Words by Matt Hansen
Photos by Adam Clark
EARLY MORNING, sun still way below the horizon, the air has a cold, refreshing bite that I can feel deep into my lungs. Tall evergreens, their trunks furry with moss, reach tall into the purple sky. The only sounds are the steady zip-ziiiip…zip-ziiiip of our skins over a crusty snow surface, and our breath, appearing as vapor in the stillness and vanishing just as quickly. Other than our party of four—Beau Fredlund, Adam Clark, Noah Howell, and me—the only other sign of life is a set of moose tracks postholed deep into the snow. The animal has dropped several piles of scat, which look like Milk Duds, along the skin track.
"He's eating the Old Man's Beard off the trees," says Fredlund, a ski guide in Cooke City, Montana, as he reaches up and pulls a small strand of stringy lichen dangling from the pine branches.
Fredlund, a tall and lean 35-year-old with thick yellow eyebrows and large Adam's apple, stabs a dropping with the tip of his ski pole, testing its freshness to see if Alces alces might still be hanging around.
The moose turd responds to his pole with a solid thwack—frozen. We keep moving, periodically scanning the trees for the leggy beast. But our minds are primarily focused on the task of getting up and out to a place in the mountains far away from humanity, away from our cars, away from the noise and craziness that seems to have consumed daily life nearly everywhere we go.
No matter what side of the bed you woke up on, there's no denying that the world is slipping into a deep chasm of chaos and uncertainty. The political and social divisions of our time have generated deafening noise that penetrates our lives at almost every turn. There are people marching in the streets. We're witnessing a full-fledged attack on the environment, the press, and our healthcare. A disturbing lack of civility has led to fighting and arguing in person and especially online, where a simple scroll quickly uncovers toxic vitriol. The average American spends 10 hours per day looking at a screen. Rates of depression and suicide among teenagers are at historically high levels. Opioids are now responsible for more deaths per year in the U.S. than automobile accidents.
Even in the happy bubble of the ski universe, which has always been a refuge for those seeking to flee the greater ills of society, angst brews. On powder days last winter in Tahoe, the traffic was so bad that it took people two hours to drive 12 miles from Truckee to Squaw Valley. The average price of a lift ticket across the United States is nearly $100. Ski bums debate whether to go Epic or Ikon, an almost unavoidable conversation in a world dominated by two corporations. Four of the warmest years on record all occurred since 2014. In ski towns across the West, young people are living in their cars, not out of choice but by necessity. Yet those same towns continue to allow developers to build big hotels, roller coasters, zip lines, and fancy restaurants.
It all warrants attention—and we'd be remiss to not count our many blessings as skiers—but the noise is almost too much. The world has gotten so loud that there are now attempts to preserve natural silence, and movements are afoot to help prescribe time in nature, and away from our devices, as a form of healthcare. For some, it seems like there is only one logical response: drive to the end of the road and go skiing deep into the wilderness.
WHICH IS WHAT FREDLUND DID 10 years ago when he moved to Cooke City, a tiny snow-bound village with less than 200 year-round residents. During the winter, the town sits at the terminus of a 111-mile-long dead end. As a ski guide and native Montanan, Fredlund knows the surrounding mountains as well as anyone—an area that includes Yellowstone National Park and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which constitute part of one of the last great intact ecosystems on Earth, some 34,375 square miles.
Ironically, Cooke City itself is not what many skiers would consider a place of natural silence. All winter long, snowmobiles buzz up and down the main drag. Gunshots go off at random times. At Fredlund's cabin, which he rents at the end of the road, outside of cell service, snowmachines roar by just feet from his front door. The noise is so regular he hardly notices it. Fredlund himself does not own a sled, nor does he use them to guide. If he's not out with clients, he's skiing solo or with friends he keeps in touch with through email and Instagram. His approach to mountains and wilderness is so intimate that he's been known to use the same pole plants on a skin track he set the day before. Partly for fun, partly to obscure his presence for anyone who might be following. That would be a rarity, however, because Fredlund says he almost never sees any other parties when he's skiing.
Back on the skin track, Fredlund is leading us up a drainage when he pauses to inspect a basketball-sized roller ball that tumbled onto the path the previous afternoon. It froze overnight into a perfectly sculpted curly Q. The inside looks like a porcelain snail shell. "Sorry, I need to geek out on this," he says with a sheepish smile before stooping with his camera to get a close-up photograph.
Soon, we leave the old skin track behind and set a new one. It progressively steepens on the rim of a deep gorge. Large peaks comprised of rocks as black as coal rise up in the distance, their summits awash in the golden light of sunrise. After an hour and a half of climbing, we finally emerge from the cold shadows into a sunlit forest. The light cast by the sun against the trees turns the slope into a vibrant canvas of purple and white zebra stripes.
Several years ago, a friend who grew up with Fredlund in Billings, Montana, said to me, "If Beau ever asks you to go for a ski tour, politely decline." It was a joke intended to convey Fredlund's intense desire to go far and his mental toughness to deal with pain. As a backcountry ranger in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness while in college, Fredlund once dislocated his shoulder and still managed to hike out several miles on his own while carrying a 42-pound backpack. Throughout the last decade, he has gone on numerous overseas ski adventures, setting out on epic slogs in New Zealand, Kamchatka, and Central Asia.
