Written by Catfish-T, Edited by Bruce-B
You have to take a second and laugh when doing something as foolhardy as driving a bright blue converted 1990’s school bus through the wide valleys and shoulderless canyon roads of Yellowstone. More seconds should be taken to laugh when sleeping in it at 11,000 ft, skiing in jeans, skateboarding between laps, catching rides to the top of ski runs on tailgates, and for skiing the weekend of June 12th in a casual manner. But, that’s Beartooth Pass. There’s spring skiing, and then there is skiing in mid June. After a month of getting into summer mode your feet might need to be reintroduced to your ski boots, and it can be hard to flip your mental switch back on. But, the Beartooths will kick you in the ass if you don’t. The terrain on Beartooth Pass will haunt and tempt you, while bringing out your inner wide eyed and giddy skier. There are steep cornice drops, zipper line moguls, pond skims and technical chutes, just to name a few of the options. Personally, I battle the mental demons of the resort’s cornice drop every summer, and I love it.
I’d been up to Beartooth Pass a few times before to ski the “resort,” Beartooth Basin. Traveling in a 30 foot long school bus with a wood burning stove that sleeps four added a new dimension to this trip. It really allows you to get right amongst things up there. We’d made it to Cooke City, Montana from Victor, Idaho via West Yellowstone at around 4:00 pm. We grabbed a few last “groceries,” had a little skateboard down Main Street and figured we’d keep heading up to the top of the pass to check out some skiing.
It made the most sense to us park at a pull out near the top of the pass, right across from the Gardner Headwall. As the starting point for road laps and evening star viewing it couldn’t be beat. But, the wind sure was persistent. Even with it being one of the lowest snow years in recent history the headwall offered plenty of fun north facing terrain, and even a wiggle. A maybe 800 vert “bootpack” scramble on grassy tundra sprinkled with miniature bright wildflowers including forget-me-nots was the “pick your own journey” back up to the parking lot. And what could be better than a steep blind roll over “wiggle” down the headwall to get back in the rhythm of ski season on a lovely Friday evening. So, we cozied up in the bus for our first night atop the Gardner Headwall parking lot after just a taste of Beartooths mid-June fruits.
I woke up to the sun shining in the bus, unsure of the time and our fearless leader, team manager, jack-of-all- trades, renaissance man Abbott, shout out “alright only 12 hours of skiing to go!” Following a successful end of season sale of the year’s demo fleet, the quiver of skis that came with the bus was slimmer than usual.But, I had my eyes on skiing the the new Cleaver Comp, a stiffer directional charger, with a newly added turned-up tail, which Sego skier Isaac Freeland used to grab second place finishes is his last two Freeride World Tour events. I’m not sure if I’m maturing as a skier, or I just want to go fast. But, that 187 Cleaver Comp is a skier’s ski.
With 12 plus hours of daylight the snow is going to change through the day. As we went to check out some slightly more technical lines towards the middle of the day, the snow definitely got a little heavier and soupier. We eyed an off fall-line chute from the parking lot, and I remember thinking I’d want my Big Horn 96’s for maneuverability in the tight choke. But, I knew I’d want the longer, faster Cleaver’s for the pond skim. I stuck with the Cleavers and was glad I did. They didn’t feel unwieldy in the tight chute. And, they cruised like a smooth sailing yacht through the thick, sloppy, afternoon snow. These bad boys inspire confidence, so it was only natural our next line was the “pond skim” and the Cleavers coasted across water with ease.
The “beach” next to the cold basin water provided for a perfect venue to take a boot off, crack a cold one, and enjoy some backcountry charcuterie. We were also treated to a showing of a snowmobile pond skimming. Back up at the Gardner Headwall parking lot, the scene was booming. My friends from Jackson had arrived and gotten in on the action. The Bozeman and Sun Valley crews were ever present staples of the pass, and led the way on a step down jump over a rock gap just above the pond skim.“Crazy Karl” Fostvedt was leading the charge on a party-wave down the Gardner Headwall’s wiggle. The adult playground that is Beartooth Pass was in full swing.
Bus Driver and Elk Hunter, Justin Adams, rolls 'em over | Photo: Kevin Kinzley
We ate a proper summer American dinner of BBQ pulled-pork, corn on the cob and mac n’ cheese, featuring a big ol’ pork butt smoked by Sego production manager and founder, Peter Wells. Then we hitched rides back up to the Gardner Headwall for a sunset lap. This seemed to be the perfect time to test the “backcountry wine glass,” and for my first jean ski of the season. With cooling temps making for slightly faster snow, this proved to be the best skiing of the day and an absolutely stunning sunset to feast our eyes on for the hike back up to the bus. With a full day of skiing in the books, it was time to warm up the bus with a fire, block out the ripping wind with a nightcap, and dream sweet dreams of Beartooth Basin’s steeps and cornice drops.
