Winter Camping & Big Mountain Skiing in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains
with Teton Gravity Research
By: Griffin Post, Backcountry.com Athlete
what you'll read in this article:
We dubbed it Nightmare Camp. It was a joke…partially. Sitting there, preparing to tow a modified dog sled behind a snowmobile loaded with 400lbs of gear into a raging snowstorm, the joke seemed to have lost some of its zing. We had fuel, food, and gear to last us ten days in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains for skiing and winter camping. Typically, a trip like this would have taken months to plan, meticulously outlining every detail and preparing for every contingency. We had thrown everything together–from crew to destination– in less than a week. To say we were flying by the seat of our pants would be an understatement.
It’s not always like this in the world of ski cinematography. In fact, it’s never really like this. The sheer nature of what we’re doing, basing out of a remote camp in the backcountry, trying to film some of the rowdiest skiing of the season, requires even the most mundane details to be taken care of. However, as location after location fell through, and late March turned into mid-April, decisions became hastier, and the pressure to do something outweighed fastidious planning.
After a few more clicks of the ratchet straps and a couple of last-minute additions to the modified dog sled, we were “ready.” We gave our sled driver a thumbs up and, after a couple revs, he pinched the throttle, first gingerly, then wide open. Nothing happened. The weight of the sled was too much. We made a group effort to push the sled and, finally, with a bit of extra human horsepower, the sled gained traction and took off into the unknown. We were still jokingly referring to the mission as “Nightmare Camp,” but it was starting to seem like there might be a bit more truth in this joke than we were comfortable with.
The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of
My hands are numb. Not because they’re cold, but because I’m so nervous. On the approach to a big line, for whatever reason, this always happens. Some people hyperventilate, some people tremble, I lose sensation in my digits. Sure, I’m breathing heavily and my heart rate is probably over 100bpm but, perched on top of a narrow spine, above enough exposure to undoubtedly make my mom cover her eyes, it’s my hands that I notice the most. To make matters worse, it’s the first line of the day.
Despite earlier hiccups and hesitations, the trip is going flawlessly. We established our three-tent camp in a protected, wooded area just over 9000ft. Hammering snow eventually gave way to a cold, crisp night, with temperatures pushing -20F. A restless, cold night of sleep notwithstanding, the group, consisting of John Spriggs, Todd Ligare, and myself, was in good spirits. Hailing from Bozeman by way of Colorado, Spriggs is an X-Games alumni and park skier turned backcountry shredder, with an eye for jibs and natural takeoffs. Ligare, a former US Ski Team member and Division I All-American, is a no-nonsense big mountain charger; his skills, honed on icy NorAm racecourses, transferred effortlessly to this new medium. Waking up that morning, some cowboy coffee shaking off campy heads, stoke was high. Over two feet of snow had fallen since the last clear day, and, despite it being near the end of April, cold temps ensured mid-winter conditions for the next several days. The stuff that dreams, not nightmares, are made of.
Still, standing on my perch, our good fortune made me no less nervous. Be careful what you wish for, I joke to myself. Quickly glancing at my digital camera to review my line—a double onto a hanging snowfield into a must-make left turn and off a 40-footer—I let everyone know I’m ready. I drop off the double into bottomless pow, temporarily blinded by the ensuing face shot. Dumping speed on the left-hand turn, again barreled by the uncharacteristically light April snow, I point it toward the edge of the cliff. I take off and, carrying just enough speed to reach the forgiving transition, land in the sluff pocket I’d created on my traverse into the line. It’s all over in about ten seconds. I let out a little “woop,” and immediately know that it’s on.
Todd follows me with a playful 800ft line of spines and pillows, a run that summer daydreams are made of. Spriggs gets his with an exposed double that makes us forget he has a park background. And so it goes. For the next several days, cold temps preserve the north-facing snow, and each time we think it’s over, we find one more zone, one more protected pocket, and we’re again transported from April back to January. The options are seemingly endless—I get a sluff-gapping transfer, Todd picks off a super-hairy straightline, and Spriggs floats massive threes off natural decks.
