Life Lost on Lone Mountain

By Taylor W. Anderson, Mountain Outlaw Assistant Editor

Bradley Gardner lost his life at age 24 while
skiing by himself on Lone Mountain on March
9, 2011. His death has sparked efforts in the Big
Sky community to prevent similar events from
occurring again, and will leave its stamp deeply
printed on the resorts and in the backcountry
ski community.
This is a story about Brad’s father Ed, his
brother John, and his mother Mary. It’s for every
friend who lost a dear brother in the snow-filled
Montana winter of 2011.

________________

LONE LAKE CIRQUE’s 800-foot cliffs jut skyward on a hot July day,
humbling the small group of people who have hiked to its base on the
remote north west side of Lone Mountain.
The steep-walled basin amplifies the sound of tumbling rocks.
Open snowfields are slowly melting as the sun progresses
across the top of the northwest-facing cirque, and the sound of
dripping water echoes quietly through the still, dry air.
Ed Gardner sits near a glacial lake at the base of the cirque,
staring at the mammoth area. Matt Sitton scrambles toward the
crags above.
“Rock!” Sitton yells from an icy chute.
Ed doesn’t move. He just stares as the rock spins, gaining
momentum down the steep slope, then bounces off the corner
of a snowfield 100 feet above him. He watches straight-faced,
binoculars at one hip, revolver at the other. When the rock
slows to a stop 30 feet away, he raises his scopes again.
It’s a Monday in late July. Ed and Sitton have hiked the three
miles up to the cirque west of Big Sky and Moonlight Basin resorts
a few times this week after spring had turned to summer
and winter stubbornly let go its snowy grip on the mountain.
Ed, an investment banker from Winter Haven, Florida, moved
into his Big Sky condo full time when his son was reported
missing on March 12. Ed last spoke with Brad on March 8, the
afternoon his son launched off a 75-foot cliff on skis in the
backcountry near Lone Mountain. The leap was captured on
video, and Brad was ecstatic about the feat.
“He was on top of the world that night,” Ed said. Although
his voice shook as he talked about his son in a coffee shop in
Bozeman in July, Ed portrayed an air of strength, often smiling
and laughing.
Sitton, a local photographer and Big Sky native, has hiked in
the Madison Range since he was 11—two years after surgeons
removed a baseball-sized tumor from the back of his brain.
He’s acted as mountain guide for Ed, and the two have grown
close in the months after Brad’s disappearance.
Today, Sitton stands in hiking boots, 10,000 feet above sea
level, on an eight-foot thick sheet of icy snow. He climbs
another 1,000 feet above Ed to inspect what he thought was
something yellow melting from the snow. “It could be nothing,
but you’ve got to check out everything.”
Sitton and Brad had been friends since Brad moved to the area
full time two years earlier.
“Where are you buddy? Come on out,” Sitton pleads.
The pair found ski poles in the cirque only days before. One
was emerging from a remaining snowfield; the other, perched
on a cliff 400 feet higher.
The poles were the first raw clues in a search that began in
March, almost without direction.
Big Sky Ski Patrol passed through Lone Lake Cirque and
Chippewa Ridge, as well as in-bounds areas the day Brad was
reported missing. The initial search included two helicopters,
a fixed-wing aircraft, dog and ski units, each searching for signs
of Brad.
In the first week after his disappearance, sustained high winds
and heavy snowfall made the search extremely dangerous,
and Big Sky Search and Rescue postponed it until conditions
improved.
In total, BSSR, a local volunteer group, put 300 man-days
into looking for Brad. Teams covered 176 square miles,
literally crossing and re-crossing paths before zeroing in
on the cirque.
By July, four months after the disappearance, the organized
search teams had dwindled in size, and the attitude of the
mission had long since shifted from rescue to recovery.
Gallatin County released a statement declaring the search
wouldn’t end without success, and deputies promised they
wouldn’t give up until they found Brad. The Gardners kept
close contact with search and rescue, and the groups continued
their independent search.
Later that week, Ed and Sitton discovered the ski poles.
Ed Gardner contacted Ed Hake, founder and president of
the BSSR, after finding them. “He was at my house in 30
minutes asking if I wanted them to go up that night to
recover the poles,” Gardner said.
The following day, the crew used a helicopter, supported
by ground and dog units, to try and recover or photograph
the cliffed pole. The crew got a high-resolution close-up
of it, which only led to more confusion when the photo
revealed the poles didn’t match. Rather than settle any
doubt that Brad’s body was in the area, the discovery
caused confusion, and search efforts hit another wall.

