It’s not only a mountain’s terrain, lifts and lodges that define it, but also the locals who ski there.
BY BAY STEPHENS
What defines a ski mountain? It’s not just terrain and snowfall, but also the locals that populate the lift lines nearly every powder day. People put down roots in ski towns for many reasons, but a loyalty to one mountain requires a certain resonance between an individual, the ski hill and the community that supports it.
We set out to find quintessential locals at four ski areas in the Greater Yellowstone: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee Resort, Big Sky Resort and Bridger Bowl. We spent a few days at each, scouring the slopes and hitting the après scene to find the everyday people that make these areas what they are.
While no rider can fully represent a ski hill’s culture, they can offer a glimpse. The following stories paint these mountains with the lives of those who love to ski them.
Accessed with a transmitting avalanche transceiver and by hoofing your gear up a boot-packed trail, Bridger Bowl’s ridge terrain has captured the heart of Bozeman skiers and snowboarders for decades. Caleb Arnold counts as one of these devotees.
His family drove out from Minnesota when he was 12 years old for a trip to Bridger, Arnold’s first experience skiing a mountain over 200 feet tall. When they reached the base, he couldn’t even wait for his family to finish putting their gear on—he jumped on the lift and left them behind.
“I remember riding up the Powder Park [chairlift] that first day and just being blown away,” he said. “It was a spring ski day and the mountain was just—I was just in heaven.”
As soon as he graduated high school in 2000, he moved to Bozeman and has had a season pass ever since. A self-proclaimed “ridge rat,” Arnold has watched the flow of Bridger’s lower mountain change with the addition of new lifts, while his beloved ridge has largely stayed the same.
Arnold appreciates how Bridger Bowl functions as a nonprofit community ski area, operating for reasons beyond the bottom line.
“It’s hard not to support a resort like that,” he said. “That, and the terrain’s phenomenal. Don’t tell anyone.” The humility of Bridger’s diehards, despite their caliber, adds to Arnold’s fondness of the resort.
“It never ceases to impress me,” he said. “Everyone’s kind of unassuming but everyone just shreds.” And the nicest, newest gear doesn’t seem to be that important to Bridger’s enthusiasts.
“That’s the core,” Arnold said. “People are skiing to ski. They’re not skiing for any other reason and that’s kind of cool to see.”
Shouldering skis or dragging boards, crews of college kids like architecture student Audrey Morris can be found beeping their transceivers at the gates, trudging up the boot pack above the Bridger Lift and silhouetted against the sky as they traverse the ridge to their chosen objectives.
Many of Montana State University’s students came to Bozeman specifically to ride Bridger Bowl, which hooks freshmen with discounted season passes if they’re under 19. “I see Bridger as definitely a college kid’s mountain,” Morris said. “I think that’s the main group there.”
These young rippers tend to ski in groups, discovering the mountain together or being guided by older students to the hidden gems of the technical terrain.
That was the case for Morris, who hails from Durango, Colorado, and grew up skiing Telluride. Although Bridger’s ridge initially intimidated her, Morris was lucky enough to have a fun and supportive group of friends that showed her the ropes of the area’s gullies and couloirs.
“I think that’s an attitude that a lot of people have: I want to show you … and make you part of the culture,” she said. “I just love how welcoming that was and how quickly I could become comfortable with this mountain.”
She trusts her friends, even when she finds herself on the edge of daunting cliff bands, unsure how to get down. But they always find a line and when Morris peers from below at seemingly impassible portions of the ridge, she gets a special satisfaction knowing that she’s skied it.
“It’s so fun to have the rad skiing every single time you go up,” she said. “If you come to Bridger, you’re coming for the ridge.”
BIG SKY RESORT
Monica Thomas’ original stomping grounds were the slopes of Lost Trail, a mom-and-pop ski area south of Missoula; she grew up in nearby Wisdom, population 98. Big Sky Resort’s towering Lone Mountain became her new backyard four years ago, and she quickly found her crowd.
“If you come here with a good attitude and you ski every day, you’re going to make friends, and that’s what’s so cool about this place,” Thomas said. Big Sky has a thriving ski bum culture, and every year the ski patrol hosts the Dirtbag Ball, which recognizes Big Sky Resort’s most die-hard riders. In March of 2017, Thomas was awarded the prestigious title of “Dirtbag Queen.”
