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Volume 3.4




Surviving a Nordic marathon: A tale of ice beards and wigging out


POWDER TRIP An epic search for Montana’s best ski run leaves a racing pro snowed

MAKING TRACKS Powder on the line at the Izaak Walton

Cover: Erik Samsoe goes Hollywood at Lost Trail. Photo by Chad Harder


16 28 40


Grub 38


Thaw-some, dude


8 Head Trip 44

Head Lines 11 A ski legend’s 6-year pow vow Seeley Lake’s cross to share Planks for the memories Big airs off Iceberg Notch

Sledding to shredding on Pyramid Peak

Head Out 48 Your winter recreation calendar

Head Gear 50

Head Light 22 Tic-Tac-Whoa

Emergency flotation for snow riders

Head Shots 24 The Crux 58

Our readers’ best

Confessions of a compulsive ice climber

Wild Things 36 Cold shard facts



Amy Linn Lynne Foland Chad Harder Carolyn Bartlett Joe Weston Adrian Vatoussis Chris Melton

Robin Carleton, Lisa Densmore, Chad Harder, Danielle Lattuga,

Ari LeVaux, David Madison, Jason McMackin, Alex Sakariassen, Yogesh Simpson

317 S. Orange St.• Missoula, MT 59801 406-543-6609 • Fax 406-543-4367

Please recycle this magazine

Montana Headwall (ISSN 2151-1799) is a registered trademark of Independent Publishing, Inc. Copyright 2011 by Independent Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinting in whole or in part is forbidden except by permission of Independent Publishing, Inc. Views expressed herein are those of the author exclusively. And yeah, we’re having fun.


David Merrill Kou Moua Jenn Stewart, Jonathan Marquis Tami Johnson, Jon Baker, Steven Kirst, Alecia Goff, Sasha Perrin, Rhonda Urbanski Lorie Rustvold Matt Gibson

Chad Harder


eadwall contributor Lisa Densmore is about as friendly, gracious, and downright pleasant a person as you can possibly imagine. But my wife, Renie, is wary of her. Lisa, a world class racer who’s still collecting masters championships in the Alps, wants to take Renie skiing. Lisa loves sharing her passion for skiing by helping women like Renie enjoy the experience. Renie, a solid intermediate who happily sticks to the corduroy, enjoys her experience just fine, thank you very much, and imagines steep pitches, difficult snow and general frustration should she commit herself to Lisa’s care. I trust Lisa’s sensitivity more than Renie does, so by way of encouraging my bride to take the plunge, I’ve engaged Lisa to guide Headwall readers on a whirlwind tour of Montana’s developed ski areas. Lisa blitzed some 15 hills on her quixotic quest to find the ultimate Montana run. Along the way, she found a few gems, collected some good stories, and missed a couple of opportunities that will almost certainly require return engagements at several spots. My theory is that Lisa’s infectious enthusiasm and gentle guidance will inspire readers and convince my blue square babe to one day triumphantly declare, “I schralped some gnar with the 2008 World Masters Super G champ. We rocked.” Now that I think of it, my wife’s an elementary school music teacher and probably has comparable visions of me joining a choral ensemble. To each his or her own, perhaps. Whatever your pursuit, striving is definitely part of the Headwall ethos, and the ambition to go farther, faster or higher grips all of us once in a while. That often leads to discomfort, but even suffering has its rewards, as David Madison documents in his story on the 24-hour Equinox Challenge cross-country ski race in West Yellowstone. Meanwhile, novice telemarker Danielle Lattuga lets her boyfriend lead her up Elk Mountain in Glacier National Park despite the certainty of face-planting on the descent. Then there’s Robin Carleton, who’s addicted to ice climbing precisely because it hurts so good. As for me, I went into the backcountry last March while recovering from a cold, but still managed to summit Pyramid Peak and tell the story. From a safe distance I can attest that both the skiing and the writing didn’t just hurt me good. They hurt me great! Pleasure in passion: that’s the real take-home message of this winter issue of Headwall. We’re proud of the effort and the risks that go into our stories, and we hope they spark a couple of dreams among you folks out there—and maybe, just maybe, stir a little something in Renie’s adventurous soul. We can have fun sitting on the couch or arcing lazy turns on the blues, but there’s boundless possibility just beyond our walls.


Matt Gibson Editor-in-Chief Chad Harder


Lisa Densmore The top-ranked skier in the United States in her age group since 1991, Densmore has garnered 65 national titles and one world championship in alpine masters competition. She has spent her entire life on the ski slopes, racing, coaching kids and women, and hosting/producing television programming. When she’s not trying to ski faster or find untracked powder she contributes her words and photos to a range of outdoor, recreation and conservation publications, including Mountain Sports + Living, Backpacker and She’s recently moved to Red Lodge from New Hampshire.

Montana Headwall

As a kid growing up in a small town in western New York, Carleton quickly adopted his parents’ love for all aspects of the outdoors, from whitewater kayaking to skiing. After graduating high school, he headed west and landed at college at Eastern Oregon University before moving to Missoula. He currently spends most of his time climbing, biking, paddling, backcountry skiing, and getting lost in the wilderness with the love of his life, Kristin, their three pets, and a camera in tow. You can see more of his work at

Robin Carleton

Page 8 Winter 2011-2012

David Madison Madison is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer whose series have appeared on the National Geographic Channel, Discovery and more. A former reporter for the Missoula Independent, he now lives in Bozeman and creates content for The Wilderness Society’s online series “my wilderness.” Madison grew up skiing in North Carolina, which left him ill prepared for the Equinox Ski Challenge in West Yellowstone. He came away with a new appreciation for Lycra and cold moonlit nights.

Born in Vermont, Lattuga traded Green Mountains for Rocky Mountains in 1996, when she arrived in Big Sky for one summer that turned into four winters. Lattuga earned her master’s degree in environmental writing from the University of Montana and resides in Missoula, working as a writer and consultant. She spends her spare time talking to horses, running with dogs and getting dirt between her toes. Learn about her work at

Danielle Lattuga

Montana Headwall

Page 9 Winter 2011-2012

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The extraordinarily long and snowy winter of 2011 kept motivated backcountry skiers up to their armpits in the steep n’ deep well into July. Here, Dan Koestler takes one last photograph over his tips before dropping into Glacier National Park’s famed Iceberg Notch with climbing companion Matt Hebert on July 5. Although the Notch is a popular climbing route, the duo’s descent may have been the first time the Notch was skied. Dan Koestler



Seeley Lake makes strides toward big-time Nordic skiing Last spring, western Montana’s crosscountry skiing community received some incredible news. Former Olympian John Morton—co-owner of the Vermont-based recreational planning company Morton Trails—had completed a feasibility study for a high-end Nordic events and training center due north of Seeley Lake. The study, requested by the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation and financed in part by the Montana Department of Commerce, was the first major step toward establishing what Seeley Lake residents and businesses hope will be a nationally renowned Nordic hotspot. Now the Seeley Lake Nordic Challenge Steering Committee, the citizen group behind the plan, has more good news. The U.S. Forest Service this summer earmarked $450,000 for improvements to the existing 15-kilometer Seeley Creek trail system, which will provide the foundation for additional interconnected Nordic trail networks throughout the valley in years to

Montana Headwall

come. The improvements are tentatively set for 2013, and the Forest Service intends to consider new trail opportunities when conducting forest cuts in the Seeley area. Adrienne Marx, Seeley Lake Community Council chair and member of the steering committee, says it’s further proof that the cross-country skiing plan is a “no-brainer” in the eyes of locals, the state, and the federal government. “The Forest Service, because of the momentum we created, thought, ‘What

to 10 finalists. “And the Nordic center, the trail system here, ended up eighth on the list,” Marx says. Seeley Lake still has a long road ahead before it sees new cross-country trails, day lodges and enhanced grooming. The preferred plan, which would cost close to $3.2 million, is to cut another 125 kilometers of trail in the area, build connecting sidewalks and waxing cabins, and construct a venue for Nordic competitions and biathlons. The steering committee is currently working on

Seeley Lake’s bid to become a top-flight Nordic center is eighth on a Forest Service to-do list, beating out 72 others. can we do to make this come along faster?’” Marx says. So Forest Service officials in Montana submitted an investment proposal to the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. Out of 80 such proposals submitted nationwide, Seeley’s was one of only 20 that survived the first cut. From there they were whittled down

Page 12 Winter 2011-2012

getting nonprofit status. Until then, Marx says, they’ll continue to develop the project with fundraising assistance from Missoula County Rural Initiatives, an arm of the county government. When the Department of Commerce first offered the steering committee a $15,000 grant to fund a feasibility study

for the Nordic center, the deal came with a catch: Seeley had to raise an additional $10,000. The state gave residents 90 days to come up with the cash. Marx says they did it in less than 60. “It’s become an economic driver,” Marx says. “It’ll of course help Seeley Lake, but it’s also noted that Missoula will benefit greatly, as well as the region.” The steering committee’s hope is to one day draw national and international talent to Seeley Lake for training, perhaps even for Nordic competitions. Attracting accomplished athletes like John Morton, who visited last winter to conduct the feasibility study, will also be an inspiration to local youngsters, Marx says. “The kids are all out skiing now,” she adds. Some of them even entered last year’s Over Seeley’s Creeks and Ridges, an annual Nordic marathon. “Two little boys rode their bikes over snowy roads, towing their skis behind them, just to race.” Alex Sakariassen

Montana Headwall

Page 13 Winter 2011-2012



A local legend keeps his pow vow–72 times Don “Old Man” Gisselbeck is something of a legend among Missoula’s backcountry skiers. Now 56, he’s had his fair share of close calls; in October 2009, he and three friends were caught in an avalanche in the Gem Lake Couloir on the east face of Trapper Peak in the Bitterroots. Gisselbeck slid nearly 200 feet and broke his wrist. But the danger hasn’t stopped him from pursuing an impressive and often-

50th birthday—while he was skiing Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. He saw a wolverine while climbing to reach his desired line and, in the excitement, “tried to run a crampon point through my hand,” he says with a chuckle. That single, exhilarating summer day in the backcountry left Gisselbeck with an itch. Could he ski every month of the year?

