Montana by Dirt: Summer Skiing in the Beartooth Mountains
The first stop on a dirt road trip across Montana.
Skiing in the summer is unsettling. Sweating in my ski boots, I feel as though I’m beating the system, breaking a rule, or otherwise disobeying nature’s cues. Winter is over. Go to the lake. Drink lemonade. Learn to build something in the basement. Conform to the seasons. Mosquitos are meant to annoy hikers and kayakers, not skiers. Skiing outerwear doesn’t have pockets designed for canisters of bear spray. But, as each summer seems to present, I found myself heading to ski couloirs for the first leg of our road trip through Montana, accessing various activities via the vast network of dirt roads.
Graeme, Max, and I rendezvoused with Beau Fredlund in Cooke City, a tiny town serving as one of the scenic gateways to the northeastern entrance of America’s first designated national park, Yellowstone National Park. The complete dearth of cell reception wasn’t an issue; the town is so small that he saw us from his patio and simply waved us down as we drove past.
Beau, a lifelong Montanan, works in the region as a backcountry ski guide and photographer specializing in incredible ski mountaineering in the seriously underappreciated Beartooth Mountains. He is seemingly never bored of the 900,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness outside of his winter home of Cooke City or his summer home of Alpine, on either side of the state’s tallest mountain, Granite Peak.
Although no Beartooth summit pierces even 13,000 feet—opposed to the multiple peaks over 14,000 feet in California, Colorado, Washington, and Alaska—the Beartooths feature a jagged and rugged landscape, carved into plateaus by glaciers, difficult to find elsewhere in the lower 48. All of Montana’s 27 ranked peaks over 12,000 feet can be found in the Beartooths. Beau’s infatuation with them is intricate and broad, linking valleys through long trail runs, climbing to vertical summits, and skiing steep couloirs that require ice climbing prowess to safely ascend.
The Beartooths offered the easiest summer skiing access I’ve ever experienced in North America. The dirt roads took us high into the mountains, often sharing the trails that snowmobilers, ski tourers, and snowshoers enjoy in the winter. In the summer, however, they are mainly frequented by off-highway vehicles and grizzly bears. Had we been driving any earlier in the season, snow would have blocked driving access on the sun-sheltered north-facing paths. But we were driving in late July, when the roads took us to trailheads that took us to the top of peaks.
It’s an extraordinary honor to be able to move around these particular mountains with this particular local. Beau is young, but has achieved a level of mountain familiarity and proficiency that I can only continue to work toward. He knew the perfect summer ascent route for a line that is more commonly skied in the winter. Loose rock was minimized, beautiful exposure maximized. He knew the ideal time of day to ski a ribbon of snow that perfectly satisfied our summer skiing hunger. But more importantly, he knew the perfect lake for an evening dip after a long day of rocky roads, streams, and steep ski turns.
Beartooth Pass connects Beau’s winter village to his summer village. The (paved) road’s switchbacks leading to the summit are steep, abrupt, and especially stomach-churning for those sitting in a vehicle’s back seats. Atop the Pass, Beau fed us three more summer skiing couloirs, satiating us even further. The off-season’s suncups cover the snow surface, a veritable collection of empty buckets buried to the rims, side-by-side, the tops of which are lined with snow and begging to be skied by anyone persistent enough to ignore the last two season changes.
Somehow, Beau didn’t flinch when Max called him, inquiring about a tour of the local skiing, in July. That’s because he gets it. He skis year-round within 20 miles of whichever sub-200-person-population town he decides to inhabit. He is the person to show us around. Pulling into town with no snow visible, we were amazed to drive for 20 minutes, with Beau as our navigator, into a mountain valley with ribbons of summer ski-ready snow in every direction.
Beau is the kind of person we call when we’re trying to ski in unfamiliar mountains in the middle of summer. Beau is the kind of passionate, focused person we’d continually encounter throughout our tour of Montana’s dirt roads, landscapes, activities, and experts. And skiing is the kind of activity that is fun year-round, especially in Montana and especially on a road trip with friends.
Next Post: Ski mountaineer Brody Leven on climbing with Bozeman local (and legendary alpinist) Conrad Anker. Coming Tuesday, July 26, 2014.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all Montana by Dirt posts.
The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.
Video “Summer Skiing” music credits: “The Old Miami” by DJ BVS; “Sun Rises” by Leon Sommer