She said she earned the honor because she skis nearly every day. One reason Thomas chose to live in Big Sky was that she saw the same crowd in the tram line as she saw at Scissorbills Saloon once the lifts stopped running.
“Everything’s condensed, you get to see all your friends,” Thomas said. “Plus, the skiing is out of this world.” Lone Mountain offers unique terrain for the Lower 48—a large amount of it above tree line— with long, steep and technical slopes.
“You can ski 360 degrees off of this peak. There’s always going to be snow somewhere,” she said. “And if the peak’s not open, we get a bunch of dirtbags together and go have a barbeque.”
Thomas, who fights wildland fires all summer, is used to the boys’ club. “As a chick, you get used to skiing with boys, but the girls here are fantastic.” In the past two years, she thinks she’s seen a spike in the population of female skiers.
“There are so many ladies here— ripping girls that you can ski with,” Thomas said. “It’s fun to get together with a bunch of lady rippers who are pushing each other.”
BIG SKY RESORT
One more winter.
That’s what Jesse Knox kept telling himself when he moved to Big Sky from eastern Washington 20 years ago.
“Eventually, I gave up on that,” Knox said. “[I] was just like, I’m going to live here forever.”
A project manager for a local interior designer, Knox works so he can ski the days he has off. He met his wife, Lauren, through a project in the Yellowstone Club, and the two joined the population of Big Sky skiers who used to say, “One more winter,” and are now raising kids there.
As part of the “rad dad club,” Knox will drop his 5-year-old son June off for ski school on weekends and set off with another father, or ski on his own until he bumps into someone he knows in the lift line.
Jumping in the 15-person Lone Peak Tram, they might check in at the small ski patrol hut on the summit dubbed the “Penalty Box,” then disappear into sign-out only terrain like the rock-walled Big Couloir.
“It might be somebody I haven’t skied with in two years, and [I’ll] have a killer couple of runs with them,” Knox said. He added that that’s just how it is at Big Sky: Barely knowing somebody doesn’t preclude having a great time tearing down with them from the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Mountain.
“There’s no ‘I’m-too-good-to-ski-with-you attitude’ here,” Knox said. “Some of the best skiers ski with people that aren’t as good as them, but they’ll still have just as good a day.”
GRAND TARGHEE RESORT
Peter Kelly and Tori Headerman found Grand Targhee Resort more than two decades ago. Both came for one season, and are still here raising their two daughters, Piper and Crosby. They’ve only lived on the Idaho side of Teton Pass since moving to the area, “which is a badge of honor, I think, because most people start in Jackson and roll over here,” Headerman said.
She teaches kindergarten in Tetonia, where they live, while he’s a builder and also shapes surfboards. Headerman breaks out her telemark skis for mellower days, as many of Targhee’s longtime skiers do, slowing the pace for some old school turns.
“When we moved here, it was so special,” Headerman said. Victor, Driggs and Tetonia, the small towns where Targhee’s locals live, were typical Idaho agricultural communities, with small populations of skiers.
“You were either born and raised here or you moved here to ski,” said Headerman, adding there was little of the pretense that’s found in bigger, more affluent ski towns. “And that’s kind of why we stayed.”
Targhee riders learn to ski by faith and memory, useful for when visibility plummets due to fog—earning it the nickname “Grand Foghee”—or when big storm cycles bring over-the-head powder.
“It’s a small enough mountain that once you get familiar with things, it’s a pretty easy mountain with low visibility to work your way around,” Kelly said. It’s also a place where these two can raise their kids to appreciate the things they fell in love with decades ago.
“And like it or not, they become good skiers by the time they’re six,” Kelly said. “That’s how it works here.”
Although the resort’s clientele has shifted to more vacationers since their arrival, Targhee’s small-town roots remain intact. “People come to not have the resort [feel],” Headerman said. “There’s nothing to do here at night. People ski, they go eat dinner and they go to bed and they wake up the next day to do it again.”
“And that’s what we like about it,” Kelly said. “It’s simple. It doesn’t look like every other freaking ski resort in America.”
GRAND TARGHEE RESORT
Mark Ortiz was sick of the rain at Oregon’s Mount Hood, so he looked for colder ski areas with lots of snow, and found the Teton Range with Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee.