Gisselbeck in past years has sampled summer skiing at Storm Lake Pass in the Pintlers and Gash Point in the Bitterroots. times challenging goal: Gisselbeck has skied at least once a month since November 2005. That’s 72 consecutive months and counting. And he doesn’t plan to end the streak anytime soon. “I’m going to do this until I can’t do it anymore,” he says. Gisselbeck’s every-month ski quest first took shape on July 29, 2005—his

“It’s easier than you would think,” says Gisselbeck, who splits his work schedule between the Bike Doctor and the Trail Head in Missoula, fixing up bikes or snow sports equipment. Glacier Park is a big help. “A person could do the Salamander Glacier up above the Grinnell Glacier or the Grinnell Glacier itself and that would go every month without any

Gisselbeck pond-skimming on Salamander Glacier in August serious trouble. It’s a long hike, and sometimes the approaches are pretty nasty, and sometimes it’s pretty sun-cupped. But as long as you’re willing to haul gear...” In between trips, he sticks to a rigorous training regime of bike riding and hiking Mount Sentinel. (His life isn’t just an endorphin rush, however: At parties with the younger set, he’s known to turn


Après-ski life for the planks When a renter’s massive Malamute began treating my beloved fruit trees like snack sticks, a fence quickly became priority. We needed it strong and simple, and to go up quickly. Even more importantly, it needed to be cheap—since neither he nor I wanted to pay for it. When standard fencing options were penciled out, they all came in over budget. It was clear that we needed to go secondhand. A few days later the tenant arrived with a truckload of free skis, salvaged from a local repair shop after high repair bills left them abandoned. Some were trashed but many others were skiable. They all looked like they’d be stronger than lumber once they were fastened to the rails. When we laid them out on the grass, however, we realized we’d be short—way short. After scrounging a few pairs of old rock skis from the attic, we still couldn’t fill the gap. Fortunately, a neighbor was tearing out an old cedar fence and was happy to see us take it. While shorter than the skis, the reclaimed pickets fit in perfectly and created a fence that let in more light. Three of us, all non-builders, constructed our 25footer in an afternoon, using simple, nail-in brackets to fasten rails to posts from an existing picket fence. To disguise our finer craftsmanship, a hops vine covers the backside, and someday (we hope) so too will the grapes. Until then, we have a sturdy fence—and a killer conversation piece. Chad Harder

Chad Harder

Nathan Jensen

his wire-rimmed glasses to a reading of Shakespearean sonnets.) Gisselbeck admits he’s undertaken the backcountry quest partly for notoriety, but he seriously doubts he’s the only Montana skier hunting for lines year-round. He’d be surprised, he says, if there wasn’t some guy in a town like Wisdom quietly racking up years of monthly skiing.

For his part, it’s all about being in the backcountry, including 12-mile round-trip hikes carrying skis. His favorites have been two-night excursions to Homer Youngs Peak in the Big Hole Valley. The runs have to count, he says. “I think I would frown on the threeturn run. It’s gotta be something more or less genuine.” For people who’d like to join the skiof-the-month club, Gisselbeck does offer one caution: The pursuit will cut into other activities. He used to bike over 100 miles each week in the summer; now he spends most of his time on a pair of Icelandic Shamans. And it would pay to heed the advice Gisselbeck’s accumulated over the past six years. “Logan Pass in July, Grinnell Glacier in August, Stanton Glacier in September,” he says. “October, who knows? Might try Trapper.” Alex Sakariassen

Sniffing out the pow on Trapper Peak’s Gem Lake Couloir in October

Landon Gardner

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’m sporting a frizzy Betty Page wig and breathing heavily. I’ve never been on skate skis before, and now I’m trying it in

a 24-hour race with itchy wig hair in my eyes— but that’s no excuse. The pack from a mass start at the Equinox Ski Challenge in West Yellowstone is starting to break up, and I’m already falling behind. Hell, I should be able to ski faster than I walk.

Or maybe not. Just 10 minutes into the 5.4-mile course on the Rendezvous Ski Trails I’m dead last, sliding bow-legged in search of a rhythm that will bring me a bit of momentum. It doesn’t come, and by the half-hour mark I’m lapped by one racer after another—men, women, children— until it feels like I’m again among the pack just as I approach a big hill. The others cruise up from behind and tuck into a long, steep right-hand drop leading back toward the timing gate and warming hut. I join them, confident at first in a clumsy tuck. I grew up downhill skiing. This shouldn’t be a problem. But then as the track flattens out again my tuck collapses into a yard sale barrel roll. A woman wearing butterfly wings looks back and says, “That sounded like carnage.” It feels like it, too. I collect my breath and poles and wig, and launch into a hobble. All I want to do is complete one lap and tag my wife, who will carry on for our team. It’s not that I hope to win this thing— not when some of the 88 contestants pass by me like superheros with facial hair. Three of the early front-runners in the men’s division are bearded, and one is decked out in a Lycra suit that appears to be vintage 1980s. The man in this midnight-blue and flame-orange body sock

is a lean and agile, late 40-something athlete. He’s a bit older than me, and clearly 10 times faster. The hirsute pack leaders will lap me three times before I make it back to race HQ and take a long break. I’ll spend the next 22 hours watching them rack up more than 150 miles of nearly non-stop kicking and gliding around the Equinox course. These guys will average more than six miles an hour and cover ground equivalent to a round-trip between Missoula and Polson while I’ll struggle to make a measly few laps. I have no place in what will become the battle of the ice beards. Still, I feel right at home. The Equinox Ski Challenge is a celebration of community, great snow and lactic acid. It’s a tiny frozen Mardi Gras, and it’s entirely up to each one of us to decide when it’s time to pass out.

round late March when the sunny side of the calendar officially begins and the ski season starts its downward slide into spring, it’s time to break out the wigs, costumes and race-worthy Nordic wear in West Yellowstone. Since 2007, the town by the eponymous park has been the site of the Equinox Ski Challenge, an annual charity race where racers finish as


many laps as possible in three hours, six hours, 12 hours or, in the case of my wife and I, the 24-hour coup de grâce. Funny outfits are optional, although it’s part of the tradition. Going long distances is optional, too: No one is required to complete a set number of laps on the rolling course through a dense pine forest. Besides the hill where I crashed, the route is mostly a series of serene ups and downs over a deep snow base. The combo start-and-finish line sits near a local street, with a nearby hotel and places to eat, ringed by competitors’ tents and tech shelters for ski tune-ups and waxing. I cross it for the first time at lunchtime, after two hours of sweaty, clumsy huffing. Other racers are starting to lose track of the number of laps they’ve logged. But after just one goaround, I’m ready for a break. There at the finish line, thankfully, is my wife, Katie. She’s wearing a shiny bridesmaid’s dress and is laughing at me. “What took you so long?” she asks. I tag her and send her off with a “you’ll see” and a kiss, then head for the warming hut. Inside it is Dan Cantrell, who lives in Big Sky and comes down to West Yellowstone to ski. He grew up on a cross-country ski course in Vermont, and some youthful enthusiasm left over from

those years led him to volunteer as this year’s race organizer. Cantrell took over from a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor named Sam Newbury, who dreamed up the idea of the challenge in 2006 while driving home from the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike race. “The Equinox Ski Challenge is such a uniquely focused race,” Cantrell explains. “It’s not all about competition, but instead, personal challenge and commitment.” The coziness of the hut helps me forge a deep commitment to sitting down. Next to me are Leila Sternman and Aaron Sinnard, a pair of 20-somethings from Bozeman. Sternman is eating a calorie-packed concoction made of peanut butter, pasta and soy sauce. “I’m a little nervous my muscles will seize up,” she says, motioning to the brown mush she’s eating. “I’m working hard on electrolytes...and peanut butter.” When I tell them I’m happy to be only sore and not injured from my fall, Sinnard says, “I was coming up the hill behind you guys. You were talking or

That’s type-two. And if you’re lucky it’s a mega moon tonight.”

very 18 years or so, while making laps around the earth, the moon passes our planet a bit closer than normal. This year the event was set to occur on the same night as the race. In the months leading up to the challenge, Internet astronomy chat boards lit up with dire predictions about what the rising “mega moon” might bring: earthquakes, higher tides, volcanoes and strange climatic patterns, for starters. When I emerge from the warming hut the early afternoon sky is darkening right on cue. The wind picks up, snow is starting to fall and big stormy gusts are blowing tarp shelters sideways. One microburst rips through the Equinox tent city, snapping the aluminum legs of a shade structure with a man hunkered inside. I join a group of bystanders and rush over to prevent a total collapse. The man in the broken shelter introduces himself as Jack Hart. He thanks us, then looks up at the sky. It’s really starting


something, going real slow. And I was thinking, ‘Wow, someone is actually slower than me.’ I was barely moving. The craziest thing was how packed in we were and no one crashed into you. That was special. That was a good crash. Might be the best one here.” We laugh about me leaving a “manshaped hole” in the course, then Sternman assures me that experiences and stories like mine are the real prize at events like the Equinox Challenge. “It’s, you know, type-two fun,” she says. “It’s not fun while you’re doing it, but later you look back on it and say, ‘Oh that was really fun. Remember that night when it was freezing and horrible?’

skates into the pits for a ski change. The to snow, and that’s not good news for the history teacher from Victor, Idaho, speed demons. brought four pairs and plans to use them Hart, who skis all winter on the all. Anything to give his body an edge. Rendezvous Trails, holds out his hand “I’m trying to keep cramps from and spreads his fingers to represent a happening,” says Gleichman. “They’re new, pointy snowflake. “A new flake close, but they’re not there yet.” The when it falls is like this,” he says. “That sun is setting and the snow is tapering grabs your ski base. An old snowflake is off as the “12-hour barrier” looms rounded and beat up and pulverized by ahead. In a few hours, at 10 p.m., the grooming equipment. It’s like skiing on ball bearings, which is so much faster.” Gleichman and the other racers will be halfway there. A Bowdoin College ace named Wilson Dippo proves the point when I ask him about his stats as he rushes through the It’s a frozen timing gate. Dippo says the new snow is cutting his pace and it’s up to you to nearly in half, from 30-minute laps to 50-plus minutes. when it’s time to “I’ve been skiing for five hours and 51 minutes and 59 “Believe it or not,” says Gleichman, seconds,” Dippo says. “I think I’m at “the last 12 tend to get easier.” 90K”—about 60 miles—“so I have a long I’m not buying it, and neither are way to go. I want to ski up around 300K.” many of the other racers who’ve opted to That’s why he’s in a hurry. He’s a compete in the six- and 12-hour divisions fresh-faced college kid and he wants to instead of the full-day marathon. hang with the ice beards. Six-hour racer Chris Hamilton of Close to dinnertime, Andy Hall from Bozeman likes to lead multi-pitch climbs Pocatello, Idaho, decides to take a break. up the subsidiary peaks near Denali, but The 32-year-old Bureau of Land Management firefighter doesn’t know his says no thanks to 24 hours of skate skiing. “You see a lot of crossover between this race standing, but he does know why and road biking… the body-Nazis, or other racers smile when they see him. endorphin addicts,” says Hamilton, “Yeah, the ice beard,” says Hall, who is sporting a very frosty Grizzly Adams. “With describing the ice beards and other aroundthe-clock racers. “They just keep going and all the new snow that’s falling and the moisgoing and going.” ture in the air, it all just collects there.” I ask Hamilton what he knows about Nearby, Neil Gleichman, sporting the guy in Bib No. 1 and badass body suit. some impressive face-frost of his own,

tiny entirely decide

Hamilton shrugs, and so do others. All I have to go on is what I find on his feed table: wasabi soy almonds, a carton of hard-boiled eggs and a $23 bottle of Hammer chocolate energy gel, which promises 26 servings. There’s also a box of Cheez-Its and a probiotic yogurt drink. I think: There it is, the true Equinox Challenge. Can anyone chase down gulps of gel with handfuls of frozen snack crackers?

