In the early hours of June 11, Ezra Smith was sleeping in a tent a short ways from the Beehive Basin Trailhead in Big Sky, Montana. Smith, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Colorado Boulder, was camping with a friend, but they soon realized they weren’t alone.
Here’s her story, as told to Outside.
Around 3 A.M., I woke up to my friend Leah screaming. I was confused. Just six hours earlier, we’d settled into our sleeping bags inside our tent. I’d been sleeping soundly, but even before I could get my bearings, I realized what she was yelling about—the top of our tent had fully collapsed onto our legs, and we were being crushed by something.
I’ve spent the past couple summers in Montana cross-country ski training with the CU Boulder ski team. The winter season starts in November, but we begin training in May. Each morning the team drives from Bozeman to Big Sky, where we ski during the day before returning to Bozeman in the evenings. The night before our first day in Big Sky, though, my teammate Leah and I wanted to do something different. Instead of driving out with the team the next day, we thought a night camping at Beehive Basin would be fun.
The drive was short—just an hour—with a few stops along the way to pick up some gear, a canister of bear spray included. We parked off the Beehive Basin Trailhead and walked about 500 feet to set up our tent along a pine tree–wooded ridge. By 9 P.M., after eating some tofu stir-fry for dinner, changing into clean clothes to sleep in, and stuffing away leftover food inside the Subaru, we were ready to sleep. I usually bring a snack inside the tent with me, but tonight I didn’t. I’d recently heard stories about bear attacks and sightings in Montana.
Before tucking in, we thought about how exactly we should sleep—a decision all campers have to make once they realize they set up the tent on an incline—and ultimately decided it would be better to have our feet facing downslope. We zipped in and chatted about our plans for the next day before drifting off.
When I heard the animal’s heavy breathing, I knew immediately that it was a bear. There was so much pressure growing in my left leg, like nothing I’d ever felt before, but I figured it was from the bear’s weight. At that moment, all I could think about was grabbing the bear spray. But it was useless to us now, located at the bottom of the tent—under the bear. I don’t know how long Leah and I screamed, but we must have disturbed the bear enough. The animal climbed off our tent and was gone. We never saw it.
Leah and I sat in our tent crying and shaking. I didn’t know much about bears, but I was worried it would come back to fight if it felt provoked, so I began searching for the bear spray. We didn’t want to be caught dashing uphill to the car if the bear was hanging around outside the tent. After an hour, we decided to move to the car. No bear in sight, we ran. Upon making it to the car, we headed to the trailhead—Leah driving, me in the passenger seat—to wait for our teammates.
As we drove down the mountain, I was reminded of my leg, which hurt when I ran from the tent to the car, though I was still too worked up to think about much pain. Pulling off my pants, I gasped. My entire left leg was swollen, and on my thigh were four perfectly placed punctures. But oddly enough, my pants weren’t ripped at all. I assumed the bear must have stepped on me. A couple hours later, my coach and teammates arrived, and my coach had the same suspicion: I was stepped on. We figured that, if I felt up to it, I might as well ski. So I did, for three and a half hours. I felt all right, though by the end of my cross-country runs, I was in severe pain as my leg continued to swell.
We drove to a hospital in Bozeman, where I was sure the doctor would tell me what I already knew: that I’d been stepped on by a bear. My doctor couldn’t be certain, so he conferred with a wildlife specialist from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The specialist, on the other hand, was confident: these were bite marks, likely from an adult bear, though it was hard to know whether it was a grizzly or black bear. The wildlife specialist estimated that the bite wasn’t aggressive, and that the bear probably got caught up in our tent while sniffing around it. “Initial details of the incident indicate the bear’s behavior was likely investigative, not predatory, and that the bite was defensive,” the FWP later said in a statement. If it were a real bite, they told me, my leg would have been completely ruined.
I was given some antibiotics and instructed to wrap and ice my leg. Though the muscle and tissue in my thigh quickly turned squishy with damage, and I wasn’t able to do physical activity for a week, less than a month later I was back out skiing. The FWP patrolled the area where Leah and I camped but unfortunately wasn’t able to track the bear. It rained that week, so they couldn’t find the bear’s tracks, which was a bummer.
A couple things stand out to me as I look back on the experience. The summer before, I was warned repeatedly to buy bear spray before going to Montana, but I didn’t. Even though we didn’t end up using the spray this year, the reminders to buy the stuff felt like a foreboding of what was to come. I also shudder to think about what would have happened if Leah and I had slept with our heads at the other end of the tent, which we considered. Leah could have suffocated, and I might have been bitten on my face.
Two months later, I’m now back in Boulder for my third year of college. Though we’re not sure there will be a regular ski season due to the pandemic, I’m still training, grateful to have recovered so quickly except for a couple lasting marks on my leg. I was lucky but still feel traumatized by the experience. I don’t plan to camp again anytime soon—if I do, it’ll be in the desert. I know bear attacks are rare, but the fear of waking up at 3 A.M. to another one at my mountain campsite may keep me away for just a while longer.