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For the past month, Layne has been marching along the Montana Idaho border as it follows the divide from below West Yellowstone to the Centennial Valley. The original goal for this first leg of a three year adventure was to reach the Anaconda Pintlar Mountains before winter gave way to spring. But while most of Montana’s valleys turned green, Layne was dealing with too much snow in the mountains.

Not 50 miles into this year’s attempt, Layne’s first tent shredded in a wind storm, forcing an early exit for repairs and resupply. Deep powder conditions drastically slowed his progress around Henry’s Lake. But things were better than last year, when a blood clot in his leg nearly killed him. Or the year before that, when a malfunctioning camp stove gave him carbon monoxide poisoning. Both those expeditions stalled barely a week into the season.

“I’m growing old and I’m growing tired, and it’s gotten more difficult for me,” said Layne, 64. “That’s what life is. I love my wife. I miss my wife, I miss my dogs, my home. I miss all that. But I can’t stop. This is my final stab, all the way along the Continental Divide, up to the Canadian border.”

Storms and illness had limited him to just 10 miles along the flank of Taylor Mountain between March 26 and last Monday.

Layne just had a visit from some snowmobiling friends and was trying to evaluate a tricky route about three quarters of a mile away. They concluded it would require ice climbing gear, which he didn’t have, and one of the snowmobilers volunteered to bring some up the next day.

“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take my camp over there and see if it’s doable,’ ” Layne said. “If not, I’ll do a fast jaunt down to the trailhead, go to Helena and get the gear.

“I’ve learned over the years not to trust the weather forecast totally, but I didn’t do that that morning. That was my mistake my fault. I had a forecast that didn’t call for what happened.”

While he was breaking down his tent, a gust of wind hit just as he was shifting his footing to hold it down.

“It yanked out of my hand and it was gone. What was required to do at that point was to head down the mountain and get another tent. I didn’t know the blizzard was coming in. So I said to hell with it I’m going to keep going. I went down the avalanche chute to traverse around the area and try and find the tent.”

Layne didn’t find the tent, but he did get a better view of his route. It didn’t require crampons. He opted to retrieve his backpack and do a closer reconnaissance.

Assuming it was a brief squall, Layne hunkered down by some trees. He planned to move to a more sheltered tree line at the next break in visibility. A snow packed cloud with winds blowing about 70 mph refused to relent.

“I couldn’t see 30 feet in front of me,” Layne said. that I have a cave 7 feet deep and 4 feet wide. But I was running out of energy and soaking wet. I knew I was in trouble.”

The worst sign was his difficulty getting zippers to work. It indicated hypothermia was impairing his coordination, and his decision making would be affected, too. He set up his “bedroom” a sleeping bag on a thick insulation pad inside a bivvy sack. Then he took off all his clothes and crawled inside.

Not wearing wet clothes inside a sleeping bag is good safety practice. But in his exhaustion, Layne set up the bedroom wrong. He put the bag and bivvy sack on top of the pad, instead of putting the pad inside the bivvy sack.

After darkness fell, the wind shifted from south to north, blowing straight into the mouth of Layne’s snow cave. As it did, it packed snow between the pad and the sleeping gear, which melted and chilled him inside all that insulation. He spent the night jogging in place and shadow boxing in the bag, desperate to stay warm. A 16 ounce water bottle by his head froze solid, indicating temperatures around zero.

Outside,
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his wet clothes froze into a block. He was too cold to reach for his tracking beacon, and couldn’t concentrate enough to remember how to send the SOS message. All he could focus on was moving to stay warm and refusing to die.

“Once it was daylight, I had to find the beacon under the mound of snow covered stuff and push the SOS button,” he said. “I had to relearn how use it, and it took time to do that. I sent a message out a simple message to my wife and few others who would be able to help me. What I didn’t know was they’d been trying to get to me since the night before.”

Less than an hour later, Justin Applebee of West Yellowstone hopped off his snowmobile and told Layne it was good to see him still alive. Applebee and colleague Andy Peterson had mounted a rescue at dawn to find him, bringing warming pads, hot tea and dry clothes.

“They took hold of me on each side, and I wondered ‘why are you holding on to me?’ ” Layne said. “It was just a small incline to snowmobiles, about 200 feet away. But I walked five or 10 steps and realized what they already knew. I was going to need help to get there. The strength wasn’t in me.”

Anyone who attempts dangerous pastimes must reconcile how much risk they can take. The debate may start at the kitchen table with the maps, and might end in a snow cave with a stuck zipper.

“In the wilderness, you’re focused on reality pressing in on you from all sides, where every little crystal on the snow is glinting and every gust of wind penetrates your body and mind,” Ammons said. “That’s the paradox, the intensity that draws you in is also the thing that can kill you. The very fact that the adventure experience is real and has consequences, is why it’s so intriguing and compelling. You never know exactly where the edge is, although the more experienced you are, the better you think you know. Most fatalities thought they knew where the edge was and were wrong.”

So why do it? Mount Everest explorer George Mallory famously said, “Because it’s there.” But Ammons added there’s a lot more to that quote.

“He had just spent hours explaining why he thought climbing Everest was the most important human endeavor, a way of pushing human limits upward over obstacles, struggling metaphorically toward the purity of heaven. And some reporter didn’t get it and kept asking him why? It was a disgusted, toss off cryptic phrase that throws it all back on the other person. The irony is that’s what always gets quoted. It’s a koan that people have accepted without analyzing it, from a guy they know nothing about.”

For Layne, snowshoeing Montana’s Continental Divide is a goal he’s been building toward in more than a decade of incremental adventures. He’s a retired carpet cleaner and Vietnam veteran, with plans to visit the place where his wife, Carleen’s parents met in Hawaii when he’s done with this challenge. He hopes to make it to Monida Pass, just a couple of dozen miles along the divide from his latest pullout, before ending this season’s leg.

“One thing I’ve learned through all of this stuff is do not stop,” Layne said. “I cannot let this one sit on my head it just becomes a monster. People think forgetting is the solution, but that’s not me. Pushing beyond it is where things get better.

“And in my mind, at this moment, I have this picture,” he added. “This mountain with snow cornices, a little climb, and on top of that climb is another small peak. The north face of the Centennial Mountains is incredibly beautiful. I want to see what it looks like on that peak over there, where I almost died. God I love to see them during the winter. I want to see the snow. I can’t tell it any further than that.”
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