“I applied to them both, and Jackson said I had to get a haircut and Targhee just hired me,” said Ortiz, who now works as a ski instructor. Bopping around the mountain, Ortiz crows to the lift operators, all of whom know him; he begs ski patrollers by name—who are about to close a gate to hike- and-ski terrain—to let him head out one more time.
A ring leader of sorts, Ortiz brings the young ski bum community together, organizing on-mountain events such as the Chinese Downhill and a scavenger hunt, and excursions like an annual Montana trip that so many of Targhee’s young dirtbags rave about.
“I think, in order to have fun with your friends, you have to facilitate things,” he said. So, he helps set the stage. For last winter’s Montana trip, he and his friends decided to only ski mom-and-pop resorts—max lift ticket price of $40. He called resorts ahead of time to get group discounts and reached out to Bozeman-based Montucky Cold Snacks for free beer.
He also orchestrated the Chinese Downhill, which involves a keg at the top, two at the bottom, and a chaotic race at break-neck speed in between.
“I think probably half of the good ideas I have are probably from the Trap [Bar and Grill] or the [Royal] Wolf,” he said, referring to two watering holes that help knit together this little community.
Originally from Atlanta, Kat Abrams is one of many young skiers drawn from across the country to live Jackson’s adventure lifestyle. They charge at the resort, in the side country and on Teton Pass. They work somewhere that gets them a pass, and struggle to make time for being adults because they spend so much time in the mountains.
“You never want to take a day off,” Abrams said. “You feel guilty about it.”
Abrams grew up visiting the West with her parents and moved to Teton Valley for the summers, but was soon roped into the winter sports by a crew of good friends—mostly guys—who taught her to ski.
“I picked it up pretty quickly, I would say, and just sort of fully embraced the ski culture that Jackson is,” Abrams said. “With boys around, you kind of have to suck it up and just do it.”
Hers is a posse that bombs and jibs down the hill to pile into a Bridger Gondola box eight-strong, pound beers, crush cans underboot, then unload and file over to the recycling bin to dispose of their aluminum.
They won’t wait up, but for those who can keep up, a sense of comradery and belonging awaits. No surprise Abrams learned quickly.
Nannying for a Jackson couple provides her living wages, but Abrams also works at Teton Village Sports at the base of the resort with many of the friends who taught her to ski. Working together makes it easy to rally adventure buddies for outings any time of year.
“It’s almost like this need and desire to keep going, which is great,” Abrams said. “I love it.”
Her crew’s adventures are so constant that rainy days are often the only chance to catch up on life. “I’d rather go ski than go to the post office,” Abrams said.
They say everyone in Jackson is from somewhere else. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a small population of skiers traded lives elsewhere for the Tetons. Many of these individuals own the coffee houses, retail shops and restaurants that make Jackson what it is, while others are retired. Either way, these long-timers hit the slopes daily, favoring bluebird mornings.
In the tramline you’ll see these often-mustachioed men greeting each other, catching up on life, ribbing one another about older gear.
Ned Brown is one of these locals.
Riding the tram with Ned, he names every run, chute, glade, couloir—in-bounds and out-of-bounds—and recounts stories like how St. Patty’s Couloir on Rendezvous Peak got its name when he and four friends skied it on St. Patrick’s Day nearly four decades ago.
“We’d been looking at it for a few years and decided the time was right,” he said.
Brown’s first turns were on a grass slope in southern California when the city’s recreation department hosted a ski lesson. “An ice truck pulled up and they got a bunch of bags full of crushed ice and broke them on the slope,” Brown said. The strip of ice was no more than 10 feet wide and 40 feet long, but enough for him to learn how to snowplow, stop and turn.
In 1978, when he visited Jackson during his senior year at University of Colorado Boulder, a friend took him down Tower Three Chute and the steepness blew his mind.
“I was amazed and stoked and couldn’t get it off my mind,” said Brown, and that September he moved to Jackson. His goal was to own a restaurant in a ski town, and not long after landing in Jackson, The Blue Lion went on the market. Brown pounced on the opportunity.
Only open for dinner now, the restaurant allows for a dream schedule: Brown skis whenever he wants, which is often to the tune of 75 to 80 days a year.
Bay Stephens is a staff writer for Mountain Outlaw magazine.