A young woman clips into her snowboard. She doesn’t notice the animal looming on the slope behind her. Singing along to the music in her headphones, she begins gliding down the mountain, unaware that she’s being followed. As she films herself singing merrily and making turns, a grunting bear charges after her from behind. She’s oblivious to all of this until she looks at the video days later and realizes just how close she came to getting an all-too-personal lesson on food chains.
Perhaps you’ve seen this video, which was recently posted by Kelly Murphy of Australia. It’s understandably gone viral, with many viewers left unsettled and others questioning its authenticity.
We can help with the latter: It’s not real.
Here’s How We Know
Murphy was skiing at the Hakuba47 resort on the Japanese island of Honshu. Though Asiatic black bears are found in the area, with several springtime sightings at the resort in recent years, the bear in the video is a brown bear, commonly known as a grizzly in North America. The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido actually has a healthy population of Ussuri brown bears, which can rival Alaskan brown bears in size, but that’s several hundred miles and an ocean channel north of Hakuba.
Why Murphy decided to post the fabricated video is a mystery (she insists the video is real), though it makes yet another compelling argument for not wearing headphones in the mountains. Her timing was good, however, as bears across the Northern Hemisphere are currently waking up from hibernation, and skiers everywhere should be keeping their eyes (and ears) open.
A Genuine Cautionary Tale
Matt Mosteller should know. The avid outdoorsman from Calgary, Alberta, was backcountry skiing with a friend in Montana’s Glacier National Park in early May a few years ago when he came face-to-face with an angry grizzly bear.
He was on a mountain, deep in the backcountry, admiring the alpine scenery and watching his friend ski down a chute when he saw something coming up a ridge toward him on his left. It was a bear. His adrenal system spiked. Then he saw a second bear on his right, much larger and much closer. Instantly he started skiing at the nearly full-grown cub to reach the entrance to the chute and the only way down the mountain. The sow immediately lunged after him, raking its claws across his backpack and skis.
An expert skier with his life on the line, Mosteller pointed his skis straight down the steep, rock-walled chute and tucked. It didn’t work. The barreling bear—which Mosteller describes as “freight-train sized”—was on his heels. So he started making turns, hoping to somehow trip the bear up. To his great fortune, instead of charging straight at him the bear followed his tracks as he zig-zagged down the mountain. This also meant he and the furious bear passed each other after each turn. Describing the bear’s roaring mouth as “spewing foam,” Mosteller says he was so close that he could see plaque on the bear’s teeth.
Deepening snow slowed the bear enough for Mosteller to pull away slightly. At the bottom of the run—where, much to Mosteller’s dismay, the terrain flattened—he stopped and turned to see the grizzly sow still bounding at him.
What saved him was a stroke of luck. While he waved his poles in the air with one hand and frantically dug in his pack for his bear spray with the other, his friend, in his own moment of panic, was attempting to bury himself with loose rocks at the foot of a nearby cliff. The bear heard the rocks clacking, saw Mosteller waving poles and acting strangely, and decided to turn and race up the mountain back to its cub.
Mosteller and his friend, who’d planned to stay in the area for several days, rushed back to their campsite, grabbed their gear, and hightailed it straight out of the mountains. Park biologists later told them this was a smart move. Had they stayed, the grizzly, in its single-minded effort to protect its cub, may have hunted them down.
Keep That Bear Spray Within Reach
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It’s an extreme example, but a good cautionary tale for skiers and snowboarders this time of year. Bears in North America typically wake from hibernation near the beginning of April. Jamie Jonkel, a wildlife biologist and bear expert with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, says, “It’s definitely something spring skiers need to be thinking about—you don’t want to cut a turn into a day-bedded bear or, God forbid, a den.”
Dens can mean cubs, and a grizzly or black bear sow with cubs is a dangerous animal.
Just ask Mosteller.
Jonkel recommends keeping your eyes open for fresh tracks in the snow and watching for bear dens on backcountry ski slopes—look for obvious dirt smears in the middle of the snow where the bear came and went from its den. And, as Mosteller learned, keep your bear spray easily accessible at all times.
It took Mosteller some time to psychologically recover from the terror of his bear encounter, but today he’s back to spending as much time as possible skiing in the mountains. When asked what he learned from his experience, he says, “You’re not promised tomorrow. Making today matter makes all the difference. Just get outside … and bring bear spray.”