jason Robertson.
The two of us met in early January at The Palace bar in downtown Whitefish to plot an expedition over a few beers. Robertson was quiet, remaining pretty silent except when prompted by my questions.
He suggested that we drive into Glacier through the west entrance, park next to Lake McDonald, hike around the lake, over Howe Ridge, and down to Trout Lake, were we’d spend our first night. The second day, we’d hike up Roger’s Peak, and ride down. The third day, we’d hike back out the way we came.
We went over the gear necessary for such a trip and Robertson said he’d lend me some of the essentials I don’t have: an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and some space in his four-season tent. He recommended I start looking to borrow some snowshoes or a split snowboard (a board that can be broken in half, and used like cross country skis for getting around in the backcountry). If I couldn’t find either, Robertson planned to break trail, with me hiking up in his tracks.
Near the end of our conversation, a burly, bearded 30-something man walked over and grabbed Robertson by the shoulder. “Dude, you’re alive!” he said.
Robertson looked at me, somewhat embarrassed, and answered his friend. “Yeah,” he said, in a tone implying, “Why the hell wouldn’t I be?”
It turned out Robertson’s friend, who he called “Knuckles,” had heard from one of Robertson’s ex-girlfriends that he had died in a climbing accident in Glacier a few weeks ago.
Since we didn’t plan on doing any serious climbing, I wasn’t necessarily worried by this exchange. In fact, I scribbled it in my notebook, thinking it would make a great opening for a story about a backcountry adventure.
When I left the bar, everything seemed set for my big winter outing, but the night before our departure, Robertson bailed, citing work obligations at his carpentry business. I spent the next morning scrambling, calling anyone I could think of who might have a connection to a backcountry enthusiast.
I was eventually led to Fortin. In a phone call I laid out the original itinerary I’d made with Robertson.
“That…doesn’t seem like such a good plan to me,” Fortin said.
He assured me Robertson knew the backcountry well, explaining they’d “skirted each other in the wilderness of Glacier for a long time.” Last year, Fortin told me, Robertson spent more than thirty days hiking and riding the area around Mt. Stimson, a notoriously difficult-to-reach peak in the southern section of Glacier.
But he questioned the wisdom of taking me into the freezing, wind-whipped, avalanche-prone backcountry of Glacier.
“I wouldn’t want to be counting on you to rescue me,” Fortin said.
At first, he considered a two-night trip with me, but that got whittled down to one night, then one day.
That’s when I decided Fortin was a downer. I couldn’t help but wonder if, because he’s on the Nordic Ski Patrol and owned a ski tour company, he might have been a bit biased on the side of over-cautiousness.
He reminded me of a smug guy I met in the winter of 2004-2005, my first season skiing at Big Mountain. I had hiked up to the edge of a popular out-of-bounds ski area known as the Canyon. I’d never ridden it, and so stood at the top, unable to see the bottom and unsure how to proceed down the slope.
Shortly, three skiers made their way up the cat track to me. I asked the one whose red and white coveralls made him look most like a helpful ski patroller what was the best way down.
He gave me an incredulous look, and without answering my question, asked if I was going alone.
I told him I was. He asked if I had an avalanche transceiver.
I said no. In a superior tone, he said something along the lines of me being the kind of person that gives local search and rescue teams all kinds of headaches.
I decided to ignore him, and he went on talking to his two friends, giving them instructions on how to navigate the Canyon. He also talked about avalanche safety, and how he should have brought his AvaLung, an expensive product made by Black Diamond that allows you to breath under snow. He used that word, AvaLung, at least five times. He really wanted everyone to know that he owned one.
Anyway, they eventually dropped into the Canyon, and I followed them. It turned out they weren’t great skiers. I blew past them near the bottom of what turned out to be a hip-deep powder run, and started back toward Big Mountain’s lifts.
The hike out on a snowmobile trail took about 20 minutes, and most of it was uphill. After that I discovered in-bounds terrain I liked just as much that didn’t require such a long hike, and never made it back to the Canyon.
Given my initially grandiose expectations, I’m somewhat crestfallen when Fortin parks his Ford F-150 at a chain-up area across the street from the Mt. Shields/Elk Mountain trailhead.
Rather than embarking on a multi-day trip, I’m tagging along on a day trip while the Fortins scout for terrain to visit with paying customers over the weekend. Outside the truck, it’s windy and cold, so I put on several layers of clothing, including a balaclava, my snowboarding helmet, thick gloves, a polar fleece and a winter coat.
I also strap on an avalanche transceiver borrowed from a friend (thanks Austin), slap on a pair of snowshoes loaned by the Fortins, and shoulder my pack with my board, borrowed shovel and avalanche probe bungeed to its exterior.
