It's early Saturday morning in Bozeman, Montana, and a dusty white Suburban full of hungover girls rolls up to a small white house with Christmas lights hung haphazardly around the front door. A biker wends his unstable way up the street, looking lost and underdressed for the cold in a T-shirt and jeans.
It's the morning of Bridger Bowl's local big mountain competition, Bridger Gully Freeride, and the girls are up far earlier than usual to make the pre-competition meeting. Mackenzie Lisac is the last pickup of the morning, and the only hint she's even home came in the form of a text to Andie Creel, our responsible driver, five minutes before we parked out front: "Oh God. I'm awake."
The night before, the house was pulsing with hundreds of kids--mostly flannel and trucker hat-clad Montana State students or dropouts--with backpacks full of Montucky Cold Snacks. Lisac's pitch for the party was simple: "A few of us are chilling pretty hard."
Lisac sprints out of the house in a tie-dye T-shirt and sneakers--not a single piece of ski gear on her person--and runs to her car, wheeling back toward the house with an armful of gear. She finally opens the trunk, held shut by a bungee cord and a jerry-rigged bike rack, and grins.
"What's up, ladies?"
Whether they're westward migrants eager to check a season at Alta off the bucket list or born-and-raised mountain kids who decline to leave their small towns for big cities, many skiers first drop fully into the culture as young adults. "Just for a year or two," they'll say, and 30 years later they're seasoned locals.
It's a familiar storyline, but in 2016 the dream looks a lot different than it used to--and it's never been so jeopardized.
Ski towns from Telluride to Jackson Hole boast massive income gaps, and housing crises price mountain dwellers out of the towns they love. Technology has invaded even the most off-the-grid aspects of the sport; you'd be forgiven for thinking a triumphant Instagram post is a requisite for backcountry travel. That same backcountry grows increasingly treacherous, thanks to strange snowpacks and exponential crowding. Unpredictable, waning winters threaten resort skiing's financial sustainability in many parts of the world, as climate change looms bigger each year.
And yet, if you hop on a chairlift in a ski town in North America, you'll find the heart and future of the community in just a few spins. Locals come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, but it's the young ones the sport depends on. As Baby Boomers age off the slopes and the amount of skiers decreases in relation to the growing U.S. population, the 20-somethings in towns like Bozeman, Nelson, BC, and Jackson, New Hampshire, promise a spirited, thriving future. It's the college kids in a classic Western ski town, the born-and-bred locals in a British Columbia haven, the free spirits in rural New Hampshire, who reassure us that the kids are all right. That no matter what misfortunes skiing might weather, they're going to make a life of it.
You couldn't miss the youth in Bozeman if you tried, thanks in large part to MSU. While the outdoor community certainly extends well beyond the college--in age, profession, and geographic location--you can't ski a single run at Bridger without crossing paths with a student on "Team No School" (a nickname for kids who take their winters off to ski).
Lisac, 21, is a student notching an impressive amount of time both in school and on the hill. She's in a five-year combination bachelor's and master's program in architecture--one of few in the country--although she's on a slightly longer schedule due to a yearlong hiatus from school to earn residency.
Andie Creel, on the other hand, earned her residency over a lifetime--albeit a short one so far, 20 years--in Bozeman. She's a double major in economics and environmental studies with a minor in computer programming, and though she's a long-time local, she notes that her experience in town as a student is a drastic departure from a childhood here.
"I've been here as long as I can remember," says Creel, whose dad, a professor, teaches her ecology class. "Sometimes I'm like, 'Oh god, I should probably leave at some point.' I really should try to uproot myself at least once, but it is so hard to leave. Bozeman's given me pretty much everything, and I can't imagine leaving this town. It's scary to get so addicted to one place." Her relationship with the town has changed since starting school. An influx of outdoorsy students eager to explore the mountains around her hometown gave Creel a fresh perspective and a broader community of like-minded peers, and she's spending more time skiing than ever before.
In the morning prior to the freeride competition, we race around Bridger in an ever-growing group of MSU kids. Creel regularly rides with a hilarious posse that fills their days with catcalling--"Skiing is a dance, don't let the mountain lead!"--laughter, and stopovers in the mini-park to practice their boxes and rails.
