If you'd like to familiarize yourself with respect to the geographic locations mentioned in this report, I've prepared a labeled, high-resolution map of Montana that will open in a new window.
A couple weeks ago, E and I headed out to Beartooth Pass for our first July skiing ever. I give most of the credit for the idea to Jerm, who mentioned the skiing there last summer and planted the seed in my head. Unfortunately, since we had just moved to Montana last July, we didn't really have the time to undertake such a trip. I was surprised at how little information I could find on the web about backcountry skiing in the Beartooths. People need to write more about their ski trips! I would have liked to read some reports about ski trips to the Beartooths, but couldn't find any. I found one site with a few pictures of backcountry skiing, Jerm gave me the link to one of his pics, and I found a couple of pages about the summer ski camp at the pass, in the Billings Gazette, and Carve, but that was pretty much it. As much fun as it is to explore an area de novo, it's nice to get a bit of beta before the trip to keep things efficient. Anyway, hopefully this report will add to the Beartooth knowledge base out there and facilitate future adventures for others.
The Beartooth Highway (route 212) is somewhat distant for us (6-7 hours) and requires an overnight stay if we were to undertake any sort of activities. We're in Hamilton, on the Western edge of Montana, whereas the Beartooth range and highway are south of Billings, in the south-central part of the state. The highway is interesting, for a number of reasons. One of these is the way it straddles the Montana/Wyoming border, and crosses back and forth between the states. The Beartooth Highway is also the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, so one can imagine that it sees a lot of traffic. Another notable feature is the altitude. Beartooth Pass tops out just shy of 11,000' (10,947') and the road maintains its altitude for quite a while along a high plateau. The scenery is impressive as well. One travels along the highway amidst rolling tundra, snowfields, and snowy peaks in the distance. Finally, there's the skiing. Depending on how early you go, there is amazing skiing right off the highway. This includes a number of hike-to-ski options, a small skiing area with a couple of platter lifts right at the top of the pass, and car shuttle skiing options with big, steep, vertical. One spot for car shuttle skiing offers up 1,500' of vertical at a reported slope of 45 degrees. That's pretty good for about 10 minutes of driving, but that option is generally only available earlier in the season.
I'm not sure what the Beartooth Pass area receives for annual snowfall (I've seen estimates between 300 and 600 inches), but the 10-foot poles along the sides of the road suggest that it builds up to substantial levels. The pass usually doesn't open until the end of May, at which point eager skiers are chomping at the bit to get at all that accessible snow. The wealth of snow in the region is (at least in part) due to the elevation of the mountains. The Beartooths comprise roughly 3,000 square miles of terrain above 10,000 feet, making it one of the largest land masses rising above 10K' in North America. The Beartooth Range is closely linked to the Absaroka Range (everyone seems to pronounce this Ab-sor-kee) and although the Absarokas are west of the Beartooths, the exact dividing line is still a little unclear to me. The whole region of elevated land was created in some huge upheaval event 50-60 million years ago, and contains some of the earth's oldest rocks (something like 2.5-3.0 billion years old). The region is also home to Montana's highest point, Granite Peak, which rises to 12,799'. We may have a chance to get out and hike Granite later this summer, which would be a unique experience. It's one of the harder state highpoints, and requires a multi-day trip.
Along with us on this trip were my colleagues Jon and Laura. Jon is a seasoned backcountry veteran and a great Telemark skier. Although I've got some experience in backcountry skiing, it's nice to have someone of Jon's experience to discuss ideas. This was especially nice since Laura was out for her first backcountry skiing trip ever. She was really hoping that we'd be able to find something to ski that was within her abilities, and so were we.
In order to experience the entire Beartooth Highway, I decided that we'd head east on Interstate 90 and hit the town of Red Lodge first. Red Lodge (5,555') is an old mining town that now serves as a gateway to the Beartooth Highway/Yellowstone National Park, and the Red Lodge ski area. Our first experience with the town was when we blew in at around 10:00 P.M. on Friday night. It looked like a nice place, but we only had time to gas up, and get on our way to find a campsite.
E was our driver, and took us out of Red Lodge and onto the Beartooth Highway. It was now getting pretty dark, so we unfortunately couldn't get a great sense for the terrain. Still, we could catch glimpses of other cars driving around on the highway; cars that seemed to be directly above and below us! At one point, Jon and I caught a glimpse of a light way up in the sky, which seemed like a plane. It was so high in the sky, there was no way it could be a car. In a few minutes we realized it WAS a car; this was one amazing road. We eventually reached the top of the highway, and leveled out as we traveled across the high plateau. Even in the headlights, I could see snowbanks carved along the side of the road, a very good sign.
The plan was to camp at one of the Custer National Forest campgrounds just beyond the pass, which would put us in a nice location to hit the skiing. We checked out both the Island Lake campground (9,600') and the Beartooth Lake campground (9,000'), but they were full. It turns out, these were two of the many lakes scattered about in the Beartooths. Finding these campgrounds full, we headed back a couple of miles, pulled off on a dirt road where a camper had set up shop, and put up the tents. It worked great, and it was free! We went to sleep under an amazingly clear sea of stars, wondering what our surroundings would look like in the morning.
We woke to somewhat hazy skies, but could see the general area. We were in a grassy field, and we could make out some peaks with snow in the distance. In order to hit the convenient ski terrain, we'd have to travel back up the pass. First priority was to get a campsite if we could, and we managed to nab one at the Beartooth Lake campground. To give you an idea of the camping season in the upper campgrounds here, they don't even open until JULY, and they close the first week of SEPTEMBER! That's just a two-month season! We were all generally amused at the thought.