The Fortins are both telemark skiers, and after we cross the highway, they strap on their skis, equipped with skins (strips of synthetic material that give the skis grip, like cross country skis), and start skating down the trail.
With each step, my snowboard whacks the back of my helmet. I only make it a few dozen yards down the trail before I take the helmet off, putting some space between my head and snowboard, which continues to wiggle like a fish in its bungee cords. Soon, I’ve got the balaclava off also, and my jacket unzipped.
After maybe a half hour of hiking at a brisk pace, the Fortins stop and use their ski poles to point out various clues to avalanche conditions on the steep faces of Elk Mountain and Mt. Shields. As of yet, they haven’t decided which mountain will be the safest to hike up.
They point to areas where the wind has swept all but traces of snow off the mountains—scours—and areas that are “wind loaded,” where scoured snow has been deposited. They also point to spots on Mt. Shields where there have been small avalanches. They decide Elk would be the best choice for today, and we turn east, leaving what had been a decent trail through the deep snow.
The going gets much more difficult as soon as we start up slope. My snowshoes have little bars on them that flip up, raising my heels by two inches, in order to make climbing a step slope easier—more like climbing stairs. But the bars aren’t exactly easy to engage. Because snowshoes swivel at the ball of the foot, and are unattached at the heel, the bars remain near ground level, no matter how high you raise your foot. When I’m not stomping on my fingers or nearly falling over with the effort of trying to make use of these “helpful” devices, I’m stepping on one snowshoe with another, or getting stuck, which is the worst.
While the Fortin’s long skis keep them near the top of the snow pack, my snowshoes punch deep into the fluff from time to time, leaving me in three-foot deep holes. To get out, I have to stretch one leg up until I can plant my foot on the top layer of snow, then jam my poles in and use my arms and single leg to propel myself back onto their trail.
Despite my exercise regimen and weekly snowboarding sessions, we’re not even a quarter of the way through our trip, and I’m gasping for breath and grasping for my Gatorade bottle every few minutes.
Within a few minutes of beginning the ascent, Fortin gets about 30 yards ahead of me, while Mistie stays about 30 behind, both of them pausing now and again, admiring the views and keeping a safe distance between us.
According to Fortin’s GPS, we started our hike at 4,450 feet. Two and a half hours later, we’re at 6,400 feet, in a small clump of dead trees, stopping for lunch. While I tear off my pack and jacket and lay in the snow, Fortin checks out the steep slope 20 yards to my left, poking the snow with his poles, then skinning up a little higher and jumping down to see if anything will slide.
Eventually he comes over and we eat a quick lunch, then go back over to where Fortin was testing the snow.
He digs a pit about three feet deep, creating a cross-section of the snowpack we’ll be riding, and starts pointing out some of the layers to me. Far down near the ground, there is a thin layer of ice. Fortin finds weak layers by poking at the cross section. Most of the snow is too packed for his fingers to break through, but in a couple spots he’s able to easily slide them in.
Before taking me into the backcountry, Fortin suggested that I should get some minimal winter survival training at a Forest Service avalanche class in Whitefish. I learned that one cubic meter of snow can weigh in excess of 1,000 pounds. In other words, even if you’re buried under just a few feet of snow, you chances of freeing yourself are slim.
I also learned that I’m most likely to be the cause of the avalanche that buries me. Almost all successful rescues occur within the first 15 minutes of burial, and the rescuers are almost always in the victim’s party. Most deaths result from asphyxiation.
Finally, I learned that generally speaking, there are two types of avalanches: slab and point releases. Point releases are normally the less dangerous of the two. They’re teardrop shaped, starting from a particular point (hence the name) and widening. They usually are restricted to the top layer of snow and happen after large storms.
Slab avalanches occur when an entire layer of snowpack slides on a weaker layer. These avalanches can be hundreds of yards wide and several feet deep, and are most often responsible for backcountry deaths.
The really annoying thing about avalanches is that they are most likely to occur where the snow is deep and the slope angle is between 30 and 45 degrees—the exact places skiers and snowboarders want to ride.
As Fortin continues performing tests on the snowpack, I look off down the steep slope below us.
I’m afraid of heights. It seems to have something to do with an over-active imagination. This summer, for instance, after scrambling to the peak of Glacier’s Mt. Gould, I couldn’t stop myself from picturing the incredibly unlikely possibility of the peak breaking out from underneath me, dumping me into the valley thousands of feet below in a crush of rubble.
Now on Elk Mountain, I imagine a slab of snow beneath us breaking free, tumbling me down into the valley and burying me in the dark under several feet of snow and hundreds of pounds of pressure, not knowing which way is up, being crushed and suffocated at the same time.
When Fortin finishes inspecting his test pit, he decides we should ride down in the powder at the edge of the scoured area we hiked up. There are clearly better spots for riding, but Fortin worries the wind has loaded too much snow onto them and that they could break loose underneath us.