By the end of the fourth day, we’re exhausted, and the sun has gotten to even the most protected slopes. The combination of full-throttle skiing and camping makes me question if I’ve ever worked so hard. As exhausted as we are, we know there’s still more. Our thoughts turn to the higher peaks and the lengthy couloirs looming in the background that, up to this point, have been a footnote to powder and pillows. Mentally, it’s tough to wrap our heads around a completely new mission, abandoning our now well-trampled base camp for a more forward camp closer to the big lines. Still, we know we’re racing time and temperatures, and it won’t be long before the high alpine gets the same meltdown we saw at lower elevations. Sucking it up, we shift gears, swap out our 24-liter daypacks for 75-liter packs, and push still further into the woods.
It’s not Gu, Shot Blocks, or some drink additive, but the close-up view of the mountains that provide a much needed energy boost. Like walking into a postcard, we skin through the alpine towards a picturesque face of lines and couloirs. The early-evening sun gives the mountains that magical, inviting look that makes us question how our energy levels dropped in the first place. Reaching a small group of wind drifts, just below a col and about a half-hour skin from the base of the lines, we establish what will be camp for the next few days. Far from the luxury of our base camp, this is a barebones establishment, with just enough resources to get us by for the next few days.
Despite the mountain’s mainline of stoke, we drag ass, for lack of a better phrase, the following morning. Long days and cold nights are taking their toll on the group, and the sun has long been on the face by the time we transition from skins to crampons and head up the west face of a massif just outside camp. The entire face sounds like a wind chime, with nearly invisible crystals tumbling down all around us, creating an eerie tingling noise–an obvious precursor to an ensuing meltdown. Bullheaded, we press on. It’s amazing how, despite years of formal avalanche training and experience, it’s always possible to reason your way into a dangerous situation. Statements like “If we can only get a little higher, we’ll be safe” or “If we can just get to that ridge, it will be okay,” when agreed upon by a group, create a cocktail of self-deception that gets otherwise smart people into bad situations. We were walking into a trap, and we should have known it.
We were about 1000 feet up the couloir when the first wet slide came down. It wasn’t massive and easily missed us, but should have been warning enough. Still, we pressed on. The next slide was bigger and closer, and it was enough to bring us back to reality and ground us in exactly what we were doing. One by one we peeled off, making a hasty descent down the couloir. While disheartened, our decision was confirmed as we watched the mountain melt down over the next hour, from a safe perch in the valley. Could we have made it? Possibly. But in retrospect, I think we were just as proud to turn around as we would have been to ski it.
An early morning start put us at the base of the couloir before the sun had even reached the highest peaks. We’d learned our lesson from yesterday, and a relaxing afternoon at camp discussing our decision-making process had rejuvenated the group. The snow was firm, and our crampons gained purchase easily in the runnels created from the previous day’s wet slides. We’d opted for a different line from the previous day, a winding, steep couloir that initiated off one of the more aesthetic peaks around camp. Our group moved quickly, both re-energized by the rest and inspired to get off the face before a repeat of yesterday’s fireworks, and we gained the majority of the line by the time the sun hit the top of the couloir. After a somewhat technical scramble up the final pitch, we were on top, elated to redeem our performance from the previous day.
After obligatory high fives and pictures, one by one, we made our way down our ascent route. While the previous day’s temperatures had taken their toll on snow quality, the skiing was nonetheless satisfying. Inspired by both the terrain and a sense of redemption, we cruised out the bottom of the couloir in the forgiving April corn snow, knowing that we’d gotten what we’d come for. Not a particular line, but an adventure and experience the memories of which would last long after the snow melted.
Someone once told me that when going into the mountains, your goals should be to come back alive, come back as friends, and come back successful—in that order. That might be the single best piece of advice I’ve ever received. Was Nightmare Camp a nightmare? No, not at all. However, the joke gave us a way to laugh off anything that went wrong. As a group, finding humor, in even the direst of situations, might be the key to ensure the aforementioned goals are met. Most trips are part nightmare and part fantasy, and the best way to ensure it’s more of the latter is a little humor.