Rune’s Last Run

skiers in avalanche

A requiem for a ski buddy.

It had been snowing regularly for days. The base at Bridger Bowl was in good shape. Twelve inches more fell overnight and it kept snowing into the morning. I was in line for the opening bell and skied hard all day. One by one my buds dropped away. Some were tired, others had obligations at home. For some reason, my energy levels seemed to increase with each run. I didn’t want to leave, at least not before putting down tracks on Bradley’s Meadow. It was almost 4pm when I made my way to the top of Alpine Lift and skied over to the backcountry gate. No one else was there. It wasn’t like me to go out of bounds alone, but it was just Bradley’s, a place I ski a dozen or more times each year. I pressed on.

Skins on, I started climbing. Luckily, there was a skintrack in place, which lessened my workload. As I grunted up the track, it became obvious: this was going to be an epic run. The snow was knee-deep, light & fluffy. Every time I’d duck under tree branches that hung over the trail, I’d blow on the snow of a nearby limb. It just floated up into the air. I got giddier as I climbed.

Suddenly, a skier zipped by, blasting me with a rooster tail of snow.

Bradley’s is a good 500-vertical-foot climb. The top is a tree-lined ridge, and the face is an open meadow that steepens to about a 40-degree pitch near the top. One can count on 20-25 beautiful turns in the meadow before entering the woods where the slope flattens considerably, but where some nice rollers provide a few last turns before one should start angling back to the ski area proper.

I reached the ridge and skinned along it until I saw the line I wanted to ski. The light was just starting to shade toward grey. I stripped off my skins and was ready to descend, but I stayed for a moment longer to look out at the world around me. Puffy clouds sat high in the sky and were blazing orange over the Crazy and Absaroka ranges. The world was white. Evergreen limbs hung laden with pyramids of snow that nearly obscured all the green. This had been a good snow year.

Suddenly, a skier zipped by, blasting me with a rooster tail of snow. “What the heck?” I was at the top of the run. How was this possible? I felt compelled to give chase. He was flying. I skied as fast as I could, but I couldn’t keep up with him. He skied an odd route. Instead of following the fall line, he took an angle that veered steadily to the right. It wasn’t the path I had planned to ski, but I followed nonetheless. I was having a great run, skiing the fastest I had in years. It was as though I was young again, if just for the moment.

The snow was in motion as I skied; sluffs moved with me as I turned, and I was feeling the flow. As I have told my buds, we put in lots of mediocre runs in lots of mediocre conditions, all for a few moments of grace and beauty. This was one of those moments. My balance was spot on, my skis were carving smoothly. It was perfection.

I couldn’t get a clear view of the skier in front of me. The cloud of powder obscured all but an occasional glimpse of long blond locks. He stopped at the bottom of the slope and turned to look at me as I glided toward him. That’s when I saw him. He wore no goggles or hat. He had long blond hair and a blond beard, but his eyes, black orbs, made me shudder. His glare was intense. It was as though he was screaming HURRY into my head. I kept moving. He turned away, quickly pushed off, and kept skiing.

I followed him into the woods. We turned through the trees, down the first roller, and skied toward the next. He launched himself from the top of this roller doing a forward flip and landing in a cloud of powder. But then... nothing. He was gone. I slid to a stop, confused.

Before I could contemplate what had happened, the snapping of trees heralded an avalanche roaring into the woods. I was hit by the gust of wind preceding the avalanche and I expected to be buried by a wall of snow, but the slide came to a stop right next to me. Everything above and to the right was buried in a thick slide, but where I stood stayed clear. I guessed that the other skier and I had set off the slide. Then it hit me: if I had taken the line I was planning at the pace I usually ski, I would have been buried.

He launched himself from the top of this roller doing a forward flip and landing in a cloud of powder. But then... nothing. He was gone.

I looked back into the trees, searching for my companion. “Wait, where are his tracks?” There were none. None where he had launched himself from, and none where he landed. A shiver ran through me. I didn’t know what to think. I skied down the roller right over where I had seen him launch. Nothing.

It was time to get to the car.

In the parking lot, I popped off my skis and brushed the snow off my boards. It floated away easily, except a portion on one ski that stuck to the board and formed the letter R with a B below it. It lasted only a moment, then the letters themselves dissolved and floated away. I watched the particles drift to the ground: “RB.” Rune? I looked around. Rune Bakke was the only person I knew with those initials. It had to be my imagination. This whole thing, the skier, the letters, had to be my imagination. Rune was in Norway almost half a world away. This couldn’t be real. I was unnerved, but I shook it off and headed for home.

As I was driving home my phone rang. It was Huk. Part of me was incredibly excited. I wanted to wax on about my excellent and wildly lucky Bradley’s run. I wanted to tell him that he should have stayed around to ski it with me. But I wasn’t sure what to think, so I just said, “Huk, what’s up?”

“Are you sitting down?”

“I’m driving back from Bridger.”

