Descent of remote snowfield ends in harrowing plunge

2014-08-03T00:00:00Z 2014-08-05T06:18:18Z Descent of remote snowfield ends in harrowing plungeBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

It’s not easy to find snow in the summer, but die-hard skiers and snowboarders are known to climb high into shaded mountaintop couloirs to extend their season.

A couple of weeks ago, Bernie Nelson and Trevor Hildebrand decided to seek out one of those shady spots high in the Bridger Mountains.

About 16 miles north of Bozeman above Fairy Lake is a steep, narrow gully on the flank of 9,650-foot-high Sacajawea Peak known as “The Great One.” To reach the slice of white amid gray rock requires a tough scramble about 2,100 vertical feet up a steep scree slope.

“It is a simple concept and super fun if all goes well,” wrote Diana Proemm in a recent blog post, which she agreed to let The Billings Gazette use.

Unfortunately for Hildebrand, all did not go well and he suffered an epic tumble.

Proemm is a Bozeman photographer and adventurer who also works as the adaptive-sports director at Eagle Mount, which helps people with disabilities ski, ride horses, swim and more. Hildebrand is Proemm’s “life partner” and Nelson is her friend and co-worker at Eagle Mount.

According to Proemm, Hildebrand “took a slide around 80 yards down a 50-degree slope with rock walls on both sides. He lost one ski on the way down, and tumbled at one point head-first, then hit something, flew in the air, and tumbled toward the rock wall landing, with his ski hitting the wall (and) stopping him.”

Amazingly, his only injury was a broken wrist and bruised shoulder — no cracked skull, no shattered femur.

After seeing Hildebrand’s rag-doll fall, Nelson took off her skis and rushed downhill to check on her companion. As she assessed his injuries, a mountain goat kicked rocks loose above them, one of which landed on Hildebrand’s ankle, adding insult and injury.

“They soon realized they were not in a good spot and it was getting late, so they decided to make haste and get out of there,” Proemm wrote. “After a rapid physical assessment and wrist splint, they slowly made their way down a crazy steep scree slope in (an) attempt to get to the car. After a couple of hours they made it safely to the car and then to the hospital around 1:30 a.m.”

After his hospital visit, which turned up no other injuries, Hildebrand finally made it home around 5 a.m. for a much-needed rest. For Proemm, the happy ending to the incident prompted a pause for reflection.

“I was profusely thanking those lucky stars that I did not lose the love of my life that night,” Proemm wrote, noting that Trevor had walked “away from a potentially life-threatening accident.”

Afterward, Proemm and Nelson returned to the scene of the fall to pick up the gear that had been left behind. It also provided an opportunity for Proemm to see the site of the accident and shoot some photos that illustrated the steepness of the slope and the dangerously sharp boulders lining the chute that were narrowly avoided.

“As we made our way up the steep scree slope, I was in awe of the route they had come down in the dark, and Trevor with his broken wrist,” she wrote.

When Proemm and Nelson got to the bottom of the slope they heard someone “screaming profanities” and figured out that another rider was careening down the same snowy slope out of control.

“Thankfully the snowboarder, who happened to be alone, was OK,” Proemm wrote. “He was stunned and shocked when we checked in on him. Basically the same thing had happened to him, the snow was not forgiving and when he went to take a turn he lost control and slid to the bottom.”

The back-to-back incidents have reinforced in Proemm’s mind that life has a set end point and when it’s not your time to go, it’s not your time.

“My friends and I go out into the backcountry all the time and take for granted that it’s going to be OK, nothing is going to happen,” she wrote. “I quickly forget how fast things can go wrong and put you in a dangerous situation. The mountains and Mother Nature are not to be reckoned with, but to be respected.”

The scary thought that she almost lost a loved one has also made Proemm more thankful for the people in her life.

“Thoughts for today are to remember to say ‘I love you’ to your favorite person or family member today,” she wrote. “Live without regrets, and make the most of every moment, as you never know what life will toss at you at a moment’s notice.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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