Monday, October 17, 2011

The Most Terrifying Night of my Life

It happened back in 1990, when I was living in Montana.  My buddies and I used to hike the trails and wilderness areas of the Bridgers, the Gallatins and the Absarokas, year around.  We were well familiar and perfectly at home there, no matter the time of day or year.

One meadow in particular, below the 8,300 foot Mount Ellis, in the Gallatin Range was a favorite.  I've climbed the peak itself hundreds of times if I've climbed it once, and I've been to that meadow many more times than that.  My high school, named after the peak, holds an annual race to the top.  I won the race four years straight, from 1985 through 1988 primarily because I knew which exact routes were the fastest to the top.  I knew that whole wilderness area as well as my own backyard.

The meadow was beautiful, nestled between the surrounding mountain tops, with pure, ice-cold water gushing out from several natural springs into a small tributary of the trout-filled Bear Creek below.  It ran northwest-southeast, at the base of the ridge between Mount Ellis and the lower Mount Wilson to the north.  It was the idyllic place to camp, relax, and enjoy the beautiful Big Sky wilderness.

Google Earth image of the meadow, looking north, with a snow-covered Mount Ellis at the lower left.

And then it changed.  I don't know when it did, but it was palpable.  Somehow it was completely different.  It happened gradually at first, so gradually that we initially ignored the nagging feelings of uneasiness we felt there.  The feeling grew stronger though, until it could not be ignored.  It was a feeling that something just wasn't right, that we weren't alone up there anymore.  We were being watched.  We were intruding, and whatever was watching us did not like us very much.  We couldn't put our fingers on it, but it was impossible to disregard.

Topographic map of the meadow, looking north, with Mount Ellis at the lower left.

I distinctly remember trying to hike up to the meadow that summer, only to find myself running back down the trail, scared to death.  There was no physical reason for it; I just couldn't do it.  There was something malevolent up there, and I knew somehow I was in danger if I stayed.

As summer turned to winter (there really isn't much of a fall in Montana), it turned more palpable, more deadly in its intent.  The boys and I talked about it several times together in the "Dwarven Bowling Alley", the low, long attic hangout that also served as my bedroom.  All of us had felt it, and in the same way.  None of us could put our finger on just exactly what it was.

Google Earth image of the meadow, looking south, with the slope to Mount Ellis at the upper right.

And we weren't the only ones.  I know a girl who tried riding her horse up the trail and was bucked off when the horse first refused to go up it and finally bolted in fear.  I know of several other people who came back down from the area and wouldn't go back up under any circumstances.  There was something up there, and everyone who ventured into its radius felt it.  Inexplicable, irrational fear was the common theme.

We had a lot of different theories about what it was, but since it wasn't anything more than a mutually shared feeling, it was hard putting any amount of accuracy to them.  We speculated it might be some sort of human ill-intent.  A recent bust in the area had shed light on the fact the mountain was being used as a drop point for drugs.  We also thought it might be a wild animal such as a mountain lion, as the big cats were quite common in the Gallatins.  It could possibly be rabid, or otherwise unsound of mind.

Cougar, © Wayne Dumbleton

Supernatural activity of some sort could not be entirely out of the question either.  Just down the road from the trail head to the mountain we knew of a field littered with arrowheads and chippings.  It was at least an old Indian encampment, if not a religious place or burial ground.  These were all theories, though, and none of them could explain what we felt.

It came to a head one cold November night in the strangest of ways.  Nothing about the incident served as concrete evidence, but when you take everything in perspective, coincidence seems like a pretty bad bet to take.  In fact, the odds of everything happening as it did would be astronomical.

We'd made plans to go up camping in the meadow on the weekend.  Mitch*, one of my buddies, was off on Friday and wanted to go up a day early.  Both I and another buddy, Rick, had to work, but we'd join Mitch the next day.  I had a job slinging sliders on the mid shift in Bozeman then, so I was able to take Mitch up to the drop off point that Friday afternoon before work.