Lone Lake Cirque Photo by Emily Stifler

_____________

BRAD LIVED FOR and pursued
a lifestyle that’s grown hugely popular
in the past few decades: big mountain
skiing and snowboarding.
He idolized big-name skiers, watched
and tried to emulate their styles. He
wasn’t well known in the Big Sky skiing
community, but among friends he
was a step above, and cliff jumps like
the one he did on March 8 in the Chippewa
Ridge region of Lone Mountain
were hallmarks of his talent.
“I rode with him, and we rode hard,”
his friend Dan Greene said. “He raged
all the time.”
The lifestyle is something shared by
thousands of adults in lieu of school
or in limbo between graduation and
the dreaded ‘corporate life.’ It’s grown
popular among skiers Brad’s age that
move to mountain towns and pick up
jobs that allow them to pay for rent,
food, winter utilities and a ski pass.
Many live on a seasonal basis. One
winter is snowy, the next is cold and
dry, and they surf the emotional
waves of waiting for good conditions.
Visits home become infrequent.
Mornings are early and nights late in
the search for long, epic days on the
mountain or quick runs before work.
They read magazines, watch movies,
follow riders and fashion, emulate,
repeat.
After two years living full time in the
area, the lifestyle had captured Brad.
Regular cliff jumps and steep chute
skiing were things he shared with
friends and did alone. The desire to
push his limits began to drive him.
“And for what? A video? A free pair
of skis?” Ed asked. “I told him, ‘If
you want skis, I’ll buy you a
new pair of skis. What you’re
doing is stupid,” Ed said from
the Bozeman coffeehouse,
the steam long since finished
rising from his coffee.
Ed had just dropped his wife
Mary off at the Gallatin Valley
airport that day. She split
time between her job as a
radiologist in Florida and visiting
Big Sky to help search
efforts off the hill.
Brad’s video from the March
8 Chippewa Ridge cliff jump
showcased his skills in the
adrenaline-driven world of
big-mountain skiing.
“That cliff is halfway down Chippewa
Ridge, and we were there filming
all week,” Greene said.
The area is highly trafficked in the
winter months. Devilish, talus-filled
cliffs in the summer make way for
snow-filled chutes in the winter.
What’s more, skiers can traverse
easily back from the out of bounds
terrain to the Dakota lift in the resort,
adding to the popularity of the Chippewa
Ridge.
Following a trend among western
ski areas, Big Sky and Moonlight
resorts added backcountry gates in
2006, allowing skiers to access nearby
backcountry. With warning signs and
skull and crossbones, the gates warn
those leaving patrolled terrain. From
atop Lone Peak, there are two routes
to Chippewa.
“One’s the traditional route where you
go across the snowline in the Wyoming
Bowl. The second is to go above Wyoming
Bowl on the [Lone Lake Cirque]
ridge and come back the backside,” says
Big Sky ski patrol director Bob Dixon.
This windblown ridge separates
Wyoming Bowl from Lone Lake
Cirque. Last winter, wind formed a
massive overhanging cornice above
the cirque about 700 feet below the
summit, along the ridge. Beneath the
cornice, cliffs drop 1,000 feet to the
basin floor.

______________

BRAD WAS REPORTED missing
on March 13, four days after telling
friends he was going back to Chippewa
Ridge. Five new inches of snow
fell around Big Sky that morning, and
winds were between 25-40 mph.
The mountains in the region had received
significant snowfall that winter,
and by March 9, the snowpack
was 111 percent of average. Another
4–5 inches fell on March 11, and on
March 12 winds at high elevations
were recorded at 80 mph.
Both natural and skier-triggered
avalanches had been reported in
the backcountry that day, according
to the Gallatin National Forest
Avalanche Center’s daily advisory
archives. The avalanche hazard rating
was ‘Considerable’ on all windloaded
slopes, which meant natural
avalanches were possible, and human
triggered avalanches were probable.
Doug Chabot, Gallatin Avalanche
Center director, issued the March
9 avalanche advisory. He cautioned
that “cornices will be sensitive to
breaking and wind slabs will be easily
triggered.”

