Bringing Down the Mountain

The fracture line arced up and across the slope, traversing the ridgeline like a diagonal bolt of lightning. A chest-high crown appeared as the massive slab detached and moved downslope. From the hurtling snow came a whirr, a rushing tremor that magnified into a muted roar as the avalanche gained speed. A powder cloud billowed upward and lurched forward with the advancing snow. We watched from our safe perch across the basin as the slide roared downward, consuming everything in its path.

Gradually the melee subsided. The powder cloud shrank and the rumbling ceased. At the bottom of the bowl, the jumbled snow lay inert, a fine mist of crystals hovering overhead. The basin was once again quiet and serene. Except for the muddled mass of snow—and our pounding heartbeats—it was as if the avalanche hadn’t happened at all.

There had been little thought of catastrophic slides two days before, when our group of five packed up gear and piled into trucks for the four-hour drive to Hamilton. Conversation was lively from the outset and grew even more animated as we passed through Missoula and neared our destination.

After a quick bite in downtown Hamilton, we zigzagged our way up the eastern flank of the Bitterroot range. Unseasonably warm weather had melted out the road, so we escaped the final 1.5-mile ski approach and drove to road’s end. There, perched on a broad promontory some 2,000 feet above the valley floor, sat our home for the next three days: the sprawling alpine estate known as Downing Mountain Lodge. Nestled into the mountainside, the lodge looked like a Swiss chalet from a Hemingway story—a far cry from the primitive backcountry yurts and canvas huts to which we were accustomed.

We hauled skis, packs, and coolers down the hand-built walkway, under the sheltered porch, and into the enormous great room. Mike plugged his iPod into the stereo; the massive stone fireplace crackled as Kent whipped up a roaring fire. We all ambled around the circular log structure, scoping out the eclectic décor and opulent amenities: beds, shower, TV, foosball table, hot tub. Aaron, driving in separately from Missoula, showed up and he too gawked at the luxurious nature of our backcountry habitation.

Spreading a map out on the table, we analyzed the surrounding terrain. Open glades, steep chutes, a variety of features and aspects—it looked incredible. We threw our gear together, poured out the front door, and looked to the west. There, high above the lodge, laid the goods: the massive Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and slope after slope of untouched snow. Orienting ourselves with a few of Downing’s mainstay runs—Avy Bowl, the Runout, Mario’s Trees—we set out up the trail.

The approach began with a long, low-angled ridge loaded with Ponderosa pines, their giant size and burnished, jaguar-like bark pattern brightening the otherwise drab and monochrome winter woods. Occasionally we’d stop to inspect the odd, mangled nubs of bare larch branches before resuming our march up the mountain. It was a long slog, and as the angle grew steeper, we took turns setting the pace.

We topped out in a small alpine basin. To our left rose the Wave, a steep face of cliffs and narrow chutes. Across the basin sat a small, forested slope with a single treeless swath: the perfect spot to shake the dust off. We skinned across and dug a pit. Darren and Mike, our resident snow-science geeks, delivered their findings in a salvo of alphanumeric acronyms. After a quick lesson in high-level avalanche lingo, I translated their esoteric assessment: the snowpack was inconsistent but generally stable. Sweet.

We continued up and over the ridge to scope out the next basin. Rising before us like a cathedral was the Crown, a picture-perfect slope of wide-open, 35-degree lines. This is what we came for, what every backcountry skier comes to the mountains for. Admiring the dark, rectangular boulders atop the summit that gave the Crown its name, I immediately thought of Gus’s line from Lonesome Dove: “I can't think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into new country.” We’re riding skis instead of steeds, of course, but the sentiment is the same: there’s just nothing quite like looking at a map, slapping on skins, and heading off into the unknown. Because out there, somewhere, is the slope of dreams. And we’d just found it.

We conferred. Although the Crown looked incredible, we’d still have to skin up the thing and dig a pit or two along the way. With dusk only an hour away, we came to a quick consensus: best to save the Crown for another day.

Turning around, we dropped back down toward the Wave and took our first turns of the trip. Though a tad heavy, the snow was creamy enough and we all hooted and hollered our way down to the basin. Our fires lit, we quickly skinned to a small saddle below the Wave and gained the ridgeline to Little Downing Mountain. At a prominent overlook just shy of the East Ridge, we stopped to take in the view.

