The Sweet Spot

Skiing the M. 

Some ski descents are desirable because they’re great lines. Other objectives are appealing because they are so seldom in. And some things you ski because they’re right there. Skiing Bozeman’s M is a combination of all three.

Although I’ve lived in Bozeman since 2005, until last year I had only skied the M once. Given its lower elevation and frequent winds, good turns on the M are rare. My first attempt was in less-than-stellar conditions, and I longed to hit it just right.

Last year’s ski season started out, as all do, with hope for an epic year and a tick-list of objectives. And as I do each year, I put skiing the M on my list. Jagged tracks first appeared there after an early-November storm, and my friend Rob, who had never skied the M, couldn’t stop talking about it.

A few days before the year came to an end, regular storms and cold temperatures prevailed. A huge storm was predicted to hit town, so Rob and I made plans to ski the M in the morning. I woke up stoked for a great day, but the storm left a mere skiff of snow. Car windshields were half covered, so the little snow we received was wind-scoured.

Plans were stymied further by frigid temperatures, so Rob and I substituted skiing with breakfast. On our way downtown, the wind kicked in and it started dumping. As we finished breakfast, we were delighted to see that the squall dropped 2-3 inches of snow. Cobalt skies filled the landscape and it had warmed considerably, but not enough to turn the snow to mush. The M beckoned.

In contrast to summertime crowds, Rob and I joined three other cars at the M trailhead. Everything was falling into place with temperatures holding steady and no wind. With skis on our feet, we began ascending the path we’d hiked hundreds of times. While there are many places to ski close to town, nothing is a close as the M, and I was giddy with excitement.

About 15 minutes into our tour, we were surprised by an untracked micro-gully running about 300 feet above our skin track. The feature offered consistent cold smoke deep enough to cover all obstacles: perfect terrain for letting it go. Rob and I could have stayed there all day, but after two laps we moved on as we came for the M and didn’t want to miss it.

After easy skinning along the summer trail, we took a short-cut following an animal track through the trees. A major road littered with houses sat a few hundred feet below us, but with sun radiating through the forest and tree branches sparkling with fresh snow, it felt like we were deep in the backcountry.

Popping out of the trees, we followed the switchbacks and soon arrived at the bench below the M, a common summertime stopping point. Given the excellent coverage, we pressed ahead, stopping when the trees got denser. Looking back to town, we identified mountain summits and familiar landmarks like Bobcat Stadium and the hospital. We agreed that we’re lucky to live in a town surrounded by skiing, but we groaned at the ever-growing series of subdivisions filling the valley. It was an ideal spot for bittersweet contemplation.

After a short snack and water break, it was time to ski. We began our descent picking our way through the trees. Proceeding slowly through the stump-strewn terrain, we kept the M gully in sight—we didn’t want to get too far to one side and miss it. Soon, Rob and I were back at the bench.

In front of us sat our original objective: the long, wide-open, consistently pitched run beneath the M. Several people had come before us, but Rob and I had plenty of room to leave our mark without crossing tracks. My first few turns produced a potluck stew of soft powder, occasional logs and rocks, and some wind-affected snow. Regrouping about halfway down, we both agreed it was skiable but nothing epic. A series of beautiful turns followed. We carved effortlessly in the soft, consistent powder, and I skied slowly to make the moment last. To make great turns on a Bozeman landmark was sheer delight.

Soon we were at our skintrack and decided to lap the micro-gully one final time. It was 3pm. In the short days of late December, the temperature drops early, and the sun was already going down. Under an inky indigo sky, Rob and I skied the still-perfect feature until we reached a barbed-wire fence. After some sidestepping and bush-whacking, we ducked under a tree and popped out in a small opening offering the payoff—a final handful of turns taking us right to the car.

Rob and I chatted with a few walkers who were returning to the parking lot. They looked at us big-eyed and made comments we’ve all heard before when we ski an unsuspecting spot. “Did you really ski it?” “Was it hard?” “All that effort for 30 seconds of turns.”

“Yes.” “No.” “It was a lot more than 30 seconds.”

All told, it was a stellar day with more good turns than bad. We spent almost three hours out and skinned over 2,200 feet. While the M might not be as memorable as the Great One or have as reliable conditions as Beehive Basin, it’s in Bozeman’s back yard and I consider myself lucky to have hit it just right.