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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715


Spring Skiing Glacier Park and the Beartooth

Extend your season amidst world-class scenery


S.gif (910 bytes)cott peered somewhat apprehensively over the lip of the headwall at the enticing chute that lay below. To either side giant cornices made up of tonsHeadwall.jpg (17988 bytes) 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 do it….". 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 Sky’s 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, you’re 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 don’t want to fall through one of these snow bridges, and those venturing into the backcountry should be armed with maps to show the stream locations.

Fortunately, none of these hazards (with the possible exception of buriedLoganski.jpg (23039 bytes) 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 friend’s 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 wasn’t 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 theBeartooth.jpg (30160 bytes) 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 isn’t much short of 11,000 feet in elevation, though, and I’m sure you will find a full day of skiing an exhausting proposition, even without climbing. Of course, if that isn’t 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. It’s 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.


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