Northern Highlights

Seeking fresh snow and no lift lines? Montana’s rugged resorts have lots of new terrain and plenty of fresh stuff to share.

My very best day at Bridger Bowl was the worst day of the season—maybe of the last five seasons—at the legendary Montana ski area. A 10-day spring thaw got hit with a cold front the afternoon I arrived, freezing the slush into vertical fields of corrugated concrete overnight. It was like Dr. Freeze had cold-snapped a tsunami, leaving that great breaking wave of a ridge as bulletproof as a skyscraper, and just as steep.

At a mountain filled with famously diehard skiers, storied “Ridge Hippies,” extreme kings and elevation addicts, even the junkies were having second thoughts. “You boys might want to think about just staying right here, and making a day of it,” the mountain’s CFO had said to us as we sat at the bar drinking coffee, waiting for the lifts to start.

Whether I was drunk on frozen bumps or cold beer, Bloody Marys or blue ice, one thing was certain: we were going to get rocked. Most likely on the mountain, as after another 30 minutes of staring into nothing, Doug Wales finally said to me, “Well, what do you think?”

It was Wales who had arranged the trip. The marketing director at Bridger (bridgerbowl.com), he had compiled a golden itinerary of must-see Montana. And it was Wales who said, “You know, it’s all just a matter of degrees,” as we stood frozen, stranded and alone off the new Schlasman’s Lift.

He was referring to the overnight drop in temperature, and the way our skis had no grip, but also to the predicament of our pitch, and the way his ski pole had just gone skittering down the mountain like a long, silver fish.

“Well,” he said. “I guess we’ll ski this.”

It had all started out so wonderfully at the Billings Airport where Red Lodge Mountain’s eternally tan Jeff Carroll picked me up. We had gigantic steaks at the Carbon County Steakhouse (thepizzaco.com/steakhouse), and I slept at the historic red brick Pollard Hotel (thepollard.com) with its history of Ernest Hemingway coming through on fishing trips, and the plaque behind the counter with the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow quote, “Go forth to meet the shadowy future, without fear, and with a manly heart.”

Big Sky, Bigger Dumps: You won’t have to fight traffic for first tracks at Red Lodge.

In the morning we did exactly that, arcing the open slopes of Nichols and Grizzly Peak, and down the steeps of Upper Continental and True Grit. Rustic, unabashed and perfectly authentic, Red Lodge (redlodgemountain.com) was a happy mix of hot skiing Montana locals, season-long day wasters and North Dakota tourists in Carhartts. When we left, I already wanted to come back, dreaming of endless sunsets as we chased the day to Chico Hot Springs to the west.

A kind of cowboy oasis and country camp day spa, Chico (chicohotsprings.com), is a mix of epicurean elegance and shit-kicking simplicity. It was the perfect gateway to Yellowstone National Park, where we rode in on the snow coach, cross-country skied into the vast silence, and watched the bursting geysers cover all the trees and creatures in primordial mist.

Then it was back to gravity and the slopes, albeit in only slightly less of a wild environment. The horizon-grabbing beauty of Lone Peak, the icon of Big Sky (bigskyresort.com), is surely one of the most iconic of the many glacial glamour summits of the west. The fact that you get to ski it can be both a blessing and a curse.

The first day, with Doug and Big Sky’s Dax Schieffer, was a blessing, as the sun painted the snow and every wide open avenue of the giant mountain was blue and crisp and fast. The second day? Not so much. The weather had already turned, and ski patrol told us that the conditions in the recently opened Snowfields were “slide for life.” Dax was devastated, but for me, an afternoon pounding the steeps all the way to neighboring Moonlight Basin, and a dinner at Andiamo with plenty of Chianti were more than enough to bring my ski-ego back.

All Alone: Take the tram to the top of Big Sky’s Lone Peak and enjoy a steep leg burner.

The next day at Big Sky, Doug and I had been given more than enough clues by the time we were the only two people boarding the Schlasman’s Lift. You can’t even ride without a beacon check. Opened just two seasons ago, in an area where steep is the rule and big exposure is everywhere, this terrain is still ridiculous. What’s more ridiculous is that we were skiing it on coral hardpack, when the only thing capable of sliding was us. And Doug’s ski pole, of course.

“It still beat the hell out of a day in the bar,” he said when he finally picked up.

I’ll “ditto” that. Especially after a night in Bozeman at the Montana Ale Works (montanaaleworks.com), and waking up to all the new snow in the morning when I had to fly out. Pretty damn good time, I thought, especially if that’s as bad it gets. •

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