hen darkness and cold hit in earnest I duck out of the race and head across the street to the Holiday Inn for a hot shower and some pizza. At 2 a.m. I pull my poly-pro . back on and return sleepily to the starting line. The ski techs are huddled in their tuning shelters and the clouds appear ready to break. When I approach the techs and ask about demo-ing some skis, Peter Hale welcomes me. He’s based in Montana and works with some of the best skiers in the country. Hale puts me on a pair of Norwegian-made Madshus racing skis and tells me to go “test the Ferraris.” Now I’m alone on the course—and I feel great. The Ferraris kick into gear much faster than my rental Rossignols, and I start to carry some comfortable speed. I’m not wearing a headlamp, and it turns out I don’t need one. About five minutes into my lap, the mega moon bursts forth and the surrounding forest illuminates like someone just flicked on a porch light. It’s dead quiet, save for the

Mardi Gras,

pass out


sound of skiers approaching from behind. A few pass at a medium pace, then comes Bib No. 1 skiing swiftly and cranking music on his iPod. He dusts me. Back at the warming hut the mood is part hospital waiting room, part slumber party. I’ve only made two laps in 18 hours, but I’m pumped by a no-crash run on crazy-fast skis. I’ve also downed two plates of pizza and taken a power nap, and I feel way better than the Bowdoin skier. Wilson Dippo, who’d earlier told me he hoped to hit the 300K mark—186 miles—is now down for the count. “My legs,” he moans, before dropping out with 179.1K skied. Across the room I hear Tom Cedarholm and Jennifer Zeigler talking about the most mysterious ice beard on the course. Turns out, the man in Bib No. 1 is a 48year-old high school teacher from New Hampshire named Joe Holland, and he might be in trouble. “Yeah, Joe’s having a hard time,” Cedarholm comments. According to Cedarholm, Holland came into the warming hut feeling nauseous. Cedarholm and Zeigler, who drove in from Jackson, Wyo. for the race, speculate that Holland might have downed one too many power goos. “You could just go solo on those things for like 15 hours,” says Cedarholm. “Then they just don’t do anything for you anymore. You need protein.” Joe is “really, really, strong,” he adds. “He’s still moving. I would have dropped dead a long time ago.”

habdomyolysis is a serious condition that occurs when muscles are exerted to the point that they begin to release frayed fibers and toxins into the bloodstream. This can trigger an entire


body spasm and lead to kidney failure, or at least that’s what the paramedics at the finish line tell me while I wait for the ice beards to cross one last time. First comes Andy Hall, who immediately collapses. The paramedics hover over him, asking if he knows his name, where he is, who’s president? Hall’s wife and friends have a hard time removing his skis and poles, and someone in the crowd jokes that 24 hours of skiing has fused the gear to his body. Neil Gleichman arrives next, with so much ice clinging to his beard it’s hard for him to take a drink. He doesn’t seem to care where he finished, and neither do many of the other racers. There are those like Joe Holland, on the other hand, who have gone all-out and hope to win. After Holland zooms

briskly past the finish line one last time, I finally catch him at his feeding table and ask how he’ll describe this experience to his ski friends in New Hampshire. “A psychological turnaround,” he says. “I did not want to be here. At 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon we were just four hours into it, and I was ready to quit right then and get on the plane and go home and say, ‘Look it just didn’t happen.’ I felt awful. But I stayed with it…and it didn’t get worse. Definitely had waves of feeling terrible, then feeling pretty good. And as long as I remembered those waves of goodness, I could get myself through those rough spots.” Waves of goodness sweep through the crowd when the champions are crowned at the awards ceremony. There are prizes for best costumes and for the kids’ race. A portion of the proceeds will go to youth programs and the local food bank. And Joe Holland meets his personal challenge by winning the men’s 24-hour soloist division. He logs 165.5 miles, making him king of the ice beards. In the glow of victory, he talks about starting a race like this back home. Katie and I only complete a total of four team laps, but because no one else entered the 24-hour family division, we win. My three- and five-year-old daughters shyly accept the prize as the warm morning sun begins to thaw the frozen crust on Andy Hall’s face. After tying for second with a total of 143.5 miles skied, Hall appears comatose, but is apparently okay. Gradually, he summons the strength to speak. One thing is on his mind. He asks: “Is there any of that pasta left?”

Divide and conquer

by Chad Harder


The beauty of shooting in thirds

f your photos aren’t half what they could be, try using the “rule of thirds.” The simple compositional guideline—long used by designers and artists—requires that you imagine two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, basically a tic-tac-toe board imposed on your viewfinder. By framing the key subject of a photograph—in this case, tele-skier Ryan Shaffer—on or near one of the four intersecting points in the imaginary grid, you immediately bump up the tension and dynamic feel of the image. This photo exploits the rule to varying degrees—that’s obvious with Shaffer in the lower right. More subtly, the rock outcropping occupies an intersection in the upper left, and the horizon extends diagonally through the same two intersections. (See other examples on the cover and page 47.) Of course, horizon lines are rarely diagonal, and frequently horizontal. To make them eye-catching, try tip-


ping the camera up and down to align the horizon with the top or bottom thirds line, then fire the shutter. (If you

snap a frame with the horizon deadcentered, viewers are likely to yawn.) Visionary shooters take it to the next level, applying the rule to frame elements of light, color or shapes. But don’t worry if your subject didn’t line up perfectly in-camera: You can also follow the rule by cropping images on the computer. Keep things off-center, and your shots will hit the mark.

Chad Harder

We know you’re out there, having epics and snapping photos. Instead of cursing them with an anonymous death in hard-drive purgatory, go for the glory and send your best

images to us at Include the location, your name, the names of all people shown and any information you think is useful. We’ll take it from there.

Montana Headwall

Page 23 Winter 2011-2012

HEAD SHOTS Liz White, Brandon French and Katie French skin the Jewel Basin giants in the northern Swan Range. Pete Siudara

Andy Kemmis

One month after the mountain closed, Ross Peterson sets out for a soft landing at Montana Snowbowl.


Olga Hutchinson

Early morning snowshoe tracks at the Chief Joseph Cross Country Ski Trail.

Pete Siudara

Morning sunlight streams through subalpine firs and burns off a Jewel Basin inversion.

story by Lisa Densmore photos by Jack Ballard

Showdown Montana, Dec. 31 en Haugen, Showdown Montana’s energetic operations manager, insisted I visit on New Year’s Eve. “It’s the best day of the year here,” he exclaimed. “You gotta see our torchlight parade and come to our party!” Starting my adventure on New Year’s seemed apropos, even if it meant diluting my pursuit of the most epic piste in the state with parties, fireworks, a torchlight parade and, as it happened, a beerfueled game of butt darts. I was on a quest—a 3,332-mile mission to check out 15 Montana ski resorts and find the best run, the most knee-trembling inbounds thrill ride. In 13 days. There’d be challenges: the sub-zero temperatures, the dives down rockrimmed chutes, the dining on ungodly numbers of base lodge burgers. En route, I’d arc turns with dedicated, diehard skiers while braving every kind of snow that falls from the sky. I’d carve around towering timber, through thigh-deep powder and some of the most seriously badass bumps I’ve ever encountered. For the name alone, Showdown, in Niehart, Mont., was the perfect place for the kickoff. “I’ll be there,” I told Haugen. Upon my arrival, Jim Gold, one of the local skiers who offered to show me around, took me directly to the mountain’s three signature black diamond bump runs, Cliff Hanger, Glory Hole and one he called “Oh My God.” Oh my god, after finishing my legs felt like I’d fallen off a cliff, and I surely didn’t earn glory in the Hole. All three


runs were short and steep with VW-sized moguls. I preferred Dynamite, another quick blast down an open glade. It was less visited and naturally rugged, and I could make a lap in eight minutes from the chairlift’s midway station. After skiing hard all day, I looked forward to relaxing with a beer and watching the evening show-on-snow from the deck of the lodge, but plans changed. When the guitar player for the après-ski party called in sick, Gold, a budding musician, got his first chance to perform live—under one condition: I had to take his place in the torchlight parade. I donned his coveralls over my ski clothes, then spent two hours after the lifts closed in the small summit lodge drinking Bud from gallon milk jugs and playing butt darts with 50 other Carhartt-clad torch carriers. A highly competitive game of agility, concentration and precision, butt darts pits two athletes in a race across the room while squeezing a coin between their butt cheeks (clothes on; yeah, it’s hard). The first person to drop their coin in a plastic cup gets a point. My fellow torchbearers convinced me to join the fray in the second round, when the stakes doubled—two coins at once. Shoving two shiny quarters up my crack, I waddled across the floor and released them toward the cup. Score on the first try! Showdown skiers were certainly a gregarious group. ome people might wonder why I would travel thousands of miles on icy roads to check out 15 Montana resorts during one of the snowiest winters in memory. They obviously aren’t ski addicts. I made turns as a toddler at Whiteface, the Olympic mountain in Lake Placid, New York. As a teenage downhiller on the U.S. Ski Team, I spent most of the late 1970s schussing at 75 mph down premier slopes in the Alps and North America. I was a member of the Dartmouth Ski Team, one of the Division 1 powerhouses


on the NCAA skiing circuit. I joined the women’s pro tour in 1985 and have skied professionally ever since. The only problem with my ski obsession was figuring out how to get my fix. Last year, I planned to move from New England to Montana. I’d be a stranger in new ski territory—a Meriwether Lewis on sticks. I needed to know where to go. As much as I love to go fast, I love powder even more, the steeper and deeper the better. I’ve skinned for hours into the backcountry for a mere three minutes of nirvana down a cirque of virgin snow. Could Montana have something so close to heaven? The sum total of my experience in the state consisted of two visits to Bozeman’s Bridger Bowl in the 1980s, three visits to Big Sky over the last 30 years, and a handful of days at Red Lodge Mountain, most of them spent coaching my sweetheart, Jack Ballard, on the nuances of a carved turn. I figured I’d remedy the problem during three separate trips from the East Coast, with a few ground rules. The resorts would be public, which excluded the private Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks. They also had to have a Montana address, which ruled out Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation area, based in Mullan, Idaho. I had a day or less to sample each area, so I’d rely on locals to show me the signature slopes and their favorite powder stashes. My search would be unabashedly subjective, influenced by weather and the company. Mostly, I wanted rad rides and big mountain skiing on the blackest of diamonds, but I found much more.

