Spring skiing at the Beartooth Pass.
“It’s like standing at the top of the world,” I hear someone say over the constant hiss of the wind. Men mill around in shorts and t-shirts, ladies walk across a snowbank in sandals with heels, and a bright-yellow Mustang convertible rolls up with the top down. I take in the commotion while pulling on my ski jacket and buckling up my ski boots. Across the horizon, some 50 miles away, dark rainclouds blow over a distant mountain range. There are no trees—only rocks, snow, and the short sturdy plants found in the tundra above the artic circle. It’s late May, with summer right around the corner—and I’m going skiing.
Skiing in May and June is one of those things that just has to be done to be appreciated, and the Beartooth Pass is one of the few places in the country where you can escape the late-spring heat for a day and step back into March—or even January, as raging snowstorms can happen at the Pass any time of year.
Located at the top of the Beartooth highway just south of the Montana/Wyoming border, the exclusive Red Lodge Ski and Snowboard Camp operates two lifts from Memorial Day weekend until whenever the snow melts (usually around the fourth of July). The little ski area has a bottom-up layout, with the parking area at the top of the lifts. There’s no pre-ski assessment of the terrain here—you buy your ticket and it's all downhill.
The “base lodge,” at 10,500 feet, is an old Airstream trailer. There’s a storm blowing in more often than not at the top of the Beartooth highway, and the 30-foot snowdrifts on the side of the road are a testament to that fact. As I buy my $25 ticket, the trailer sways to with a sudden gust of wind.
The snow is state-fair-three-dollar-snow-cone consistency. It’s easy to edge and very forgiving. Forgiving is good, because the Red Lodge Ski and Snowboard Camp is in a steep, north-facing cirque.
There are essentially three runs here. The first has the pitch of your average black diamond at the top, leveling off at the bottom to a mere green circle; the next one over is more double diamond at the top, and today it is rutted out from an afternoon avalanche the day before. The third chute over is a near-vertical cornice, almost mandatory-air steep. Traversing over to the third chute, I notice large cracks in the snow where the cornice is pulling away from the mountain and sloughing down. But hey, I’ve paid for this and they claim they do avalanche control work, so why worry.
We make perhaps 20 runs down the 600-vertical-foot slope and ascend each time using both of its old Poma-style surface lifts. The runs are quick and after about an hour the five of us have the mountain to ourselves. I ask the lifty what time they shut down, and he says he’ll stay until we’re done. After another 45 minutes the dark clouds finally close in and the rain begins. It’s a light drizzle to start, prompting me to attempt one more run. By the time I make it back up to the top of the lift, it’s a full-on rain and sleet event, quickly thickening up toward snow. I’m soaking wet and the area is socked in by a thick cloud.
Despite the driving rain and sleet, tourists still stop and walk around in this odd expanse of winter. Shorts and sandals are the dress of choice as people step out of their rental cars. It’s a quick sprint onto the snow for a photo before diving back toward their idling SUVs. Sometimes a kid has time to throw a snowball at his brother, but for most this is no place to linger. Only the handful of skiers and a family of mountain goats seem not to be in a hurry to escape the elements. For us it is the weather we love: cold and wet. If this keeps up, tomorrow just might be a powder day.
For road information and current conditions, visit the Montana Department of Transportation website at mdt.mt.gov/travinfo/ or call 800-226-7623. Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp is at 406-446-3446 and rlissc.com.
Beartooth Nuts & Bolts
The Beartooth Pass typically opens in late May, after sufficient melt-off for plows to clear the snow-laden Beartooth Highway (U.S. Highway 212). One of the most scenic drives in the country, this 70-mile-long, high-alpine byway is also one of the most rugged, with 12,000-foot peaks, glacial lakes, and deep canyons to all sides. The highway runs southwest from Red Lodge to Cooke City, dipping across the border into Wyoming for half its length. With much of the road sitting at over 10,000 feet, it’s the highest-elevation highway in the northern Rockies.
Beartooth Highway Road Information
Montana Road Conditions – 800-226-7623
Wyoming Road Conditions – 888-996-7623
Yellowstone Park Road Updates – 307-344-2117