Problem-solving community partners mobilized Friday to rescue the event’s biggest showing yet
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
The Big Sky Skijoring Association held its Best in the West Showdown this weekend, resulting in a dramatic and well-attended two-day event.
Big Sky resident, national skijoring champion and course designer Colin Cook called it the most consistently large crowd he’s ever seen throughout a skijoring event, especially at the end of each day when the pros finally competed. BSSJ Director Justa Adams believes more than 4,000 attendees passed through the gate. The event’s first ever freestyle snowmobile show launched over a skier and rider in a drone-filmed stunt, and most event merchandise items were sold out by Sunday morning.
However, the entire competition was almost canceled at the last minute due to a mechanical failure of the snowcat being used to finish the course.
After a diesel exhaust fluid pump failure on Thursday night, event organizers contacted Ryan Blechta, Spanish Peaks’ director of mountain operations, asking for backup.
“My snowcat at Spanish Peaks was unfortunately also down, so bad timing,” Blechta told EBS, adding that he would have driven the club’s cat himself if it were running. Working with snowcats since 2013, he’s used to handling component shortages on foreign built machines. He also knew that Moonlight Basin had a couple brand-new cats.
“We’ve got community partners in town. There’s a lot of snowcats that do the work. Between the three clubs I knew we’d come up with a solution,” he said.
Matt Erickson, Moonlight Basin’s grooming lead, said they were lucky to have more than one PistenBully 100 snowcats—smaller machines used for Nordic tracks and side-trails.
“From my knowledge, we just lent [one] out,” Erickson said. Once we kind of realized this was a big community thing, I just had to climb the ladder and make sure it was OK with everybody. I’m sure any other resort on the mountain would have done the same thing.”
“Thanks to this community, we got Moonlight Basin’s groomer,” Adams said. “If we hadn’t gotten that groomer, we wouldn’t have had an event.”
Even after the machine was secured, the delay compelled Cook to set an “extremely tough” course. Snow was deeper than ideal in the center track, so Cook made the skier route more difficult in order to keep the horses’ speed down.
“We worked as hard as we could to get [the course] perfect, which we couldn’t do,” Cook said. Before the event began on Saturday, he told skiers and riders that they wouldn’t win by just running as fast as they could.
Montanans take the cake
“Skijoring is a team sport, you have to work together,” Cook told EBS. “The rider has to work with the skier and be talented enough with a good horse to do what the skier needs. I always make Big Sky’s course tough. It’s not just a horse race. It’s a three-person sport. You gotta work together, be a team and prove it.”
Josh Abbott and Aaron Griffin did exactly that.
“Josh is a local guy out of Belgrade,” Adams said. “He runs an elk camp out of Sage Creek in Big Sky. I love that he’s a local guy. Aaron Griffin is out of Helena. I love that those two guys won.”
Cook, who also competed in the event, added that he’s good friends with Abbott and Griffin and even works as an elk-hunting guide for Abbott in the fall. Abbott and Cook held first place after Saturday but Cook crashed on Sunday.
“Josh is an extremely talented rider and has two excellent horses,” Cook said. “Aaron is a very talented skier, he won Pagosa Springs [Colo.] two weeks ago and he’s been doing super well this year. They’re both very talented.”
Cook said from start to finish, this was the most spectators he’s seen at a skijoring event.
“The number I saw at the end of the day was the biggest I’ve [ever] seen,” he said, which had something to do with the snowmobile exposition. Cook intentionally scheduled it late to keep fans around, right before the pro-category which typically wraps up each day. He also gave credit to the announcers and the vendors for keeping the crowd involved.
‘This year I took it to the next level’
Jeremy Ueland, program director for the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation, organized the snowmobile exposition.
“People were going crazy about it. It’s something we don’t [normally] see,” he said. “Those guys are interested. They want to come back and be part of it next year.”
BSSEF has provided spectator and safety fencing throughout the history of this event, and Ueland said he has connections in the snowmobiling world. He proposed the snowmobile exposition last year, but event organizers didn’t go for it. This year as BSSJ brainstormed ways to draw a bigger crowd, Ueland gave it another shot. He worked with Keith Sayers of Butte to set up the show, costing roughly $10,000 which was covered by sponsors including GoPro, Ace Hardware, Earth Elements, Mountain Hot Tub and Lone Mountain Land Company.
“It wasn’t a free event,” he pointed out. “They’re paid athletes.”
When Ueland first pitched the snowmobiling idea, Cook decided to incorporate it into his course design.
“I said, ‘I want them jumping over my course,’” Cook recalled.
Snowmobiler Willie Elam damaged his sled on Saturday as he performed that very stunt, but the stunt was executed many more times without a rider below.
“When he flipped it, the rear suspension was [already] broken,” Ueland said. “We called around [but] couldn’t find a part for his race sled which is why he couldn’t ride on Sunday.”
Cook added that last year’s event was the first time skijorers ever jumped over fire.
“This year I took it to the next level,” he said, citing more flames than ever and a hot tub placed beside one jump. “They were strategically placed to keep people safe.”
‘Insane’ and ‘dreamy’ weekend
Due to a miscommunication, the Montana State Rodeo team sent fewer volunteers than expected. On Sunday morning, “Big Sky showed up and helped us get through,” Adams said, as 10 additional community members heeded early-morning text messages asking for event support.
“I’m so grateful to be here, to live here, to work here and be putting on this event,” Adams added.
She also said that any merchandise featuring designs by local artist Madeline Thunder was completely sold out.
“People are messaging and emailing me personally and on social media, asking me to mail them posters and looking to buy sweatshirts,” Adams said.
A four-year Big Sky resident who recently moved to Bozeman, Thunder told EBS that she met Adams at last year’s event, where 406 Agave was launching their brand using her designs. Adams asked right then if she’d do design work for this year’s event.
Thunder focused her design on the Western roots of American skijoring, in which riders would go straight down main street. She used sepia tones as a throwback to ‘wanted’ posters and featured elk as a “crazy” tie-in to local wilderness.
After an exhausting week, Adams told EBS she spent Monday recovering from an “insane” and “dreamy” weekend.
“I’m most glad that landowners were happy, sponsors were happy, horses, skiers and riders were safe,” she said. “My heart is full, and I’m so grateful for our sponsors, our competitors, the weather. The stars really aligned.”
As for next year, Cook said, “I’ve got no plans to do anything different.”