“It's all about pushing the limits, playing in the mountains, and--most importantly--’dicking around with friends.’"
Whenever the girls ski up to a jump or an air, they form a queue of rainbow-clad lemmings and heckle and cheer as they practice 180s, 360s, bigger and scarier drops. They're patient and positive, and while their skiing is damn impressive, it's the ability to laugh at themselves that stands out.
Creel and the girls discuss their intended competition runs on the course in Bridger Gully, a feature-filled portion of Bridger's iconic Ridge. Creel has scoped her line a few times, and knows exactly what features she will hit and how she wants to ski it.
Lisac, on the other hand, typically skis with guys. She grew up ripping around Mount Hood with her little brother, Nash. He now attends MSU as well, and his crew's aggressive style rubs off on his sister. She's more fearless than the other girls. She doesn't hesitate, and she's fast as hell on all kinds of terrain. Which is not to say she takes skiing seriously, either. Her competition plan? She's never skied the run before in her life.
Lisac disappears to the lodge to find something to eat, and Creel's slot in the competition comes up. We hike up the Ridge without Lisac, Creel setting a lung-bursting pace. At the top, Creel encourages the girls as they ski onto the course: "Ski fast, ski true!"
Creel takes off, smooth and confident. She sends her first air flawlessly and skis out of sight. Lisac is still nowhere to be found. This morning she convinced the proper authorities to let her ski despite signing up well past deadline, so she will be the last girl to drop.
We congregate at the bottom--Creel had an incredible run, hitting her planned airs and making the most of soft, hail-spotted snow. We're still not sure if Lisac ever made it to the top of the Ridge.
Right when we're about to give up hope that she'll show, Lisac comes barreling down the face. The lack of preparation shows; at one point she charges to the top of a sketchy air and skids to a near stop before sending it off the smaller side. But her aggression, her ability to recover at speed, and her confidence are remarkable, considering the hangover and the beer she chugged at the top of her line.
The atmosphere at the bottom, as the girls watch their male friends send their own lines, is nothing but encouragement and affirmation. They introduce themselves to their competitors with compliments and high fives and cheer as the boys get rowdy up above. The crew is remarkably ego-averse. Creel's friend Kelly Balfanz tells me on the chairlift that it's one of the things she values most about their friendship--there's no competition. It's all about pushing the limits, playing in the mountains, and--most importantly--"dicking around with friends."
Back at the lodge, over lunch, Lisac is explaining to the table what makes a good Bloody Mary. Mid-sentence, she stands up and announces: "They're awesome, I'm getting one." As soon as she's gone, Creel shrugs and says, "That's her secret: Drink a lot, ski all the time, get better grades than all of us." Creel's good friend Carter Snow quickly counters, "Yeah, but don't listen to what Andie does in school, you'll feel bad about yourself." Their skiing isn't anything to brush off either: When they announce the contest results, Lisac takes fourth, and Creel makes second place.
It's raining at Whitewater Ski Resort. Yesterday's powder and clear views of Ymir Peak, with its ridged arms encircling one of British Columbia's most beloved ski hills, have given way to fog, heavy snow, and sleet. Donovan Hough, Tristan Martin-Preney, and Shyam Hielema-Masse, all 25, and I tug knee-length garbage-bag dresses over soggy gear, hop on the Silver King lift, and head straight for the trees.
"It has been one of the best seasons of my life," Hough tells me before we work our way down the short, steep inbounds terrain, "and I've been skiing here 20 years." It shows: The guys hit every jump, natural air, and lip of the cat track without hesitation, even in dense, deep snow and low visibility.
The three grew up in Nelson and across Kootenay Lake in nearby Crawford Bay. Hielema-Masse and Hough met in school, and they got to know Martin-Preney playing soccer as kids. They've been a part of the same community ever since, one knit tightly around skiing.
