Photos by Jason Thompson
It's still dark at 7 a.m. when Randy Elliott climbs onto a snowmobile outside the ski patrol locker room at Bridger Bowl, Montana. Riding up from the base area, the air has that dry, it-hasn't-snowed-in-a-week bite. He parks beside the Bridger Lift's bottom terminal and waves to lift maintenance as he loads the triple chair.
Halfway up, the steep wall of the Bridger Ridge glows blue-white above him in the pre-dawn. The chair bumps over the sheave wheels.
"This is my favorite time of day," says Elliott. He rides to the Ridge every morning before patrol to assemble explosives for avalanche control. "It's the quiet time, more or less. And it's a privilege."
Elliott, 62, is a transformative leader for Bridger Bowl, the nonprofit ski area 17 miles north of Bozeman. He started working here as a volunteer ski patroller in 1975, during his sophomore year at Montana State University, and they officially hired him in 1977. His wage was $2.50 an hour, with an extra 25 cents per hour when he did avalanche control before class. He became Bridger's first snow safety director in 1984, followed by roles as the assistant patrol director, patrol director, and mountain manager, until he also absorbed the GM duties when his predecessor retired in 2004. After more than four decades, Bridger is not just an employer to Elliott. The mountain is his life.
And the ski area owes a lot to him, as well. Elliott--who can fix a chairlift, operate a snowcat, throw avalanche bombs, manage a team of patrollers, and work the parking lot--has been integral in helping Bridger maintain its small, inclusive community atmosphere and skier-centric focus. Bozeman, meanwhile, has become one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, placing new pressures on this old-school GM to keep Bridger, Bridger.
Elliott's roots in the area run deep. His grandfather homesteaded in central Montana in 1914, and his father was chief of maintenance in Yellowstone National Park in the 1960s. "My dad had a farmer's mentality," he says. "If you had to fix or build anything, you did it yourself. I've carried that with me." Elliott and his sister, Janis, learned to ski at Undine Falls, a now-defunct hill in the park, and some weekends the family drove their Oldsmobile up to ski Bridger. Elliott remembers having skis without edges and standing in the long serpentine line that formed at the old T-bar.
Years later, he met his wife, Beth MacConnell, in the top shack of Bridger's Pierre's Knob chairlift, when she was a lift operator in 1980.
"It's all intertwined, for sure," says Elliott, kicked back in the patrol building atop the Bridger Lift before opening. Thin and tall at 6-foot-2, his legs are thrown long, boots crossed. A stack of keys hangs from his radio harness, worn over a purple- and green-checked flannel shirt. His neat gray beard has swirls of red.
Elliott has done the same avalanche control route, A-Low, since becoming mountain manager in 1991. There's no new snow the first morning we meet up, but we head there anyway because he wants to check on a broken bomb tram--a fixed wire that patrollers use to reel explosives out over a chute.
Clicking in to tech bindings atop the public Ridge access--after hiking a 400-vertical-foot bootpack--we go north. Elliott slices casually through the traverse's rocky whoop-dees. He's fast, precise, and effortless.
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We peel off at a benign-looking 30-degree meadow above a 50-foot limestone cliff that's hidden by small subalpine fir. It's January, and the 33-inch base is mostly sugary snow, topped with a fragile crust and a skiff of fresh. I make guarded turns and switchback over to Elliott, who's fiddling with the bomb tram.
With 800 vertical feet, A-Low is not the longest control route on the mountain, but it holds big consequences: a small, unstable pocket could bury someone on the cat track below in six feet of snow. The complex terrain has wind-loading on the ridgetop, new snow in the chutes, and cross-loaded runouts. On a big morning, Elliott makes two to three passes here, then does a second route on Schlasman's, the ungroomed expert-only zone at the south boundary. Once a week, he's on D-North, a steep, convoluted mess of trees, rocks, wormholes, and dead-ends.
"It's kind of an art," says Elliott. "There's no little machine you put in the snow that tells you what's going to slide. A lot of it's just paying attention and realizing no matter how long you've being doing it, you don't know everything, and you gotta treat that with respect."
His depth of experience is invaluable.
"He's got his finger in every part of the avalanche program," says Bridger Snow Safety Director Pete Maleski. "He sees the big picture and guides us into making the right decisions."
In addition to avalanche work, Elliott's mastery of machinery is well known. During high school, in Glacier National Park, he rebuilt an old Park Service truck in the backyard and then bought a two-seater Datsun 240Z sports car with money he made as a masonry hod carrier. At Bridger during the summer, navigating old trucks loaded with massive chairlift parts up steep, off-kilter switchbacks or operating an excavator above a precarious drop-off are par for the course.
