Winter has arrived too soon. It’s early November, and my family is slowly adjusting to our first change of seasons in Montana. The snow doesn’t fly until December in Illinois and even when it does, snow tires are not required. Clear in my mind are recent mountain bike rides in the Bangtails and Gallatin Range. I cling to these thoughts with a false hope for a longer season. I’m despondent about hanging up my bike for the next six months—but I only need a moment of daydreaming about skiing to shake this sour mood. That’s the beauty of outdoor sports in Bozeman… one great season morphs into the next. With that in mind, I hit the Nordic trails for the weeks remaining before opening day at the ski hills.
Big Sky Summit
My brother Neil and I exit the Lone Peak triple-chair at 10:00 am. Approaching the tram line, I glance at the platform and immediately notice a sign, “DANGER—If this is your first ride on the tram, today is not your day.” I feel a lump in my throat, then instinctively begin to read the message out loud. Neil interrupts me. “Stow it, Dave,” he says. “We’re going up.” He jogs into the tram with me in reluctant tow. As the tram cable yanks us forward and upward, I gaze at the shrouded peak. One menacing rock face after another, combined with the growing abyss below, triggers that old, unrelenting fear of falling. Like an elongated tongue, the Big Couloir lurches down from the ridgeline to our right, cutting a narrow white swath through the rocks. I keep my mouth shut—no sense giving Dave any crazy ideas today.
Someone breaks the hushed silence inside the car. “People are avoiding the peak due to low visibility and unpredictable windpack.” Silence again. At the top, the tram comes to a halt and our group quietly offloads. A redcoat greets us with arms crossed and a stern look. He barks out, “May I have your attention! Today’s conditions are extreme. If you fall, you may be badly injured or killed.” I look around for reactions in the crowd, and see quite a few signs of the same trepidation I’m feeling.
The patrolman continues his sermon. “If any of you are not experienced alpinists or do not know how to self-arrest, please raise your hand.” I whisper to Neil, “Self-arrest, is that when you cuff your own wrists and turn yourself into the authorities?” I’ve been skiing for a long time, but I’ve never heard this jargon and I’ve surely never thought of myself as an alpinist. I begin to wonder what I’m getting myself into up here. Most skiers in our group turn tail and re-enter the tram for a safe ride down the mountain.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Bullshit, lets go.” Neil is clearly becoming annoyed by these repeated warnings. He shoulders his skis and struts past the patrolman. I follow, nervous with anticipation. Dave’s cavalier attitude makes me think, “Please, Brother, don’t die out of pure lust for the sport… at least not unless you’re going to shred this mountain with a vengeance!”
We strap our skis on and angle toward the Dictator Chutes, scraping across an icy surface. I cautiously work my way down a sketchy fall line, skidding much of the time. Once we’re into the chute, I link a few turns together and my skiing instinct comes back. Neil is only a couple turns in front of me; we mirroring each other’s movements as we make our way down the run.
My skis are chattering and drifting sideways on the icy surface, but I’m in control. This ain’t so bad. In a peripheral blur I see the dark form of a rock outcropping just inches away from my left ski. A narrow miss—any closer and that rock pile would have tenderized us. As we lose altitude, the snow softens, my fear softens, and I let out a howl. Down, down, down—I become a pendulum carving from edge to edge. So this is what the Peak is all about. Neil’s insistence begins to make perfect sense…
On days since, I’ve seen crystal-clear weather at the top of Lone Peak. On a good day, you can see mountain ranges from three states, including the Tetons. There are few places that I’ve been where the views even come close.
Bridger Bowl Bliss
I arrive early on my first powder day at Bridger Bowl. The mystique of Bridger’s Ridge is well-known, but today I’m anxious to discover it myself. After dropping my daughter at ski school, I wander around the lodge until I meet a local guy who invites me along with his buddies. The group is understandably giddy about the prospects of cutting fresh tracks, so the introduction is short but welcoming. We arrive at the top of the Bridger Lift and with little warning or warm-up they take off and are flying non-stop to the next lift. They have a relentless, take-no-prisoner style. The lift ride up is the only thing that slows them down, which invites brief but pleasant conversation.
Next is my first trip up the High Traverse. This is just a sampling of the enormous amount of hiking that lies ahead. As we head for Exit Chute, the leaders race for the next unbroken line while I follow their smoke. The terrain is steep, billowy, and delicious. For the remainder of the morning we continue this single-minded pursuit of freshies. Eventually hunger sets in and the group swarms to the Deer Park Chalet for sack lunches and hot chocolate. When one of them whips out a moose sausage sandwich, I remind myself that I’m not in Illinois anymore.
After lunch, the guys go their separate ways and I decide to make for the Ridge. As I’m climbing the trail with a procession of hardcores, I notice a gal ahead with teli skis strapped to her pack. When we reach the top, I see that it’s our babysitter from last night, Sloan. I’m trying to speak to her but instead I’m gasping for my next breath. Once I’ve recovered, she agrees to buddy up and show me the way down this maze of powder-covered terrain. We turn south and march along the Ridge until she motions towards the fall line. I sense that this perch is the catbird seat—the views are extraordinary.
We blast off with her in the lead. I’m in Sloan’s slipstream trying to figure-8 her turns. This twenty something babe on boards (BOB) is so fluid on pins, it’s uncanny. We duck and weave our way down the Nose. Just when I’m starting to feel like a ski stud, my tip snags a sapling, sending me into a pirouette. I manage a clean roll into the deep, bouncing upright and into the next turn without losing much momentum. When I catch up to Sloan, it appears she didn’t notice the cartwheel—the only clue is the compacted snow inside my goggles. At the traverse above the Deer Park Chalet, I thank her for graciously hosting that alpine clinic and excuse myself from the next run. I’ve got to recharge my battery, and dry off a bit too.
I’m starting to understand this unique breed, the Montana skier, a little better. It’s a different mentality. They don’t climb the Ridge to be seen, like people in Obermeyer suits at Aspen’s Sundeck. They do it because they’re driven by the lure of adventure and the need for a challenge. Because the powder is light and the terrain is tough; because avalanche gear is the rule and not the exception. Also, there is an unusually high concentration of superb athletes in Big Sky country. After just one winter here, I realize that anyone I meet on the hill could be an exceptional skier if not world-class. This is a community connected by a common passion to go wild on the trails.
After a few more days tagging along with locals at Bridger—jump-turning down narrow chutes, carving wide arcs across 45-degree faces, and pointing ‘em through gnarly bump runs—I’m elated. The energy is shared both on the slope and in the chairlift line, the banter becoming easy and familiar. I feel like I’ve been adopted into the brotherhood.
I’m ready for the Big Couloir.