Last March, halfway through the six-hour drive from Coeur d'Alene to Big Sky Resort, three of my snow buddies and I were caught smack dab in the middle of one of those big Montana winter storms. Semis were off the road; snow was all over it. Now I get where the term "white-knuckle driving" came from.
We'd planned on driving directly to the resort but decided to make camp in Bozeman in hopes that the plows would clean things up overnight. After checking into our hotel, we called an Uber and headed straight to the Cannery District in downtown Bozeman. Burgers and beers are the perfect way to mellow the nerves.
We left Bozeman the next morning at 5:30, so we could be some of the first in line. It was still snowing, and a quick check of conditions revealed 14 fresh inches with temps in the low teens. My crew consisted of Eric Einhorn, Ryan Fogarty and Erich Thompson (otherwise known as ET) — each a seasoned pow slayer.
It was just starting to get light out when we pulled into the Big Sky parking lot. Boots on and tickets in hand, we beelined to the Swift Current Quad an hour before they started loading. There we met about 20 enthusiastic locals who had the same plans as us: to get that Montana Cold Smoke.
The Swift Current Quad brings you from the mountain village base to about halfway up the mountain. (Note: The Swift Current Quad was replaced this summer with the new Swift Current 6, which has heated seats and a weatherproof bubble and will increase the uphill capacity by up to 50 percent.)
We planned to hit the midmountain trees while ski patrol cleared the steeper runs up higher. Our goal once ski patrol did their avalanche work was to ski Big Sky's most iconic run. The Big Couloir on Lone Peak is legendary — a triple black diamond run through a 1,400 vertical foot couloir located almost directly under the Lone Peak Tram. When you're going to ride the Big Coulier, you're required to sign in with ski patrol, wear an avalanche transceiver and ski with a buddy.
It didn't take long for the four of us to get to the top of the Swift Current Quad and dive off into the trees into CJ RD and Rice Bowl. We ripped off a lap, and before we knew it we were back at the base of the Swift Current Quad loading for another ride. Ski patrol was still doing avalanche control on the upper mountain, so we figured we'd hit the same zone again. On this run I pulled out my still camera, and we made some quick work capturing Big Sky storm skiing at its finest.
It'd been about 45 minutes since the chairs had started spinning, and ski patrol was still fine-tuning their run openings, so we slipped back into the trees just a few hundred yards lower from our previous runs. I positioned myself in some trees to capture more pow skiing shots. First one down was Eric, hooting and hollering as his 210-pound frame put up a wall of snow, turn after turn.
ET was standing at the top in the batter's box, waiting for the signal.
I yelled up at ET... "Go!" He pushed off and made a dozen effortless turns. Then, as he skied between me and a birch tree, I heard a whack and immediately saw ET tumbling.
As the snow settled, I could see his ski wedged between two trees. I knew it wasn't going to be good. As ET came to a rest and repositioned himself in the snow, he yelled up to me, "I think I broke my $#%& leg!"
Ryan, still positioned at the top of the run close to a chairlift tower, notified a ski patroller who just happened to be riding the chair above him. Within a few minutes, two ski patrollers were following Ryan and navigating a Cascade rescue toboggan through the trees and deep snow.
The two patrollers quickly assessed the situation, immobilized ET's leg, and had him loaded in the sled and down to the Big Sky Medical Clinic in the village, where they determined that ET had a tib-fib break. When the nurse asked ET what had happened, he calmly said, "I just flat ran out of talent," which got a good chuckle from everyone around him.
I tip my hat to the Big Sky Ski Patrol, quick, knowledgeable and most of all professional.
It was now late morning, we got ET loaded up in his truck, and he and Eric made the drive back home to Sandpoint. (ET update: He's all healed up and ready to start skiing for 2021-22.)
After this, Ryan and I felt we'd had the wind knocked out of us as we'd lost a couple of our wingmen. We had a quick bite to eat from the deli and spent the rest of the day exploring just a fraction of Big Sky's 300 named ski runs searching for powder. Around 2 pm the skies started opening up with some scattered sun, and we could see Lone Peak and the surrounding mountains clearly.
We took advantage of the clear visibility and rode the Lone Peak Tram up to the top, which sits towers at 11,166 feet.
This was to be our last run for the day, and it was going to come with over 4,300 feet of vert riding back down to the village. We ventured down into the Liberty Bowl and made our way through six miles of ski runs. Our legs were smoked, we were ready for apres. We slipped into Montana Jack right in the village for a couple of cold ones so we could put this day behind us.
