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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.

“No way,” I think, as I scan the expanse of talus and snow. “No way we’ll find any bones in this monochromatic place.”

Joe Kampf’s rock cairn is gone, I notice, and wonder if we’re even in the right spot. I walk uphill into steep skirts of small talus, across the slope, up and down. Everyone else is wandering the same aimless way, heads down, searching. We’d come to climb Granite to prove we could do it, but we’d also come here, to this spot, because of a morbid fascination with the unsolved mystery of Ernest Bruffey’s demise.

Suddenly, I hear a shout from below. Jeff holds something overhead. I scramble over to him. In his hands is a knee joint and section of lower leg bone. He puts it next to his leg. Too small for a bear. Too big for a goat. Human—it has to be. The bone is weathered, dry, and gray, with scraps of tendon and tissue hanging like parchment.

In the next half an hour, we pluck two vertebrae and the weathered sole of a boot from the rubble. There is something riveting about these fragments, about this forgotten human tragedy. We come to the mountains in part because climbing nudges the exhilarating fringes of danger and risk. We come fully expecting to return home. But we also know, in those airy moments of risk, that we may not.

We search for a while longer. One could have a worse grave than this high, wind-buffeted place, I tell myself. But it might be better not to be scattered loosely across a talus field.

In a kind of homage to risk gone wrong, we linger on to keep searching. When we finally give up, I drop into a plastic bag the mute bits of what was once a human being. The thin air feels cold again, even in the sun.

Two days later, my own skeleton still bruised from the pounding descent from Avalanche Lake, I hand the find to coroner Jenkins.

“This is getting kind of spooky,” he says, peering at the bag of bones. “Whoever this is really wants to be found.”

Postscript: After this story was completed, the crime lab in Missoula confirmed that the leg bones found by my party match the bones in the boot discovered by Joe Kampf in 1999.

Alan Kesselheim is a full-time freelancer who lives with his family in Bozeman, Montana.

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