Wherein the O/B staff spends a glorious weekend skiing at the Big Belt Hut—after barely getting there.
Sweat cakes the forehead, freezing immediately. Blood sticks to the insides of socks. Under heavy breaths, eyes follow the beam of a headlamp out to where it meets total darkness. From afar, the forest glows like a Christmas tree, tiny specs of light flickering in different places. A single thought floats through the mind like swirling snow: Where are my comrades?
Picture this: six dudes meet at the Town & Country parking lot in Belgrade at noon on Friday. With no plan whatsoever, all of them shotgun into the grocery store with the hope that somehow, some way, their collaborative shopping effort will result in the correct amount of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for everyone on a three-day hut trip. This was us, a handful of the O/B crew, powder-hungry and eager to get out into the snowy woods for a long weekend.
We peeled out of Belgrade shortly after 1pm, which wasn’t all that bad considering we had to go back into the store twice to fill all the food voids. Our destination: Montana Backcountry Yurts’ Big Belt Hut, located along the ridgeline below Mt. Baldy in the peaks east of Canyon Ferry. The yurt sits at 8,500 ft. and is complete with everything from wood stove to sauna. It can sleep up to 15 and provides out-the-door access to all levels of prime southwest Montana skiing. By backcountry standards, a plush and comfortable abode. Thing is, we had to get there first.
Like many backcountry huts, the Big Belt takes a bit of effort to get to. Accessed via Duck Creek Rd., how far you can drive depends on how much snow there is on the ground. For us, that meant parking roughly seven miles from the motorized boundary, from which lay a three-mile skin into the yurt. Not altogether that bad with snowmobiles, but being that we only had one sled—a Polaris RMK Pro—shuttling folks in wasn’t going to be as speedy as one might hope.
Jack, the sled’s owner and operator, figured he could take one person at a time. I offered to go first. After hurriedly donning our ski clothes and strapping miscellaneous gear in miscellaneous places, we hopped on the machine, grabbed a handlebar each, and motored up the road. With the 2020-21 snow season being as scant as it was, we immediately found ourselves dodging dirt patches. It wasn’t but a few corners in that we encountered our first road-wide dry spot. I got off the sled while Jack crawled up and across the snowless path. When he reached snow again, I jumped back on and off we went—a couple hundred yards to the next dry zone. We rinsed and repeated several times, stopping to let the snowmobile cool. We weren’t making good time, and with four more trips to do, getting everyone to the hut without hiccups started to seem less and less likely (who would’ve guessed with our alpine start?). Neither of us mentioned the inevitable. Jack just stopped slowing down for dirt patches. Then the RMK Pro really started to hum.
It was around 3:30pm when we finally arrived at the roadless boundary, and it wasn’t until then that I realized how much extra gear we had. Apart from everyone’s personal gear, there were two full-sized duffel bags packed to the brim. “Don’t they have another one down there, too?” I asked. “Yeah, I think so, not really sure. We’ll figure it out.” Jack replied. Then he mounted up and sped back down the road for shuttle number two.
I glanced at the two duffel bags, then out into the aging light, then back at the duffel bags. It’s gonna be one of those nights, I thought and smiled to myself. It wasn’t that I was happy we’d be late to the yurt, but I did feel a bit of satisfaction knowing our weekend was lining up to be a proper adventure—something with a spice of uncertainty where things could go wrong. And the way the day was going, things were bound to go wrong.
We looked at each other with big smiles and wide eyes. We'd found what we were looking for.
I put on my ski pack, then heaved one of the duffels over my head and set it on top. The route into the hut is marked generously with tree blazes and flagging. Ordinarily, it would be a breeze to follow, though with the loaded duffel atop my backpack, I could only stare directly down at my feet. I looked like the Leaning Tower of Skisa. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I was off-route. Now, I had a map and knew the general area I was aiming for, so the deviation wasn’t nearly as much of a concern to me as it was to Chris, the guy behind me, who Jack had deposited 45 minutes later, sans map. He’d followed my tracks up until they veered away from the suggested route and dove down toward White Sulphur Springs. (I’m still not sure why I did that.)