One incident, in particular, stands out. In January 2004, after a historic storm dropped 71 inches in 24 hours at Bridger Bowl, he took a snowcat up to clear the North Bowl Road. At 8 p.m., he was almost across the bowl when the cat fell onto the 45-degree slope below. He dropped the blade, swinging the cat into the fall line--backward. Accelerating downhill, he used the blade to steer and brake. Once he came to a stop, Elliott looked the cat over and instead of calling it quits, he went back and finished the job.
The lift maintenance crew endearingly calls him "Uncle Randy" and, to his embarrassment, patrol sings songs about him: "A-Low with Elliott" to the tune "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "I am Elliott" to R.E.M.'s "I am Superman."
Spread across two miles of the Bridger Range's singular crest, Bridger Bowl faces east, topping out at 8,700 feet. Its 2,600 vertical feet make an L-shape: The bottom is flat, and the Ridge is short and intensely steep. This labyrinth of unmarked crags, chutes, hallways, and folds is an easy place to get lost or cliffed out. When a northwest flow settles in, the Bridger Bowl Cloud can drop two... three... five feet of the coldest smoke you've ever skied.
"When I think of Bridger, I think of tight, technical, controlled moves," says Scot Schmidt, who raced on the Bridger ski team in the late 1970s and later returned to film with Warren Miller and Greg Stump, pioneering extreme skiing in the Lower 48. "[Its terrain] ranks with the best of the best." Bridger has left a mark on history, spawning the likes of Schmidt, avalanche expert Bruce Tremper, Olympic mogul skier Heather McPhie, and the late big mountain titan Doug Coombs. But with Bozeman's population skyrocketing and skier numbers on the rise, crowds are stressing Bridger's carrying capacity on powder days.
Two winters ago, Bridger saw a record 244,916 skier visits, and last year's season pass sales were up 18 percent. The growth is good for business--though Elliott is wary of its pace. "We're staying plenty busy the way it is," he says. "You can ruin a lot of things with too many people."
But times weren't always fat. When a few bad winters followed the installation of new lifts and a shop in the early '80s, Bridger struggled. By the time it was debt-free in 1994, lift lines were long, and the base was crowded. The board of directors suggested high-speed lifts, but Elliott and former GM Terry Abelin recommended buying everything with cash or short-term loans, starting with a new fixed-grip quad and lodge.
It served them well: When other areas, including nearby Moonlight Basin, went bankrupt in 2008, Bridger had cash. This enabled a series of game-changing improvements to manage skier flow and decrease congestion, all driven by Elliott.
The boldest move was the 2008 addition of 311 acres and a new chairlift in the Schlasman's area, and alongside it, an open boundary policy. To lower costs, Elliott bought Snowbird's old two-seater Peruvian Chair and installed it almost entirely in-house. Instead of hiring a heli to build the base terminal, Elliott finagled a stack of 60-foot-long tubing atop a flatbed and drove the narrow access road. Schlasman's does not access any grooming, and none of the many obstacles are marked with signage. Like the original Ridge, which opened in 1973, beacons are required, but Schlasman's (locals pronounce it "Slushman's") has longer runs, a more consistent pitch, and requires less effort. It also provides access to avalanche-prone terrain on Saddle Peak. Even so, Elliott always wanted to open the gates.
"It was this big cat and mouse thing I really hated, where patrol was supposed to keep people in, and everybody wanted to go out," says Elliott. "[But] you can't protect people from everything, and the freedom is a really nice thing to have."
Elliott isn't done yet. Construction on a dedicated beginner area began last summer, with plans to move one lift, replace another, build a warming hut, and buy magic carpets they'll use to help kids learn to ski.
Last winter's first big storm hit on February 25. Forecasters called for one to two inches, but 32 fell on the Ridge overnight. It was a Saturday, and Elliott was in the office by 5:45 a.m., cancelling races and events, calling the snow reporter, ensuring the carpool sign in town was lit up, and checking on the plow driver.
By the time patrol arrived at 7 a.m., he was halfway up the Bridger Lift, shoveling snow from the mid-station. All the avalanche paths had run already, and it was still snowing hard. He rode to the top, waded to the patrol Poma, fired it up, and plowed through waist-deep snow on his skis to the Ridge. While prepping explosives, he called grooming, events, and lift maintenance to help dig out--that is, before he sent events and marketing to help the parking crew.
At 8 a.m., the base area was a sea of people. An hour later, all the avalanche paths were releasing again during ski patrol routes, and it was clear only the lower mountain would open on time.
Locals were saying they'd never seen more people at Bridger. It didn't faze Elliott. As the snow continued to fall, he put his head down and walked directly into the storm.