I hiked with Mitch to the meadow so Rick and I could find his shelter easily the next morning.  He decided to camp under a cluster of large trees on the lower side of the meadow, not far from the trail leading into it.  I left soon after, still with that same uneasy feeling I'd felt before, and if memory serves me correctly, I ended up running most of the way back down to the trail head.  All the way back, I had that same uneasy feeling of being watched.

Gallatin Range, near Bozeman, MT circa. 1990 © Jonathan Dalar 

Later at work that night the feeling hadn't gone away.  It usually wore off after leaving the meadow, but this time it intensified, and was to the point where I was on edge and jumpy, my skin crawling with fear.  It seemed like there was something behind me, watching, waiting, no matter what I did.  Finally I was going out of my mind in stark terror.

I worked for a while, but something was terribly wrong.  I could feel it.  It was a feeling of sheer paranoia, and I couldn't shake it, no matter how I rationalized it.  It finally got so bad I'd had enough.  Mitch was in danger and I had to go get him.  I told my boss I was quitting early for the night.  She didn't want to let me off early, but I finally informed her I was leaving no matter what she said.  I told her it was an emergency, even if I had no idea what kind of emergency it was.  I was scheduled to get off work at two that morning, but it was just past eleven thirty when I left.

As I drove home, my hands actually shook at the wheel.  At one point I was trembling so badly I could hardly function, but managed to get my winter clothing on and get my gear.  I was going up that mountain if it killed me, and the more I thought about it, the more I was certain that was exactly what would happen.

I headed out the door, armed and loaded to the teeth.  We hunted every year then, and going out into the Montana wilderness, let alone at night after some unknown danger, was unheard of without several guns, knives and assorted hardware.  I pulled out of the driveway in a cloud of dust, starting out to rescue Mitch.

I got the rest of the eerie story from Mitch and Rick that night in the attic.  Seems I wasn't the only one with such premonitions.  Mitch said he'd gone to sleep early that evening, somewhere close to four or five in the afternoon.  Darkness comes early in the mountains there during the winter, and it was dusk when he'd turned in.

He'd bedded down for the night, but hadn't made a shelter as we often did while camping.  There was no need for one that night, so he'd cleared the snow away, laid down some pine boughs and stretched his sleeping bag and bedroll out.  As he'd drifted off to sleep, he looked out from his bag over the crust of accumulated snow and noticed a red glowing light, like a candle, but still and steady.  He dismissed it at the time, thinking it was a light from one of the houses down the canyon to the north.  He said afterward that before falling asleep, he'd felt peaceful, so strangely peaceful in fact, that he'd wondered about it.  He later told me it was the most tranquil feeling he's ever experienced.  It was pure ecstasy, he said, like nothing in the world was amiss.

Darkness vs Candle, © Ankur Sharma

Later that night he awoke, all signs of his earlier peacefulness replaced by sheer terror.  He told us he'd never been that scared in his life, and has never been since.  He didn't know what was causing this terror, but he couldn't fight it no matter what he did.  It was more terrifying a feeling than anything he'd ever felt.  Whatever was there wasn't just watching anymore.  It was after him.  He could feel it breathing down his neck.  He grabbed his rifle and fired several shots into the side of the hill across from him, thinking to scare off whatever it was there.

Instead, his actions had the opposite effect from what he'd intended.  "It was like whatever it was said, 'oh, there he is,'" he told me later.  "It was like the sound of the shots drew its attention even more and let it focus directly on me."  He threw his stuff together, grabbed his rifle, and began running for the trail headed down to civilization.  He said all his gear had been packed, and he brought it all back out with him, but if he hadn't, I'm sure he wouldn't have cared.  All he could do was run for his life.

