Head in the Cloud

season opener, bozeman, montana, powder, bbc, skiing, bridgers, mountains

The bounty of the BBC.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” —Rachel Carson

Winter is a special time in mountain towns. When the brilliance of fall flickers out and the landscape settles in for the cold road ahead, our surroundings mature into something less dynamic and more mysterious. Ethereal forces blow in with low-pressure systems and sift through the treetops, taking form as deep snow, frigid air, and eerie quietude. We’re beckoned to the mountains, a temporary refuge, before spring awakens and the cold world vanishes, and transforms into another magic altogether. In Bozeman, one such wonderment of winter, spectacular as it is secretive, is the Bridger Bowl Cloud (BBC).

As most everyone who lives here knows, the BBC is a local weather phenomenon that occurs due to the valley’s specific design of topography and atmospheric patterns. Prevailing western winds drive cells of air into, up, and over the Bridgers, causing the air to cool quickly and release copious amounts of precipitation in the mountains, while little to none falls in town. From a meteorologist’s point of view, the spectacle can be summed up in terms and phrases like “northwest flow, upslope precipitation, and orographic lift.” Without discrediting that knowledge, I say there’s much more to it.

As far as I know, there is no rhyme or reason for when the BBC comes and goes, or for how long it sticks around. It has resulted in glorious powder days for skiers fortunate enough to catch it on the right day, and days of burning aggravation from those who have not. But its elusive nature is indeed a part of its charm. And it always seems to show up when needed.

We’re beckoned to the mountains, a temporary refuge, before spring awakens and the cold world vanishes, and transforms into another magic altogether.

A couple years ago, I was in a funk. Bozeman had worn me thin. I’m too young to fully embody a jaded-local perspective, but it’s not the same little town I grew up in. So, I complain from time to time. One day, after venting at length to my girlfriend about how all was lost and that Bozeman will never be the same, I decided to take my whining outside. I threw my skis in the truck and headed for the mountain, forgetting even to check the snow report, which I normally do every morning.

It was a dreary day in town. Visibility extended to the base of the mountains and a few spits of rain pattered on the windshield. I attributed them to nothing more than a dismal and warming Montana climate. Little did I know, the BBC had made its stand along the spine of the Ridge, its storm stretching just below the base of the Saddle Peak Lodge.

I arrived at a pleasantly vacant parking lot and a swirling wind. Drifts were forming as quickly as they were being destroyed, violent gusts dismantling snowbanks and reshaping them within minutes. Curtains of white blew every which way, new snow falling from the sky as if cast down by Ullr himself. Yet, where was everyone? The base area was a ghost town. As was the Bridger lift.

I do not remember the exact number of inches recorded, but I do remember the feeling that rushed over me as I linked turns down my first run. I didn’t know it, but I had a void in my heart, one that desperately needed filling. I was neglecting my hometown for what it was becoming and saddened that it wasn’t what I wanted. I missed my old sense of place that has, in a lot of ways, been replaced by a bustling image I never wanted to look at. But as I skied through the blizzard, a sense of return washed over me, similar to coming home to a loved one after a long and distant time apart.

I rode empty chairs and got face shots ’til I got frostbite. I hiked the Ridge ’til they told me I couldn’t and by the time I skied back down to the truck, the clouds had parted. A pale-blue half-light illuminated the upper mountain. As the storm dissipated and vestigial flecks danced in the cold, crystalline air, I breathed in deeply. The tailwinds of the BBC went into my lungs, through my heart, and out my eyes. For the first time in my life, I cried tears of joy.

Sure, Bozeman will never be as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago, but the magic is still here. Every winter, this magic blows through inconspicuously and feeds the souls who are out there looking for it. And as long as the Bridger Bowl Cloud engulfs our local mountain from time to time, Bozeman will be just fine.