The bear slogged over the mountain

…to see what it could see. But when it got there, it wasn’t sure it wanted to see what was there.

At least the bear had been there before to see what she could see.

Let me back up.

Years ago, before we got married, I was traveling about Colorado with my climbing partner around Labor Day. We decided to leave the ropes behind one day and hike in RMNP. I believe it was Labor Day itself, which meant we followed a herd of cotton-clad dehydrated flat-landers up Flattop Mountain.

What I saw at the top of that mountain is firmly etched into my psyche twice over, and probably into my next lifetime. Whether the perpetrator/victim was a flat-lander or Colorado native, I’ll never know. Whether he was young and foolish or at the peak of a mid-life crisis, I’ll never know. I only know what I saw him do and the name his friend screamed out when things went so predictably wrong — Jordan.

In the mountains in early September, chances are quite good that there is no fresh snow to be found anywhere, freak summer squalls aside. It can snow any time of the year in the high country, but it just doesn’t last in late summer. Even the glaciers are dirty and unkempt, littered with rock debris at this time of year. Tyndall Glacier, which sits in a cirque next to and in full view of Flattop, is no exception.

I sat with my climbing partner on the summit, soaking in the late summer sun and the smug satisfaction anyone feels when they reach the top of anything. We looked over the valley at Hallett Peak and the glacier that slept between the two mountains and watched hikers, like ants, making the wide traverse around to Hallett. It looked like fun, but my butt was firmly planted on a rock on Flattop.

As we scouted out the various ants, one in particular caught our attention. One of the ants, it seemed, was inching its way to the top edge of the glacier.

“What’s that guy doing?”

“Is he carrying skis?”

The glacier was more brown than white.

“He’s carrying skis, I think.”

“Is he crazy?”

The glacier looked quite steep from our vantage point.

“He’s pausing.”

“Maybe he won’t do it.”

“Maybe he’s rethinking it.”

“God, I hope so.”

We weren’t the only ones who had noticed the rogue skier on the edge of the brown glacier. The herd of people on the summit — families, people with cameras and binoculars — were pointing at the top of the glacier and the tiny figure presumably fiddling with his skis. They were having conversations similar to ours.

But one photographer nearby with a huge lens wasn’t talking to anyone on the summit. He was talking excitedly with someone else on a walkie-talkie. The huge lens was fixed on the top of the glacier.

“That your buddy?” one of us asked.

“Yeah,” he said, grinning proudly for his bold friend.

He might have said more, but I simply can’t recall. I only remember his joy and pride, and how quickly it changed to panic and horror.

By now, all eyes — at least 50 pair — on Flattop Mountain were trained on the ant on skis at the top of Tyndall Glacier. Binoculars and cameras were trained on the ant; others shielded their eyes from the afternoon sun to get an unobstructed view. There was a collective holding of the breath.

The ant pushed off.

At first, he wasn’t going anywhere. Was there enough snow to ski on? Was he stuck on a rock? The collective anticipation grew. He pushed again. Finally, he was moving downhill in the way one expects a skier to move. He made a turn. This guy might actually ski this filthy hunk of summer ice, I thought.

The skier was near the top still when he fell. For one hopeful moment it looked like he’d just gotten stuck for a moment and could recover. Then he began to cartwheel down the glacier toward the rocky moraine hundreds of feet below.

“Oh shit oh shit oh shit!” the photographer whispered as he lowered his camera and rose to his feet to watch his friend tumble further and further, more and more out of control.

“Jordan!” he screamed.

From the top, it looked like the skier had landed in a contorted heap among the boulders of the moraine. All of the hikers on top of Flattop peered over the edge, watching Jordan, waiting.

Jordan did not move.

His photographer scrambled to gather his things into his pack and started down the side of the mountain in a beeline to Jordan. This didn’t look like a safe route to descend, and I wondered if the photographer would fall, too. Behind us, one of the hikers was trying to make a call with a weak cell phone signal.

Jordan still did not move.

Minutes passed. I removed my hands from in front of my mouth and remembered to breathe. We stared at the moraine and waited for something to happen.

When you spend time in the mountains, you see things you don’t want to see. I once saw a helicopter disappear into the Maroon Bells to recover a climber’s body; a limb hung from the helicopter’s basket when it returned. In Montana, I saw a ranger just after he’d been charged by a grizzly bear. His pack was thrown far from his body, and he was physically unharmed but seriously shaken. “Go!” he’d said. We sent. We saw the bear running above us not far down the trail, and bears run fast — really fast. He blew past some elk; we blew past more people on the trail. Eventually, rangers on horseback with rifles came up the trail toward us.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the lead ranger said. “Bear emergency.”

On Flattop, the lady with the cell phone had successfully reached someone. Jordan’s friends reached him, presumably safely, but from so far above them we couldn’t tell what was going on. Jordan still wasn’t moving. I’m not sure how much time had passed, but the day was fading and we needed to get down the mountain.

Below treeline, we heard the whipping echo of a helicopter bouncing off towering walls. It was a sound I didn’t want to hear again after that bright morning at the Maroon Bells. (It was the first break in the weather since we’d arrived; the climber had been dead on the mountain for days.)

Was the helicopter coming in to recover Jordan’s body or rush him, still alive, to a hospital? We could only wonder.

That night we stared into the fire at our nearby campsite and processed the day. I suddenly remembered a dream I’d had a few weeks ago. My climbing partner wanted to climb Snowmass Mountain, which has a massive snowfield on one side. I’d seen a shadowy figure cartwheeling down the side of a huge snowslope, and the fuzzy apparition scared me. I thought it was him falling down Snowmass at the time.

“My dream,” I said, and we stared at each other slack-jawed with the realization that I’d seen poor Jordan fall weeks ago.

This past Saturday, Jeremy and I headed up Flattop Mountain in snowshoes. There were no helicopters, no fallen skiers, and only a few people on the mountain. Tyndall Glacier was bright white, and the cornice on the edge of Flattop was shedding snow in the warm spring sun. It was so still up there I could hear the snow slope below the cornice melting. And I thought of Jordan and wonder if he lived. Lower down the mountain, backcountry skiiers were flashing white smiles and taking advantage of the last of the spring snow on gentler slopes as we slogged through the slush in our snowshoes. I was exhausted from repeatedly sliding and catching myself in the snow. My knees stiffened, my ankles gave, my hands ached from gripping my trekking poles. But Saturday, no one faced death. No one screamed a friend’s name in horror. No one fell down the mountain.

2 thoughts on “The bear slogged over the mountain

  1. JF, this essay is most worthy of a check and a 24-point font byline!

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