After a little trouble getting Rosie started, and some confusion on where to park her, which included the yells of an irritated Norwegian man in the wind, we had our coffee, let the snow soften up a bit and began an afternoon of summer resort skiing at the famed Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Resort. The corn was firing and young rippers packed the Basin’s Pomas. Beartooth Basin boasts top down skiing with a cornice that rolls over until it's too steep to hold snow. On it, you can trick yourself into finding a flat takeoff to jump into the unnervingly steep pitch - which moguls out rather abruptly above the upper Poma lift. Sounds sketchy? It is.
Every summer I fight the demons of this cornice drop, trying to find what I like for a takeoff—maybe a butter—and where I might hope to land. I hadn’t seen anyone spin it, but after watching three beautifully laced backflips, I figured it was time to see how floating a helicopter would feel. Unfortunately, the first thing I remember after setting my spin - apparently a little too hard - was slowly spinning past 360, past where I was hoping to land, into a fairly high speed sort of side tomahawk over the shoulders. Skiers supported me with hoots, as I put myself back together and skied the bumps down to the Poma for another go at it. At the top the ever watchful head patroller Austin told me simply, “no more tricks.” My time on the diving board was finished, until next time!
The vibe and the community down in the basin is truly unmatched by any ski area I’ve been to. And, it has an infectious way of keeping people coming back year after year. Maybe it’s the relief from the 50-60 mile an hour winds up on top of the resort’s parking lot, enjoying a beer with the hodgepodge of skiers who’ve migrated from all over Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, skiing with the owners, Or the fact that a world pandemic cut everyone’s ski season short and this year mechanically assisted laps were in short supply. Skiing the Basin is like seeing your new favorite band, and thinking “oh yeah I’ll be seeing them again.” You don't just come to Beartooth once. Maybe it’s the magnetism of the nearby Yellowstone Volcano, or the fact that patrollers are right there with you - jibbing in red jackets and watching the rowdiness with tasteful and expert oversight, perhaps it’s the pretty girls from Bozeman, or the fun of being around a whole community obsessed enough to make skiing in June seem like the most natural thing in the world, perhaps it’s the lawlessness of the Montana Wyoming border, but there is something about the place that pulls us skiers back year after year to this unique and thriving slice of American ski culture.
Atop the Basin, after the resort’s patrollers ushered everyone up and out calling out, “last Poma,” was a hectic scene with the 50 mph wind whipping by as skiers frantically packed up and figured out their next moves. The general sentiment of the Sego crew was “we need to get down from this mountain!” Two nights in the non-stop wind had us more than ready to get down to lower ground for the night. We suffered from what has been called “Vatula,” “Prarie Madness,” and “The Foehn Effect.” Our bus driver, the steady handed Justin Adams, had a dazed look in his eyes, ski builder Cree Rousseau was sitting up in the front of the bus, but her eyes were firmly shut. A one-legged skier named Patrick, who’d hiked and skied some of the wildest lines we saw all weekend was conducting a safety meeting with us and a dreadlocked man named who-knows-what on the bus. Patrick was on day eight of a fast. Abbott could see the crazed state of the team, and feel the Prairie Madness in himself no doubt. He wrapped up the meeting hurriedly, and we limped Rosie down the Red Lodge side of the pass. We knew of a nice pullout for the bus, just up from a beautiful scenic vista overlook, which of course gave opportunity for more scenic skateboarding, and a relaxing night out of the wind. We ate elk burgers provided by our multi-talented bus driver and recovered from the wind with some good country music backed by our friend Dean from Wapiti’’s guitar.
On our way back down the pass Monday morning, we were fixing to find one more good ski to fuel us through the hot dry summer ahead. We found a nice, mellow, fairly continuous fall line pitch to open up and party shred back down to the bus. Nothing too gnarly, nothing too concerning, but the type of ski lap that reminds you exactly why opening up a few lefts and rights feels so damn good.
So just like that, four days of mid June skiing via Sego’s big blue humble abode on wheels was a wrap. This trip was another reminder of how grateful I am this place exists. I will be making the trip back every summer that I'm able.