Descent From North Summit

It’s difficult to understand how massive and wild Moonlight Basin is without skiing the North Summit snowfield.

My first trip down this incredible route was several years ago with Merik Morgan of the Moonlight patrol.  Merik is a veteran with a love of steep, empty places where the rules are different and decisions have consequences.   He gets quiet joy from sharing these places with others.  Merik told me he patrols for Moonlight because terrain like North Summit gives him a full opportunity to use a craft built over a lifetime.

Unlike Merik, I spend most of my day at Moonlight on the phone, in front of a computer, or in meetings.  Although I had skied Moonlight’s lower mountain before there were chairlifts, and have skied lots of great lines at other resorts and in the back country, I had never made time for North Summit.  I thought it was just another nice route among many.  I was wrong.

The tram ride to the top of Lone Peak was typical.  As it often does, conversation died as we got closer to Big Couloir, and each skier became lost in their own thoughts.  Merik and I made the short hike around to the Moonlight patrol shack, checked gear and signed in.  I ventured a peak off the North side.   There was no bottom, only vast space and a world tipped vertical.

Like many skiers pushing 50, I remembered what it was like to be 25 and log a 100 plus days a season.  But those days were gone, and places like North Summit force a hard reality check.  I knew my timing was off, my legs were not what they used to be, and that too many days behind a desk might produce a reckoning I was unprepared to accept.  Despite the friendly banter in the patrol shack, my heart rate accelerated, and my breathing flattened.  As we waited for the route to clear, it was impossible not to wonder whether I had gotten into something bigger than I could handle.  If Merik sensed this, he said nothing.

After a briefing on protocol, we began the descent to the top of the route.   By the time we got to the entrance, I had forgotten most of what I knew about skiing, and a potent mix of fear and exhilaration dominated.  The belief that North Summit was just another line was gone.  Merik invited me to go, and I knew I had to stick those first turns.   Fortunately, the snow was creamy and forgiving, and all those years of skiing came back in a rush.  Fear was replaced by pure, deep joy and a profound conviction that nothing mattered but this time and this place.   I was completely and fiercely alive for the first time in a long while.

The first safety zone came too quickly.  Merik and I paused, and talked about whether we could, or more importantly, should build a lift to serve this incredible terrain.  We looked into Great Falls, decided it was thin, and traversed into a world of awesome steepness.  For the first time I saw the bottom and our objective, the Meeting Trees.   Each pole plant was a long reach of faith; each turn burned vertical gone forever; and point releases flowed with us as we descended.   Then it was over.

There have been a number of trips down North Summit since, and all of them have been good.  I too, have felt the satisfaction of sharing this experience with others; and each time has been a reminder that life is only full at the boundaries where outcomes are uncertain.  With experience, I have a different perspective on North Summit, and although familiar, it stands beautiful and undiminished.

But there was only one first time, and it profoundly changed how I think about our mountain and the people who work here.  Thanks Merik and the entire Moonlight team for this gift.

-Russ McElyea


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