By the time I strap my snowboard on, I’d almost forgotten that that’s what this entire hike had been about. Above us, there’s a break in the clouds, while snow squalls churn all around the nearby mountaintops. On the way down, the Fortina keep me in between them, and we go one at a time, each of us getting an untracked line through the powder.
The ride isn’t as great as I’d hoped it would be. The snow is windblown and crusty, but when I finish carving my last turns through the glades at the bottom, I’m happy, and I’m still alive.
Two days later, I take a midday break at the summit house on top of the rechristened Whitefish Mountain Resort (formerly Big Mountain), and rumors are flying around the cafeteria. There’s been an avalanche somewhere in the Canyon, and somebody died.
Right about the same time, Fortin, while cross-country skiing in Glacier with his three-year-old son, gets an emergency page from the Nordic Ski Patrol.
He arrives at the Canyon early the next morning. By then it’s known that two men, 36-year-old David Gogolak of Whitefish and 19-year-old Anthony Kollmann of Kalispell have died.
Gogolak, according to Forest Service reports, had just skied down to the bottom of the Canyon, and was hiking out. Kollmann was above him on Fiberglass Hill, a slope opposite the face Gogolak had come down. It is believed Kollmann’s second turn kicked loose a slab avalanche 800 feet wide and four feet deep. According to Fortin, it traveled down into the Canyon with such force that it actually climbed 100 feet back up the other side. Rescuers quickly found Kollmann, who died of trauma. Gogolak remained buried for several hours, and died of asphyxiation. Neither man wore a transceiver.
Fortin spends the next two days on duty in the Canyon, spotting for avalanche danger as recovery workers try to locate bodies of two more skiers witnesses saw buried by the slide.
I catch up with Fortin over coffee a day later, after the search for the other two potential victims has been abandoned. The slide brought back some bad memories for him. “The eeriness of knowing two people had died just around the corner. It brought back memories of Red Meadow and my own baggage,” he says.
Red Meadow was an avalanche that occurred two years ago, in the Whitefish Range, about 30 miles north of Whitefish.
Fortin responded as part of the Nordic Patrol’s “hasty team,” the first group to arrive on the scene.
According to the Glacier Country Avalanche Center (GCAC), an unusually large avalanche broke off from the mountainside above Red Meadow Lake, and crashed down into it. The three people killed in the avalanche had stopped at the northeast corner of the lake, taking a break from snowmobiling.
“The shock wave [from the avalanche] crushed the snow and ice surface across the entire lake and caused a tidal wave to crash onshore along its northerly edge,” a GCAC report says. “[The victims] were quickly overrun by a wall of snow, water, broken ice, and broken trees.”
When rescuers arrived, Fortin says, “We went in and found the first [victim] right away. He was partially unburied.”
He helped dig out a second victim, who was under five feet of snow. “It took me a lot to get over it,” he says. “You remember what they look like.”
On our way back to Columbia Falls from Elk Mountain, I’m conflicted. I’ve seen now that my skill level isn’t adequate for a more ambitious, multi-day winter expedition, but I’m left wanting something more. When I started my quest to get into the backcountry, I wanted the difficult, rugged experience of camping overnight in the cold, and I wanted to make big, long powder turns like the ones Warren Miller sets to pounding rock ’n’ roll in those ski porn movies. I want a bigger thrill, but it’s over my head.
And then there’s the deadly Canyon avalanche and some wisdom Fortin passed on to me when I interviewed him afterwards. He talked about some of the most important lessons he’s learned about avalanche safety. “Instead of convincing yourself to ski something, convince yourself that you shouldn’t,” he warned.
The signs of a potentially deadly slide are often obvious. But people want to ride. Often, they’ve made long, hard hikes to do it. They want to get their turns in and have some fun, so they discount the risks.
I can’t help but see several of the bad decisions I’ve made in my life through this lens. Like buying my first car. There were clear signs that the 1987 Ford Bronco I so badly wanted was a lemon. Consumer Reports gave it a dismal rating, it made horrible noises when I test-drove it, and the sticker on the window had advertised it as a 1990 model, which was belied by the title. But I wanted that car. It ended up costing me a lot of time and money in repairs before I was able to get rid of it.
Likewise, my first girlfriend in college. All the obvious signs of trouble—excuses for not seeing me that didn’t make any sense, the name of another guy constantly coming up in our conversations, but in love, I happily ignored them.
I decide that this winter, I’ll heed the signals. I clearly don’t have the knowledge necessary to do an extended trip into the backcountry this year. There are plenty of free courses offered by the Nordic Ski Patrol, the Glacier Country Avalanche Center and the Forest Service that can bring me up to speed, and give me the proper training.
Maybe next season.