Cold Smoke vs. Hard Pack

I don’t remember the exact moment when Eric and I decided to dedicate a Winter to being ski bumbs in Montana, but one night we shook on it, and in October of 2002 we set out with my dog, Trout, bound for Bozeman.  My Mazda B4000 pickup was packed full and we were towing a small U-Haul trailer with all of our life possessions.  Neither of us had been to Montana, we did not know a soul in Bozeman, had zero prospects for jobs, and were too young for any of this cause any level of trepidation.  Like so many people drawn to dreams of bigger mountains and deeper snow, Montana was something we had to see and experience for ourselves.  It was a mythical place in our mind that only existed in ski magazines, Warren Miller flics, and stories from buddies that seemed too good to be true. After breaking up the 16-hour haul from Eugene with a camp spot at Moses Lake, we pulled into Bozeman just before dark.  

Smart phones did not exist yet meaning the only way to get information about the area was to actually talk to people!  We grabbed a bite to eat at Mackenzie River Pizza on Main Street and asked our server where we could find a good place to camp.  She looked at us with a mix of wonder and concern, explaining that it was the end of Fall and getting well below freezing at night.  Nonetheless, she told us how to get up to Hyalite Canyon where we would find plenty of options to make camp.  Eric had been insistent on bringing his queen size mattress from Eugene, which I of course gave him relentless shit for, until we were able to cram it into our tent where we would sleep for the next week. 

Hyalite Canyon 

Every day, we would drive into town and warm up at the Happy Hour at Molly Brown’s while we searched for places to live in the local newspaper.  Molly Brown’s was part of the barmuda triangle, had pool tables in the front of the bar, poker in the back, smelled like an ashtray, actually gave you 2 beers for the price of 1 from 4-7pm, and workers piled buckets of ice in the horse trough of a urinal because plumbing was not guaranteed. It was the kind of place where Eric and I would not draw attention to ourselves as we tried to secure work and housing.  As fate would have it, a basement apartment opened up right next to the Molly and the landlords told us to swing by to check it out.  We showed up at the same time as a young couple and since both parties were interested in the place, the landlord decided to leave it up to a coin toss.  Eric deferred to the woman to call it in the air and she guessed wrong.  I can’t imagine their relationship outlasting such a crushing defeat as we struggled not to show our exuberance.  We felt like we had won the lottery as we packed up our camp just as the snow was starting to fly.  A couple of days later, we were at a slightly classier watering hole when a couple sat next to us at the bar.  The woman went on to tell us that she worked up at the local ski area, Bridger Bowl, and they were hiring people.  Within a few weeks, both Eric and were cooking 4 days a week and riding our snowboards the other 3.  I worked at the mid mountain resort, Deer Lodge, so my commute on the way to work was riding a chair lift and the way down was on my snowboard.  Eric was at Jimmy B’s and did not clock in until 10am which meant he typically snuck in a couple of fresh runs before work.  When we first arrived into town we had two things on our To Do List: 1) Find a place to live 2) Get a job.  With both of those items checked off, the Winter would take care of the rest.

The Morning Commute to Bridger Bowl

Our career motto that we wore on our sleeves during that time was, ‘Work to live rather than live to work.’  Over that Winter, we invested all of our time and energy into our life on the ski hill.  At that time, Bridger Bowl’s highest reaching lift stopped a few hundred yards from the peak.  Armed with avalanche beacons, snow shovels, and our boards strapped to our backs we joined the other ‘Ridge Hippies’ in setting a boot pack to the summit.  From the top, we could hike 45 min in either direction along the Ridge and ski any line we saw fit heading down the mountain.  There were times when the wind was ripping across that ridge with such force that we would have to take a knee to brace ourselves and other times when we simply wanted to stay perched on top of the world, soaking in the sun and the views of the Gallatin, Spanish Peak, and Absorka Mountain Ranges.   People that we became friends with told us to ‘guard our lines,’ meaning to always keep some of those secret stashes for ourselves.  Bridger Bowl’s tagline is ‘ski the cold smoke.’ The snow comes in at such a cold temperature and is therefore so light, that when you hold it in your hand and blow, the powder literally dissipates like smoke.  We truly experienced the feeling of floating in that snow as the weight of the world disappeared and gravity ceased to exist as we carved through routes like Hidden Gully and Z Fan.

The Ridge

That first Winter, Eric’s time in Montana cam to and abrupt end.  The ski patrol used to throw a party every year called the ‘Lunatic Luge’ in which an insane sledding course was built.  Eric hit the line with such speed that his sled jumped the bank and crashed into the tree.  There was a snowmobile on hand to drive him to my truck and we spent that night in the emergency room.  Eric broke a couple of ribs and torqued his back in a way that he was not able to ski for the rest of the year.  His Dad drove out from Eugene a couple of days later, we packed Eric’s things and they drove back to Eugene.  I decided to stay the rest of that Winter in spite of being without my best friend.  The following summer, Andy, a longtime friend who I had also known from High School, and Colonel Kurtz all lived in a cabin up Bracket Creek which sat at the base of the Bridger Range.  Andy had resurrected a couple of snow mobiles from his family’s cabin in Crescent Junction, OR and we could literally take off from our back yard and be in the endless backcountry.  I met friends during those years in Montana that I formed an incredible bond with in a short amount of time.  Part of that comes from the astonishing amount of trust that you must have in your ski buddies when embarking into those mountains and, the other, is that you are all committed to seeking a higher level of joy than thought imaginable while blocking out the rest of the world.  With a part of my soul buried deep in the Bridger Mountains, I left my buddies and untamed wilderness after three winters to return to Oregon.

Warming up in one of the ski shacks on Bridger

This time in Montana turned me into an absolute snob when it comes to snow and skiing.  And why, when Ashlee and I hauled our ski gear with us to Korea, my expectations were pretty tamed.  We had glimpses of ourselves lapping up the snow in Japan, but all international travel is on hold these days.  However, when going to the home of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Yongpyang ski area, I did have a little hope.

Even though Korea is 70% mountains, there is not much in the way of natural snow and the ski resorts essentially look like someone painted a big white stripe down a huge mound of dirt. Any notion of riding natural terrain is eclipsed as there is orange fencing on both sides of the runs to prevent you from flying off into the trees and rocks. The sun was out that day but there was still biting wind that cut through our layers and had us thankful we were required to wear masks. The Gondola provided some respite from the elements and also allowed us to cruise the longest run in Korea. Ashlee and I still had a blast just being together on the slopes and finding humor in the novel experience. I did walk away saying that I believe I’ve had enough good days of skiing that I no longer feel the need to force the issue in Korea.

20 Years after our time in Montana, Eric and I still ride together

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