All Along the Watchtower

“Jimi Hendrix, man.” He flashed an impish grin and skied off into the trees. I stood there for a moment, confused, searching for any interpretation I might have overlooked, and then turned to my friends with what must have been a baffled expression. They burst into incredulous laughter. “What the hell was that?”

It was a normal afternoon in the backcountry several years ago. We sledded up to the base of our favorite playground and found… him. He looked the part of a typical ski bum. Duct-taped pants. Duct-taped snowmobile. Beard. Dirty knit hat. Beat-up skis. But he carried some sort of compact, engine-driven Rube Goldberg device on his back and wore a battered climbing harness.

Now, I’m a gearhead. As in, someone who obsesses over all things mechanical. I studied his contraption from afar until my curiosity got the best of me. I had to know. Was it a generator for some hidden hut? Was it a folding chainsaw? A powered parachute? What the hell was it, and why was he skiing with it on his back?

“That’s a nice… pack you’ve got there.” I quipped as I approached. “Yeah,” he said, followed by a tense pause where more dialogue should have commenced. So much for a repartee. He was facing me now and I couldn’t see the device any longer. I tried to play it cool. “So, what is that thing?” I casually asked. That’s when he turned, clicked into his skis, and said: “Jimi Hendrix, man.” Then he was gone, and I was left to wonder what the devil he was talking about.

On our way up the skintrack, we continued talking about “Hendrix Man.” Maybe he was a misunderstood genius. Maybe Hendrix was his name. Maybe ole’ Jimi was tearing it up in this guy’s iPod. Who knows.

But then, far below us, a chainsaw-like whine split the quiet afternoon. “What is he doing now?” we wondered out loud. Our explanations became more and more outlandish: Maybe he was cutting an illegal snowmobile trail to get higher up the mountain. Maybe he was building a cabin. Maybe he was slicing up the bodies of backcountry skiers he had ambushed and murdered. Fantastic.

The engine scream started moving uphill at a rate of speed much faster than our own. We had no idea what to think. Then I tripped over the last thing I expected to find in the Bozeman backcountry.

A yellow poly rope. It ran straight down the mountain as far as we could see. Ski tracks ran parallel to the rope. The guy really was a genius. Somehow, he had constructed his own personal ropetow. He had a backpack-mounted, rope-clamping device that used a chainsaw engine for power. After a run, all he had to do was take off his pack, clip it to his harness, clamp the rope to the engine pulley, and fire up his portable lift. At the top, he threw it on his back and skied private powder while the rest of us hoofed it. Bastard! Genius! Genius bastard!

As we pieced it together, the engine whine grew louder. He was coming up for another lap. We skied across the rope and continued up the skintrack, laughing. Ingenuity and motivation are powerful tools, though not as powerful as a chainsaw-powered backpack ski-lift. I was jealous, as any self-respecting gearhead would be. We heard him as he passed us by, and I imagined his raspy reply once more. “Jimi Hendrix, man.”

And wouldn’t you know, I still have no idea what he was talking about.

Got a cool backcountry contraption of your own? Send your story and/or photos to [email protected]