But today, through this forest, Fredlund's pace is slow enough to breathe easily. As if he's walking through a church, he carefully and quietly shuffles his skis through the six inches of cold powder, savoring the moment as he crosses from shade to sun to shade to sun. At the edge of the forest, Fredlund stops at the base of a large cirque. A tangled mass of vertical black rock towers into the deep blue sky. Beneath it is a mellow pitch with perfect powder that's calling to him. There are places around Cooke City where snowmobiles can't go. This is one of them. It's refreshingly honest, safe, and simple, and almost like it could be the quietest place on Earth.
IT IS SAID that the actual quietest place is within the Hoh Rainforest, in Olympic National Park, Washington. It's a single square inch of space, defined as a spot completely free of human-caused noise, and there are efforts to preserve it in order to help visitors appreciate the value of silence. And that's where we are in 2018: We are treating a quiet place the size of a postage stamp as rare and precious as a geyser in Yellowstone.
When you step back, it certainly feels like we've reached a tipping point where even the most isolated places aren't safe from the mechanizations of humankind. More than half of the 7.4 billion people on the planet live in an urban environment. In 30 years, it's expected that two out of every three people will live in a city, making it even more difficult for humans to connect to their natural heritage.
A few weeks before I skied with Fredlund, I hiked out to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, at dusk. It had snowed earlier in the day, and the La Sal Mountains in the distance were painted a brilliant pink by the fading sun. As I took in the awe and wonder of the arch, I heard a coyote yip nearby. Or so I thought. It was actually a woman watching dog videos on her cell phone. Then she yelled to her friends, "My phone says it's going to start snowing in nine minutes. We need to get outa here!" Silence: broken. Respect for others: gone. My faith in humanity: extinct.
Time to go skiing, where the weight of a deep snowpack muzzles sound, and where cold thins the herd by exploiting weaknesses.
Skiers have long known that there are tangible benefits to being connected to quiet places in nature. In a purely physical sense, there is no skiing without that connection. You could say the same thing about walking, since in order to walk, you must place two feet squarely on the ground. But walking is primal, a product of our evolutionary biology that goes back millions of years. And though walking can take you to quiet places, it can also lead you to war, a construction site, a food court at the mall, or a nightclub in downtown Santiago that glows neon blue and thumps with electronic music.
Skiing, on the other hand, is learned, an experience that can be both painful and exhilarating. By learning to ski, we grow to study and appreciate the whims of nature, and how we must respect it in order to practice the craft. Weather, air temperature, angle, time of day, and aspect all affect snow, and thus, our interaction and response to it. To ski is to be connected, however tenuously, to the Earth by the ephemeral and temporary existence of snow.
Scientists have now shown that there are very real benefits to that connection. Time in nature lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure, and reduces the risk of obesity and diabetes. Studies at the University of Utah and Stanford have proven that we are healthier, and better at being human (i.e. less distracted, more present), when we are outside and unfettered from technology. Researchers have also concluded that simply spending time beneath a forest canopy generates calmness, rejuvenation, and restorative benefits. Since the 1980s, the Japanese have incorporated "forest bathing" as a cornerstone of national medicine. In the U.S., doctors have started to prescribe the outdoors as part of a healthy lifestyle through initiatives like Parks Rx, a program developed through the Institute at the Golden Gate in partnership with the National Park Service to encourage parks and green space as a form of healthcare.
At the intersection of good health and the environment is quiet. People like Fredlund know that the best way to find it is to ski there.
FREDLUND SKIS with his feet close together, hands out front, elbows cocked at 45-degree angles like he's a prizefighter coiled to make quick jabs. His turns are tight and well rounded, even on open slopes. In the shadow of those big black rocks, we make at least a dozen laps in cold powder.
Occasionally, an airplane crosses the sky 30,000 feet above our heads as our skis make their own contrails across the soft snow. Clark's nutcrackers swoop down to investigate us, making harsh calls that reverberate off the cliffs, but it is otherwise silent.
Fredlund's old-school style of skiing belies his history. As a kid, he skied at Red Lodge, Montana, a small hill on the eastside of the Beartooth Mountains, where he wanted to hit jumps and ski rails. Fredlund was the one to show Wiley Miller, a professional skier he grew up with, how to do a backflip and 720.
Miller says Fredlund was one of the best skiers in their high school, a talented baseball player, and well liked by his peers. After high school, Fredlund moved to Bozeman to attend Montana State University, and his dad bought him a season pass to Bridger Bowl that first year as a gift. "I sure would've loved something like this when I was in college," says John Fredlund, who works in oil and gas exploration. "It was a no-brainer. This is going to make his life better and happier. He used it like 90 times. That blew my mind."
