Skiing the Great One.
’Tis the season for the Great Northern Couloir of Naya Nuki; aka, the Great One; aka, TGO. Where, on the Fourth of July, Bozeman skiers assemble en masse, like fishermen at the Mother’s Day caddis hatch.
Not only is it a rite of passage, it’s a longstanding tradition that some folks partake in annually. It’s a glorious Montana experience—and a really fun ski run, too. Hike up in shorts and sneakers then ski down, stroll back to the lake, and move on to camp or to other activities and holiday festivities.
To get to the Great One, most folks take the summer trail that gains the Bridger Ridge at the saddle between Hardscrabble and Sacajawea peaks. The trail then ascends to the summit of Sac—which, as the highest peak in the Bridgers, makes for a perfect brunch spot with magnificent views in every direction. After scampering along the jagged ridge to Naya Nuki, a short, rocky down-climb lands one at the top of the splendid north-facing couloir. In summer conditions, there are typically two pitches to the Great One that are separated by a rocky riblet. The fall line (or fall zone) of the top pitch leads to scree, cliffs, and rock walls, so an uncontrolled fall means high potential for serious injury.
Gaining the ridge
Skiing TGO on the Fourth has become so popular over the years that there is typically a steady ant-line of skiers throughout the day en route to the summit of Naya Nuki. One could even proclaim it a shit-show with plenty of follies each year as people seem to forget to approach it with the normal sense of caution one exercises when backcountry skiing—or at least should. After all, it is a steep, exposed run with variable conditions and is not to be dealt with nonchalantly, nor by novice backcountry skiers.
There seems to be an addition to the blooper reel every year. Circa 2005, I watched a badass young woman scoop up someone’s frozen-in-fear dog and carry it down the entire top pitch because its clueless owner had already descended. In 2016, a woman fell in icy conditions and broke her leg, back, and arm; her helmet saved her life when her head smashed into the rocks. A couple years ago, I saw a mountain goat at the top of the chute so we leashed the dog in our party only to hear that later someone else’s dog sustained serious injuries after charging the goat and getting gored.
Granted, the Fourth has a way of hampering good judgment, including my own. In 2009, I chose an alternate entrance to ye olde TGO known as the Laser, blazing aloofly into the top of the chute. I happened upon much firmer snow than expected, which sent me into a face-first Superman-slide toward the rocks. I immediately flipped over and consequently plummeted into the sidewall arse-first. I was extremely lucky to sustain only a large deep thigh bruise and a smaller one on my shoulder.
Taking the plunge
Last year, I witnessed a novice skier, scared out of her wits, anxiously descend the couloir instead of bailing and hiking back down. Once most of her friends had casually descended the upper pitch while shouting cheers of joy—despite her respite—she decided to have a go of it. Wary of attempting turns on the firm snow, she began side-stepping down the 45-degree slope. Most of us looked on in terror as her remaining friends impetuously whizzed past, spraying her with their wake as she gingerly crept downward. When my party dropped in she was a couple hundred feet down the upper pitch. We checked in and told her she was a trooper as we slid by. She seemed to have a grip on it so we encouraged her to look for new friends and went on our way.
Make no mistake, I am not one to discourage embracing the spirit of freedom. But, there’s embracing the spirit of freedom and there’s getting carried away with it. Celebrate America, Montana-style, but do so within one’s skill level, and maybe leave most of the White Claws at camp.