They're die-hard skiers in the traditional sense, working labor-intensive jobs that provide ample free time during British Columbia's precipitation-heavy winter. And despite the fact that they're generally happy with (and supported by) their jobs--Hielema-Masse does tree work, Martin-Preney sweeps chimneys, and Hough installs septic systems--the real passion lies in the mountains.
"Winter is my time to let loose," Hough tells me. His summer job is arduous, leaving him little time for anything other than sleep. He studied metal work for two years and was, for a while, hoping to patch together a living as an artist. However, when his father retired from a job as a septic installer, Hough decided he needed a steadier income and followed his father's career path.
He hasn't given up on art, though. He wears a metal belt buckle of his own making--ski goggles with a view of pine trees through the lenses--and throughout the ski day, we pay regular visits to a hidden installation just out of bounds: a plaque of Ullr, the snow god. Hung in a grove of trees, often with the butt end of a joint or two atop his iron head, it's an irreverent tribute to the mountains that raised him.
“Winter is my time to let loose.”
We take a lodge break to swap out soaked gloves and foggy goggles and grab a few pitchers at Coal Oil Johnny's, the pub in Whitewater's homey, no-frills lodge. When I ask if they have wifi, the woman at the ticket window shakes her head and says, "Welcome to 1995." The resort, for the locals, is a fair-weather relationship (or, more aptly, a bad-weather one): A place to tour or bootpack from, to run laps on bad snow and weather days, to come back to for beers after a long day.
During the rainy afternoon, Martin-Preney and I take a hike in the mountains surrounding downtown Nelson, and he tells me about the kids' video camp he launched this season. On the side, he's an amateur filmmaker and teaches young skiers to film themselves and edit short videos for free during a few weeks in the winter. We hike up Fell Creek, balancing on fallen trees and kicking holes in melting snow, and talk about the lessons skiing can teach you, about boldness and bravery and risk and reward.
"I think it helps you trust in yourself," Martin-Preney tells me. "I didn't have a lot of confidence when I was a kid, and I would have loved to have something like this."
The misty, wet weather is a big shift from Friday, when a rare bluebird afternoon had them sitting around a picnic table outside, explaining to me what it was like growing up in the Kootenays.
From snowmobiling expeditions deep into the mountains as young teens to the shared trauma of injuries and the loss of local heroes, their pivotal adolescent experiences were largely communal, and tied to the land around them. "We just love this area so much," says Hough. "It's like pioneer country out here, and the people who were raised here have deep roots. Families that have been here for a long time are very proud."
We follow our sunny lunch with a hike up the Trash Chutes, a classic zone just outside the boundary of Whitewater. A 30-minute bootpack leads you to a long ridge with a few steep, short turns that drop in to a lower-angle, gladed zone full of pillows and natural hits nearly devoid of tracks. Backflips, plenty of deep, light turns, and one last safety meeting later, we're crammed into Hough's black Ford Ranger and headed back to town.
We eat dinner at Hielema-Masse and Martin-Preney's house that night. Hielema-Masse's mom has come over to cook--yet another reminder of how small this community is. Over steaming bowls of spicy chicken stew, they explain to me what keeps them here. I ask if it ever gets too small, a town of 10,000 people, and Hielema-Masse explains that it's hard to get bored when there's so much to do outside. I ask if they'll stay, and he shrugs--they're young, who knows?
At Rachel and Liz Freierman's home in Jackson, New Hampshire, I'm greeted by the smell of Japanese curry cooking on the stove and a spoonful of homemade, still-warm maple syrup. Thirty-year-old Liz stands watch over dinner at the stove in baggy Carhartts with long dreads piled on top of her head, as her wife, Rachel, 29, grates ginger. A group of friends, including Adam Freierman, Rachel's 26-year-old brother, drink beer and discuss their plans for the summer. They all met working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, either on the trails, in backcountry huts, or working for environmental education camps.
"Life moves pretty slowly up here," Adam told me. It's an understatement--Adam has a flip phone and lives in a shack in the woods across the road from Rachel and Liz with no running water in the winter, no bathroom, and, for a couple months last year, no roof. He patrols full-time at Wildcat Mountain, where both Liz and Rachel have worked on and off, with a laid-back group of older folks who spend most of their workday shooting the shit in a tiny patrol shack, taking intermittent groomer laps, and spraying down frozen lift parts with a Supersoaker full of de-icer. With little snow left on the ground and mud thwarting a full springtime roster of activities, Liz remarks to Rachel, "All we have to do this weekend is boil sap."