Teton Pass, Jan. 1 The mercury barely crested minus 18 degrees en route to the Teton Pass resort near Choteau, my destination after Showdown. Despite the arctic conditions, this renaissance mountain warmed my skier’s heart when I saw the magnificent untracked cirque towering above the

parking lot. Unfortunately, it was at least a year away from getting lift access, so it was out-of-bounds for my smackdown. I found Teton’s owner, a Kiwi named Nick Wood, in the ticket booth. Struggling financially, the ski area closed after the 2009 season. Wood found it for sale on the Internet. He bought it for $279,000 in July 2010, then poured more than a million bucks and a mammoth amount of sweat equity into reopening it. In four short months Wood added a new surface lift, cut several black diamond runs through an old burn area, renovated the buildings, and installed a women’s bathroom with designer sinks. Wood recruited Doug Benson, the newly hired Snow Sports School director, to find me some fresh snow. Benson didn’t mind our leisurely noon start. On a big

postmaster and head of the volunteer ski patrol. By the time I met him at the start of the long access road to the mountain, a blizzard raged. Martin was going to open the ski area just for me—if we could get there. A handful of other ski patrollers joined our convoy as we headed deeper into the hills. We eventually caught the plow, whose single blade barely cut a passable swath through the two feet of snow on the road. After a tense 19-mile controlled skid, our determined group slid into the parking lot. “Bear Paw is Montana’s best-kept secret. We don’t want anyone stealing our powder,” chuckled Martin, as one of the other patrollers emptied a pail of cat litter by the spinning tires of my car. Martin waded through the snow to the bottom of the ski area’s only chairlift. After surveying the situation, he refused to turn

The author skiing Turner Mountain,

Montana Snowbowl,

Teton Pass,

day, Teton Pass might have 300 skiers, but this was New Year’s at noon, and obscenely cold. The 20 other skiers at the mountain lounged comfortably inside the day lodge, sipping hot cocoa and debating the lunch menu. “There’s no rush,” Benson said. “It hasn’t snowed in three days, so it may be a little wind-blown, but there’s still powder.” He was right. After leaving foot-deep tracks down the burn, we headed to the trails on the left side of the Big Bear lift. I only paused once to catch my breath before plunging down Firewater, a steep fall-line run below the cirque—but not because I was winded. The view into the Bob Marshall Wilderness was in-yourface incredible. Firewater was the cream on this icy day, but it was too early to know if it was the crème de la crème.

Bear Paw Ski Bowl, Jan. 2 and Whitefish Mountain.

David Martin, the default general manager of Bear Paw on the Rocky Boy reservation in Havre, is a jovial local

it on because he couldn’t see the top. But I had to ski: The odds of making it back to Bear Paw were too low. I zipped my collar against the tumultuous weather and started post-holing up the 900-foot mountain. An hour later, I made it to mid-station and declared it far enough, but when I tried to ski down, the snow was too heavy to make turns. I had to propel myself with my ski poles down my quickly filling boot prints. Joining the others inside the warming hut, I marveled at the passion and persistence these skiers have for their sport at this modest, remote mountain. One stoked the woodstove. Another fixed a light. A third shoveled the roof. Bear Paw—like many of Montana’s other ski areas, I would come to find out—exists through the love and dedication of its skiers.

Ski Discovery, Feb. 15 In February I made a simultaneously fantastic and fatiguing loop around western

Montana, a blur of fog, fat skis and fall lines that started with Ski Discovery in Philipsburg. Discovery’s trail stats are deceiving. The brochure says it has 694 acres, but those are only the cut trails. If you count the entire skiable terrain on the front and back of Rumsey Mountain, there are about 2,400 acres. “When I came here in 1984, it was in bad shape,” said Peter Pitcher, a transplanted Aspen-ite who acquired the mountain out of receivership in 1984. “We keep improving, opening new terrain.” I had high hopes that one run called Russell, the only triple black diamond I had ever seen, would be a strong candidate for The Best. I smiled as my skis cut through the choppy snow, feeling gravity’s strong pull as I drove my knees and hips against the impressive pitch. It was steep enough to love and, like all passions, seemed to end too soon. I had to connect three trails to eke out a 2,000vertical-foot run. I watched other skiers having a blast on the wide variety of runs. Even more awesome, I got to watch Dustin Schwarz, the assistant ski shop manager and a competitive mogul skier, huck off Pale Face, a 40-foot granite cliff. For big air lovers, this place had chops.

Montana Snowbowl, Blacktail Mountain, Feb. 16 Another powder day! That was the good news and the bad. The upper mountain at Missoula’s Snowbowl, including the East Bowls and Angel Face, were closed due to avalanche danger, but I thought Grizzly, the broad, steep run down the middle of the lower mountain, had potential. Billy Kidd once described Grizzly as one of the most difficult ski runs in the United States. Bumps perennially cover this relentless plunge, but today, light snow had filled in the troughs, at least on the top half of the mountain.

Map by Kou Moua

Though we were on the lift within five minutes of opening, we were too late for first tracks. I watched as the two earliest risers cut perfect 8’s through waistdeep powder. Snowbowl is well named, a huge bowl of snow that keeps the crowd happy with its untamed terrain. Unfortunately, the snow got heavier with every foot I dropped, nearing the consistency of week-old stew near the bottom. I watched three uninformed snowboarders face-plant off Stupid Rock, so named for its flat landing; I took a run on gladed West Ridge for a taste of the closed terrain; and then I made a mad dash to Blacktail Mountain, 106 miles away. “Where are you?” Steve Spencer’s voice crackled on my cell phone. Spencer was one of the four partners who developed Blacktail, the ski area near Lakeside. “We’ve had a foot of powder!” he said. Thanks to the dumping snow and the distance up the mountain, it was almost 2 p.m. by the time I pulled into the parking lot at Blacktail, an inverted ski area with a day lodge on its summit. In the waning afternoon, I gained an appreciation of the mountain’s well-designed fall line trails and broad glades. It’s a comfortable place

for making pleasurable turns. I had fun gliding through the loose trees and jumping off a small snowy boulder. But I had to keep searching for my jaw-dropping jewel.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, Feb. 17 Poised on the edge of Glacier National Park in the town of Whitefish, Whitefish Mountain is a full-service destination resort—the first I visited on my odyssey. The place has everything from night skiing to a day spa, with slope-side condos, an attractive village, a big menu of snow sports (dog-sledding included) and, best of all for me, high-speed lifts and lots of territory. I looked forward to seeing if any of the mountain’s 3,000 skiable acres could get my heart pumping. I hopped on the Big Mountain Express to the summit. Snow piled onto my parka on the short seven-minute ride. More powder! I slipped past the resort’s eerie snow ghosts and dropped into Schmidt’s Chute and Elephant’s Graveyard, two of the resort’s most precious black diamonds. I skied the nose of East Rim and finally

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Give, drink, and be merry at

tested my nerve on Bighorn, rumored to be the steepest run on Big Mountain. It was steep. I felt the snow slough under my skis with my first two turns, but had to grin as I rode my mini-avalanche to the bottom of the pitch, snow spraying over my knees and hips with each aggressive pole plant. There was a drawback: The fog was so thick I could barely see my ski tips. Big Mountain is beloved; skiers flock here for the spectacular scenery and for trails like Bighorn. But I knew I had to keep schussing.

Turner Mountain, Feb. 18 Turner, a volunteer-run ski area in Libby, was recovering from a wedding the day before. Anyone can rent the mountain for $2,500. “You picked a good day,” declared Jeff Zwang, a prospective law student whose father, Bruce, was president of Turner’s board of directors. “Lots of fresh snow.” “How was the wedding?” I asked, imagining skiers flowing down the broad slope above the lodge in tuxedos and gowns. “Forty Canadians, mostly beginners,” he replied. “They only skied on the groomers.” Zwang took me to Gidley’s Glade. About halfway down, a grouse flushed in

glades. Wild West wasn’t all that wild, but it was lovely carving through the firs and six inches of new snow. As I slalomed down Whoop It Up, I could see why families love this place. The terrain is not intimidating and there are endless ways to carve through the trees. After lunch, I headed to the Big Open. The result of a clear cut—locals harvested lumber here rather than ski turns—the Big Open proved to be an expansive, saplingspeckled trail with an equally big view and decent powder, even late in the day. While I enjoyed the mountain immensely for its

bucking bronco of Montana ski areas. I headed to Widow Maker—a wide steep slope named for broken tree branches, not because the trail could kill you. It got my attention, but not enough. At Lost Trail I found another gladelover’s playground. Monica Thomas, a local ski patroller and a helluva strong skier, took me to Sacjac Woods, a newer cut on the north side of the mountain. After perching for a moment on a pinnacle with a nice view of Saddle Mountain, we made tracks down an old burn area. Not many skiers venture this far from the mainstream part of the mountain. The snow was untracked and feather-light: yes! But my heart wasn’t pounding. Then Thomas showed me her private powder stash, code named Oreo, and we matched arcs through thigh-deep snow before dropping off a perfect rock pillow. Lost Trail was yet another Montana ski area with freshies at 2:30 p.m.! The decision was getting tougher. Gidley’s had been darn good, but Thomas’s secret slope was also superlative.

Bridger Bowl, March 29 Montana’s mountains are notorious for their late-season snowstorms. Mother Nature made good, dumping 24 inches on Bridger Bowl just before my arrival. Bridger’s 2,000 steep, rugged acres proved

stealing our powder,” chuckled Martin, as one of the other ski patrollers emptied a pail of cat litter by the spinning tires of my car.

“We don’t want anyone

front of my ski tips, then another and another. I giggled with delight and started looking for their heads poking above the powder in hopes of making more fly. With over 2,000 vertical feet, champagne powder, nicely spaced trees and entertaining grouse, could Gidley’s be the one? Maybe, but I still had seven more ski areas to go.

Great Divide, Feb. 19 A sizeable family-run area in Marysville, near Helena, Great Divide impressed me with its glades of oldgrowth Douglas fir. We hopped on the Mount Belmont lift (the original name of the ski area) and headed to Wild West where I hoped to find my nirvana among several hundred acres of expert-rated Montana Headwall

welcoming atmosphere and uncrowded slopes, the parks were more adrenalineinducing than the trails. Gidley’s at Turner remained at the top of my list.

