In southern Montana, the ski season never has to end. While some Montanans pack up their skis and toss them into dark attics, others just change from snow pants to shorts. Anyone needing to calm their ski addiction can be satiated during the summer months by visiting the peaks surrounding Bozeman or the Beartooth Mountains in Red Lodge.
Between the Bridger Range and the Spanish Peaks, Bozeman has a plethora of locations that lend themselves to skiing throughout the year. Two famous locations, The Blaze and The Great One, stand out for their long, steep, and steady runs.
Blaze Mountain, nestled in the Lee Metcalf wilderness of the Spanish Peaks, stands out, not for its immense stature, but its long, thin snowfield. The 10,300 foot mountain with its brilliant, 1,500 vertical foot strip of snow catches the eye more than a white-tailed doe in a dark forest. This linear strip stays white all year, its talus slope collecting and protecting the snow from the harsh UV rays of the Montana’s unrelenting summer sun.
Local Bozemanites affectionately refer to this summer gem as The Blaze. How this received its name eludes us, not for lack of options, but for having to choose amongst them. The Blaze may resemble slashes cut into trees that mark trails, called blazes. It may look like the white blaze that runs down a horse’s long nose. Or sometimes on late-summer nights, the red sunset turns every last crevice of snow into an orange blaze that stands out like a river of lava flowing down a fiery volcano. Maybe The Blaze simply harkens to that feeling of blazing down a mountain in the summer and the blaze of emotions such an experience can bring any outdoor enthusiast.
No matter the story, backcountry skiers first flocked to The Blaze in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the never-ending season became legend for the adventurous. Over the next 30 years, as the skis evolved from pointed to parabolic, and from telemark to touring, The Blaze has seen its visitors increase yearly.
The Blaze’s 1,500 ft snowfield is an ideal line for intermediate and advanced skiers. But, like most summer skiing, a 1,500 hundred-foot line downhill requires equal or more uphill. The seven-mile approach to its base from the Spanish Creek Trailhead usually takes four to 10 hours. Oftentimes, skiers will split the approach and ascent into multiple days. By doing this, they can summit the mountain by the late morning to hit ideal snow conditions and squeeze out every remaining flake from the summer season.
Just across the valley, lies a famous Bozeman couloir—The Great One. A few miles past the winter ski haven Bridger Bowl, The Great One only needs a two to three mile hike to reach. The reward is well worth the penance in this case, as The Great One may be one of the best summer lines around, especially into late August. Resting on the Naya-Nuki Peak, this run can be accessed from the Fairy Lake Trailhead. The black rocks define the landscape of upper Naya-Nuki. Deep fissures juxtaposed along craggy stones cut into the big Montana sky. The Great One is the biggest and deepest of these fissures, holding snow in its deep belly year round.
The Great One is steep and should only be attempted by advanced and expert skiers. Starting in a thin chute and finishing with some long, steady turns, the breathtaking line worms itself down the mountain. Skiers will feel exposed, looking across the Bridger Canyon, yet protected, as they ski within the strange white cylinder. Skiers may find it difficult not to imagine themselves in a deep canyon river, being pushed down by a vast white wave of snow.
The Beartooth Mountains, like the Bozeman area, have a long skiing history in both the winter and summer. The summer season, however, makes them stand out as the prime skiing location of southern Montana. Hardcore ski enthusiasts can ski off the Gardiner Headwall and hike back up, or even ski from a variety of points along the West Summit of the Beartooth Plateau and into the Rock Creek Drainage.
But the presence of a fully operating summer ski area, Beartooth Basin, makes skiing in the Beartooths special. Beartooth Basin’s ski lift provides excellent summer skiing to those looking to save some breath from the hikes up the mountains. Located just across the border of Wyoming, Beartooth Basin is still most easily accessible from the Montana entrance and its nearest town of Red Lodge.
The ski area first began in 1966, when three Austrians — Pepi Gramshammer, Eric Sailer, and Anderi Molterer — founded the Beartooth Pass Ski Area as an alpine training center, attracting youth teams and Olympic hopefuls looking for a few extra months of training. Still today, the area draws talent from much of the Midwest and western United States including alpine groups from Minnesota, Idaho, and Utah.
As ownership changed hands over the years, the mountain’s focus shifted away from race training and moved towards attracting the general public. Last year, the area rebranded itself Beartooth Basin, leaving no doubt that anyone and everyone looking for summer turns could take a trip up to the backcountry ski area.
Justin Modroo, one of the part owners, has focused on keeping Beartooth Basin open each and every year. He wants to provide consistency to the growing number of skiers visiting the area. “The Beartooths have always been in the know,” commented Modroo, “It’s the advanced skier market, looking to get turns in, (that) has greatly increased.”
Raised in Billings, Modroo’s attraction to the Beartooth area started as a kid. He skied the headwalls during the summers and attended the Beartooth summer ski camps. Modroo would eventually ski on the World Free-skiing tour, finishing in the top fifteen, 30 times.
Surrounded entirely by Wilderness Study Area, the ski area is a true diamond-in-the-ruff. Beartooth Basin owners sometimes plows the roads themselves in order to remain open. Keeping a consistent season and access has been a priority to keep Beartooth Basin a dependable place to ski.
But to Modroo, the effort is worth the skiing. Even with his high list of skiing accomplishments, two of his three biggest lines came from skiing the Beartooths. “Pretty gnarly stuff,” commented Modroo, “Montana is really untouched in summer skiing. People are blown away by the season and blown away by the snow quality.”
An excellent vertical, coupled with legitimate cornice skiing, can challenge the best skiers while intermediate skiers can opt for the more gradual descent to skier’s right. Beartooth Basin has also added a big air park for those looking to practice their best tricks into the summer.
Whether hiking a backcountry couloir or taking the lift in the Beartooths, southern Montana has developed into a premier summer skiing destination. The snow-tipped peaks remind all Montanans that though many seasons come and go, ski season is not among them. No, ski season carries on in Montana, snow or shine, always waiting for the next summer skier to pass through its high snowy mountains.