High alpine terrain like that
surrounding Lone Peak
was especially susceptible
to cornice build-up and
wind loading, so the caution
related to almost any
of the backcountry Brad
could have accessed from
the ski area.
Brad wasn’t scanned at
any lift on the resorts that
day—lift-operators likely
recognized him as a local
and a season pass holder,
and let him on without
checking. There was no
evidence that he was skiing
in bounds. He was skiing
alone, most likely on the
last tram of the day. He had
a backpack equipped with
a shovel, avalanche beacon
and candy bars. His jacket
was equipped with RECCO
mountain gear.
He asked friends if they
would come with him on
a last run to Chippewa to
look at the hole his body
left in the snow from the
jump the day before, but no
one could go.
The snow was good, and
at 2:30 p.m. Brad likely
caught the last tram ride to
the peak alone.
Wind would have swayed
the tramcar as it neared
the top. Brad, holding his
skis at his sides, would’ve
walked off at the tram dock
onto the gusty summit,
tossed his skis to the rubber
mat flooring and clipped in.
He would’ve sidestepped
up, passed the Moonlight
Basin summit hut, then
slipped down the ridge,
Liberty Bowl and then
Dakota Territory to his
left, the void of Lone Lake
Cirque to his right. He’d
have taken the same route
as usual, riding the knifeedge
ridge 1,000 feet as it
dropped and began to bend
to the north.
He would have ridden near
the massive cornice, overhanging
a fatal drop into
the cirque. Just before the
ridge bent, he would have
planned to turn and ski
south toward Chippewa.

_______________

DAN GREENE RENTED
his condo from Ed Gardner,
and called Ed after Brad
didn’t come home for three
days. “His door was open
and his dog was there.”
Ed Gardner and family flew
to Big Sky the day Greene
phoned. Ed and Mary called
Big Sky Ski Patrol, which in
turn called the sheriff.
The family printed flyers
announcing the search
effort and describing Brad’s
bright skiing outfit and
the color of his boots and
pants. “Orange boots, yellow
pants,” Ed repeated.
The family passed them
out throughout town, and
then headed to Big Sky Resort
and Moonlight Basin.
By March 13, a foot of
snow had fallen near Big
Sky, and another 28 inches
fell between the 15th and
19th. This, combined with
high winds, caused the
teams to call off the initial
search on March 19.
John, Brad’s 22-year-old
brother, left Colby College
in Maine during his senior
year to help search. Coordinating
with Hake from
the BSSR, John scanned the
mountain for signs of Brad.
Taking to the mountain on
skis with a small group of
Brad’s friends, he bought
lift tickets and covered both
resorts, placing flyers, and
probing and digging in the
snow near Chippewa.
Ed and Mary focused mainly
around Big Sky and the
Madison Valley to the west.
Ed was granted access to the
Jack Creek Preserve road
west of Big Sky, and he and
Mary traveled to Ennis early
during the search to hang
flyers. By the time the two
got there, word had already
spread about a missing
person.
“They heard there was a
hiker missing,” Ed said.
Madison Valley residents
had formed a search
party and gone into the
mountains on a rescue
mission based out of Ennis
for what they presumed
was a missing resident,
an event that resonates
in small Montana towns.
“It says something about
the people from Montana
when a town reacts like
that,” Ed said.
Word around Big Sky
Resort was also misinformed
about the specifics
surrounding the search,
and initial reactions by the
resort could have cost time
in what was originally a
rescue mission, Ed says.
“Almost no one I talked to
knew there was a missing
skier on the mountain.”

Ed said everyone he talked to believed
Brad was on a solo backcountry ski tour,
not in lift-accessed backcountry areas.
For weeks, Ed believed Brad might be
in bounds, perhaps injured and buried
in snow.
Sam Byrne, owner of the Yellowstone
Club, granted the Gardner searches
(both informal and formal) access of
land owned by the club, and Ed Hake,
who also owns a snowmobile rental
business on Highway 191 near
Big Sky, helped lead snowmobiles
into the area.
“The YC and Moonlight were
very gracious and helpful,” Ed
Gardner said. He said he didn’t appreciate
the treatment from Boyne, the parent
company that owns Big Sky Resort.

______________

MONTHS AFTER STARTING the
search, the ski season was over, but
Lone Mountain looked much the same
as it did throughout the winter. Spring
turned to summer, and cold weather
kept the mountain coated in snow for
months.
John returned to school in June, and Ed
was the only family member left full
time in Big Sky.
His efforts remained grounded as a late
spring let a mammoth winter snowpack
linger through much of July. His condo
across Spur Road overlooks the peak,
the view a scathing daily reminder.
“I was literally just sitting, staring at
that mountain, watching snow melt,”
Ed said.
After enough melted, Ed and Sitton
began hiking on and around Lone
Mountain, this time on a recovery mission
of their own.
Search and rescue and the sheriff’s department
had covered nearly every inch
of mountain near Chippewa, Wyoming
Bowl and the Dakota Territory,
staying out of the cirque because of
inherent danger from avalanches and
falling rocks.
The pair was granted access to the land
surrounding Moonlight Basin, and
since SAR teams had found nothing
but false clues and animal tracks
elsewhere, their hikes came to center
on Lone Lake Cirque, on the northwest
side of the mountain.
The hike started at a gravel pit near the
end of the Spur Road at Moonlight Basin.
There, the land crosses the boundary
into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness,
from which point the two followed
mostly game trails for five miles and
thousands of vertical feet before passing
a high mountain spring and reaching
the cirque.