Maverick Mountain, Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Feb. 20 The last day of this road trip was another double-header: Maverick in Polaris and Lost Trail in Conner. Maverick was memorable for its base lodge décor: a wall-to-ceiling mish-mash of carpet remnants with circa 1960s folding theater seats for chairs. I warmed up on Enchanted Forest, a treed trail transformed by the four inches of fresh fluff into a magical woodland ride. I cleared the trees and continued to float down The Belly to the lodge. So far, Maverick was more the wise mare than the

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a free-ride playground. But its culture felt clique-y, reminiscent of Alta, Utah. The fact that I wasn’t local was immediately apparent by my girlie Spyder garb and rockerless low-fat skis, which got dismissive looks in the lift line. After I made a few turns the glances were more approving. I spent the morning on the south side of the mountain dropping into Slushman’s Ravine and Mundy’s Bowl. There were so many tantalizing lines I had a hard time choosing. After lunch I found the first trail in Montana to truly test my nerve: Hidden Gully, a narrow, 45-degree chute on the north side of the ski area. After traversing the knife-edge to the top of it, I gathered myself before jumping in, survival instincts on full alert. Continued on page 54

WILD THINGS by Lisa Densmore

ontanans and people everywhere have a lovehate relationship with water’s solid form. Some wait impatiently for it to appear. Others take their last tragic breath because they misread it. This inorganic mineral falls from the sky, forms on our roads, in our mountains and on our waterways. Even snow lovers are technically ice lovers, since their powder playground is really covered with a form of ice. All types of frozen H2O are ice of one kind or another. Scientists define 15 different types of it, known as crystalline phases of water. The most common, “Ih,” a hexagonal molecular structure, forms when water cools below 32 degrees Fahrenheit at standard atmospheric pressure—which is most of the frozen water on the surface of Earth. The 14 other varieties are in outer space, high in the atmosphere, buried in polar ice caps or deep underground. The bonds between water molecules create the structure and strength of a particular patch of ice. Its thickness—and the amount of air and other substances suspended in it— primarily determines its appearance. Pure ice looks blue because, like water, it absorbs the red end of the light spectrum and reflects the blue. The thicker the ice, the bluer it appears; the more air in it, the whiter. Sediments and algae can turn ice other hues, such as brown, gray or green. B l a c k i c e i s a n o t h e r s t o r y. This invisible and potentially lethal roadway coating is not black at all, but instead is so thin it’s transparent, exposing the dark pavement.


Black ice also forms in the mountains: It’s notoriously hard, dense and difficult to climb. Verglas, also very dangerous for climbers, is a clear frozen glaze that makes rocks extremely slick. What makes ice so slippery? The common notion is that pressure or friction creates a film of water that makes it seem slick. In this view, friction from a gliding skate slightly melts the ice next to the blade, allowing you to slide across a rink. The more accepted scientific theory holds that water molecules at the interface between the ice and the air cannot strongly bond with either, so they remain in a perpetually liquid and lubricating state. In other words, ice is slippery whether you touch it or not. Because it’s nine percent less dense than water, ice also floats—which means it covers the surface first and grows downward. (Some people think rivers and lakes freeze from bottom to top, but they’re all wet.) Frazil ice, or small ice shards, can accumulate on or near a riverbed; chunks of ice can pile up

underwater against submerged rocks or logs. But the ice wasn’t born on the bottom. That’s fortunate for Earth as we know it. The frozen layer on top of lakes, streams and oceans allows light to pass through and shelters fish, invertebrates, algae and other life forms, protecting them from subfreezing temperatures and wind chill. Ice carves our mountain landscapes, supplies us with water and provides endless hours of outdoor entertainment. We curse it when our skis skitter sideways and kiss it when we climb a pillar. It’s weak enough to dissolve in a glass of whiskey and strong enough to sit on while we fish, drink in hand. You can’t get much cooler than that.

Lisa Densmore

Montana Headwall

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GRUB by Ari LeVaux

ast February my family and I were most of the way through a fabulous meal when it occurred to me that it was local enough to make Michael Pollan feel inadequate. Everything but the salt, pepper, olive oil and a dollop of mayo was from in-state, most of it from the garden, and it came together faster than it takes to order a pizza. In fact, part of the reason the meal turned out the way it did was that we were in a hurry. It started with some items from the freezer: a thawed packet of deer meat from a fall hunt, a bag of turnip greens, and a jar of ratatouille I’d made from tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and garlic. While I thawed these, I set out dicing some parsnips from the root cellar in preparation for making a batch of “parsnip polenta,” as I call it: tiny cubes of parsnip cooked in stock and then oven-baked, which gives the dish a nice crispy surface. I normally would have cooked the meat, ratatouille and turnip greens on the stovetop, but since the parsnips were in the oven, I put them in there, too, to take advantage of the free heat. Our February feast was quick and easy because we had already done the heavy lifting. The venison had been killed, dragged out of the woods, cleaned and cut to pieces. The turnip greens, a by-product of the turnip patch, had been blanched and vacuum-sealed. The ratatouille ingredients had been grown, washed, cut, oven-roasted together, and packed in jars. Anyone can eat locally in summertime, or in California, with its year-round farmers’ markets. What you eat in winter is the locavore’s litmus test. And like most tests, how well you do is a direct result of how you’ve prepared. All too often the freezer is a place where abandoned food goes to die. But with some planning it can become an integral part of a whole year of healthy eating. All it takes is a few easy steps. Among the most obvious: Get a freezer, even if it costs hundreds. If you’re a hunter, you probably already own one. There’s nothing like 200 pounds of elk meat to make a freezer look affordable. Second: Don’t defrost your game at room temperature. Since freezing doesn’t kill bacteria, the bugs can pop back to life on your counter. For safety (and optimum flavor) defrost the meat in the refrigerator. Defrosting in the microwave can lead to overcooking. Most freezing techniques, meanwhile, will prolong food life, but everything will eventually go bad, no matter how perfectly it’s packaged. A good rule of thumb is to eat your frozen foods within a year, which ensures that they’re still tasty and clears the shelves for the next batch.


Montana Headwall

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Before freezing your veggies, blanch them with steam or boiling water to keep spoilage at bay. Blanching kills enzymes that would otherwise slowly digest your food in the freezer. If you skipped this step, cook a bit of the veggie in question, unseasoned, and see if you detect off flavors; toss it if you do. In fact, it’s a good idea to test all veggies solo before adding them to a giant dish and potentially tainting the whole thing. Try your best to avoid freezer burn, that harmless but distasteful plague of imperfectly sealed frozen foods. You can prevent or greatly postpone the problem by using a vacuum sealer (about $50 and up). If freezer burn has already occurred—you’ll see grayish discoloration—cut off the burned parts. Alternately, you can rescue freezer-burned foods—particularly meats—by enhancing flavor with a good sauce. One easy way to make any meat taste good is to braise it in equal parts red wine and water. Just put the meat under the broiler—it doesn’t even need to be thawed, providing you can get it out of the package—and keep turning and cooking it until it’s nicely browned all around. Add enough wine-and-water mix to cover the meat at least halfway; secure the pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook at 300 degrees for several hours. Check occasionally to turn the meat and add liquid, if necessary. When it softens, season with garlic salt, pepper or even some red chili powder. When it flakes with a fork, it’s ready to serve. With a little experimenting, your well-stocked freezer can be a lot more than a way station for eats you forgot you had. Dig deep, and you can make something memorable.

Montana Headwall

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Making tracks

by Danielle Lattuga


Izaak Walton Inn puts powder on the line

e’ve been driving for three hours, the Subaru’s studs digging into patches of slush with a familiar wintertime rumble. My boyfriend, Zach, and I are heading east on U.S. Highway 2 between West and East Glacier, a route we’ve nearly memorized after countless ski and work trips, he for glacier research, me for volunteer work with the Glacier Park Wolverine Project, collecting data about the elusive carnivore. On typical drives I hardly pay attention to the occasional restaurant, lonely gas station or landmark along the way. I’m always too focused on the mountains and the possibility of spotting wildlife. But I’ve also never come here just to ski, and neither of us has ever actually stayed in a resort near the park. So today, I notice the lone train car that marks the turnoff for our destination: the historic Izaak Walton Inn. Zach turns down the narrow road flanked by tall pine. Two people cross the street in front of us, thin skis in hand and pom-pommed hats bobbing as they squint and smile in a sudden glare of sun. I stretch my legs and feel a surge of anticipation. We’ll be skiing shortly. We park at the main lodge—a deliberately quaint Tudor revival in tan and timber three stories high. It’s like we’ve entered a time warp someplace between the Swiss Alps and the Adirondacks. Inside, it’s really quiet. I feel guilty ringing the courtesy bell. A wiry 50-something man greets us and checks us in. We haul our stuff to our room upstairs and immediately head to the window. “Let’s go ski that!” Zach says,


pointing to a rounded peak nearby. We throw on our ski gear and clunk down the stairs, out the door and over the bridge across the train tracks, where 33K (50-plus miles) of groomed cross-country trails loop into the Great Bear Wilderness. Seeing how well manicured the trails are, I feel a minor pang of regret for not bringing my cross-country skis. But my mission on this trip is to hone my telemark skills—my newest form of self-torture. So I dismiss the thought. “This way,” Zach says.

We skin up and along Dickey Creek Road on the eastern perimeter of the

trails. The afternoon light reflects off the ski tracks that unfurl in front of us like ribbons. I love the idea of skiing this way: no board on my back, no chilly chair ride to freeze my buns. Within 20 minutes we leave the groomed road and pass a sign, almost completely submerged in snow, that warns “Avalanche danger beyond this point!” The area is open to skiers, but it’s ski at your own risk. We doublecheck our beacons and continue on. Before long, we reach belly-deep moose tracks and follow them up a small drainage to a slope that recently slid. The rawness of the exposed snow and stone makes me think of a mango slice—the skin peeled back and the flesh of the fruit slightly ravaged. My mouth starts to water. “Let’s go up here,” Zach says. “Really?” I ask. Zach is competent with his avalanche skills; I’m in the process of refreshing mine, so we often discuss our choices in detail. After judging the temperature, aspect and stability, Zach helps me get comfortable with the idea of heading up this way. We zigzag through trees and debris. The sun begins to fade. After about 30 minutes of moderate climbing we stop and prepare to ski down before it gets dark. I wobble on one leg while I pull the skin from my opposite ski. A brief flutter erupts in my chest as I look at the spacing of the trees below me. Zach talks me through the checklist: “Skins off and put away?” “Heel risers down?” (This is a fair question, in my case). “Helmet buckled?” “Beacon transmitting?” “Layers tucked in?” He drops in. I watch him deftly bounce in and out of the trees—pouncing and gliding down the slope. I drop in, make one turn, then crumble and roll through my next. I extract my right ski out from under my arse. Zach waits patiently for me at the bottom as I repeat the sequence in roughly the same fashion, all the way down—as quickly as possible. Both of us want to put in a full day of skiing tomorrow. And there is rumor of a sauna at the Izaak Walton.