Which brings us back to the beginning. Me out in front with a big load and bloody feet. Then Chris, on route but unsure of my whereabouts. Behind him were Adam and Ian, huffing and puffing while taking turns pulling a sled with the extra duffels and a cooler (packed with ice). And at the tail were Mike and Jack, who, opting to avoid the sidehill through timber, decided to pioneer their own route along the ridgeline. There we were, four separate groups having four separate sufferfests as the sun went down, in unknown territory covered with snow. Exactly how we drew it up.
Eventually, we all made it to the yurt, some of us in better shape than others. Dull spirits were cheered up by a roaring fire and some bourbon and beer. We cooked a huge, meat-heavy meal, then laughed late into the night and slept hard into the morning.
Coffee and a warm breakfast got us moving the next day. With no need to rush—we were already at the foot of the alpine—we rose leisurely, packing slow and enjoying the warmth from a crackling woodstove.
To get a feel for the area, we skinned up the gentle slope southwest of the hut known as the Coffee Runs. Though wind-scathed and firm, we were greeted with sweeping 360-degree views of Canyon Ferry, the Castle Mountains, and the northern Bridgers. Not to mention the Big Belts themselves. Snow-filled vertical chutes presented proud lines down through many rough-looking rock buttresses. It was gnarly terrain—nothing like what I’d expected when looking up from Townsend. Avalanche conditions were a bit touchy, as they had been all year, so we agreed there was no reason to push it, especially with the many low-angle options nearby.
For safety, we split up into two smaller groups. Chris, Mike, and Ian lapped the Coffee Runs while Jack, Adam, and I poked our way down the ridgeline of the Little Baldy Loop. The surface was unforgiving up high, but as soon as we hit north-facing trees, conditions changed. Bulletproof ice gave way to six inches of fresh snow with a cream-cheese consistency. We looked at one another with big smiles and wide eyes. We’d found what we were looking for.
It wasn’t the gnarliest slope we’d ever skied, but judging by the collective feeling at the bottom, it may as well have been. Fast, weightless turns through powder fields, screaming through trees, met by the occasional face-shot. We had the place to ourselves. We had plenty of terrain without time constraint—as a skier, there isn’t much more you can ask for. Three blissful runs later, we set off back to the hut and arrived just in time to say farewell to Mike and Chris, who were heading back a day early. After an afternoon siesta, the remaining four of us skied close-by evening laps, cooked a giant dinner, and played cards till we could no longer keep our eyes open.
The next day, we did it all over again, taking bites from the same group of trees. Each run was as dreamy as the one before, and when the time eventually came, it was hard convincing everyone that we ought to go home. Snow was soft and the skiing was great—life at the Big Belt Hut was everything we could ask for. Even if we did pack a cooler full of ice on the way in.
If You Go
Contrary to what the O/B staff may think, a little planning goes a long way. It’s never too early to pore over maps, brainstorm meal plans, and identify contingency options—do so as soon as you confirm your group and trip dates. And if, on the way out of town, you remember something you forgot, swing by Rocky Mountain Supply in Belgrade or Townsend—there’s a good chance they’ll have it. Once on the road, Wheat Montana is a great spot to fuel up, both for gas and last-minute calories. Try the Big Belt Burrito. Just make sure you don’t over-stuff yourself before the skin in.
And what would a hut trip be without some warm food and cold beer to round it out when it’s over? At first contact with society, there are plenty of après options in Townsend. Canyon Ferry Brewing is right on the way home. Stop in and raise a glass to a weekend well-spent. After pint number two, head around the corner to the Full Belli Deli for a sandwich, brat, or pizza to share. Digest the food, with all of your new memories, on the hour-long trip home. When you get back, you’ll be eager to start planning the next one. —the editors