A band of mountain goats dropped a hint on Sunday for a Spokane family to give up a lofty hiking goal in Montana.
“The rockfall was a coup de grace to our plans to hike Bridger Ridge,” said Kayla Haas.
The freak accident triggered a dramatic rescue that marked the second time Haas and her parents have been helicoptered off the same route near Bozeman.
“Bridger Ridge has become our nemesis,” Haas said, noting that her mom and dad, Yvonne and Mark Haas, have taken painful steps over six years trying to complete the lengthy hike. Kayla said she was captivated by the route as a student at Montana State University.
“It’s the Bridger Ridge Run course, one of the most technical trail races in the country,” she said. The route extends from Fairy Lake, past Bridger Bowl Ski Area to Montana State University’s white “M” above Bozeman.
The endurance test stretches 20.6 miles with 6,800 feet of elevation gain and 9,500 feet of elevation loss.
“It’s a bruiser,” Haas said. “A tough goal we wanted to bag in a day…. It’s our white whale.”
The first year they attempted the route they became disoriented on an unmarked network of unofficial trails. After 17 miles of getting nowhere but lost, they slogged back to their starting point with their tails between their legs.
A couple of years later, they tried again, this time flirting with serious consequences.
“Early on, Mom took a nasty fall on steep, loose shale way above treeline, slid down the slope only to be snagged by one little scrubby tree to stop her fall.”
They were already rattled when they started scrambling over talus and came to a narrow ledge and a gap they would have to jump across. “Mom’s terrified by heights. We decided that mentally we were not fit to go on at that point, so we abandoned the route and hiked down to Bridger Bowl and out.”
Things got even worse last year on their third attempt.
“A freak storm came out of nowhere; it wasn’t in the forecast,” Haas said. “We were hit by 40 mph winds and sheets of rain. It really slowed us down. We hiked 4 1/2 hours in that weather on the bare ridge. Mom started showing signs of hypothermia. It had been 80 degrees earlier that day, but the temperatures dropped to the 40s.”
At 9 p.m., far short of their goal with no easy outlet from the ridge, Kayla realized she had a rare cellphone connection and they decided to call for help. “If we’d have headed down into the trees and got disoriented in technical terrain in the dark, it could have been bad,” she said.
A search-and-rescue group hiked up with dry clothing and sleeping bags and stayed overnight with the Haas family. The rescuers made the decision to call for a helicopter evacuation the next morning.
This misfortune only strengthened the family’s determination.
“We worked with a personal trainer to be more fit and worked on better nutrition and made sure we had proper food, safety and survival equipment in our packs,” she said, describing preparations for this year’s attempt.
From last year’s experience, they’d learned that folded emergency blankets were insufficient in an above-treeline bivouac. “We thought we would wrap up and be warm in those space blankets,” she said. “But they’re only meant to keep you alive.”
So they bought SOL emergency bivvy sacs, and amped up their measure of safety with extra layers of clothing in their packs.
On Sunday the hikers were feeling great as they headed out on their fourth attempt at Bridger Ridge.
“We started at 4:30 a.m., an hour earlier than in the past, and we were making good time, up past Sacajawea Peak, the tallest in the Bridger Range, when we saw mountain goats in the distance,” Kayla said.
Two nannies, each with a kid, were about 300 yards across a bowl as the Haas’s snapped a few photos.
“We commented that they were well-behaved goats because they started walking up from the trail and out of our way, so we proceeded.”
The goats went out of sight as the hikers followed the route single file under a rock outcropping.
“Mom suddenly let out a horrendous scream,” Kayla said. I looked back and saw a melon-size boulder fly down the slope. It came airborne with no warning from the goats above and hit mom’s trailing leg as she hiked.”
The wound to Yvonne’s calf was severe and bleeding profusely. “She felt like she might faint, so we laid her down. The goats had moved away. But we were teetering on a narrow ledge.
“Dad is a cop and has been trained as a first responder,” Kayla said. “He applied pressure and was able to stop the bleeding. Both Mom and Dad were so calm. By the grace of God, I had cell service and called 911.”
They had gauze for wrapping the wound and used extra clothing and a stocking cap in their packs to bundle Yvonne. “She went in to shock,” Kayla said. “It was 8 in morning, in mid-40s. We could see our breath, but we had what we needed to keep her warm.”
The first rescuer was able to get close to the family on a mountain motorcycle.
“Life Flight was called in, but the pilot couldn’t land there,” Kayla said. “A second helicopter came up and brought over two paramedics on the end of a 100-foot rope and dropped them off on the steep cliff. It was amazing.
Yvonne Haas, 57, was told her options. “She agreed to go with the short haul, despite her fear of heights,” Kayla said.
“They couldn’t get a rigid basket there so they put her in a bag and harnessed her to the end of the rope with a paramedic and flew her off the ridge.”
Mark and Kayla hiked out 3 1/2 miles to where a search-and-rescue team was waiting with ATVs. “They took us on four-wheelers down 5 miles of single-track trail – that was something – and then down another 5 miles on a road so rough a vehicle might not get up it.”
Doctors and nurses were still working on Yvonne when the family reunited at the hospital in Bozeman.
“Twelve stitches and 23 staples later, we were on our way back to Spokane,” she said. “Mom said she wasn’t afraid on the flight out. She had a little peephole out of the bag and was looking up at the helicopter. She imagined she was only a few feet off the ground instead of a thousand.”
Yvonne is hurting but healing and in good spirits, Kayla said.
“As a family we’ve made an immediate unanimous decision that since every one of our adventures is getting wilder and wilder, we will not be doing Bridger Ridge again, no matter how much we prepare or how well-behaved the mountain goats are.”
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