The Beartooth Mountains stretched as far as the eye could see, revealing a vastness that was hard to comprehend. Puffy white clouds hung at eye level beneath a sky that had never been a deeper blue. Add to that a tiny, no-frills ski area, a big blue bus, a couple kegs of beer, 400 hot dogs, and about 200 people who believe skiing is the greatest thing on earth and you have what amounts to one of the all-time great ski gatherings.
Looking around that Saturday afternoon at Beartooth Basin, Wyoming, you couldn't blame anyone for thinking they never wanted to do anything but ski ever again. To hell with work and school and the rest of that so-called "real life." After a day of skiing corn at the summer-only ski area and watching athletes throw down in a Freeride World Qualifier--won by an 18-year-old in his first adult comp--this was undeniably it.
"The whole scene up there--the tiny trailer and nothing else, no lodge or restaurant so you have to be prepared--it was pretty memorable," said Parkin Costain, the Whitefish, Montana, native who took first in the comp. He'd risen to the top of a field of more than 65 skiers by floating a three off the top cornice, swiftly navigating a series of rock bands, and capping his run with a flat spin off a jump at the bottom of the Basin's short but steep venue.
The 2-star freeride comp was just one event of several during the Mountain Rider's Alliance first annual Summer ShredFest, which intended to celebrate small ski areas, community, and culture. With small ski areas feeling pressure from climate change and large corporate buyouts, the ShredFest meant to highlight the value and critical need for what event organizer and MRA frontman Jamie Schectman calls "breeder-feeder ski areas."
“In direct contrast to the corporate ski establishment who are currently strategizing on how to maximize profits for next season, over 200 passionate skiers and snowboarders from across North America gathered in the remote mountains of Wyoming and Montana to celebrate the soul of our sport,” Schectman said.
“I’d say it was a huge success,” he added. “It brought us back to our roots as skiers.”
It’d be hard to find a more core and rootsy ski area than Beartooth Basin, which sits on a windy headwall at 10,900 feet on the wild and rugged border between Montana and Wyoming. The closest town is Red Lodge, Montana, a 45-minute drive away across one of the most burly mountain passes in the country. With the pass closed during the winter, the ski area survives in the summer by charging customers $45 a day, purchased cash-only from within an old white trailer parked on the side of the road. It uses a diesel generator to power two poma lifts accessing 1,000 vertical feet across 600 acres. A steep cornice rims the entire operation, and there is no grooming, day lodge, or other amenities. The four owners act as ski patrollers, lift mechanics, marketing spokespeople, cashiers, and even shuttle drivers on a busy day.
Battling ever dynamic and shifting weather, the ski area might get 40 days during the summer. It's tough work, said co-owner Justin Madroo, who was offering shuttles to skiers in his old Subaru on Saturday. "We do it because we love it," he said.
That vibe attracted a culture and community atop the pass that helps to form the foundation of skiing, and showed no need for luxury condos or day spas--just good skiing with good people. A lot of skiers stayed in campgrounds down in the valley or in the funky independent motel called Yodeler’s Inn in Red Lodge, which is no doubt the coolest little ski town you’ve never been to. Even inclement weather couldn’t dampen people’s spirits for skiing in June.
The event kicked off Friday with SheJumps hosting a lady shred. More than 15 young women showed up, ready to ski and snowboard, in the freezing rain. Due to difficulties with the generator, the Basin couldn't open. Instead, a large group, led by SheJumps co-founder Lynsey Dyer and MRA ambassador Joe Turner, decided to ski road laps on the pass. The snow was soft and carveable, if a tad wet, on the Gardiner Headwall, an 800-vertical-foot shot just west of the ski area.
That evening at a high school gymnasium in Red Lodge, Schectman, hoping to capture an educational component, moderated a panel discussion on how small ski areas can survive in the face of myriad challenges. Panelist Jon Reveal, the owner of Sleeping Giant Ski Area and Zipline outside of Cody, Wyoming, argued that the U.S. Forest Service should help, rather than hinder, projects that can make small areas profitable. He said it took Sleeping Giant five years to cut through bureaucratic red tape to build a zipline, which now brings in more revenue during the short summer season than an entire winter of selling lift tickets for skiing. Without the zipline, Reveal said, Sleeping Giant wouldn't survive.
By Saturday morning, the clouds had lifted and the generator had been fixed at Beartooth Basin, blessing the skiers with optimal June skiing. Favorable weather continued throughout the day and into Sunday, with skiers trading poma laps for road hits, one of which, with its steep cornice entrance and 1,000 feet of vertical, offered a spicy wake-up call.
In that case, real life boiled down to what was in front of your skis and that of your partner, washed down by a cold beer at the truck.