“Pull over.”

I was almost at the “M” parking lot; I pulled in there and parked. “Okay, what’s up?”

“I just got off the phone with Kari.” Kari was Rune’s wife. “Rune died about an hour ago.”

“What? Damn it. Bakke’s gone?” I was overcome with emotion. “I knew that he had prostate cancer, but I didn’t realize it was that bad.”

“Yeah, I knew from my conversations with Kari that he was really sick. I just didn’t know that he was dying.”

We had only learned about Rune’s cancer a few weeks ago. Our normally laconic friend had sent an email telling us not to do what he had done. Not to ignore the pain he felt when he sat down. Go to the doctor early if you feel that something is not right. His cancer could have been easily resolved if only he had caught it early.

What I had seen skiing, and the letters on my ski, suddenly made sense. I wasn’t one to believe in the supernatural, but I couldn’t deny what I saw. I said, “We should have a memorial.”

“We will. I’ll call Gary and Joe. Let’s plan to get together here tomorrow afternoon. We’ll sit around a fire in my back yard and tell Bakke stories.”

I hung up and thought more about what I’d seen. I’d tell them all tomorrow. Maybe.

Huk had set up chairs in the snow and had a roaring fire going. Gary drove up with Joe’s van, Joe in the back sitting in his wheelchair. We gathered around, cracked some beers, and toasted with shots of Akvavit. “To Rune.” None of us had many details about his death, so we quickly shifted to talking about our times together. Huk talked about the winter of 2010 when he went to Norway to work at a ski area that Rune had become a partner in. It was a small operation. Rune’s partners were less than enamored with him bringing someone else on board. Huk’s deal fell apart after six weeks when every piece of equipment had broken, but Rune was very generous with him. He paid him for the whole winter before he headed home.

What I had seen skiing, and the letters on my ski, suddenly made sense.

I lived on the east coast until June 2020. The last two times Rune visited Bozeman, I joined him; we both came out to ski Bridger Bowl in February 2007 and February 2018. The 2007 trip was epic. It snowed for seven days straight, some 60 inches in total. It was the best ski trip ever. In 2007, the Schlasman’s chair was still on the drawing board and Slushman’s Ravine was outside the south boundary of the ski area. We were all in our 40s. Even though Rune and I didn’t ski regularly where we lived, we were able to keep up. We skied fresh powder in-bounds all morning, then skinned up Slushman’s in the early afternoon. After skiing there, we worked our way lift-by-lift toward the north boundary where we skinned up to climb Bradley’s. We made it back to the cars by 5:30 each evening, skiing Bradley’s in the fading light of day.

We had fresh snow on the 2018 trip, but not nearly as much. The 2007 epic was not to be repeated, but we had the Schlasman’s lift this time. Huk and Gary spent lots of time touring us around Slushman’s, and we made a few late-afternoon trips to Bradley’s. Rune spent the evenings putting up the short videos we all took during the day. His efforts provided us with a full accounting of the trip: our best runs, and a few classic fails.

When the stories quieted down, I hesitated, but finally said, “I saw Rune yesterday, at least I think I did, and not the grey-haired Rune of recent years, but the young blond Rune of our youth.”

You weren’t there, but I can’t explain it any other way.

Joe piped up, “Charlie, I didn’t think you smoked anymore.”

“Yeah, I know that’s what it sounds like, but no, I wasn’t stoned.” I then proceeded to tell the story of the skier, the avalanche, and the letters on my ski. No one knew what to say. Gary asked when it had happened. “That’s the strangest thing. From Huk’s call yesterday telling me that Rune had died about an hour before, that probably placed me at the top of Bradley’s moments after he died.”

“He flew around the world after he died to save your life? That’s what you’re saying?” Joe asked incredulously.

“You weren’t there, but I can’t explain it any other way. Maybe at the moment of his death, his spirit had the ability to transcend space and time, or something. I just don’t know. But I do know that he saved my life. At least I think he did.”

“Did it look like Bakke?” Huk asked.

“I really can’t say. The blond locks and beard certainly could have been his—40 years ago, that is. But the light was grey. I couldn’t make out the face well, just those eyes. They definitely weren’t his.”

“But maybe you’d never seen his eyes when he was really annoyed at you for skiing too slow,” said Huk, lunging toward me with bulging eyes. That gave us all a good laugh. He then picked up two pieces of firewood and before placing them on the fire, held them out in front of himself horizontally and flapped them like a pair of lips while saying in a squeaky voice, “I am channeling my great grandma. She says ‘I was always fond of getting me some wood, so it’s fitting that I came back as a log.’” That caused another round of laughs and broke the weird vibe that was settling over our gathering.

“It doesn’t sound like we are going to solve the mystery of whether or not I saw Rune last night,” I said. “Either way, he was a good buddy that we all enjoyed hanging with over the years and that we are all going to miss. To Rune.”

“To Rune, may he rest in peace.”