Now this is where the story gets really weird, as if it wasn't enough so before.  Rick said later he had awakened in a panic that night around ten thirty or so.  He really doesn't remember many details anymore, so all we've gotten from him is that he knew Mitch was in trouble and he had to go get him.  He's a real lunch pail kind of guy, not given to any sort of unusual flights of fancy.  He's a mechanic and a heavy construction equipment operator, with little room for any sort of such strange nonsense.  It was completely out of character for him to respond in such a way, but respond he did.  He dressed and sped across town and out to the trail head shortly after, and began hiking up toward the meadow.

Mitch and Rick met on the trail just above the split, where the trail to the right sheered off and headed up New World Gulch.  Mitch says he saw something coming up the trail at him, and in his terror did not even recognize it as a person.  He saw it as a threat.  He felt the dangerous presence closing in from behind and steeled himself for a last stand, sure he would not make it out alive.

As soon as he saw Mitch, Rick began yelling at him at the top of his lungs, screaming that he was in danger, and needed to get out of there immediately.  Finally Rick's voice cut through and Mitch realized who it was.  Even then he could hardly lower his gun out of the terror that still surrounded him.

Gallatin Range, near Bozeman, MT circa. 1990 © Jonathan Dalar

Mitch finally lowered his gun as realization sunk in.  "You've got to get out of here now!  Throw me your pack and run on ahead of me," Rick told him.  He grabbed Mitch's pack and shoved him down the trail, following as fast as he could.  They ran down the path, still feeling that ominous presence, following, closing in.  Hunting them.

They made it back down to the car, tore down the gravel road towards home.  They rounded the corner to my driveway a short while later, just as I was backing out.  We almost collided.  Any longer and I would have already been gone, driving up there to get Mitch myself.  Rick and Mitch tumbled out of the pickup, scared out of their minds.

That night in the attic, we put the jumbled pieces of the story together.  As far as we could figure out the timeline, all three of us felt the same panicky feeling that Mitch was in danger at almost the exact same time.  All three of us felt so strongly we were obliged to instantly do something about it.  I begged off work over two hours early, Rick got up out of bed and drove there from clear on the other side of Bozeman, and Mitch knew he had to get out of there as fast as he could.  The coincidence of all three of us simultaneously feeling the exact same terror was certainly unusual.  And the timing was impeccable.  While I had a slight delay responding, that delay was due to an obligation to work.  If I'd have left when I first felt it, I'm convinced we'd have all met at exactly the same time and place on that mountain trail.

We stayed up into the early hours of the morning, talking about what had happened.  What had happened was so staggeringly impossible it couldn't nearly be coincidence.  There seemed no way in the world all three of us had felt such strong feeling of peril for Mitch at the exact same time that we'd done what we had.  Some force more powerful than we knew was at work here.  The only problem was we had no clue what it was.

Even talking about the experience was terrifying.  It seemed the more we talked about whatever it was out there in the mountains, the closer it came.  It felt like it was still on the prowl, hunting for us.  And we felt even talking about it allowed it to focus and narrow its search.  Finally we agreed not to talk further about it for a day or so, even though we wanted to figure out what it was.  Enough was enough, and we weren't taking the chance that talking about it allowed it to find us more quickly.

Afterward, the old timers in the area started coming forth with their stories.  Seems we weren't the first to experience something like that around the Gallatins.  There was even a tale of someone who hadn't had the luck we had.  Rumor had it, a few years prior, a man had been pulled off the mountain just to the north of the meadow a couple of days after he'd gone missing.  He was stark raving mad, and was taken to the asylum in Warm Springs where he spent the remainder of his days.  And he hasn't spoken a word since.

Now I don't know if that last story is true or not.  It's what several older residents of the area have told us.  I do know our story as I've told it is completely true.  Every single word of it is true, or at least accurate to the best of our recollection.  None of us knew what caused our terror, but there was clearly something at work there beyond our understanding.  I don't believe any of us have gone up that mountain or into the meadow since.