Their house is actually a large segment of the old Spruce Mountain ski lodge, part of a ski area that was open in the 1930s and closed in the early 70s. The lodge now serves as three separate living spaces. There are a few buildings on the expansive property--some empty, a few occupied by goats or human neighbors--and the Spruce Mountain Tow is still on the hill. During good winters, Liz, Rachel, and Adam regularly ski in their backyard.
Rachel and Liz moved into the lodge nearly three years ago. With heavy wood beams, low ceilings, and a hanging light fixture made out of an old snowboard, the place is homey and eccentric, much like the characters it houses. A huge covered porch holds canoes, skis, and other toys in the winter and long outdoor dinners and sleepovers in the summer. The property gives their young blue heeler, Sappho, plenty of space to roam, and the rent is cheap for such a beautiful place.
Rachel, Liz, and Adam all grew up in Massachusetts, and despite spending time out West (Adam went to school at Colorado College and Rachel spent time in Breckenridge) they found their outdoor haven in the sleepy White Mountains. Wildcat is a respectable hill, with glade skiing, bumps, and plenty of long, mellow groomers. But the real draw for the small group of young people who make Jackson their home is twofold: the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which provides outdoor-centric employment, and Mount Washington. The Northeast's tallest peak, Washington boasts brutal winter weather, steep skiing, and everything from low-key to technical climbing.
On my second day in town, the trio and I hike up to the base of Tuckerman Ravine, the most popular zone on Mount Washington in the winter. The trail is solid ice, necessitating micro-spikes on our trail runners. Otherwise, it's warm enough for short sleeves. The low snowpack this year, coupled with a rainy forecast for the afternoon, means we have the ravine to ourselves--a rarity. On a typical spring day, the ravine can be so packed and rowdy that local law enforcement hikes up to the basin to hand out tickets for public nudity and drinking. Adam, who now balances his patrol work with a job at a bakery, spent an entire winter living atop Mount Washington interning as a weather reporter, and even he has never spent a spring day alone in Tucks.
We begin an ascent of Left Gully, one of the main routes down Tucks and one of the few filled in enough to top out. The snow is generally soft, spring corn, with sheets of bare ice bracing through the dirty surface on particularly exposed sections. Blue iceflows sprawl down the rocks rising to our left, and low, scrubby grass presses through the wind-blown rollover near the top of the gully.
"It's nice to get to know a place. That's why I came here, and why I'll stick around."
I'm just behind Adam, who hikes startlingly fast in a bright red-and-blue windbreaker and electric blue Gore-Tex pants from the '80s. It isn't ironic--he just doesn't see the point of spending money on gear when he can pick up perfectly functional pieces like this at a secondhand store for just a couple dollars.
The descent is quick--for a few hours of hiking, we get just a couple minutes of skiing in the ravine--but we head out, rather than booting up another line. The sky looks stormy, and the avalanche forecast calls for wet slabs in the case of rain.
We descend a different trail than we hiked up, locally known as the Sherbie (short for the Sherburne). On a good year, you can ski from the top of the ravine all the way to the car, but we only make it as far as a mile from the parking lot. The trail is blue ice dotted with rocks, patches of grass, and logs. I'm more gripped than I was in the ravine, but Adam, Liz, and Rachel are hooting, laughing, and grass skiing like only those who've been doing it for years could.
"It's nice to get to know a place." Adam says of Mount Washington. "That's why I came here, and why I'll stick around."
Jackson is peaceful, slow, and steeped in history, and that's part of the charm. It's a haven for weirdness, for the skier with nothing to prove, the Instagram-averse, the radically content. The Jackson locals, like the other skiers I met on my trip, just love to ski. Explore. Get lost, get dirty, have fun, get tired, and just a little scared.
"This life gets you going," says Adam. "That's why I ski; it makes your heart beat."