We rolled up to the top of Beartooth Pass in Montana at 10 a.m. on a Friday in early June with very little expectations. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, and although states are starting to open back up (Montana lifted its required two-week quarantine on June 1), I questioned whether it was safe to make the trip from my home in Pocatello, Idaho. Our ski season, like everyone else, was abruptly cut short in March per Idaho’s stay-at-home order. A small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things, but it took a toll on my mental health nonetheless.
So when Beartooth Summer Ski Area announced via Instagram that they would, in fact, run their Pomas for summer schussing and the state opened up for non-local campers, my partner Sander Hadley and I packed our face masks and hand sanitizer, and for the first time in months, hit the road.
It was a familiar, yet incredibly odd-for-the-times, scene in the parking lot of Montana’s only summer ski area. Just one hour after the two Poma lifts were turned on for the day, there wasn’t a parking spot to snag. License plates from California, Utah, Colorado, and even Wisconsin, and ear-to-ear grins from every one of those vehicles, flooded the top of the pass. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones in need of some ski-turn therapy.
“It’s probably been the busiest two weeks we’ve ever had,” says Austin Hart, who has spent the last 11 years as co-owner and nine years as manager of Beartooth Basin. “We generally have very limited online ticket purchases and we’ve been sold out for 80 percent of our days this year. People are definitely keen to get out and ski again. I think the door got slammed shut on a lot of people, so everyone is curious and eager to ski.”
That energy was palpable, and never waned, from the time we pulled up on Friday morning to the last Poma ride and first après beer in the parking lot that afternoon. Hoots and hollers carried across the basin all day, music bumped from various car stereos, and strangers quickly became friends over a shared devotion to sliding on snow—no matter the season or snow quality. While the topic of COVID occasionally permeated conversation and safety measures like daily temperature checks of all employees reminded us of the uncertain times we’re still living in, skiing at Beartooth offered a sense of normalcy we’ve all been craving.
“Most of our guests are young and healthy and I think this is a good place and activity to get people outside and to get some fresh air,” says Hart.
On top of the numerous challenges of opening Beartooth during a pandemic, it is also one of the lowest snow years on record, yet the ski area’s board ultimately decided it was worth the extra effort to be able to operate for its 50th summer.
“It’s been more work for our snowcat, this is certainly the least amount of snow we’ve maybe ever operated with,” explains Hart. “A combination of a hot and dry April and May, and it not freezing up here at night has made the biggest challenge farming snow and keeping snow where we need it, but we’re going to make it work as long as we can.”
By the looks on everyone’s faces and the positive energy radiating from the basin, it was hard to believe this was the same planet that’s currently experiencing both a health pandemic and climate crisis. For myself, my partner, and seemingly every snow-slider on the hill that day, skiing offered an opportunity to hit pause on all of life’s other demands. To silence, if just for a few hours, our negative and uncertain thoughts about the future. And, for the first time in almost three months, experience something together.
“It’s a challenge to get this place up and going, especially this year, but good days with people happy and outside really do make it worth it,” says Hart.