Jeff Tone was taking his friend Zach Sonderer on a ski trip up the Sphinx for the first or second time. According to Tone’s recollections, the hikers were about three-fourths the way up the mountain on a clear day in late June and it was about 60 degrees when they had some trouble. Tone had his skis strapped to his back—Sonderer, a snowboard. They were above the tree line and past the saddle on the main face of the Sphinx when Tone first started hearing the melting water running under them.
Sonderer borrowed one of Tone’s poles and poked at the snow and ice. The men briefly saw the creek under their feet and then Sonderer dropped partway out of sight. Tone thought his friend had sunk in up to his waist, but a moment later Sonderer was gone.
“It was like a poof,” Tone remembered. “His snowboard had been holding him partway up but then he fell the rest the way down into the water.”
After Sonderer fell, it took a couple minutes for him to respond to Tone’s shouts. With his friend trapped in a 10-15 foot drop off and pushed back by the water into an ice cave, Tone went into survival mode.
“He handed his pack up to me and that is when we realized he lost one [snowboard] boot and his glasses,” Tone said. “We tried a bunch of things to get him out—rope did not work. Then I tried to tunnel through the bottom with my shovel but I hit ice and could not go any farther.”
A little way down the mountain, the creek surfaced for approximately 20 feet. Then, a crashing waterfall dropped into what Tone calls “the hole of death.” Fortunately, Sonderer was not carried downstream by the creek and stayed in the hole where he fell.
Sonderer was in that hole close to an hour, according to Tone’s recollections. Eventually, Tone was able to tunnel into his friend’s location and reach his ski pole down far enough that Sonderer could clamber up and out.
The men immediately got Sonderer out of his wet clothes and into spare jackets and socks from their packs.
“Then he suggested I just go up and ski down on my own,” Tone laughed. “He was all saying, ‘I do not want to rain on the parade’.”
While Sonderer was resting and drying his clothes on a makeshift clothesline, Tone noticed his snowboard boot had popped out of the hole into the exposed part of the creek and was headed for the “hole of death.”
“I just ran down there and snatched it quick,” Tone said. “That boot was saturated but we dried it out and that is when [Sonderer] suggested we go on up to the top and finish the trip.”
Tone is a 54-year-old who has lived between Sheridan and Bozeman his whole life. Now, he lives in Ennis, where he moved in the late 1970s. Tone has been skiing his whole life—he remembers hitting the slopes at Bridger Bowl when it only cost $1 a day to ski. When he moved from Bozeman to Ennis, Tone traded in his alpine gear for cross-country and telemark skis because he knew he was not going to make it to the ski hill often. Since he did not want to stop skiing, he decided to take to the backcountry.
“We skied all over—I still ski all over,” Tone said. “We would ski Virginia City hill at night, up and over from the Ennis side to get a drink at the Pioneer Bar.”
The day Tone and Sonderer summited the Sphinx after their ordeal, thunder, lightning and hail rolled in. According to Tone, the hail was forming right next to them at the peak out of the mountain—the air popped all around them and they were pelted by nickel to quarter-sized balls of ice.
“It did not hurt because it was not falling far,” Tone said. “Then when we started skiing down, the hail had farther to fall and it really started to sting. By the time we were nearly back at the trail, it was just pouring down rain.”
From the trailhead, the climb up the Sphinx is approximately 5.5 miles with an elevation of 5,500 feet. Tone said he has made the trek at least a dozen times.
“I ski the lifts a lot,” Tone said, primarily referring to Bridger Bowl north of Bozeman where he skis 50-60 times a season. “But I really like doing as much backcountry as I can.”
Tone skis the backcountry from the Sphinx in the Gravelly Mountains and South Baldy in the Tobacco Roots to the Bridger Mountains and the Beartooth range. This year, however, has been kind of “scary,” according to Tone.
“You can check the snowpack in one place and then 50 feet over it is completely different,” he said, referring to the unstable foundation for this year’s snow that has made the area a high risk for avalanches. Still, Tone makes it into the backcountry for big trips around a dozen times a season, not counting smaller, quicker trips up areas like South Meadow Creek.
The backcountry has its dangers, but that does not deter Tone from packing his skis and exploring the terrain around southwest Montana—the day Sonderer dropped through the snow is just one tale of many.