Soon we were on our way up to the pass to search for some skiing. We were looking for something with easy access, especially for our first turns. There were plenty of low-angle snowfields, but none that would really provide a lot of turns. We found a really steep chute on the west side of the summit, which even had some tracks in it from previous skiers, but it looked like the bottom of the chute disappeared into oblivion now. We decided to keep searching. Ultimately, we decided on skiing the area serviced by the platter lifts right at the top of the pass. This area was conveniently located just below the highway, and offered what looked like about 1,000' of vertical in a bowl. A cornice began to our left, and gradually grew to about 20 or 30 feet high as you continued in that direction. The easiest entry looked to be far right, near the upper towers of one of the lifts. This entry seemed to be the best bet for a first run, especially for Laura who was just getting her feet wet.
Jon dropped in first, and set down some nice tele turns on the slope. It started out at maybe a bit more than 30 degrees, and since it was generally north-facing, the snow was holding up pretty well even though it was already noontime. I dropped in next, and skied down a good distance to set up a second camera. E filmed with the first camera from above, and finally, she and Laura made their turns. Laura actually did quite well for he first backcountry turns ever! After about 400 vertical feet, the pitch began to mellow. Although the top offered the most exciting terrain, we all decided to continue on down to experience the full descent. The snow ended at a small lake in the bottom of the bowl, and by the time we had reached the bottom, we'd covered 1,660' of vertical. The flatter sections near the bottom that got more sun were a bit sticky at this hour, but it was still worth the trip to see what was there. After that, it was time to hike out. Jon skinned up the flatter sections, then made a boot ladder that we all followed back up to the road.
Back at the car, we were surprised that we hadn't seen any other skiers, but there were plenty of tourists checking out the accessible snow and asking how the skiing was. We contemplated another run, but the clouds were building, thunder was about, and drops of rain visited us here and there. A couple of locals finally showed up to ski, and we got info from them about other spots. They had just been skiing across the valley on another snowfield accessed by a dirt road. They also filled us in on the car shuttle skiing area, but said it was melted out now. With the weather, we decided to wait and continue our skiing the next day when we could get an earlier start.
From the summit, we headed back toward the town of Red Lodge to experience that part of the highway in the day, and check out the Red Lodge scene. From the Beartooth Plateau, we could look right down on the valley, thousands of feet below. We got a view of the area used for car shuttle skiing, it looked long and steep. It was simply amazing to think that such terrain could be accessed by car! We poked around Red Lodge for a bit, and talked to the folks at the Red Lodge visitor information center. The most notable experience was in speaking with a woman at the info center, who, upon finding out that Laura had skied up at the pass, proclaimed that she was a "Brave little lady!" We enjoyed that quote for the rest of the trip :). Actually, I believe we're still using the quote, Laura doesn't seem to mind. ;) That evening, Jon took us on a hike, which required a stream crossing in the dark. It was certainly a unique experience as we crossed the stream at the end of our hike amidst a rainstorm and eerie fog along Beartooth Lake. We all slept well in preparation for the next day's skiing.
After breaking camp early the next morning, we headed back to the platter lift area for some more turns. This time we would hit the next chute to the left. It's a bit steeper, a bit tighter, and had a slightly more difficult entrance. It turns out that this was the chute I'd seen in Jerm's picture a few days earlier. Jon had been eyeing it since the previous day, what a great choice! Jon was a bit concerned about the chute due to the cornice that rose to the skier's left, but it seemed fairly stable, and we decided to minimize our time in the danger area below it. I dropped in first this time, and set up a camera at the edge of the chute for more video. Everyone enjoyed the chute, especially Laura, who was so jazzed with adrenaline after doing it that she couldn't stop talking about it. She was certainly worried about the slope, but she pulled a nice run together and was amazed at what she'd done. That was really nice to see, another potential backcountry skier in the making.
Although it might have been nice to hike directly back up the chute, Jon thought it would be best to stay out of the fall zone of the cornice, so we headed up to hikers left where we'd skied the previous day. We didn't continue down into the lower regions of the bowl this time, making the run only about 400 vertical feet. Still, we all agreed that the corn snow and the turns were just phenomenal in the chute; it was fine in itself. The skiing was so good that we decided on another run. Since the snow was in such fine shape, Jon was thinking of getting a bit of air off the cornice as we entered the chute. He and I both went for it, and had nice entries. The second run went well, and we called it a day after that because we were heading to Yellowstone National Park on the way home. Many of the tourists at the pass enjoyed watching us ski (although some thought we were crazy). Still, we received lots of encouragement and positive comments.
After our skiing was done, we continued along the Beartooth Highway towards Cooke City (7,674'), and the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. Cooke city is somewhat smaller than Red Lodge, and tucked in among a lot of mountains. The trip through Yellowstone was fun, with lots of wildlife, geysers, and yes, crowds too. Still, since we have a National Parks Pass, the admission was free, and it's hard to pass up a place like Yellowstone as your route home. Oh, the things we'll put up with for some summer skiing! After the visit to the park, we still had a few hours of driving to get home. We left through the West Yellowstone entrance, and managed to catch an amazing collection of thunderstorms throughout the trip. It really made the trip home a lot more fun. Anyway, it would be nice to return to the Beartooth area earlier in the season. I would love to hit some of that car-accessed terrain, it looks incredible for such little work.
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