As seen in the November 2011 issue of FREESKIER. Words by Jason Smith.
IT WAS EARLY ON A SATURDAY IN APRIL WHEN WE GATHERED IN BOZEMAN, MONT., UNDER THE WATCHFUL EYE OF THE WESTERN HERITAGE INN’S MASSIVE STUFFED GRIZZLY, TO DEVOUR A HEAPING BISCUITS-AND-GRAVY BREAKFAST.
The day dawned chilly, mostly overcast, and Bozeman still seemed fast asleep. We piled into the car, surprisingly avoiding the typical ski trip junk show—at least temporarily—and stayed on schedule for the quick and scenic 16-mile journey from downtown Bozeman, upward through Bridger Canyon to the base of Bridger Bowl. It was evident that the previous evening’s stormy white-knuckle drive into Bozeman was going to be well worth it: It was a powder day in Montana.
With the lifts set to open just 45 minutes later and fresh powder on the mountain, we were surprised by our company on the drive beneath the Bridger Range: no cars in front of us and just one or two old trucks languishing in the rearview. After years of negotiating the weekend mad-cow onslaught of Colorado Front Range ski traffic, we were amazed that there was no hectic rush inspired by the snow.
One of the first groups to arrive, we pulled right up to the base, parked (for free) and got in the 10-person line at the Powder Park lift. Looming 2,400 feet above us were the snow-drenched steeps of Bridger’s legendary two mile-long ridge. While the lack of crowds and the rustic vibe of southwest Montana are great, the terrain and the fresh curtain of snow were the real reasons we had driven the 250 miles from Jackson, Wyo. the night before.
The Ridge and the adjacent backcountry south of the resort boundaries are best accessed by the relatively new two-seat Schlasman’s lift, which is unique because, for starters, you must be wearing a working avalanche transceiver to ride it. Furthermore, the lift brings you up 1,700 vertical feet to inbounds terrain as wild as at any ski area, especially in the lower 48. The terrain is steep and exposed in places, and, in true Montana style, no cushy signage warns of cliffs you might not want to huck.
From the top of Schlasman’s, several options become visible: lift-line direct, steep chutes, spine shots, a short hike north onto the Ridge or a quick traverse south to drop into Mundy’s Bowl. After mobbing a few full-value lift laps, we felt good enough about stability to hike further south past Mundy’s to the backcountry gates at the resort boundary.
Similar to mountains like Jackson Hole and Big Sky, Bridger has an open-gate backcountry policy with the forest service. The obvious trophy destination south of the resort boundary is the gorgeous and prominent northeast face of Saddle Peak. If stability permits, tee off the top of this beauty, but be mindful of other skiers and the 300-foot cliffs that close out a number of routes and make much of the face a deadly terrain trap. Know that the Bridger Range has an often-dicey continental snowpack and that Saddle can rip huge, so don’t be lulled into complacency by the many skiers likely headed out that way.
We nailed two all-time laps on the surfy pow of Saddle in about 90 minutes before heading back inbounds to explore north along the Ridge. Once on the Ridge, you can pick from a near limitless selection of pillows, spines and chutes that mark the southern three quarters of the terrain. After you’ve skied classic Bridger lines like the Fingers and Z Chute, head to the far northern part of the Ridge, most conveniently accessed by a quick hike from the top of the Bridger lift, to drop classically aesthetic steep couloirs like Hidden and Northwest Direct. These incredible lines, and many others along the Ridge, are as memorable and arguably as burly as the more publicized test pieces of the region’s bigger resorts. While these shots certainly get worked on a pow day, there isn’t a mad rush to get there and basically no posturing scene. After throwing jump turns into the 50-degree-plus entrance of Northwest Direct, you’ll understand why Bridger cultivated big mountain pioneers like Doug Coombs, Scot Schmidt and countless other under-the-radar rippers.
Because Bridger is so remote, getting there can take more time and coin than other choices. But once you arrive, you can score some amazing package deals to shred for a few days and select from a variety of lodging options in town based on price and location. We booked an affordable room at the perfectly located Western Heritage Inn, whose resident grizzly gave us key local beta, served up a money breakfast and was even waiting up to make sure we were on good behavior when we staggered in from an evening on the town.
We were famished and begging for beer after all those Ridge laps, and Bozeman treated us right. Students from Montana State University plus a populace of shredders, ice-climbers and general outdoor enthusiasts unite to stock this new Western outpost with more quality affordable food, stellar craft beers, herbal care providers and amiable young lasses than you are likely to find in the rest of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined. Before you end up wondering why you’re playing slots and eating pancakes at 1:30 a.m. in the Cat’s Paw, make sure to start the evening at Montana Ale Works with a locally raised Kobe burger and one of the best beer menus you’ll ever select from.
It’s clear that Bridger Bowl flies under the radar and that isn’t only because of its location. The ski area is owned by the non-profit Bridger Bowl Alliance so, instead of fattening the wallets of shareholders, all net profits are simply re-invested into the mountain. When an army of 60 Bozeman volunteers fired up Bridger’s first platter lift in 1954, they probably had no idea what kind of shredtastic keg they were tapping. There is no doubt that the original spirit of community, affordable skiing, and sustainable celebration of an epic winter playground that drove them to create Bridger Bowl 57 years ago is stronger than ever today.
SKIABLE ACREAGE: 2,600 acres
SKIABLE VERTICAL: 2,700 feet
AVERAGE SNOWFALL: 350 inches