In memory 

Chris Spurgeon dies skiing Lolo couloir

Colin Chisholm and Chris Spurgeon spent two years talking about the dogleg of snow off the east ridge of Gray Wolf Peak. Chisholm says they hadn't noticed it until their friend Brian Story made the first descent in 2008. After that, he and Spurgeon kicked themselves for failing to recognize a no-brainer line during previous treks in the Mission Mountains, and they dubbed it BS Gully in honor of Story's revelation.

The duo cut short one subsequent attempt at the couloir due to avalanche danger, but on June 12, Chisolm and Spurgeon finally scaled Gray Wolf with Brian Story and another friend. They picked their way down the hanging snowfield atop the eastern ridge, then dropped into BS Gully, finally realizing a mutual goal.

"He was really psyched," Chisholm says. "Gray Wolf Peak was one of his favorite places, and the Missions were one of his favorite mountain ranges."

The photos Chisholm shot that day show a confident and capable Spurgeon entirely at home on a snowy summit beneath a bluebird sky. Chisholm says he must have 300 pictures of Spurgeon from their nine years skiing the backcountry together. At the time, nothing about the BS Gully descent really stood out.

"It definitely felt like we'd skied what we wanted to for the year and this was just kind of icing on the cake," Story adds.

click to enlarge A cairn where Spurgeon was found - CHAD HARDER

Two days later, at the age of 37, Spurgeon died in a wet slide avalanche while skiing alone on a different couloir, off the summit of Lolo Peak. His fate remained a mystery until 9:30 a.m. June 18, following a two-day search and rescue operation that involved many of his friends. Chisholm, Story and two others found his body and sat vigil until Spurgeon could be flown out by helicopter.

The impact of the loss was immediate. Spurgeon was quiet and introverted, yet Chisholm describes him as a role model among outdoor enthusiasts in Missoula, an "irreplaceable partner and friend for many, many people."

That status stemmed primarily from his deep respect for the purity of the backcountry experience, Story says, and from his preference for discovering new landscapes rather than conquering them.

"Some people will keep a ski journal and they'll write down how many days they skied and then they'll talk about it," says Chisholm. "Chris skied as much if not more than most people, but he did not give a crap about numbers or defining himself in that way.

"The mountains were Chris's spiritual life, they were his place of refuge and his place of soul-seeking."

click to enlarge Spurgeon on Gray Wolf Peak two days before his death - COLIN CHISHOLM
  • Colin Chisholm
  • Spurgeon on Gray Wolf Peak two days before his death

Skiing wasn't Spurgeon's only outdoor interest. He was an avid hunter who trekked deep into the backcountry on his own for elk or deer. In 2004, he placed first in the 20-mile Bridger Ridge Run north of Bozeman and did the same in the Devil's Backbone 50-mile footrace in 2006. He also planned to race in the 100-mile Swan Crest Run on July 30 this year.

He could have competed with the best professional athletes, but that flew in the face of his very nature, Chisholm says. Bragging rights, first descents or making a mark didn't interest him.

"He didn't participate in the pissing contest. If these guys over here are going to see who can piss the farthest, Chris is going to turn around and walk and piss by himself. I just loved that about him."

The exact details of the accident itself died with Spurgeon. He was killed while skiing a steep, narrow chute in the Lantern Lake couloir, northwest of Lolo Peak's north summit. On the day he died, the National Water and Climate Center recorded the highest temperatures in the area all spring. Precipitation levels had increased in prior weeks, likely impacting snow conditions and increasing avalanche danger.

An autopsy revealed Spurgeon—who hadn't worn a helmet that day—was killed instantly when his head struck a talus slope during a slide that swept him some 800 feet.

It's essentially a story that could happen to even the most experienced backcountry skier, and for Chisholm, the persisting mystery around Spurgeon's final moments makes it difficult to find closure.

Story, for his part, remembers a moment from the Gray Wolf trip. The group was discussing snow quality—which Story and Chisholm agree was particularly poor that day—when Spurgeon weighed in. As long as you're skiing on snow, it's good skiing, he said.

That was his philosophy, Story says. "That was his bar for it being worth going out."

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