I live in the snowy mountains of northern Montana, surrounded by miles and miles of pristine forest. People around here like to go snowmobiling, backcountry skiing – and the regular kind, too, at our local ski hill – snowshoeing and even dog-mushing; anything to get outside into the crisp, clean hills during the cold months. I like back-country skiing, which is like cross-country skiing, only you use heftier equipment, so you have a better range and can go in rougher country. One cold day my friend Bonnie and I decided to make a ski trip that would take three or four hours and offer us wide, sweeping views from the ridges, deep powder in the bowls and pleasant interludes of kick-and-glide through the meadows. The route we chose was about eight miles long.
The first mile of this trail is really steep. The snowmobilers stay off of it not because they’re supposed to – it being a designated non-motorized trail – but because the snow on that part drifts so heavily it’s hard to navigate on a sled. As we toiled up the slope with skins on our skis we saw that a snowshoer had gone ahead of us. We were grateful for the tracks, where the snow was tamped down, making it easier for us. When we got to the top of the trail we encountered that snowshoer, and were surprised to find that she was an elderly woman, all by herself, with wind-blown hair creeping out from under her cap and plastic grocery bags covering her thin wool gloves. I don’t remember exactly, but it was probably 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit that day, with the sun shining briefly, sometimes replaced by a quick snowy squall and no sign of warming up. We talked to her for a few moments. She seemed unafraid, strong and fully capable of just about anything. Her name was Alice and she said she was about ready to turn around to go back down the steep, drifted trail to the highway. We went on our way.
We finished our trip and went home. I was in my jammies, cooking dinner on my wood stove when Bonnie called me up at around six or seven that evening. She said that she had had a creepy feeling and for no reason at all drove up to the top of the pass, where people park to embark on their snowy journeys and she saw one lone car still parked there. She remembered Alice’s name, so she looked it up in the phone book and called her number. Alice’s husband answered. “Yes”, he said, “that’s the kind of car she drives, and no, Alice isn’t home yet.” When I heard that, I immediately called 911 to call out Search and Rescue, but their base is an hour away, so I called a bunch of people in the area who had sleds, equipment and the willingness to help.
We all got together, and launched a search party. We followed Alice’s trail down the mountain and saw where she had tripped and fell down a steep, snowy, drifted ledge. Or maybe she just stepped off the path in a moment of inattention. Wisely, she chose not to try to clamber back up, but to just keep going down hill, where the highway would eventually be. We followed her track in the dark, with our headlamps and snowshoes, and the crackle of county radios talking to the helicopter that had been dispatched to carry her to the hospital. Everyone was working together to get her out, and it turned out that I was the one who sat with Alice in the snow, under the bright stars while the helicopter chopped and radios crackled and snowmobiles revved around trying to navigate the difficult terrain.
She was breathing when I got there, but then she stopped. Her skin was cool as glass. We were all alone, and there was not much I could do to help her but keep her warm and push air into her lungs. I’m not sure that’s what she wanted. Her husband and children later told me that she was an avid snowshoer and knew those mountains like the back of her hand. She was 84 years old and shoed up to the top of a mountain. That’s really all there is to say, isn’t it? Except that maybe there are worse ways to leave this world than drifting away under the glimmering stars in the soft, soft snow. It makes me appreciate every back-country trip I take that much more.