Skate skiing, cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing— anything on planks—is the pièce de résistance during a winter stay at the Izaak Walton resort

by a railroad yard in tiny Essex, Montana. The inn was built in 1939 along the Great Northern Railway tracks that stretched from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington. With 29 rooms,10 bathrooms and an accommodating lobby and kitchen, the original place was a luxury destination for travelers coming to see Glacier Park. Today, the rail lines are still in use, although no longer for the defunct Great Northern. Of the 30 to 40 trains that roll through daily, most of them freight trains, the most notable is the Amtrak Empire Builder, which stops at the inn while shuttling passengers from Chicago to Portland and Seattle. Time has brought a few other changes: six small Western-style cabins and additional lodging in a remodeled luxury train engine and three cabooses, blue, orange and green. Zach and I have a great view of them from our chosen après-ski spot: the Izaak Walton’s dining room. Like the rest of the inn, the restaurant is adorned with train memorabilia. The tables are set with Syracuse China—reproductions of the dinnerware originally used on the Great Northern Railway—including plates decorated with an image of a mountain goat against a backdrop of Glacier’s mountains, or wildflowers by an alpine lake. The doors, hand-painted with columbine and fawn lilies, advance the wildflower theme. A chalkboard announces offerings of local food—including trout, elk and huckleberry pie. I prepare myself for a Montana-style meal—rich, ample portions served by cordial, honest folks. There are only two other guests here at the moment: women in long skirts and big sweaters who are chatting with the chef/server about their visit. Their train has been delayed due to snowdrifts on the tracks. It’s not unusual for the Empire Builder to get held up by flooding, derailment, snow and the occasional avalanche. I begin to realize that Zach and I are a minority, simply because we drove here. Many of the guests (70 percent, as the inn’s ski pro, Mark Ambre, later tells us) travel to the inn via train. In fact, a big draw to the Izaak Walton is its reputation as a “railfan destination.” A whole culture of people relish train travel as much as we relish ski travel, and arriving at the Izaak Walton by locomotion culminates the journey of a lifetime. When a passenger train arrives or passes through, guests are encouraged Noah Couser

Noah Couser

to walk to the covered porch and wave, steam heat bangs. It takes a quick meal much like the ladies and gents clutchof bacon and eggs and the crisp outside ing handkerchiefs and hats in the phoair to wake us up. tos hanging on the walls. We chat briefly about heading up to Post-dinner, Zach and I are ready Two Medicine, in Glacier, but once the for a sauna session in the more modern sun starts glinting off the windshield, annex across from the lodge. While we we consider something closer—less car wait for it to warm up (you have to ask time equals more ski time. There’s skiing at Marias Pass, about 20 someone to turn it on for you), we miles away, but it’s also a more popular wander into the basement bar, home to spot. We want to disappear for the day. a game room, historic photographs, and a Ping-Pong table. Zach defeats me repeatedly, but I manage to land the ball in far more interesting locations. Then it’s time to walk across the parking lot for a steam and solidify tomorrow’s plan. We want to explore the backcountry opportunities further up the highway, toward East Glacier. There’s ample access right off the road, so we figure we’ll wake Pam Voth up early and drive until we see something enticing. Zach So we drive east along the border of tucks his Glacier topo map into the top the park, no more than 10 miles from of his ski pack before climbing into bed. the Izaak Walton. The valley opens away from us, and the peaks slice into the blue with imposing and brilliant Our hopes for an early start get cleanliness. sucked out the open window of our We spot one peak that looks particroom sometime during the night. Trains ularly approachable—and doable for rock and shimmy through the blackleaving the gate mid-morning. The ness at regular intervals, while the mountain stretches like a long arm restMontana Headwall

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ing along the valley floor. A blanket of dark pine climbs above the elbow then slides from its snowy shoulder to reveal a ridgeline, curving away from us with collarbone elegance. I unfold the map and look at the peaks running in a band along the road. “Mount Shields. Elk Mountain. This one doesn’t have a name. Little Dog...I think it’s Little Dog. No, it’s Elk Mountain,” I say, and toss in the elevation. “It’s 7,835.” Wisps of snow twist from the ridge, like dancers against the blue backdrop. Zach pulls the car over and looks at the map. “I think we just passed the turnoff,” I point. “I saw a road back there, number 1066.” Still fairly new at this, I slap skins on my skis in record time and we start up snowy 1066 to the palm of Elk Mountain. A cow moose and her yearling are browsing along a creek and we stop just long enough to snap a picture and get the hairy eyeball. Weaving our way up above the valley, we cross railroad tracks and enter the forest. The trees swallow us. Road sounds and train sounds vanish. A snag creaks. “I think we can get to the top in three hours,” Zach announces, so I assume it will take us four—based on

my pace, of course. In the three years I've known him, I've spent much of the time chasing him up mountains and I'm not ashamed to admit I'm slower than he is. It never bothers him, and he always encourages me. It’s a fine arrangement. I love tele-skiing, and for good reason: I grew up on alpine skis when custom boot liners didn’t exist. Eventually the foot pain overpowered the pleasure, so I decided to be a cross-country skier, and then learned to snowboard. I stopped skiing for years when life intervened, but I recently picked it up again, this time to telemark. The grace of the sport always appealed to me, and now that I can have a boot fitted to feel like a slipper, I can go as far and as long as I want. Somewhere close to noon, after a short lunch, we pack up and break out of the trees, crossing the first of several steeper slopes that lead to the peak. Ascending to the east, we come over a rise and get our first glimpse of the park. From there, we climb west above the tree line, then wrap around until we’re on the shoulder, with a clear line to the top. By now, we’ve climbed some 3,500 feet, and the mountains unfold around us. We lace our way among snow ghosts. I watch Zach ahead of me, the 9,000-foot-plus spire of Mount Saint Nicholas beyond him. A gust of wind smacks me slightly off balance and I laugh—half nervous, half exhilarated.

Noah Couser

I’ve had so much fun getting here that I’m surprised when we reach the top. An exposed face drops below us in a pure curtain of white. Its lines are so tempting—but it’s heavily loaded and we’ve already opted to ski the more stable slope off the northwest. Looking out over the Great Bear Basin, we can see all the way to the

We make it back to the Izaak Walton just before dark, ready for meat and potatoes. The resident ski pro, Ambre, greets us as we’re finishing. By summer, this lean 40-something guy surfs on the California coast; by winter he comes to the Izaak Walton, teaches lessons and guides guests on ski tours—sometimes cross-country, sometimes backcountry, sometimes both. “There is so much good skiing— in any direction,” he muses. My mind flickers back to earlier in the day—standing in a snow hole on top of Elk Mountain and scanning the peaks in every direction. The conversation drifts to trains, skis and wildlife. A woman interrupts us at one point to ask Ambre if Map by Kou Moua he knows about a moose carcass near the ski trails. She strokes a Swan Range and the Bob Marshall small dog that trembles in her arms Wilderness. The wind snatches our while she scrutinizes the ski pro over voices as soon as words leave our lips. her bifocals. It is clear that she wants to We dig a hole for shelter and hunker find this moose, dead or alive. After she down for a snack before skiing down. In short order I follow a mellow line walks away, it occurs to me that this would be an unusual conversation elsetoward the spire of Saint Nick. The where in the world—but it’s perfectly urgency of the wind is replaced by the suited to this old Montana inn, tucked quiet of a clear winter day. We lazily away in the mountains. Ambre tells us make our turns, leapfrogging each that the staff hauled the carcass deeper other, descending into the drainage. into the woods, earlier in the day. My futile attempts to execute the I settle down for another night of perfect tele-turn land me in numerous snow-blown dreaming. It seems that all face-plants along the way. The sound of of us have come here to get deeper into snow exiting my ears is met with Zach’s the woods. sniggers and the occasional bird song.

Tank goodness

by Matt Gibson


Pyramid Peak beckons the sled-to-shred crowd

Photos by Chad Harder

expected the snowmobile to make some bratty exhaust noise and steer more like a barge than a motorbike. The full body workout required to drive it, however, came as a surprise. I’d made my way to Seeley Lake with Drew Dolan and Katy Garton to ride some 12 miles up snow-packed forest roads to the base of 8,300-foot Pyramid Peak, where we planned to park, step into our skis and skin up some 3,000 vertical feet to the summit, with Headwall photo editor Chad Harder capturing the day on camera. The payoff would be idyllic powder turns slashed across the glorious west face. Over cheeseburgers and beer at the end of our day, I would whip out the Headwall credit card and feel myself bursting with heroic achievement, adding a solid entry to my backcountry resumé: Sledneck Backcountry Skier. At least, that’s how I imagined it. I am nothing if not a man of grand vision. But just two minutes into the day, as I struggled to gas my rented snowmobile over a slippery, foot-high berm on the back streets of town, I was already guessing that a different narrative might emerge. The real story would tell whether I would hold it together long enough to get to the mountain and back in one piece.


Dolan, an avid sledder who onceupon-a-time competed in the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships, carted two snowmobiles from Missoula for himself and Garton to ride. I shelled out for a pair of Polaris RMK 600s at Seeley Sport Rentals for the Headwall crew. I’d never even touched a snowmobile before. I had only a vague idea how they worked. Did they have gears? Brakes? Cup-holders? They looked simple enough: a long seat set above a paddled track; handlebars; an ergonomic lever on the right grip for the throttle. After a five-minute orientation that included instructions to

make a call if we broke down, we lit off straight from the shop. In truth, the icy berm impeding my way out of town held me up for less than a minute. With encouragement from the others, I screwed up the nerve

to get aggressive on the throttle and muscle across to reach the sled trail leading out of town. Once on the wellestablished route, I quickly got busy getting a feel for the machine, testing the acceleration, the steering, and the brakes (on the left grip). There was really nothing to it. Except for the work. Snowmobiles haul ass. They can also careen. They slip and wallow. And above all, they bounce—especially on heavily washboarded thoroughfares like the road to Pyramid Peak. The strain settled mostly into my hips and lower back. With feet and ankles locked into heavy plastic ski boots, the seat too low and the ride too harsh to comfortably sit while moving, I fidgeted constantly in search of an optimized posture and found none. I tried riding on one knee. I tried the other knee. I tried both knees. I tried to sit. I tried to stand. My body spent most of the trip bent in a semi-athletic crouch, hands wide and shoulders wrestling for command of the squirrelly runners. My legs took the brunt of the punishment, absorbing the terrain so my spine could be spared. A fleeting 60 mph snort down a long, flat straightaway briefly displaced the steady exer-

