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April 2001

Death On Montana’s Granite Peak

High on a Montana mountain, the mystery of a long-lost climber continues to unravel for those willing to make the arduous trek and search for clues that literally lie at your feet.

Of the three possible matches, only Ernest Bruffey seems likely, according to Jenkins. The other two, Scott Robinson and Jeremy Moors, were swallowed up in mountainous terrain so far west of Granite that it would have required extraordinary circumstances for their bodies to reach the snowfield where Kampf found the boot.

As we toiled toward Avalanche Lake, where we planned to set up basecamp, our rest breaks got longer. The culmination of the day’s hike was a brutal, mile-long stint across boulders the size of cars. Each of us performed at least one little life-and-death jig along the way.

Late in the afternoon, after setting up camp, I stripped down for a frigid dip in Avalanche Lake, followed by the numbing soak my bruised feet had been crying for since lunch. Across the lake, rising 3,000 feet above, the dark north wall of Granite Peak blocked out the sky.

I slept outside that night, though fitfully, thinking about the upcoming climb and about Ernest Bruffey. The startling whitewash of moonlight kept me awake, listening to the bleating of mountain goats cruising camp in search of the salt licks of our pee spots. Every time I opened my eyes, the ghostly monolith of Granite Peak filled the night.

One of the most intriguing circumstances of Bruffey’s disappearance is that on the day after he signed in atop Granite, the most destructive and powerful earthquake in Montana’s recent history struck the southwestern corner of the state. The quake registered between 7 and 8 on the Richter scale and was felt hundreds of miles from its epicenter.

If Bruffey was still alive when the earthquake hit near midnight, he presumably was snug in his tent. Did a rockslide bury him as he slept? Did he already lie dead on the slope below Granite when fresh rockslides covered his remains? And if he was still exploring the high country the next day, could he have fallen victim to an aftershock or a crumbling face made unstable by the shifting Earth?

News stories at the time favored the buried-by-earthquake-caused-rockslides theory, and Sweet Grass County Sheriff Ken Thompson, a member of the search team, described the freshly disturbed debris near Granite Peak as “enormous.”

At dawn, the sky was gauzy. We all awoke as if by telepathy and rummaged around in the chilly, dim light, eating our cold breakfasts and adding to the summit packs we’d prepared the night before. The day was still gray when we started.

Granite Peak wasn’t successfully reached until the mid-1930s, and with good reason. The climb is best characterized as a series of “Should I attempt this next move?” decisions—decisions that accumulate and become an ominous weight as you confront each one and then move to the next, trying not to think about what you’ll face coming back down. Even worse, the heart of the high Beartooths is a cauldron perfect for brewing storms. More than a few climbers have made four or five attempts to reach the peak, only to be stormed off each time.

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