What an evening! Not overly cold, the crisp alpine air invigorated our bodies without dampening our spirits. The angled light of late afternoon coated the Bitterroots in a soft alpenglow, while the white-capped Sapphire Mountains to the east sprawled out as if asleep. Below us to the south, the rugged gorge of Sawtooth Creek spilled out into the valley. A beautiful slope covered in untouched powder awaited below. We yanked off our skins, pulled on our shells, and dropped in.

One by one we weaved through scattered pines, occasionally launching the pillowy mounds of the boulder-laden Avy Bowl. Reconvening at the bottom, we were all smiles, flush and giddy after our first sustained lines of the trip. Dusk was upon us, so we all shot off to explore our own routes down the remaining 1,000 feet of low-angle snow.

Back at the lodge, Darren fired up the griddle and cooked a meaty supper. Bellies bulging, we managed only a few beers in front of the fireplace before drowsiness prevailed. The lights of the valley commingled with the stars to form a kaleidoscope of light and color, which shimmered into the lodge as we drifted off into a deep, satiated slumber.

Morning broke slowly, moving in time with our reluctant re-entrance to the conscious world. A collective groan resonated through the lodge as we heard the demoralizing sound of raindrops hitting the roof. There would be no skiing today. 

All day it rained, and aside from a few trips outside to stretch the legs, our time was spent indoors: eating, sleeping, reading, stoking the fire. A lively foosball tournament and a huge, bacon-and-eggs brunch were the highlights of the day. As darkness fell, there was talk of going into “Ham town” for a few beers; but the slick, muddy road gave us pause. Best to just hang here. We gathered around the fire and downed a few more beers before slipping away, one by one, to our beds. Despite the crappy weather, everyone felt thoroughly refreshed, as if we’d just spent a week on the beach.

As the predawn light crept over the Sapphires, beamed across the valley, and filtered into the quiet corners of the lodge, our languid eyes peeked out the windows and beheld the most welcome sight of the trip: a world covered in white. During the night, the rain had turned to snow, and the soggy forest had transformed into a winter wonderland. Eight inches of powder covered the ground. The gods were with us after all.

A clear sense of purpose supplanted the usual morning lollygagging. Strong coffee and utilitarian breakfasts went down quick, and in short order we had packs on and were skinning up the ridge. We took turns breaking trail, moving steadily and deliberately upward. Despite the heavy, wet snow at the lower elevations, within two hours we were standing below the Crown in a huddle of human excitement.

Every known superlative was applied as 18 inches of fresh snow beckoned us forward. A quick avy conference resulted in immediate agreement: we’d approach the ridgeline from the south and skin toward the summit, digging a pit or two along the way. Eager to get to the goods, Mike angled off toward the ridgeline. As Darren and I set out to follow, we felt the snowpack settle beneath us with a reverberating whump. A tiny fracture line shot across the bowl toward Mike’s position. And that’s when the mountain ripped loose.

As the dust settled, Mike skied back down to the group. We all looked at each other, wide-eyed and silent with fear. We’d just witnessed something profound: a rare and magnificent manifestation of nature’s true power. Dazed and distracted yet hyper-alert, we felt that giddy adrenaline rush that comes from a close brush with fate. Nothing makes one feel more alive than a narrow escape from obliteration. 

And yet, for all its terror, what we’d just seen was also thrilling. We’d looked the mountain in the eye. We’d seen its soul. Like glancing up on a hike and seeing a bear or bull moose staring at you. That moment of simultaneous dread and exhilaration is what defines wilderness, what defines our relationship to it. A moment of purity.

Best of all, we’d survived it unscathed. Oh Fortuna! A sense of gratitude permeated the air and passed silently among us. We were alive—and by the skin of our teeth. Another ten minutes of skinning and who knows what could have happened.

We gazed up at the Crown. One long ribbon of powder remained, perhaps 500 feet of pristine snow that had somehow escaped the slide. It looked wonderful, and it was easy to argue the safety of skiing it; but it also seemed like tempting fate. There was plenty of low-angle, treed terrain to ski back to the lodge.

It was decided. The gods had spoken. The mountains, we all knew, are a gift, and the Crown was not to be ours this trip. It would be given to the next party of skiers, or the next. Our gift had come two days before, with sweet, safe turns on Little Downing Mountain. It was time to count our blessings, thank our lucky stars, and head home.

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