Later we checked into the Huntley Lodge, our hotel in the Big Sky Mountain Village only a stone's throw from the Ramcharger Chair.
Quick shower and time for dinner. The Big Sky Mountain Village has lots to offer, from sushi to tacos, pizza, pub food at Montana Jack and a variety of choices that will fit any budget. If you're looking for fine dining, Big Sky has Peaks, a modern chophouse with an award-winning wine selection.
Sunday was a new day — sunny, and we had first tracks on the Ramcharger Chair, which is one of the most technically advanced lifts around, with heated seats and a bubble to keep the wind off you. We met up with a couple of locals, Mike Lovely and his daughter Maria. Mike started skiing Big Sky back in 1976. His Uncle Fred had a rustic log cabin where Mike and his cousins would throw down sleeping bags anywhere they could.
"I have some fun memories spending time there," he told us. "There was no indoor plumbing, but we had power and a big fireplace, so all was good for these early ski adventures."
As we rode the chair, Mike talked about all the changes he's seen in his lifetime skiing at Big Sky.
"Back then there was a gondola and three chairlifts. Then later in the '80s two more chairs were added, and then another gondola which they called Gondola 2."
Today Big Sky has 39 lifts on more than 5,850 skiable acres with 4,350 feet of leg-crushing vert from the top of Lone Peak.
Once we got off the Ramcharger, I skied behind Mike and Maria as we made our way over to the sunny part of the hill. Watching father and daughter arc turns down Ambush, a perfectly manicured run, was a joy to watch. It's no wonder Maria has such strong ski technique. Mike's kids have spent endless days skiing on this mountain under his instruction.
Maria has had a strong passion for skiing since her early teens, so much so that she finished her last few years of high school in Big Sky so she could ski and train more for the sport of Big Mountain Freeskiing, or what used to be referred to as Extreme Skiing.
Mike coached Maria and her brother, Jack, in Big Mountain Freeskiing. They were known as Team Lovely. "A lot of my fun, family memories were us, Team Lovely, traveling on the weekends and competing in Freeskiing comps in the Northwest," she told us.
Big Sky's varying and challenging terrain made it the ideal mountain to hone Maria's Freeskiing skills.
And Maria's ski skills made her a perfect fit for the Warren Miller's Future Retro, in which she and Jack skied for the cameras in their huge playground at Big Sky.
After a few, quick runs on Ambush, Mike had to leave for the Big Sky Ski School instructor lineup at 8:45.
Maria took Ryan and I around and showed us her playground. We did some adventuring off the Challenger 3 Chair, where we found plenty of pockets of untouched snow on the upper mountain. The gladed tree skiing in the Zucchini Patch, with its mixture of blue sky and signature trees, was a photographer's dream.
We decided to make one more run before lunch, and as we were riding back up Challenger 3, Maria pointed out a finger ridge that was holding a decent stash of untouched snow. Maria knew the route, as we billy-goated through some rocky areas to access the goods. After a short traverse, we found ourselves standing over the top of a big patch of powder goodness.
This is where I had to pull rank and remind Ryan and Maria that, since I'm the photographer I have to go first so I can get the shot. We all laughed as I skied away.
Knee deep, effortless powder under blue skies, it doesn't get any better than this. I positioned myself halfway down in a safe spot off to the side and signaled back up that I was ready.
Ryan went first, laying down some deep trenches. I was amazed at the wall of snow he was able to put up with each turn. What surprised me even more is that in today's ski world, it's not often you find blower pow midday on a Sunday.
As Maria slid into view, I motioned for her to stay right of Ryan's tracks and ski the edge of the ridgeline. My thought was that Maria would be skylined on the ridge, making for a dynamic photo. Usually when I photograph snow athletes, I have to constantly remind them to smile when they're skiing. Not Maria — she always grins from ear to ear when she skis.
Talk about ending the weekend on a solid note, that last run was it. As we skied back down to the village, I realized that, despite ET's injury early on, our timing could not have been any more perfect. I can hardly wait to get back when ET gets his redemption on the Big Couloir. Hopefully Team Lovely can show us the route. ♦
Bob Legasa has been a Snowlander contributor to the Inlander since 1994. He's also a Hayden-based independent videographer, TV producer and snowsports event promoter with his Freeride Media company.