Run Up and Ski Down
Not Your Usual Mountaineering
Story and Photos by Michael Stubbs
When Dave Christensen and I climbed down from the 12,140-foot summit of Mount Breitenbach to its first of two false summits, we found his brother Adam and our friend Jeff Hanson lying on the black schist.
“Can you guys hear the electricity humming?”
“Yes, static is building up!” Adam had to yell to be heard over the gusting wind and pattering rain. “Lightning is coming.”
“Adam hears it as a buzzing and whistling,” Jeff called.
“Dave, too. I just thought it was the snowflakes sliding on the ice until I saw his hair standing on end.”
“I can taste it,” Adam shouted. “Like metal.”
It was around 5:30 p.m. There was more wind, and then clouds rolled in and it started to rain hard. The hoods of Jeff and Adam were both cinched tight against the weather as they wiped their sunglasses. I sat down next to my orange backpack and started swapping gear: wet black liner gloves for leather mittens, trucker cap for woolen beanie.
Everything was soaked. I put it on anyway. My pack had lain in the rain and snow while Dave and I had chugged along the ridgeline over rock and ice, over two false summits, over cornice and scree up to the real summit.
It had been sunny when I left the backpack exposed on the rocks hours earlier. Now I detached my skis from the sides of the pack and tucked my running shoes inside. I walked the skis over to the snow where I set them up and prepared to kick into the bindings.
I kept looking over my shoulder towards Dave, who was resting. He had fared the worst of our group from the day’s adventure: leg cramps and fatigue. He was still gathering his gear, moving slowly, but he was moving.
“Thanks for putting my board together,” he called to Adam and Jeff.
Jeff replied that Adam got the credit for snapping together the two halves of the splitboard—skis that can be joined to form a backcountry snowboard—and for adjusting the bindings. They had waited hours for Dave and me to finish the climb, and they watched the bad weather roll in and the appropriate turnaround time roll past while we made our slow way. They had piled on their layers of clothing as the sun slid behind clouds and the temperature dropped.
“You two go ahead. Dave and I will be right with you.”
Adam and Jeff strapped in and nudged their snowboards towards the edge of the ridge and down the headwall we had all spent too long kick-stepping our way up in the late hours of the morning. Earlier, the drop had looked intimidating in the sunlight, down the steep wall to the glacial basin below, down the canyon to Pete’s Creek, and miles across the wide Lost River Basin to distant Mackay Reservoir and the Pioneer Mountains beyond it.
On the other side of the cirque stood the towering peak of Lost River Mountain with its black cliffs and sheer drops. Now, in the clouds and fog, we saw nothing—and this blindness was even more intimidating.
Adam and Jeff slid through the slush and into the foggy gray unknown. I stomped into my bindings and followed. The top layer of snow also followed. Snowballs formed, tiny at first. They rolled and grew until they were the size of watermelons sliding down the slope. The clouds shifted. My black down puffer filled with rainwater. I cut a downward angle and let gravity take me.