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tion with what could easily have The sun washed the mountain in dazminutes behind, totally spent. But the become an exhilarating yet terminal zling brightness, and I couldn’t wait to sun picked a good time to show itself cartwheel. But by the time we reached get moving on my skis...that is until it again, and we marveled at the views the start of the serious incline, about six got steep...and the solar inferno started to east into the Bob Marshall Wilderness miles in, the washboards had grown as toast my suddenly overheated, overtaxed and west across the valley toward the big as fallen tree trunks, and each Mission Mountains. So far, so great. Now I just one exacted a toll. had to get down, but what Some nine miles from town, A fleeting snort down looked like a benign descent from we reached the Pyramid Pass below appeared considerably trailhead, where the road gave a long, flat straightaway more demanding from above. My way to a narrow trough packed legs trembled as we made our down by previous travelers—a way along the northeast ridge three-mile bobsled run through displaced the above the bowl’s southern expothe woods. I cruised cautiously The bottomless powder along, ducking limbs and featherwith what could easily sure. from the shaded face we’d ing the accelerator to keep from ascended hadn’t held on this side, leaping out of the tight track. have become an where wind and sun had created If it were easier to ski the an inch-thick crust. It would not dozen miles to the base of be easy skiing. My stoke Pyramid Peak, that’s what folks yet cartwheel. wavered. would do, but it’s not—not by a I slumped against the mounlong shot. And when we suddentain while Garton dug a test pit. She got ly emerged from the dense timber, I mixed results, but nothing that deterred instantly recognized why it’s so worth us from skiing the wide-open slopes getting there. where a slide would be most likely. It body...and I started to fall behind...and Before us spread a huge southwestwas go time. Knowing my performance feel slightly nauseous. Uh oh. facing bowl, blanketed in snow. Fingers Frankly, if the clouds hadn’t moved would be recorded for posterity, I ralof forest crept up the bottom half of the in and curtained the mountain about 30 lied to make a few graceful turns, my slope to separate the lower reaches into minutes later, I might have expired on vanity an effective source of determinadistinctive descent options. Up higher, the climb. But with the hot sun veiled, I tion, though only temporarily. A couple stunted firs caked in white looked more was able to soldier on. We rested on a of nice moves on the steeper opening like dessert than woody flora, with bench about a 1,000 feet up to chat with pitch and some relaxed curls on the vanilla icing layered on so thick you the campers, watching one of them moderate terrain below just delayed the could almost imagine the taste of a big, gamely huck a 15-foot drop and merrily inevitable. The challenging snow had its messy bite. Old Man Winter kept a face-plant the fluffy landing. Inspired way with me, and I pitched forward supremely decadent palace here. And onto my head and somersaulted. we could ski it. I was thoroughly gassed. Or, as others might prefer, Fortunately, we took our snowboard it. We’d heard back in time getting down, savoring the town that some local fellas had ride through the high alpine and made camp at the base of the taking plenty of pictures of peak. We found their shelter, a Dolan launching big airs along crude hovel constructed of scrap the way. Thank God, because the lumber loosely covered with remfurther we dropped the more nants of industrial plastic wrap, unmanageable the crust became tucked under a protective canopy for me, and by the time we of the forest at the bottom of the made it back to the sleds, I had run out. If the mountain was winnothing left. I doubted my abiliter’s mansion, their camp was ty to make even one more turn. like a dung hut lumped outside Under the circumstances, the gate—party central for the pounding the snowmobile for 12 shredheads of the Swan Range. We parked our rigs, and as we miles over the washboards back kitted up to start skinning we to town seemed vastly preferwatched one of them high-markable to the alternatives. I’d surMap by Joe Weston ing a steep pitch just above us on vive the ride plenty well enough his sled. We didn’t entirely mind to enjoy a cheeseburger and a the company. We could see slithering by the reckless embrace of amusement, pitcher afterward with the gang at the tracks descending the upper reaches of my spirits lifted. Potomac bar. No reason to burst with the peak, and their presence reassured We rounded into the south side of inflated self-regard, but I’d notched that us about the snow stability. If anything the bowl through soft, deep snow up to convincing entry on my backcountry on that mountain was going to slide, it the corniced southwestern ridge. Dolan resumé. would likely have come down on those and Garton slipped ahead up the sumYes sir, I really did spur that snarling guys by now. mit cone while I struggled at the rear, little beastie up to 60 mph on my way I was so stoked by the whole scene I grinding out the vertical with a weak to a wilderness summit, and I wrote the stopped noticing how tired my hips felt. stomach. I arrived at the peak about 30 magazine article to prove it.

60 mph

briefly steady


exhilarating terminal

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DECEMBER December 3 The couch is officially closed, so it’s time to find a chair: Grab one at Whitefish Mountain Resort for the scheduled opening day of the 2011–2012 ski season. You’ll get a lift at December 6 When life gives you ice, make igloos— or at least find out how during the Outdoor Program Workshop: Winter Camping, sponsored by the University of Montana’s Outdoor Program, held at the University of Montana Fitness and Recreation Center. Hot tips await at 243-5172. December 24 Christmas comes early at Lookout Pass on Ski with Santa Day, when the jolly one himself flies in from the North Pole to carve some turns and distribute treats at noon. Steer the reindeer to

December 30 Finish 2011 with a twang and a bang during Bridger Bowl’s Torchlight Parade and Fireworks Display. The party starts at 3:30 p.m. with the Bridger Creek Boys busting out locally made bluegrass in the Jim Bridger Lodge. Fire off questions to 587–2111. December 31 Get a head start on your New Year’s resolution (you’re vowing to be fit, right?) when Run Wild Missoula hosts its annual New Year’s Eve Run. The two-mile race starts a few hours before midnight on an indoor track at Peak Health & Wellness Center. Don’t drop the ball: Go to

JANUARY January 1 What better way to kick off 2012 than by swimming with the icicles during the Flathead Lake Polar Bear Plunge, where you and a bunch of other maniacs take an unseasonable

dip? The event is followed by a parade starting at the Raven Brew Pub in Woods Bay. Go with the floe and call 837-2836 to sign up. January 6 Someone let the dogs out for the Flathead Sled Dog Days, a three-day event for mushers and spectators alike. The race begins and ends near Olney and winds through the Stillwater State Forest. Bring your crosscountry skis, slide up the trail and see the action up close. Sniff out the details at January 8 Depletion is okay at the Ozone Cross Country Ski Race on the Nordic ski trails outside Seeley Lake, an event for both classic and skate skiers. If it sounds like a gas, sign up at January 21 Load up on snow at the Seeley Lake Area Winterfest where a three-day celebration includes the

Chad Harder

Seeley Lake Challenge Biathlon. Check out the competitive races or try a fun one that lets you split the work with a teammate: one shoots, the other skis. Scope it out at or call 677-2880.

MARCH March 1–4 Watch skiers and snow boarders catch big air and stay there during the Georgetown Lake Open (GTO) snow-kiting competition at Denton’s Point on Georgetown Lake. Contestants use kites and wind to race and fly 20-plus feet high. Blow your mind with info at 546-2709 or kingcole@underground

January 22 Got a high red blood cell count? Put it to work during the Whitefish Whiteout Mountaineering Race, a stamina-straining 4,000foot skin up Whitefish Mountain and a descent that could cause thighs to implode. Make tracks to

March 3–4 Grab an ice auger and a partner and attack Lake Mary Ronan during Perch Assault’s Ultimate Assault II fishing tourney. Money and prizes await those tough enough to brave the cold and the overtly aggressive perch. Reel in more information at

January 28 Scramble up and fly down during Bridger Bowl’s Skin to Win, Randonnee Rally, an epic mountaineering and ski race that features lung-bursting climbs and knee-shaking descents over steep-anddeeps. Suck up the info at January 29 Get out of the doghouse during the Powderhound Winter Triathlon at Homestake Lodge near Butte. Individuals and teams can run, bike and cross-country ski on groomed trails and plowed roads. Tri for success at

FEBRUARY February 10 No jet packs required for the Montana Race to the Sky— just a pack of snow-loving dogs. Canine teams and mushers cover a 350-mile course from Lincoln to the Swan Valley. Mush-ter up some interest at February 11-12 Any time is a good time at the Rocky Mountain Outfitter Nordic Ski Weekend in Essex at the Izaak Walton Inn. On Saturday there are nighttime freestyle sprint relays. If you’re afraid of the dark, check out Sunday morning races. Both days feature distances of 1K, 3K, 6K and 15K. Get on board at

February 19 Know when to hold ’em at the 100-Mile Snowmobile Poker Fun Run on groomed trails near White Sulphur Springs. Deal yourself in by calling 547-3966. February 25 Why did the chicken cross the road? To run in Seeley Lake’s Snow Joke Half–Marathon, in which racers tackle a 13.1-mile course regardless of weather. Laugh your way to

March 10 Stay out of the whiskey at Club Moderne prior Chad Harder to Anaconda’s annual St. Patrick’s Race, which takes place the Saturday before the holiday and features a three- or six-mile run. Just say “Erin Go Bragh” and go to March 17 Stay home, smarty-pants, and let the telemarking goofs don zany costumes and take over Bridger Bowl at the Pinhead Classic. This year’s theme for the tele-ski race is “gangsters and flappers.” Get the lowdown at

February 25–26 Oh what heights they’ll reach at the Snowbowl Cup Gelande Championship. Watch alpine ski jumpers get spectacularly airborne while competing for cash and prizes. Dial a line to 549–9777 or find

March 25 In North Dakota it’s so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days, but you won’t be thinking about that when you compete in Snowbowl’s North Dakota Downhill, since you’ll be too busy hurtling down an imperceptible slope. Bomb over to

February 25–26 Giddyup to the Big Hole Valley for some skijoring at Winterfest 2012, in Wisdom. Why? Because you’ll see a horse, with fearless skier in tow, galloping around a course and over jumps. Ride to

March 31 Forget the three R’s: Let’s talk about the three P’s at the Whitefish Pole, Pedal, Paddle Triathlon. Individuals or threesomes ski, bike and paddle in and around Whitefish. Get schooled at

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HEAD GEAR by Yogesh Simpson he snow’s piling up, you’ve got fresh batteries in your beacon, you’ve got your shovel and probe packed—what else do you need to hit the backcountry? Well, just when you thought you had your avalanche safety system dialed there’s one more gadget to drop your hard-earned ducats on. If you ski or ride in avalanche terrain, chances are you’ve heard about airbag packs. Though the Europeans have been using them for 25 years, it’s just in the past two years that they’ve gained traction in the U.S. Now these life-saving devices are being made in our backyard, by the fine folks at Mystery Ranch in Bozeman. Before we get to the pack itself, let’s go over the basics. The idea is simple. If you are unfortunate enough to get caught in an avalanche, you pull a cord on your pack’s shoulder strap to inflate a big pillow behind your head, which keeps you on the surface of the snow. It does this not by “floating” you to the surface, but by a handy little trick of physics called inverse segregation. The avalanche debris gets sorted during a slide so that the smallest particles filter to the bottom and the large ones rise to the surface—much in the same way that shaking a half-empty bag of tortilla chips will bring to the top anything big enough to dip in salsa. The airbag effectively makes you a larger piece of debris. Sounds like a good idea, but does it work? “Airbags save lives,” says Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. “The statistics are solid. An airbag offers greater chances of survival than traveling without one.”


