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“That’s why I’ve never come out here in the winter,” said Robertson. “If it dumps, then you’re stuck. Getting back over Trapper Ridge at the saddle is the only way out. I went around the north nose of the ridge once, above Nahsukin, and it gets steep as hell. Total slide territory with fresh snow. The saddle is your only option.”
I knew this was true because I once ventured around the nose of the ridge during summer and it was riddled with cliffs.
His comment reminded me of the other side of the ridge, and the uncertainty of what I would find. The last time I had seen it was on the first day of the trip when we kicked up it with crampons. Would I see remnants of our route? Was that still the safest place on the face?
One more night to go.
I crested the saddle and raced for a peek over the other side. A few large loose-snow sluffs had left dirty tongues behind, but nothing had deeply avalanched and I had to believe that the slope would hold. I had to trust it. With questions partially answered, I ducked into the tallest clump of subalpine firs and hid from the wind. Wasting no time, I ripped skins from skis and double-checked my avalanche beacon. If things went bad, they could at least find my body. I dug my hat and gloves from my pack and suited up. I fastened the heel of my tele bindings and climbed back out into the sun.
I kicked a few steps and hung my ski tips over the edge. Then stopped.
I couldn’t help but think there might not be a better view in the world than from this saddle: Cleveland, Merritt, the whole Garden Wall, Logan Pass, and a direct line of sight into the Sperry Glacier basin. It was all spread jagged and sublime before me. This is one of the few remaining wild places in the Lower 48, which left me wanting to stay and absorb the lifeblood of the land.
But the snow was melting. I had to go. I couldn’t hesitate, couldn’t wait. Every second counted. I leaned forward and didn’t look back. Three Super-G turns later, I pointed it. I should’ve pointed the whole damn thing, but falling at Mach 1 with a heavy backpack, ice axe attached, and middle-aged tendons and ligaments holding my legs together was as dangerous as an avalanche—especially alone and miles from the nearest trail.
Shooting into the closest timber—the first stand of mature spruce and fir—I skidded to a stop. Under the shadow of an old monarch I looked back at the ridge, my sinuous tracks like pencil marks on an otherwise blank canvas. I lowered my head and caught my breath.
“Thank you for holding, good snow,” I muttered, eyes closed, head down. “Thank you.”
Then I turned for home.
Skiing alone, I swallowed sunshine and wildness, my spirit soaring as I crossed grizzly, wolf, wolverine, snowshoe hare, coyote and squirrel tracks. Ravens quorked overhead in passing, and the sweet, green fragrance of the subalpine blew thick on the steady breeze.
Later that afternoon, just as I dropped below snowline, the clouds returned. From the other side of Logan Pass, a surly mass of wind, hail and rain crested the Divide and poured like black mercury into the Lake McDonald Valley. When I reached Packer’s Roost, sheets of cold rain blew sideways. Not wanting to pause, I said to hell with rain gear and barreled down the Going-to-the-Sun Road on my bike, my camouflage ball cap on backwards, pedaling for the dry warmth of my waiting vehicle.
At Avalanche Creek I tossed my gear in the rig, and fleeing the groves of slicker-laden tourists milling about the parking lot I drove past Lake McDonald and out of the park. I wondered if Robertson and Iunghuhn had made it up Vulture. Had they made it back to camp before this storm? Surely another round of heavy cement was falling in the high country.
Turns out, Robertson explained over the phone a few days later, they made exhilarating turns from the summit of Vulture and landed back in camp just before the snow began. But they never saw the sun the rest of the trip, and packed up a day early and headed for the barn door.
“What did we expect?” we laughed.
For spring skiing in the Northern Rockies, and June in Glacier, we came out safe and all right, even if a little wet.