By Renae Counter Explorebigsky.com contributor

On Jan. 1, 2012 Cory Birkenbuel set off with a goal to ski every one of Montana’s 16 ski areas in 16 days.

As part of his internship as a business student at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Birkenbuel coined the adventure “Montana’s Sweet 16.” Accompanying him were his longtime friend and Montana State film student Kevin Hilton and an undying passion for Montana skiing.

“Anybody can ski Montana. We have the best skiing in America,” Birkenbuel said.

Growing up in Dillon, Birkenbuel was raised on the slopes of Maverick Mountain, a small ski area with gorgeous views and killer skiing in the rural Grasshopper Valley. Here, Birkenbuel grew to love skiing, to find solace in it, and to pass that love along to others. In his 20s, he taught skiing there, and even taught Hilton to ski at age 7.

At age 33, Birkenbuel was curious if the rest of Montana had a passion for skiing that paralleled what he experienced at Maverick.

From the journey, he and Hilton produced Montana’s Sweet 16, a full length, feature film that captures the passion Birkenbuel sought. It shows a rippling pride for hometown Montana ski areas and powder lines.

“The people in Montana have a true passion for everything they do,” Birkenbuel said after the trip. “I hope I educated the ski community that there are 16 ski areas in Montana, and I hope I motivated people to go ski them.”

But it wasn’t all easy. On November 27, before the trip even started, a fire consumed Birkenbuel’s house. Then, while skiing Bridger Bowl on January 3, he honored the 10th anniversary of his brother, Cody’s death. On January 4, a credit card company levied Birkenbuel’s bank account, empting his entire savings for the trip, and on January 5 he learned of another friend’s passing.

But through great loss comes great understanding, and Birkenbuel’s journey taught him even more: Skiing equals peace of mind. On January 16, after an early morning run at Maverick, he became the first person to ski all 16 Montana ski areas in 16 days.

Viewings of Montana’s Sweet 16 will be held across Montana this winter and at the Cold Smoke Awards in Bozeman this February.

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Birkenbuel’s route on the sweet 16 tour:

January 1 – 2:Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin
Home to the Biggest Skiing in America.

January 3 – Bridger Bowl
The Bridger Ridge is famous. The recently opened Slushman’s zone is already legend.

January 4 – Red Lodge
Known for big, late season snowstorms

January 5 – Teton Pass
114 acres, 1,000 vert and a wild setting on the Rocky Mountain Front

January 6 – Showdown
At 75 years old, Montana’s oldest ski area.

January 7 – Bear Paw Ski Bowl
“Ski knee-deep cheap” on the Chippewa Cree Indian Reservation

January 8 – Turner Mountain
All 2,000 vert of rockin’ terrain is available for rent.

January 9 – Lookout Pass
Free ski and snowboard lessons for ages 6 through 17

January 10 – Whitefish Mountain Resort
Snow ghosts, creamy pow and 3,000 skiable acres

January 11 – Blacktail Mountain
Drive to the top and drop in before ever riding a chair.

January 12 – Montana Snowbowl
The front side trees are epic–when there’s fresh. The Last Run Inn is one of the nation’s best ski area bars.

January 13 – Great Divide
Five terrain parks, night skiing and Montana-style jibbing on old mine tailings

January 14 – Discovery Ski Area
The Backside is steep and radical. The views are gorgeous, the baked good incredible.

January 15 – Lost Trail Powder Mountain
LT straddles the Bitterroot/Salmon national forests, the Montana/Idaho border and two different time zones. Early season dumps are king.

January 16 – Maverick Mountain
Ride the White Thunder!