Truly Wild Snow in the Montana Slackcountry

Post by blogger | February 24, 2009      

Yes, this is a backcountry skiing website.

Yes, I’ve been known to venture in-bounds occasionally. By some accounts too much.

What can I say. Some years the cards don’t fall perfectly into your hands to get out and ski as much as you’d like, or even where you’d like. This winter I feel like I’ve been MIA on the best days for BC, and skiing hard bumps when the powder zones I was after were not safe.

Two weekends ago was a similar scenario, in-bounds with less than desirable backcountry conditions. However, there were a couple very important differences. First, I was skiing a new state with my wife, Jessica, around Bozeman, Montana. Second, they have some truly wild snow up there well within the bounds of the ski areas!

What started out as plans for a week long trip through Montana and Northern Idaho was reduced to a full three day weekend around Bozeman. I’m going to say that vacation time in this country is a joke, and leave it at that.

So, a flight up north on Thursday night to be picked up by our host/guide Patrick, from Mystery Ranch backpacks. Some pizza and unpacking skis, load up a loaner Saddle Peak pack, and hit the sack. Tomorrow will begin a tour of 3 resorts in 3 days. Moonlight Basin, Big Sky, and the ever classic, Bridger Bowl. After a thorough beating of our ski legs we would fly out again Monday morning to be at work by 11AM.

A few days around Bozeman felt like cheating. Steep, beautiful lines that you have to hike to access…you just get to use a lift to skip the first couple thousand feet of approach.

Day 1, Moonlight Basin
An inch or 2 of new snow after weeks on nothing can be a frightening forecast for the day. However $55 lift tickets and access to the Headwaters area kept us stoked to check the area out. I’m pretty sure the now bankrupt owners of Moonlight Basin want this place to be a ritzy resort. Currently it’s not. Parking 50 yards from the runs, no high rise condos blocking your view, and lots of jeans. The most obvious goods here are located off the Headwaters Lift which requires a short (50 yard) hike to access. A great way to keep non-experts away.

The Headwaters is a series of chutes accessible via a slow double chair and ridgeline hike. Think Highlands bowl with less vert, but more aesthetic lines. In this area, much like Bridger Bowl, the user is expected to know what they are getting into. On our particular run, we were not warned that the normally 20+ foot wide shot was about the width of an anorexic supermodel’s waist. The short hike in had been blown in with ice and snow, required some kick-step traversing.

There are signs labeling the runs. No rope closures or signs to warn of mandatory airs, or rocks.

There are signs labeling the runs. No rope closures or signs to warn of mandatory airs, or rocks. As Patrick demonstrates here, you aren't guaranteed a nice friendly boot-pack in, either.

At the entrance, a nice layer of wind-blown snow led down to 40-45 degree slopes through classy rock formations. Our fun ski started to get interesting as we arrived at the crux to see it roll-over and pinch down to five feet wide for ten solid jump turns. This was the most technical bit of skiing I have done anywhere. Wild. One of the best runs of my life. Oh, and did I mention our 1PM decent laid the first tracks of the day on this line?

Our line down Hellroaring at Moonlight Basin.

Our line down Hellroaring at Moonlight Basin. One I'm proud of even if the hike was less than 15 minutes long!

Day 2, Bridger Bowl
Bridger’s Ridge Terrain is must-do for any skier. Beacon required just for the lift. Steep terrain that I’ve yet to find anywhere else. A short hike from the top of a lift and a traverse to your line of choice yields world class quality. There are mellower bowls if you want. Or scary steeps through sphincter wide openings. Simply amazing. Once you have explored the in-bounds terrain, the ridge continues for miles with full BC access. Next time. For today, I am happy to ski cold crud on 45+ degree pitches during, and I quote our “guide” Patrick, “the second worst snow conditions of the year”.

Definitely a cheater summit at the top of Bridger Bowl. But it makes for great pictures.

Definitely a cheater "summit" at the top of Bridger Bowl. But it makes for great pictures.

Jess dropping into the hidden line of Z-chute at Bridger Bowl.

Jess dropping into the hidden line of Z-chute at Bridger Bowl.

Z-chute is hidden somewhere up there.

Z-chute is hidden somewhere up there. Proof that you need to know your line before you ski it at Bridger.

Yours truly enjoying some steep goodness on the 2nd worst snow day of the year! Mystery Ranch Saddle Peak pack in tow, look for a pack review soon.

Yours truly enjoying some steep goodness on the 2nd worst snow day of the year! Mystery Ranch Saddle Peak pack in tow, look for a pack review soon. Photo by Patrick Odenbeck.

Day 3, Big Sky: This was our wind-down day at a pretty standard resort. Great steeps, trees and high alpine. But was was most exciting was the view north into the Spanish Peaks area and the backcountry access there. Long, ascending ridgelines into higher technical terrain. The options look endless. I believe there were at least five mountain ranges visible from the top of Lone Mountain.