___________

AT 11 A.M., the sun hasn’t warmed
the cirque at 10,000 feet.
Ed and Sitton reach the lake and sit.
A toboggan and sleeping bag—caches
from the resorts’ ski patrols—hang in
a tree on the bank. The air is silent and
windless. There are no clouds to cast
shadows during the early morning, no
birds overhead. The two are alone.
Their faces lack any sense of urgency
or hurry. Ed sits eating an apple and
some jerky, looking up at the cliff
tops thousands of feet above him. Sitton
takes his shirt off and spreads out
one of the sleeping bags, which lie
wet and bunched up on the remaining
snow. They have become accustomed
to this search.
They sit silently, 200 feet apart, and
rest at the shores of the lake as the sun
begins its westward crawl across the
ridge above.
The glacial moraine in the bottom of
the basin has formed a massive pile of
talus covering a hidden rock glacier.
Rock fields emerge from beneath the
remaining snow and sprawl toward the
lake, pushed by the ice hidden beneath
them.
Throughout the cirque, snowfields sit,
just starting to warm in the midday
sun. Beneath the boulder field,
the tinny sound of draining water
emerges as the snowmelt moves
through the rocks and into the
small, blue lake.
The sun has just begun its westward
crawl over the ridge; it’s never hidden
by the ridge. The weather shows
the first sign of life in light, sustained
breezes hush past for a moment, cooled
by the snow and high elevation, and
silence returns.
Then, a horrible sound begins.
Rocks begin falling. First faint and
distant, only an echo is heard as
they careen through chutes and off
crags, gaining speed. They’re only
seen when they reach the moraine
snowfields. Just pebbles.
Ed pulls out a small pair of binoculars
and looks up. He points. “That’s
where we found the pole.”
That day, Ed and Sitton saw four
things that appeared to be remnants
of Brad. A glimmering rock looked
like a watch. Something yellow
looked like a piece of his clothing.
Each potential clue only a phantom
mirage and painful memory of Brad.
The only physical evidence actually
on the hill that day was the ski
pole (which remains today wedged
between two rocks on an 800-foot
cliff), and Brad’s body, still frozen
just feet below his father’s boots.

______________

BRAD’S BODY WAS discovered eight days later.
Ed and Sitton noticed the edge of one of Brad’s skis melting out
of the snow on July 21. A thin line the size of a marker shined
in the sunlight. With it, a shovel handle and a candy bar.
They called search and rescue and the Madison and Gallatin
county sheriff’s departments. A meeting was assembled on
Thursday, July 22, to plan the final mission into the area the
following days.
Crews from the original search parties charged the mountain
with force matching the March search. Some hiked to the
summit, others were dropped by helicopter. All were there to
probe, shovel, scour and search the snow with RECCO radar
signals.
They found Brad, boot cracked and skis delaminated on July 23.
He was buried in the colossal mountain cirque, likely having
died from injuries after a fall when a cornice broke thousands
of feet above, though investigators still aren’t certain of the
details. His body was taken back to Florida for a funeral.
Sitting over a fresh cup of coffee at a hut in Big Sky three
days after finding his son, Ed looked like a man incomplete.
His voice displayed the echo of a father in void,
and his pain hid behind a strong stare. He spoke frankly
of the traumatic experience and displayed hope that from
this tragedy, a flower will grow, and positive change will
be made.
Ed needs time to recharge and recover, though he says
he’ll likely never be whole again.
“I was talking to Brad one winter about his skiing,” Ed
said. “He said to me, ‘Dad, if I die back there, you don’t
have to come find me.’ And I said to him, ‘Well, I’m going
to, Brad.’”

_____________________________

Taylor Anderson is Assistant Editor of Mountain Outlaw magazine.
Matt Sitton, Big Sky native, owns a photo and video company
in Big Sky

To donate to Big Sky Search and Rescue visit BSSAR.org