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Young Bozeman College Student Found Dead After Night Alone In Backcountry

This image shows the route taken by backcountry skiers from History Rock trailhead to reach the three popular ski meadows above. The missing skier's body was found north of the trail, near Hyalite Creek. Google Maps Photo

Early in the morning on Friday, February 5, rescuers found the body of Nathaniel "Alex" Wright, age 20, in a popular backcountry ski zone outside of Bozeman, Montana. Alex, a student from Alaska studying at Montana State University, left Thursday afternoon to go for a solo ski tour from the History Rock parking lot in Hyalite Valley. When he had not showed up by his expected 8:30 pm return time, his girlfriend began to worry. At 10:30 that night, she called 911, and a search and rescue operation launched into action.

According to a press release from the Gallatin County Sheriff's Office, local Search and Rescue officials set out a search party consisting of SAR staff on snowmobiles, along with backcountry skiers, and used night vision from a helicopter to search the area. When they located Wright off the trail, north of History Rock at 6:30 in the morning, he was already deceased. Temperatures that night were in the single digits. The coroner has not yet released the cause of death although all evidence points towards exposure to the cold.

Sheriffs' vehicles block the road near the History Rock trailhead. Gallatin Sheriff's Department photo.

As an MSU alum and fellow Alaskan, as well as someone who learned to backcountry ski tour at History Rock, this accident hit me hard. First and foremost, my deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of Alex. It is my desire to share this story with the greater ski community in hopes that other backcountry travelers may learn from it and prevent future similar accidents. It is safe to say anyone who has skied in the backcountry regularly has made mistakes – none of us are infallible, only fortunate that our own mistakes did not turn deadly. It is only through learning from our own mistakes, and others that we might hope to prevent future tragedies such as this one.

History Rock is a very popular backcountry ski area for the Bozeman community, since it’s only a thirty-minute drive from town and a mile and a half of relatively flat skinning to reach the first skiable meadow. It’s also relatively safe in terms of avalanche potential. Most of the area is low angle and heavily treed. In my six years in Bozeman, I can recall only one incident of a slide at History Rock. For these reasons, it is not uncommon to see solo skiers at this area. I myself have skied there alone a few times after becoming familiar with the area. 

The amount of traffic at this spot also lends a feeling of comfort to solo ski touring, not unlike the situation created on Teton Pass and in the backcountry surrounding Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Although having a partner during this outing could have prevented Alex's death, he is not the first person to ski History Rock alone, and certainly will not be the last.

In a phone call with Paul Griffin, the Chief Deputy Coroner of the Gallatin County, Griffin explained that one of Alex's skis was found without a skin attached to it. He could not say whether this was the issue that led to Alex's desperate situation, and ultimately his passing. The Gallatin Search And Rescue team intends to do an entire debrief on this incident, and until more information is made available, it would be unjust to conjecture about what went wrong. 

But I want to remind people of what Alex did right. He left a worry time and his intended route. Had he not done this, it certainly would have been longer until SAR found him. The fact that he was found well off the trail suggests that he kept moving even after he knew he was lost, which could have kept him alive longer than had he immediately given up and sat down in the snow.

The History Rock area has long been popular as a safe destination for low angle power skiing. Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center photo.

Not long after I began backcountry touring, I experienced skin failure (an iced over skin and broken tail strap) about two miles of ups and downs away from the Bridger Bowl ski area boundary. I could not get  my skin to stay on. It would have taken me hours to wallow through the waist deep snow, without skis on, to the safety of packed trails. With no cell reception, had I been alone, there is a chance I could have suffered the same misfortune as Alex.

Thankfully, I was with a partner to help me problem solve. We jerry-rigged bits of string taken from stuff sacks to hold the skin in place. My partner skinned behind me and we stopped every thirty steps for him to reach down and re-tie the skin back into place.

RELATED: 7 Lessons I Learned From Surviving An Avalanche

Today when I go into the backcountry, I take a handful of ski straps, duct tape, a compass, an altimeter, a map, a personal locater device, extra batteries, a headlamp, and a extra heavy puffy in addition to a small first aid kit, repair kit, and my avalanche safety gear. I tell someone where my group is going and when we will be back. After five winters of backcountry skiing, I am still learning what it takes to travel safely, and it is something I hope to improve upon for my entire life.

I urge all backcountry skiers and winter travelers to take the time to go through their first aid, repair and survival kits to make sure they are prepared for all possible scenarios in the backcountry. Do you have extra batteries for your beacon and headlamp in case you get stuck out late? Do you have enough extra layers, food and water to survive a cold night? Single digit temperatures are not bad when you are constantly moving and there is hot cocoa waiting for you at home, but as soon as someone in your party becomes injured, the temperature becomes your enemy.

This winter season has already seen far too many accidents. With every ski-related incident, it is easy to make quick judgements while scrolling through the news feed on our iPhones. Let us not be hasty in developing uninformed opinions, especially while members of our community are still reeling from the loss. 

The best we can do is constantly educate ourselves on safe backcountry practices and learn from the accidents of others. According to Deputy Griffin, the family of Alex is already talking about ways to teach others about backcountry preparedness, so that the misfortune that befell their son can be avoided in the future. 

Our thoughts and prayers are, again, with Alex and his family and friends at this difficult hour.

About The Author

stash member Pyper Dixon

Alaskan native. I moved to Bozeman, Montana to study skiing and paragliding at MSU, but somehow ended up with a Land Management degree. Now I live in Jackson, where I can continue my ski education without the distractions of school.

Such a sad story. As a ski instructor and general 4 season backwoods traveller, I don’t understand why anyone would go out into the wilderness, for even a few hours, without a few basic supplies for just this type of emergency. For less than $20 and a small corner of your backpack: a folding saw, space blanket, bic lighter/waterproof matches.  I carry much more than that, but these basic items set you up to light a fire. It makes all the difference, especially when you’re stuck over night. Such a small, simple thing. We go into the backcountry to be alive, not to die.

Way to spin a tragic piece about a young man dying into a story about you and your time in Bozeman . You’re a callous narcissist.

    go fuck yourself gladebitch

This is heartbreaking. Sorry for the loss. lawn fertilizing Orem, UT