The whole greater-Bozeman area is filled with mountain range after mountain range. Every ridge attained revealed two more ranges in the distance. And most of them are undeveloped. Huge backcountry potential. And plenty more mountains than people. I don’t think parking is an issue yet 🙂

Saddle Peak rises just outside of the new boundaries of Bridger Bowl.

Saddle Peak rises just outside of the new boundaries of Bridger Bowl.


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20 Responses to “Truly Wild Snow in the Montana Slackcountry”

  1. Dennis McCooe February 24th, 2009 11:16 am

    Truth Dave. Next time, please don’t tell anyone! TeleMac

  2. Shane February 24th, 2009 12:35 pm

    Yeah, really. Shhhhh.

  3. Lou February 24th, 2009 12:56 pm

    We’re all moving to Montana now, Highlands Bowl is kindergarten.

  4. dave downing February 24th, 2009 1:09 pm

    Don’t worry guys, there are no jobs in bozeman and it’s expensive there. Plus it’s in the middle of nowhere with access to nothing. A wasteland with a few ski runs and a bunch of redneck trucks 🙂

    And did i mention college hippies!!!!!!!!

  5. Lou February 24th, 2009 1:23 pm

    Any snowmobiles?

  6. Dave February 24th, 2009 1:27 pm

    @lou: only on the highways and sidewalks!

  7. Patrick February 24th, 2009 1:40 pm

    Hey I’m no redneck

  8. Jeff February 24th, 2009 2:01 pm

    The level of respect for folks from Colorado is only slightly higher then thoes from California in Montana…

  9. dave downing February 24th, 2009 2:09 pm

    @Jeff — so, you’re saying we’re better than californians!? YEAH!!!!

    @Patrick — I did make the hippie comment. And you did replace a truck with a subby….I’m just sayin 🙂

  10. jess d February 24th, 2009 2:39 pm

    Dave is always so focused on just the skiing, he didn’t mention some of the other entertaining Bozeman activities… We did a super-touristy cat tour to a yurt for dinner on Big Sky with Montana Backcountry Adventures – worth the money if you can, as the garlic mashers and peppercorn steaks were fantastically tasty after 3 days of skiing. Plus candlelight sledding between courses was mighty fun. The other was a stop at a real Montana restaurant that served Steak Fingers – just think, chicken fingers but with Steak!!

  11. joseph szasz February 24th, 2009 3:06 pm

    great post dave, bozeman is great once you live here there no place like it. the new slaschmans lift at bridger means lots of people skiing saddle peak who probably shouldn’t. we all owe GNFAC a huge debt of gratitude. p.s it rained here today!!!

  12. Lou February 24th, 2009 6:04 pm

    By the way, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAVE! Thanks for everything you’ve brought to!! Lou

  13. Evan February 24th, 2009 6:43 pm

    Yay! It’s fun to see an outsider’s perspective/profile on my home turf. Especially one that validates my fanatical love of this corner of MT. 🙂 Too bad Ullr is giving us the finger in the snowfall department this year though…

  14. William February 24th, 2009 7:23 pm

    It’s easy to forget how rad the terrain is here. Thanks for the reminder, Dave.

  15. dave downing February 24th, 2009 7:30 pm

    @William — anytime you forget again, just give me a holler. I’d be happy to come “remind” you again 🙂

  16. chris February 24th, 2009 8:26 pm

    yeah i got a less than warm reception after mentioning i was from colorado when we visited bozeman a few years ago (06 i think it was). bozeman and missoula both boggle the mind in terms of recreation potential in both winter and summer. i love fort collins, but if we ever leave here, it’ll be for one of those towns.

  17. Newman February 24th, 2009 9:16 pm

    I’d like to stress to all potentials that Missoula is as boring as Bozeman, and those turned off by the descriptions given here should avoid both towns at all costs!

  18. Lou February 25th, 2009 7:04 am

    Indeed, Montana is incredibly crowded and getting more that way all the time. Canada is probably a better option, if they’ll let you across the border after they find out you’re from Colorado (grin)!

  19. Mark Worley February 25th, 2009 7:41 am

    Having grown up in Bozeman, it will always be home to me. Bridger Bowl is a great area to learn mountain sense and skiing hard, sometimes scary lines which can prepare you for ski mountaineering. By the way, I think the line at Moonlight Basin illustrated above is only a rocky nightmare some years, so good work getting in there and nailing it.

  20. Ben April 16th, 2009 1:44 pm

    Seriously, MT is aweful and I hope I don’t see too many more reviews like this… least publicly. We wouldn’t want MT to become CO would we!

    And your run through headwaters was Hellroaring.

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