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Above the upper waterfall we hit snowline and traded our hiking boots for skis, lightening our packs and settling into a new and pleasant motion. Kicking along, we passed through the buried backcountry campground and then up the ridge toward Flattop Mountain. Robertson pushed ahead and out of sight, and Iunghuhn and I loosely followed his tracks. Since I relish solitude in the wild, the fact that Robertson travels at a super-human pace never bothers me. He would be waiting up ahead, as always, but never too far away. Iunghuhn occupied the middle, floating between Robertson and me. In this serpentine fashion we slinked over Flattop Mountain, down across Kootenai Pass, and to the foot of Trapper Ridge. After strapping the skis on our packs and switching to ice axe and crampons, we kicked and stabbed our way up the ridge’s steep east face. Pausing at the saddle, we switched back to skis and dropped to the tiny lakes on the Continental Divide. Here we made base camp and crawled into our tents.
Before we fell asleep, the heavy snow began.
All the next morning we sat in a cloud-choked camp, listening to ghostly avalanches thunder around us. The rumbling hardly stopped, it seemed, and we dared not leave the flats until late afternoon, when the slides tempered. Even then, we skied just a few hundred feet toward the saddle between Vulture Peak and Nahsukin Mountain to feel the snow, stretch our legs and poke around—and then hurried back to safety. The clouds never lifted, and after dinner a light rain turned steady and began puddling between clumps of beargrass. We retreated to our tents and hunkered down to let the weather play out, unsure of what the rest of the night would bring.
At first hint of dawn we peeked out to moderately safer conditions. The rain had melted the new snow and packed down the rest, but the fog hadn’t thinned a bit. Desperate to explore, we followed our tracks from the day before out of camp and up into the gray void. I squinted and strained my eyes, unable at times to tell up from down, one direction from another. But Robertson pushed on, navigating from memory, and Iunghuhn and I followed. Having passed through this spot several times during the late summer, the route seemed correct, but without knowing exactly where we were, and with the real possibility of avalanches, nothing felt comfortable. We kept each other in sight, silently inching upward, searching the clouds for a glimpse of ridgeline, the face of a mountain, a horizon—anything to orient us.
Near midday the fog lifted, as if we were underwater and rising toward a surface. Slanting rays of sun broke through seams in the sky, and soon we caught sight of Nahsukin, its angular flanks stolid and unflinching. Cheered to see beyond our noses, and relieved to be at a safe spot between the mountains, we stopped on a bare slab of rock and took a break. We strew boots, footbeds, socks, gloves and shirts across the stone to half-ass dry in the ephemeral glimpses of sunlight.
Refueled, Robertson and Iunghuhn climbed to a low spot on the ridge tapering southward from the Vulture saddle and enjoyed a few turns while I filmed from below. As they cruised by, I fell in line and we glided single-file back to camp. While we peeled off our gear, the clouds finally fell away—began to truly dissolve and disappear—and within minutes, the world opened. First emerged a nearby spire, then a distant buttress, a ridgetop, a dentine arête, and in no time we were able to see false Kootenai Peak, Mount Cleveland, Wolf Gun, Geduhn, Trapper and Nahsukin.
We smiled as mountains continued to surface from the vanishing clouds. We found solace in their familiarity and beauty, and for the first time I could remember, there was no gnawing in the back of my mind about snow conditions. I let go of the cerebral and allowed myself to be overpowered by the presence of the mountains—the achy fullness that tugs at the heart when one is in love.
Our excitement didn’t last long, however, as a helicopter suddenly appeared over Gyrfalcon Lake, shattering the silence. The clouds hadn’t been clear for 10 minutes.
“He wouldn’t fly a helicopter in a church, I bet,” I said, deadpan, but loud enough that my friends could hear. Nobody laughed. We waited until the echoing clamor receded from the mountains, following the machine out over Nahsukin Lake.
My spirit dimmed by the intrusion, I reminded myself that if this high-pressure system lasted, tonight’s temperatures would plummet and everything would freeze hard as an igloo. That also meant sunshine and afternoon avalanches. My only chance at getting over Trapper Ridge was to go early.
During dinner, I asked Robertson if he and Iunghuhn might want to ski with me down the ridge.
“Maybe,” he said, being polite.
If the day proved sunny, I knew they had to push for Vulture. It might be their only window of good weather to shoot for its summit. It wasn’t their fault I couldn’t stay out seven days, like they planned to do. I had to get home to my kids. I wanted to be home safe with my family. And if it snowed more, I would be stuck here again, possibly for even longer.