Blazing a Trail

Early-season turns in the Madison Range. 

Summer had long since given way to fall, and fall quickly gave way to winter. As the high country settled into winter’s embrace, a north wind blew down Gallatin Canyon. Predicting that this would be the first decent accumulation of the season, I dug out my skies from the back of the closet, heated my waxing iron, and called up a buddy. We made plans for an early start and an adventure into the unknown for the next morning.

The alarm came early. Dark coffee in hand, we headed south out of Bozeman along the Gallatin River. Racing first light and chasing early-season turns, we left the highway and followed our headlights slowly up the dirt road through Ted Turner’s private ranch. Bison crowded the way to the National Forest access along Spanish Creek. Parking at the end of the road near sleeping hunters and horses, we unloaded our bags, finished our coffee, and laced up our approach shoes. Snowline was still miles away and thousands of feet higher. We wanted to get deep in the backcountry before the elk hunters started shooting.

With headlamps blazing and bear spray close at hand, we lifted our heavy loads and started slogging into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. Skis bounced off overhanging branches and deadfall challenged our every step. Before us sat a long day and a test of early-season ski legs. After seven miles and a bit over 2,000 vertical feet, the prominent snowfield of the Blaze awaited first turns.

With a less-hanus-than-usual bushwack, we left the trail and approached the toe of last season’s snow. Still sitting in the northwest-facing cleft of Blaze Mountain, this snow had weathered a hot summer and we were thankful for the previous night’s refresh. At least six inches of fresh, cold powder had blown in. Grins spread across our greedy faces.

After booting our way up a couple hundred feet of fresh snow, we transitioned to the rocky edge of the cleft for a more rapid ascent. Gingerly, we made our way up the loose rock and slick moss toward the summit ridge. Dropping our bags at the end of the snowfield, we pushed on to the top of the ridge and the summit.

At 10,384 feet, Blaze Mountain provides outstanding views of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness: Beehive Peak, Gallatin Peak, Wilson Peak, Cedar Mountain, Fan Mountain, Lone Peak, and beyond. From this perspective, we see the classic ski lines of the Spanish Peaks: Hanging Garden, North Twin, and the North Couloir of Fan Mountain, to name a few. Surrounding us is an incredible amount of untapped skiing potential that I’m sure will lure me back for the rest of my life.

Returning to our bags, the nearly forgotten ritual of tightening ski boots and adjusting goggles commenced. Stepping into my bindings, I was thankful I waxed and tuned the night before. Below us sat over 1,500 feet of untracted powder. After a summer of waiting, ski season was back!

Giving a quick hoot, I dropped in and started linking my first turns of the season. Less than ten minutes later, it was all over. Satisfied, smirking, and gazing back at our not-quite-perfect wiggles, excitement for the season grew into stoke. Enjoying an early lunch and the silence of the wilderness, we paused at the bottom of the line. Switching to shoes and reloading our backpacks, we took one last glance at our first turns of the season before descending into the forest.

A couple hours later, with tired legs, we crossed over Spanish Creek and returned to the trailhead and the car. Cold beers, dry socks, and KGLT awaited the ride home. Dodging potholes and bison, we glanced through the rearview window to catch one last glimpse of our line along the horizon. Returning to Bozeman, we awaited the coming season. Before the next snowstorm, the gate up the Forest Service road would close and access to this range would be limited from the north until spring.