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Playing in the outdoors comes with risks.

That's a fact some people are ignorant of and others meticulously plan for. Most of us simply bury the notion in the back of our minds. The idea that something could go wrong lurks, but optimism and excitement about the outing override concern.

Let's face it: If people pondered all the things that could go wrong once they set foot outdoors, they might never go anywhere.

Jim Klobuchar is someone who always took care on his many mountain outings, yet on one trip everything went to hell.

“It wasn't a bunch of greenhorns,” Klobuchar said in a telephone interview from his Minnesota home. “I'm not creating any alibis, nor am I defending it.”

Mountain attraction

A retired journalist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Klobuchar, 82, continues to write a column for the newspaper as well as articles for other publications. He's also authored several books and plans group trips to exotic locales like the Himalayas and the Andes. Those trips have long fed his love for hiking, bicycling and mountain climbing.

Klobuchar brought together 15 other snowmobilers for an ambitious day trip on Jan. 30, 1971 — 40 years ago today. The trip started from a Highway 212 turnout south of Red Lodge and was to end at Cooke City, roughly 45 miles away. The route would follow the snowed-in Beartooth Highway, closed to wheeled traffic in winter, as it twists and turns up and over 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass.

It was a varied crew: two Minnesota Vikings football players, corporate executives, a few blue-collar folks. Leading the expedition was 49-year-old Vern Waples, of Red Lodge, a longtime warden for Fish, Wildlife and Parks who was very familiar with the terrain.

In 1971, snowmobiles were still in their infancy. Breakdowns and getting stuck were common occurrences. With that in mind, the expedition included two snowmobile mechanics and a cargo of various spare parts.

Trip gone bad

The 16 snowmobilers set out on a nice day. The wind was calm and the sun shining, but heavy snow made for difficult riding in places. Two riders overshot the highway guardrails during the climb up the pass, slowing the group's progress as riders and machines were retrieved.

Maybe they shouldn't have stopped for lunch. Maybe they should have turned back after the first wreck, or when the first snowmobile conked out. But the group pressed ahead, enjoying the day and confident in their abilities.

“I've thought about that day so many times,” Klobuchar said. “I think some of the folks out West formed an opinion that these were foolhardy people without any experience. But I've never been cavalier about safety.”

Near the top of the pass, the group ran headlong into a sudden mountain blizzard. Winds up to 80 mph stuffed snowmobile carburetors with snow and stalled the machines. Riders had trouble seeing and often got stuck. The caravan slowed to a crawl as more machines broke down and riders doubled up.

By this time, it made more sense to press on to the closer Top of the World Store for shelter rather than turn back.

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But after half of the machines had stalled, the snowmobilers became spread out and soon were separated into three groups.

The first bunch pressed on, hoping to reach the Top of the World Store. They made it only as far as the treeline on the Wyoming side of the pass, where they started a fire and rode out the night huddled in the trees.

The second group dug a snow trench and tried to get out of the wind. One of them, Hugh Galusha, a Helena lawyer who was serving as head of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, died of hypothermia early the next morning.

Atop the pass, unable to walk even when tied together by a length of rope, Klobuchar and four others were huddled for warmth next to a rock face. An overturned snowmobile was used to block the wind. Every hour they got up and jogged to boost their circulation. Waples had tried to forge ahead, only to end up digging a snow cave.

Hindsight

Klobuchar said he has second-guessed himself a hundred times about the 1971 trip. He revisited the route a year and again two years afterward.

“I spent a lot of time in introspection,” he said of his return visits. “I offered prayers and remembered Hugh.”

Considering the circumstances, the group was lucky that more people didn't die or weren't seriously injured. Any one of them could have wandered off in the blinding snowstorm. The toll could have been worse.

Written down

Klobuchar wrote about the deadly trip, once for Popular Mechanics magazine — which is available online and where I ran across the story — and also in a book, “Where the Wind Blows Bittersweet.”

Recalling the incident here isn't meant to pick on Klobuchar, cast blame or bring any loved one's long-held grief to the surface. It's simply a reminder that each time you trek into the mountains, bad things can happen.

A news story earlier this month about two female ice climbers whose day trip near Cody went sour is a more recent reminder. No lives were lost, but only because of a heroic effort by the uninjured climber to help her friend who had fallen.

People still get caught in blizzards. More powerful snowmobiles may simply transport people farther away when breakdowns occur. Technical clothing is not much help when a person is worn down by hours of trudging through harsh weather.

Even after 40 years, Klobuchar can't shake the ill-fated snowmobile trip from his mind.

“I still think about it quite often with great regret,” he said.

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Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoor editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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