The road winds, seemingly endlessly, contouring across massive choss fields to hairpin turns, and back again. As we steadily gain elevation up the Beartooth Pass Highway from the town of Red Lodge, Montana, we're treated to our first views of the Beartooth Mountains, their rugged peaks eventually encompassing us as we reach the snowline. It's late May and we're headed to Beartooth Basin Ski Area, formerly known as Red Lodge International Ski and Snowboard Camp, a couple of days before the highway and the summer-specific area is scheduled to open. As such, the road is abandoned, save for some woodchucks that dart between rock piles and the last of MDOT's massive snow clearing machinery. The road will be cluttered with summer skiers and sightseers in a couple of days, but for now the blacktop and its views are ours alone.
From behind the wheel, Justin Modroo, vice-president and part owner of Beartooth Basin, fills me in on the history of the area as he dodges the snow piles that MDOT missed. Originally founded as a summer training camp by a group of Austrians in 1962, the ski area was initially mobile, with lifts being placed wherever the snow was the best. Eventually, in the early '70s, permanent lifts were installed on the Twin Lakes headwall, and for the next several decades the area played host to racers from around the world. At times, as many as 600 racers would spend their summers schussing the area's steep headwall and mellower lower snow fields, with legends such as Billy Kid offering advice. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, possibly because of larger summer resorts, management decisions and low snow years, the area struggled, failing to open on several years. Now, as Justin explains, as we cover the final couple hundred yards to the top of the ski area, he and the two other active owners are ready to reinvigorate the landmark, despite similar mom and pop operations all across the country closing up shop.
Pulling into Beartooth Basin's parking lot, which is located at the top of the lifts, the two other active owners, Kurt Hallock and Austin Hart, as well as a handful of other employees, are busy making preparations for opening day–installing drops on the two poma lifts, shoveling out unload stations and generally doing the trouble shooting involved with getting the 600-acre resort open. Upon first inspection, it's easy to see why these three owners, a geo-physicist, a lawyer, and a mountain guide, choose to moonlight as ski area owners: the terrain. A large, corniced cirque gives way to a head wall that approaches 50-degrees, which eventually empties out onto mellower, more playful terrain. Not a lot, but at the same time everything one needs.
We ski and talk, occasionally lending a hand where we can. A recent storm had just deposited nearly a foot of snow and, while not blower, it's far from anything we can complain about. Between free laps I catch up with Kurt, who's shoveling out the inconsistencies in the poma lift line. A Red Lodge local since 1958, Kurt has one of the longest histories with the area–one of his first jobs was making lunches for campers in the early '60s. It's immediately apparent that Kurt's connection with the area goes far beyond an investment, as he speaks enthusiastically about his vision for the area.
"We have a bump area where the bump skiers can train, we've got the terrain for big mountain skiers to train, terrain where racers can train, a terrain park and eventually we want an airbag," says Kurt as he steps out some of the bigger snowballs that have come to rest in the lift line. "Yeah, most of the mom and pop little operations have closed down, so that's too bad, but we're going to be more than mom and pop," Kurt adds confidentially.
The day rolls on like this, with generally more skiing than talking. Despite opening day being only a few days away, there never seems to be any sense of stress amongst the crew. They seem just as happy to be out there working, as we are to be out there skiing. My suspicions are confirmed speaking with Beartooth Basin president, Austin Hart (who is undoubtedly the youngest ski area president in the country), later in the day in the tiny lift shack at the top of the second poma. "At this point none of us do this as an employment opportunity where you can make money and take the rest of the year off. It's an opportunity to be up in the Beartooths and be up here with your friends and ski and create a safe environment where people from out of town can come and share that experience in the wilderness," says Austin. "To get a few new customers every year, put a smile on their face and keep fun alive on Beartooth [Pass] is the real goal," he adds, with a certain sincerity that's reserved for people sitting in a tiny lift shack, covered in grease.
After a few last runs the crew decides to roll up, stopping the lifts, turning off the generator and cracking open the case of High Life someone had the foresight to bring up. We bid adieu and return to the empty road. I joke with Justin about how proud the eight-year-old version of himself would be, owning a ski area and all. Then it hits me, despite all of their respective careers, the resort is a fruition of a grom's pipedream. The crew speaks more about fun than profit, experience than sales, and friends than customers. In the process of running their resort, they bequeath part of their childhood stoke and soul to the customers that come. Undoubtedly, their bottom line is somewhere in the back of their minds, but their goal, as Justin eventually sums up, "is just to try and stay open and, why not? Everybody that comes up here loves it."