Fredlund loved it so much that the next year he took some time away from school and moved to Big Sky, landing a job as a waiter at the Huntley Lodge. After one season, he moved back to Bozeman and bought a snowmobile. He sold it a year later when he moved to Salt Lake City, enrolled at the University of Utah and began skiing the Wasatch with his roommates, one of whom was Miller.
One day, after skiing together a few seasons, Fredlund approached Miller in their apartment and sat him down for a talk. "That surprised me because Beau never opens up," says Miller. "Basically, he told me he's skiing by himself this winter and he wanted me to be OK with not skiing together. He was very serious about it."
They had a dry erase board in their apartment, and each morning before heading out, Fredlund would write down where he was going as a safety precaution.
Fredlund's sister, Paige Hunter, says it was around this time her brother took skiing to a spiritual place.
"That's when his love of skiing really deepened," she says. "He'd seldom go out with other people. Part of it was that he wanted to be alone so that he could listen to what he was going on in the mountains. I think he wanted to know where he was going intimately."
After graduating from college with a degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Fredlund moved back to Montana and landed in Cooke City. Inspired by Native American history, grizzly bears, and early explorers, Fredlund sees Cooke City as a practical place to live closer to the land. Last year, he bought a parcel at the edge of town and built a yurt, where he hopes to eventually live full time off the grid.
"Cooke City is closer to the moon and the stars," says his dad, John. "But as a parent, you can't fight it. He's lucky that he doesn't need the finer things in life and can get by on the income of a church mouse."
Fredlund says he's not trying to escape anything, just searching for something meaningful. He says the quiet places help him listen more closely to things that matter.
"In the current age, there is so much noise, in the form of information bombarding us, that it's hard to filter out the information that is important," he wrote in an email. "Going out in quiet places seemingly simplifies that flow of information. It's a nice reprieve from the over-stimulated realm. It's like meditation, in that the practice of quieting your mind eventually allows you to focus more clearly on the distilled, good ideas."
For Fredlund, many of those good ideas boil down to the aesthetics and challenge of skiing a line in the middle of nowhere.
ANYTIME YOU ENTER THE BACKCOUNTRY, there comes a moment when you feel the umbilical cord of civilization break free. Crossing that threshold typically carries the weight of being entirely on your own. That is the draw. That is the thrill. That is the danger.
We cut the cord the next day after our third skin transition of the morning, when Fredlund, Clark, Howell, and I descend into a dark forest on the backside of a mountain in the opposite direction of town. And yet, we still have two more transitions to get to our objective: a steep and narrow couloir hidden on the north side of a prominent peak. At the base of it, we strap skis to our packs, affix crampons to our boots, and pull out our ice axes. Fredlund takes the lead and begins kicking steps into the side of the mountain. Hanging across the top of the 1,500-vertical-foot couloir is a cornice the size of a bus. Fredlund is confident that it won't break, but like Gandalf the Grey, he says we must not linger. Years of brutal ascents and bushwhacks and mental and physical stamina come into play as he hurries up the couloir, his lean legs aggressively kicking steps above Clark and Howell, the sharp points of his crampons flashing like teeth.
The snow gets deeper as the slope grows steeper. Past midway, it's so steep that my skis—attached A-frame to my pack—are hitting the snow above my head with each step up. My gloves are completely soaked through, freezing my fingers as I keep a grip on my axe in one hand and a ski pole in the other. Menacing black rocks hang over either side of the couloir like gargoyles. Stress hammers loudly in my brain. If the cornice breaks, there's nowhere to hide; I'm well out of my comfort zone.
But we keep going. The top of the couloir narrows into a five-foot-wide pinch. A nifty climb over a small ice bulge near the summit completes the ascent, and we pop out of the top like rodents. It's sunny here, and windy. The view is nothing but mountains in every direction. Fredlund found this spot a few years ago after poring over maps. He skis it a couple times of year, and has harvested blocks of solid ice from the mountain's summit to chill his tumbler of whiskey when he gets home.
After a quick snack, Fredlund ropes up on belay to drop in first, making three or four hop turns, giving a hard ski cut each time. The snow is stable. He releases the rope, and skis out of sight. Then me, then Clark, then Howell. The snow is soft, but not effortless due to the steep angle. Back under the cornice, we descend as quickly as we can, farming the sides for powder. At the bottom, we slap on skins and head back up through the dark forest, clearly happy to be out of the shadows.
The quiet in the trees comes over us like a warm blanket: objective accomplished, no more hazards, no more screaming inside my head. I don't know if this is the quietest place someone could ever go skiing, but that's not exactly the point. Each one of us has our own quiet place. It's what's inside our hearts that really matters—be it a line in the wilderness or stash at the local ski hill—and makes navigating the chaos that much easier. We just have to go find it.
At a clearing, we get ready for a final mellow descent of south-facing corn back to town. The valley is a giant U-shape ringed by 10,000-foot peaks. The buildings in Cooke City resemble tiny pieces on a Monopoly board. "Beer awaits," Fredlund says before shoving off.
Upon reaching the pavement, we slowly walk back to the truck. A car comes, and we step aside.
This story originally appeared in the November 2018 (47.3) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.