Story and photos by Ersin Ozer, Explorebigsky.com Contributor
“We’re going to shred until Yellowstone blows up!”
My ski partner was excited after a couple of fast laps on the Gardiner Headwall, off the Beartooth Pass.
We hiked that same line again the next morning before exploring other shredable options along our driving route back home to Big Sky. The Beartooth Highway is also known as ‘the most scenic drive—and lift-ride—in Montana.’
Yes, there is still snow for the adventurous soul-shredder, and it’s closer and more accessible than you may think. I’m not talking 18-mile hikes for a few turns; I’m talking about parking your car within five-minute walks to the tops of Alaskan-esque terrain, slushy in all its glory.
Shred. Hike (or even ride in a car) between the road switchbacks. Repeat.
The Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212, is a 69-mile stretch of road between Red Lodge and Cooke City, Mont. Only open in the summer, it’s a civil engineering feat that houses a playground for snow enthusiasts.
There, you can rip summer backcountry lines in the Beartooths, or spin cork 9s off cat-groomed jumps built on lift-accessed terrain at the Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp located near the top of the pass.
This gem of a ski hill operates from Memorial Day to 4th of July and offers 900 feet of vertical drop on 600 acres, rails and kickers, hero-hucking cornice drops, and GS race training.
“Historically this is a place where [racing and freeriding] teams from around the world would come and train,” said ski area co-owner Austin Hart.
Rope tows were first installed there by Austrian race coaches in 1977, and have since been replaced by two Poma lifts. The lower lift accesses an intermediate to advanced terrain park, and the other goes straight up the headwall and accesses a buyer’s market of freeriding options.
The diversity of the place really shines when you consider that back in the ‘80s it hosted Olympic ski-coaches and racers, and that in the ‘90s it was the hand-dug-halfpipe training grounds for the likes of Tanner Hall and Ross Powers. Now, it’s a Mecca for snowboarders and skiers looking to itch their summer shred without having to travel to Mount Hood or Whistler.
“The goal of this place is to be a public ski area for the summer months,” Hart said. “Whether you’re doing big-mountain, park, racing, this is a great place to develop steep-skiing skills. We’re all about keeping summer skiing alive.”
It’s a big-mountain venue with a terrain park—the perfect ingredients to hold summer-shred competitions.
And over the June 23 weekend, 38 athletes arrived in full force to compete in the second annual Beartooth Summer Sessions hosted by ON3P Skis. A big-mountain and slope-style competition with a jam-session format, the event offered $6,000 in prizes to hungry skiers and snowboarders.
“This contest really showcased all-around skiing—park, big-mountain, technical drops, feature hunting, and being safe,” said Kevin Miller, one of four judges for the event.
But being safe doesn’t always bring home the trophy. Ironically, being lucky does. The guy who won the big mountain comp “jumped a pretty monster cornice and actually slapped his skis on some rocks and rode out,” said Kip Kirol from ON3P Skis, event director for the Beartooth Summer Sessions. “Probably a 45-foot drop.”
Well into the summer months, skiing and snowboarding is still alive in Montana. With a couple tanks of gas, a pair of sunglasses, avalanche gear and a heap of determination, you can be standing on top of a snow-filled couloir, even in July.
Nearby camping allows the local to DIY and seek out a few turns, without having to head to the southern hemisphere. Not to mention the attraction of riding sweet, lift-accessed ice-nuggets at the Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp (which closed July 1). Just keep in mind there are still risks, even in the summer.
“Most of the commonly traveled routes in the Beartooths are [now] reasonably safe,” Hart says, “but a lot of big cornices build up, and during late-afternoon skiing it gets warm [and] those things peel off. There’s always an inherent risk of being below a cornice or a wet-slide.”
The Beartooths are the real deal. Always wear a beacon, tour with adequate gear and clothing, check the weather, ski with a partner and know your limitations.
Chances are if you’re reading this story in daylight hours, someone’s making turns in the Beartooths right now. Go, get after it!
Ersin Ozer specializes in production of ski and snowboard competitions and currently is event coordinator at Moonlight Basin. He has worked with Snowboarder Magazine’s Superpass Tour, Volcom’s Peanut Butter and Rail Jam, and the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour. He recently went snowboarding in June, for the first time in three months after shoulder surgery. Stoked!