peered somewhat apprehensively over the lip of the headwall at
the enticing chute that lay below. To either side giant cornices
made up of tons of
snow and ice deposited by winter winds hung precariously suspended
over the mountainside below, but gravity had already pulled the
cornice loose above the chute we were contemplating. Tracks of
previous skiers disappeared into it, indicating that others had
judged it safe, and with a shrug Scott pushed off and disappeared
over the edge. That made further discussion pointless, and Tom
and I gave each other a resigned grin that said "If he can
.". A brief vertical drop launched us into an
exhilarating run; two thousand vertical feet of perfect springtime
corn snow. The Ridge at Bridger Bowl? The Big Couloir off Big
Skys Lone Peak Tram? No, the nearest ski lift at Red Lodge
was over twenty miles away and had been closed for the season
over a month. We were skiing the Rock Creek Headwall, near Beartooth
Pass. It was late May, and we were skiing in T-shirts, slathered
with sunscreen, and having the time of our lives.
If you enjoy skiing or snowboarding and are looking for something out of the ordinary
to do in early summer, there are a couple of exceptional spots in Montana to indulge
yourself. Two of the most scenic highways in the world; the Going-To-The-Sun Road in
Glacier Park, and the Beartooth Highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City, access
high-elevation snowfields that persist well into the summer. The opening date of these
roads varies with spring weather conditions and winter snowpack levels, but the Beartooth
is usually open by late May and Going-To-The-Sun by mid to late June. A trip to the top of
either is like turning the calendar back a couple of months, and affords a chance to
extend your ski season nearly till Independence Day, if you so desire.
The runs off the top of Beartooth Pass are steep and challenging, great fun for
experts, but there is good skiing for all abilities at Logan Pass on the Going-To-The-Sun.
The lower slopes of Mount Clements above the Visitor Center are wide open, gentle, and
most enjoyable for beginners and intermediates. Similar slopes are also available in the
Hanging Gardens area to the south of the Visitor Center. One other nice thing about these
two areas is that avalanche danger is virtually nonexistent.
Speaking of avalanches, they are a very real concern that anyone would be foolish to
ignore. Obviously, you are not skiing at a resort where the ski patrol does much of the
risk management for you, but on your own and responsible for your own safety. The
springtime temperatures are melting the snow, making it dense and heavy, and on steeper
slopes at some point gravity takes over and down the mountain it goes. All avalanches are
potentially deadly, but due to the density of the snow springtime ones are particularly
bad. If you get caught in one, youre a goner. No ski run is worth dying for, so
exercise due caution. A few other hazards exist, primarily sharp rocks buried in the snow
or falling from surrounding peaks. One other hazard is streams running under the snow. In
this case the snow is melting from underneath, and can result in a thin snow bridge over
rushing water. You obviously dont want to fall through one of these snow bridges,
and those venturing into the backcountry should be armed with maps to show the stream
Fortunately, none of these hazards (with the possible exception of buried
rocks) exist on the lower slopes of Mount Clements above the visitor center, and beginners
and intermediates can cut loose to their hearts content. This area also lends itself to
cross-country skiers, and is a great place to practice telemark turns. It is also where
the above photo was taken, and I have to chuckle every time I look at it. A little
explanation is in order. A group of us were staying at a friends cabin on Lake
McDonald and spending our days skiing at Logan Pass. The first day we were eyeing a rock
outcropping as a possibility for an interesting natural jump. There was plenty of snow
below the rocks, but above them the snow was melted back about twenty yards from the edge.
The next day we took a shovel and constructed a snow path to the edge, and had a great
time sailing off it, over about a ten foot drop. At the time, I had a 35 mm camera with
the type of viewfinder that you have to look down into. The image was reversed, and it was
nearly impossible to follow any kind of moving figure with it. One of our friends
wasnt taken with our jumping ideas, so we positioned him below the cliff with our
cameras. He had never used mine before, but on his first try got the above photo, truly a
shot of a lifetime.
Those seeking longer and steeper runs have plenty of options higher up on Mount
Clements, as well as adjacent Mount Oberlin and Reynolds Mountain. The possibilities are
only limited by your stamina since these routes require considerable climbing before
and/or after your runs. Once you leave the lower slopes, things get rapidly very steep,
and correspondingly more thrilling (and hazardous).
Most backcountry skiing entails a laborious climb, either before or after your descent.
A wonderful exception exists at Beartooth Pass, however. A relatively easy hike across the
plateau at the top of the pass leads to the top of the Rock
Creek Headwall. After a thrilling descent, another short walk leads to a switchback on the
Beartooth Highway, where skiers can be either picked up by a companion or hitchike back to
the top of the pass. This makes it possible to pack several runs into a day, a most unique
situation. The top of the pass isnt much short of 11,000 feet in elevation, though,
and Im sure you will find a full day of skiing an exhausting proposition, even
without climbing. Of course, if that isnt unique and thrilling enough to suit you,
there are several other possibilities where your turns are paid for in sweat; involving a
climb of several hundred vertical feet. Perhaps the most extreme possibility is known as
Reefer Ridge, a name that is no doubt revealing about the recreational habits of its
devotees. It drops nearly 3000 vertical feet, from the plateau down to Rock Creek. The
Rock Creek Road ends in the vicinity, but its navigability this early in the year is
questionable at best. In most cases, you will have to hike out at least part of the way.
Arranging a shuttle ahead of time is advisable, but most who are inclined to tackle this
kind of adventure view such logistics as a minor inconvenience.
The skiing or snowboarding is only part of the attraction, though. At both locations
you are surrounded by world-class scenery. Logan Pass, at 6600, lies surrounded by
towering peaks and glacial valleys. 11,947 Beartooth Pass is different. Here you are
above nearly everything else around, and the top of the pass is a relatively level
plateau. The surrounding country drops away, for the most part, and you are truly on top
of it all. You can see a staggering amount of country from the top of the pass, with
mountains stretching off in every direction.
High elevation spring skiing at these locations is just the kind of thing we love here
at Cowboy Heaven Consulting; a truly unique adventure. Where else can you get a start on
your summer tan while getting in a few last turns amidst jaw-dropping scenery and the
dropped jaws of more pedestrian tourists. Its one of those things where you feel
like laughing out loud from the sheer joy of it, and I guarantee it will put a big Montana
smile on your face.
See you at the Pass.