Skiing The Beartooth Pass is a Montana tradition that any serious skier knows, loves, and looks forward to every Spring. Skiers from all over the state converge on Red Lodge, MT and the historic Beartooth Highway for a weekend (weeks for some) of camping, skiing, and catching up with winter friends. This writer made his annual pilgrimage to the Beartooth Pass for a day following opening weekend. What I found was plenty of snow, cold beer (okay I brought those), and plenty of people eager to lend a ride to the top of the pass.
I grew up in Billings, MT which is about an hour from Red Lodge and about an hour and a half from the Beartooth Pass. I grew up in a family that started my sister and I on skis from a very young age. Winters were spent at the local-ish hill, Red Lodge Mountain, but once the lifts stopped turning we were pretty much done skiing. I always enjoyed mountain biking and rock climbing on the Rims of Billings in the summer, but snowboarding was definitely my one true love. It wasn’t until later in high school when I realized that summertime didn’t necessarily mean the end of ski season. I might have gone once during high school, but my parents weren’t too keen on backcountry skiing. Once I got to school at Montana State University in Bozeman, however, it was pretty much game on. I bought a beacon, shovel, probe, and a splitboard and headed into the backcountry. We had a huge snow year, I skipped a lot of class, and got my first taste of backcountry skiing. I was absolutely hooked and wasn’t ready for the season to be over so I grabbed a buddy, grabbed my board, and made my way to the pass.
The yearly migration to the Beartooth Pass truly does feel like the first time each and every time, and this year was no exception. Unfortunately, this year was a solo migration for me. I was in Billings for a short trip to visit family so I made a quick jaunt over to the pass on my way back to Missoula. As I pulled in to Red Lodge the rain started to pick up intensity and it was pretty cold. Normally when you think spring and summer skiing you think shorts and sunglasses, but this day was a sunglasses and no shorts kind of day. As I got up to the pass the rain started to subside and the clouds were starting to break; things were looking good so I pushed on, but quickly realized that there weren’t very many cars coming down off of the pass which at first had me pretty excited - wouldn’t be fighting for snow, but also realized that there wouldn’t be a ton of hitchhiking opportunities… the Beartooth Pass is a special place though.
I pulled into the parking lot below the Rock Creek Headwall and immediately started changing. The rain had stopped, and it was shaping up to be a perfect day for summer skiing. It wasn’t more than a minute after I finished loading my pack that a couple skiers came off the headwall and started loading up their car parked next to mine. We talked for a minute about snow conditions and then I asked how the hitchhiking was, they let me know it wasn’t great today, and offered to give me a lift to the top. I hopped in with them and we started with the normal nice-to-meet-ya chit chat that comes with hitchhiking. It’s not a long drive to the top, but on this day it was long enough to convince them to take another lap before having me shuttle them back up… Skiers are usually easily persuaded on another lap, and these guys were not any different. We chatted a bit as we made our way across the plateau and to the snow, but mostly I just observed. One of them was pretty young, probably 18 or 19 and just finished up his first year of college back East. He was home for the summer to visit his mom and stepfather, his ski partner for the day, who lived in Red Lodge. Hanging back and observing them allowed me to pick up on quite a few things. For one, they didn’t seem overly close, but they did seem to get along really well, and most of this bond seemed to be over the act of skiing. Earlier, on the way up I offered them both a beer for the trouble. The stepdad kindly declined, but he motioned for Parker to take one if he wanted. Parker accepted in a sort of giddy, don’t tell mom about this fashion. This only enhanced my view of them having more of a friendly relationship than a lot of young people might have with a step-parent. Once we made it to the snow, we skied the very very low angle, mellow terrain down to the Rock Creek Headwall and regrouped above the cornice to decide who was going first. I was snapping photos so I deferred to one of them. Parker took it first and skied it with ease. It later came up that his mom is a former US ski team racer, and it definitely showed. He skied with the power and comfort of a ski racer on subpar snow.
We regrouped down in the parking lot, loaded up my car, and shuttled back up to the top so they could grab their car. I was going to just drive my car back down as well, but then Parker offered to take mine down for me. I graciously accepted this offer from the minor who I’d just given a beer to and went on my way for another lap. Skiing definitely builds bonds between complete strangers like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I’m still not sure if it was because I really trusted these guys to not steal my car or if it was just because I wanted to take another lap, but either way, here I was heading over for another lap. This time it was just me and my 3-year old black lab, Finn, picking our way across the plateau enroute to the snow. I coasted across the low angle snow, picked my way to the top of the cornice and strapped in. I took off and Finn was right behind in hot pursuit, making quick work of the steep headwall. I got back to the parking lot to find my keys right where Parker said they would be. I cracked open a beer and started taking off my ski stuff. While I was doing this I got to talking with a couple in their late 30’s from Washington. We talked about their trip and I shared some local beta for climbing, eating, and drinking. They were just shuttling one another back and forth, but skiing alone every time so I offered to shuttle them up. My car was completely packed down so they loaded up their truck, we all drove to the top, and then I brought it back down for them. I really wasn’t in much of a rush to get back to Missoula, and it’s always nice to be able to be the one to give a ride when you’ve been hitchhiking. It feels good and makes for some good karma for your next day out when you need to thumb a ride.
I really was never nervous about being able to find a ride on the pass even though it was a slow Tuesday. You seem to always run into the right people when you’re out skiing. There’s always someone to offer you a beer, a ride, or just some conversation. Whatever they offer, skiing just seems to always workout.