In a 2005 study of 2,000 avalanche incidents, the Switzerlandbased International Commission of Alpine Rescue found that slides killed 51 percent of victims who were completely buried. The same study found that airbags lowered the probability of a complete burial from 47 percent to 13 percent and, even more impressive, slashed the probability of death from 35 percent to 1 percent. The commission concluded that airbags are “the device of choice.” “The most time-consuming part of a rescue is locating and digging the victim out,” Chabot says. “If the person is only partially buried or if a piece of the airbag is sticking out of the snow, there’s no need for a beacon search, which greatly reduces rescue time.” Chabot also notes that these devices work best in open terrain, since being strained through thick timber will likely cause bodily harm with or without an airbag. For this reason he predicts that statistics gathered in the United States in the coming years won’t be quite as glowing as the data from the Alps. “In North America, paths tend to be shorter with timber lining the sides and bottom,” says Chabot. “Airbags can puncture. Collisions with trees are unforgiving.” Still, it’s hard to argue with the numbers, and you’d be foolish to venture into avalanche terrain without one, right? Well, yes. But if you’ve heard anything about these packs you already know the bad news: They’re fairly expensive (although if they save your life, you won’t be complaining about the cost). And they’re also heavy. There are currently five major brands available in the United States, with price tags ranging from around $700 to $1,200; each weighs 5 to 8 pounds.

Unveiled this year, the Mystery Ranch Blackjack is one of the larger packs available, at 2,600 cubic inches. It retails for $975 and weighs in at 7.8 pounds. Mystery Ranch’s winter program manager Ben Nobel acknowledges that the cost can put the pack out of reach for the casual backcountry skier. “We’d love to have a big [market] share with the public, and I think that once people catch on, spending a thousand dollars is going to make a lot more sense,” Nobel says. But for now the company is focusing on marketing the packs to ski patrols at resorts around the country. Like all Mystery Ranch packs the Blackjack has a beefy, comfortable harness, and feels well constructed and durable. The design is simple: a top-loading main compartment with a full-length side zipper for easy access. The front panel pocket is designed to fit the largest shovel blade on the market, and has sleeves for organizing your handle, probe and saw. The options for diagonal and A-frame ski carry are stable and the side compression straps can be used to secure a snowboard vertically. The pack even has a hideaway ice axe loop. “We originally designed it without the airbag,” says Nobel. “We took a lot of the features that we wanted as skiers and mountaineers and climbers and built a bag that would do really well for all of us, and for ski patrol.” The airbag, he says, is more of an accessory, since it can be removed.

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The lid of the pack has two pockets, one with a breakaway zipper that contains the airbag, and one available for your energy bar and camera. A hefty metal bar threads through a series of sewn loops to secure the lid to the pack frame. The main compartment features a goggle-sized pocket and a vertical pouch to secure the compressed air cylinder against the back panel. The trigger cable runs from the cylinder to a zippered pouch on the left shoulder strap. The T-shaped handle is easily removed so you don’t blow your cylinder grabbing your pack out of the truck. It takes a forceful yank on the handle to deploy the thing—and then what happens? Unlike the videos you’ve seen of car airbags, it takes a few seconds for the Blackjack to inflate its big red pillow. And if you are caught in an avalanche there is still a chance that you could be completely buried, so wearing a transceiver is a must. Once you’re out of harm’s way, folding the airbag and re-stuffing it is a snap. Recharging the cylinder is a bit more involved. Before the cylinder can be refilled a tiny O-ring in the cylinder head needs to be replaced, which involves removing two bolts from the metal housing. For just a few dollars, dive shops and fire stations typically can charge it back up (although it’s worth noting that the downtown Bozeman fire station I tried did not have the right-sized adaptor to get the job done). Nobel says Mystery Ranch will be offering free refills at the company's Bozeman headquarters. Overall, the airbag component of the Blackjack is easy to use and reuse. The pack itself is a workhorse, with all the functionality you need for a morning of throwing bombs or an all-day backcountry mission. Is it overkill for spinning laps on the Schlasman’s chair or afternoon forays into Jenny Bowl? Probably. Could it save your life? Definitely. If you think you can’t afford it you might want to reconsider that new pair of skis you’ve been eyeing.

COME PLAY IN THE HIGH COUNTRY & STAY CLOSE TO THE ACTION • Only 12 miles from Lolo Pass & 10 miles from Jerry Johnson Hot Springs! • Located just 55 miles SW of Missoula on Hwy 12. • 20 cabins/rooms available for rent. • Lodge open daily for breakfast, lunch & dinner. • Plenty of parking year-round for trailers, campers, snowmobiles, and large groups.

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Powder CONTINUED FROM PAGE 34 “Hop. Side-slip. Don’t lean in!” my brain yelled as I leaped off the ledgy entrance into the gully. “Hop. Slide a little more. Phew!” When I reached the Apron below the gully, my pulse slowed to normal. Now we’re talkin’! Hidden Gully was my new Montana high, but I kept my emotions in check. Like an Olympic figure skating judge, I had to reserve a window of opportunity for the remaining contestants.

Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Ski Resort, March 30 and 31 Greg Pack, general manager of Moonlight Basin in the town of Big Sky, met me at the base of the mountain. “It’s open, but we gotta go now. It could close any moment,” Pack said, referring to the weather-sensitive tram to the top of Lone Mountain. Moonlight Basin shares its summit with Big Sky, allowing skiers to buy a combined ticket to both resorts for “The Biggest Skiing in America,” as the promos put it. When I exited the tram for the North Summit Snowfield, our destination, I could hardly see in the whipping wind and near whiteout conditions. I followed Pack’s orange jacket, consumed by the moment. I couldn’t see the terrain, but I could feel it. My skis sliced easily through the wind-

blown snow down a seriously steep headwall. We paused to pick a line through a rock band then ripped down Rips into Old Faithful, gaining visibility among the trees. From there we descended to Grizzly Meadows, an oddly named gully bounded by tall timber, which finally spit us onto Trembler, a gonzo groomer. When we regrouped after 4,140 vertical feet of gravity-induced gladness, Pack’s radio crackled, “North Summit is now closed.” It didn’t matter. I had found it, the best ski run in Montana! Big Sky might have matched it the next day—it’s been one of my favorite places to ski since I first tried it in the early 1980s. But the tram was closed. I’d have to wait for another chance to test myself on the dramatic terrain at the summit; to check out the wicked line that threads through the rocks of Big Couloir; to bomb down The Gullies, the steep chutes under the tram; and to make an encore run down Liberty Bowl, with its luscious corn snow. For today, I could only take a bite of the bigness: I leaped off the small cornice into Rice Bowl and found a few steep hits around Big Rock Tongue while the wind whipped the clouds over Lone Mountain.

Sluice Box and True Grit, spread like elongated fingers up one side of a heavily treed bowl. A gust of wind threatened to blow me off the chairlift, however, so I decided to sample Big Bear Gulch, a skinny double black diamond, protected by tall firs. The snow was just corning up as I negotiated a gully that felt like a natural half-pipe. By the time I reached the bottom the Cole Creek lift was also closed. I would have to wait for another time to raise hell on Hellroaring or slice turns on Sluice. And that, I finally realized, was the best thing about skiing in Montana—there’s so much tantalizing terrain, I could do my test again every winter. I’d come up with a different “best” each time.

Red Lodge Mountain, April 2 Foiled again. The weather rudely put an end to any thoughts I had of letting my schuss loose at Red Lodge, in the same-named town. I headed to the Cole Creek lift where many of the area’s signature steeps, including Hellroaring,



Showdown Montana




Lost Trail







Bear Paw

Great Divide


Bridger Bowl





Big Sky/Moonlight Basin




Big Sky

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The Crux CONTINUED FROM PAGE 58 As unappealing as that sounds, the even scarier proposition is the drive to the mountains and back. Since so many climbs are in remote drainages, ballsto-the-wall off-roading is required. I’ve seen and been in plenty of close calls and accidents in my hippie-ish Subaru, and I can’t count the times I’ve careened off the bottomless ruts of logging roads or gotten stuck in snow up to the windows. So why do it? I climb because it is dangerous. Scaling ice requires a singularly intense combination of focus, physical ability, and the mindfulness to make the right decision in a split second. When my body is physically spent, throbbing with pain, and teetering on disaster, I push the idea of falling out of my mind. I’m immersed in the moment. I ignore the turmoil of “what if,” and the clarity quickly dissipates the weight of fear and doubt. I climb ice precisely because it is so miserable. The days when everything goes smoothly are never as vivid as the days when my partners and I are

Montana Headwall

challenged to the point of failure, but still manage to come back with all of our fingers and toes. Being frozen, exhausted, drenched and terrified is the epitome of what most people try to avoid in life. Ice climbers crave it. We struggle and suffer and joke about our weaknesses, but we’re optimistic that we’ll succeed. I’m not a pro; I never will be. I’m not interested in bragging rights or being a badass. I climb for the farcical adventures and misadventures, the lifetime bonds with friends that only the mountains can provide. The sport makes us feel alive, but it could also kill us: that’s a given. The avalanche in Bass Creek was a reality check, something that made me wonder if the risk was worth the experience. But it’s a challenge I need. I don’t climb ice because it’s easy, or safe. I climb because it tests my mind, body and soul. It’s suffering and danger, success and failure, passion and awe. Like everything worth living.

Page 56 Winter 2011-2012

Robin Carlton

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Page 57 Winter 2011-2012

Soul on ice

by Robin Carleton


A million reasons a climber won’t let go y heart stops as a thunderous report reverberates through the Bass Creek valley. My ice-climbing buddies, Jesse and Dan, must be severely injured or, worse, they’re dead. I’ve been climbing above them with two other friends, and the three of us strain to hear any sound of survival from below. After what seems like forever, Dan’s deep, crackling “I’m okayyyy!” echoes off the azure-blue ice wall. A sloppy, wet-snow avalanche just missed them. They were a measly 10 yards below and to the right, hidden from view by a small ridge of ice. Before I have time to feel relief, I realize that although we dodged the bullet, we’re still staring down the barrel of a loaded gun—the snow on the avalanche-prone slope above us hasn’t slid yet. If the slab does break loose, it’ll rip the five of us off the 200-foot cliff.


“Why the fuck do I climb ice anyway?” I think to myself. I can list about a million reasons why the sport is as dumb as poking a mama grizzly with a stick. Crabwalking up frozen water molecules

So why I


do it?


it is


with knife-sharp ice tools and crampons attached to your every appendage (while relying on a handcranked metal screw to keep you from hurtling to your death) seems like an excellent way to win a Darwin award. Not to mention that the best routes are

usually a dilapidated hodgepodge of falling ice, rocks and avalanche paths. Climbing ice is miserable. I wake up before sunrise so I can post-hole through mid-thigh-deep snow for hours. When I finally reach the staging area, my sweat freezes and turns my body into an exhausted, quaking popsicle. As quickly as I can, I gear up with crampons, harness and ice axes to begin my upward grovel. At first my hands are like frosted stumps, but after a while they feel like they’re on fire, and my arms burn with fatigue. When I reach the top—if I make it—the veins in my forehead swell until they seem ready to burst. The blood rushes to my extremities, with reliably gross results: a violent heaving of last night’s pizza and beer. Ice climbers call this the “screaming barfies.” Continued on page 56

Robin Carlton

Montana Headwall  

Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky

Montana Headwall  

Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky