The Ridge. The Tram. Both icons are so ingrained in southwest Montana ski culture that there is no confusion when their names come up. To answer any question about the conditions thereon with anything other than confidence and reverence is to expose yourself as a rube—a California Quack, Midwestern Jerry, or ski-in-jeans Jerseyite. But which temple of Ullr is sacrosanct, and which is heretical? Looks like we have a face-off for the ages.
Wispy powder blankets the Ridge, and when a northwest flow brings on the BBC, there’s no better snow anywhere in the world. Lone Peak doesn’t see the same single-storm snow totals that the Ridge does, but Big Sky tends to rack up a higher seasonal total, and the snow comes sooner and lasts longer. And though Bridger’s cold smoke has spawned way more products and business names than Lone Peak’s equally famous wind, the latter can blow four inches around the Tram-accessed terrain for a week, resulting in glorious wind-buffed runs that fill in lap after lap.
The Tram line, which used to reach outside the corrals only on the busiest of winter holidays, now resembles Killington Resort on any given Sunday. Never been to Killington? Don't go, it's in Vermont and full of Bostonians and Jerseyite Jerrys. In short, the Tram line has gotten long, and most of the winter, cold as a witch's... nose in a stiff wind. At Bridger, the hike to the Ridge is ass-to-nose after fresh snowfall, and most people ski the same dozen-or-so lines. If you're there midweek after a few inches, you should be able to find solitude, but any weekend powder day, expect company and lots of it.
Pick your passion: long, sustained powder fields, many over 40 degrees? Or tight technical chutes, requiring an expert skillset and lots of blind faith? Either way, skiing well from the Tram or Ridge requires a full quiver of skills, some more mental than physical. Can you deal with the sideways squiggles, which is what we call the vertigo of a white-out off the Tram, when we start making turns up the slope. Or how about being cliffed-out above what looks like a never-ending series of drops? While both offer the goods, the Tram accesses some of the most impressive in-bounds terrain in North America, and the sheer size of Lone Mountain gives it the edge.
Edge: The Tram
What good are the goods if the goods are no good? In other words, what does it matter if Lone Mountain stands over 11,000 feet above sea level and 45-plus-degree powder fields hang from her peak if the snowpack sucks? Alas, that’s exactly what happens when Big Sky’s aforementioned wind scours the slopes, exposing jagged shards of ski-shredding rocks from the top of the Dictator Chutes to the cat-track traverse at the bottom. The Ridge’s bare spots are fewer and in general, softer.
Edge: The Ridge
For the average skier, skiing the Ridge or the Tram bestows upon you a certain amount of prestige. If you’re visiting from out of town, it’s the badge of honor you’ll parade around to your friends back home. If you’re local, it’s a benchmark by which you’ll measure progress or levels of “core.” You’ll start with one run down either, then begin to measure by laps in a season, then a week, then a day. For some, these will be the only zones skied all winter at either mountain, which at Bridger might earn you the appellation of Ridge Rat. And here in southwest Montana, there may be no higher honor. We’ve never heard anyone brag about being a Tram Rat, but to master the slopes of either locale is to be a bona fide Montana skier, and what’s more glorious than that?
Sometimes, a crowd is a good thing, if that crowd is made up of likeminded folks in pursuit of a good time. That could describe either the crowd in line at the Tram, or the crowd lining up to hike the Ridge, but one big difference is the ratio of locals to tourists, and in this respect, there’s no comparison. For Big Sky's visitors, the Tram is the main attratction. Gapers galore hop in line just for scenic rides to the peak, then they ride the Tram back down. Which is great for them, except that it makes for longer wait times and less skiing, which isn’t great for everyone else. At Bridger, you have to earn your turns from the Ridge, and no one we’ve ever heard of is doing that hike just for the views.
Edge: The Ridge
Score: 2 to 1
Winner: The Ridge
It was a close call, but the Ridge wins out in a squeaker. After all, it’s right there, a scant 16 miles up Bridger Canyon, waiting to be hiked, scouted, and skied—just as it’s always been. There’s something to be said for a hometown hero.