We still don't know what it was that night that so terrified us.  Nothing can completely explain it.  Mitch is convinced it was spirits from an Indian burial ground, that something was done to disturb them and cause them to haunt the meadow.  He swears he's seen the place bookmarked as such a burial ground on Google Maps, but when we looked recently, the bookmark wasn't there anymore.  It wouldn't be a stretch to think that though, as we know there are remains of an encampment just down the road a few miles, and the whole area was once their home.

"The Frog", Northeast of Mount Ellis, looking Southwest into the Gallatin Range, near Bozeman, MT circa. 1990 © Jonathan Dalar

I've used the experience as inspiration for stories before, but until now, I've never recorded it with words.  I have a hell of a horror novel outlined, based on what we felt that night and the months leading up to it, but I haven't written it yet.  Mitch begged me not to write it until I was good enough a writer to do the story justice.  I think I'm there now, and as soon as I can work up the courage to address it head on, I'll write it.  Until then, I'll do what I've done for over twenty years, and that is push it to the back of my mind so the nightmares go away and I don't risk it finding me again.

*The names have been changed to protect what little innocence may be left.


  1. My father had been a real life hobo, one of the jobs he had was in the mountains of Montana (I wish I knew exactly where). He got snow bound in the cabin.
    Being snow bound didn't scare him. Having a strange feline show up, bothered him a little. But one night he was full of dread and had to leave.
    My dad was not the type of guy that would freak out. He carefully packed his supplies, grabbed the gun and snow shoes and left. With another storm coming in behind.
    He never said much about what made him leave the safety of the cabin, but reading your story made me wonder if he had gotten the same feelings.

  2. That's quite interesting, especially since it was also in Montana. I'd be quite curious to find out exactly where this was.

    There are no cabins in that meadow, but they're not uncommon throughout the region. And while there are a lot of dangers in the Montana wilderness, especially in winter, few would drive a guy out of the safety of a cabin, especially in the face of an oncoming storm.

    Not saying the two incidents are related, but it wouldn't be surprising if they were. They sound similar in nature.

    One of the things that made it so scary for us was that we'd been around many of those dangers in Montana - bears, moose, cats, severe weather, etc. - and they never worried us like that. We knew better than to let our guard down, but they also did not terrify us like we were that night.

    Very weird, that sense of complete and total dread in the face of nothing concrete at all.

  3. That's going to make one hell of a good story! Just your recounting it scared me. Looking forward to the whole enchilada. God speed :)

  4. Thanks, Shiela.

    Glad it did, because the whole time I was writing it (and I agonized a good long time over it), it felt like I wasn't nearly doing the tale justice.

    It was a truly terrifying thing, and words can't begin to really describe it.

  5. Great story. I definitely think there are certain areas that have a bad vibe even if we have no idea why. Likewise, there are some places that feel right and safe.

    It's the bad places you have to watch out for.

  6. You know, Luke, I think we see a lot of bad places, whether "haunted" or "unlucky" or whatever other term we assign to them. Haunted houses are a common theme, we've got places like the Bermuda Triangle, and areas like what I've described.

    While a lot can be explained by logic and science, some cannot. And I don't think it's a permanent thing attached to a place. I think whatever was up there on Mount Ellis is gone now. It lasted maybe a year, as best I can figure.

    The question remains, why do you have to watch out for the bad places? Possibly something happening like the Dyatlov Pass incident? But what exactly happens?

  7. There's the problem with an event like Dyatlov. The people who know what really happened are no longer with us. As much as I'd like to know the truth, maybe not knowing is safer.

    I say watch out for the bad places because you don't know what might leave with you when you leave those places. (Yes, there's a story behind that. No, it's not for telling just yet).

  8. You have my interest piqued, Luke. However, I know full well not being ready to tell such a story yet. It was years before I could even talk about this incident among friends without complete terror taking over.

    Even now, I've had second thoughts about it, but if not now, then never.