Teton Pass might be the best shit-small ski area in the country. It is almost certainly the most beautiful. Stuck 28 miles back a winding road, inside one of the more convoluted areas of the Rocky Mountain Front, it’s surprising that it is open at all. Last year it wasn’t, the new owner didn’t have enough time after buying to get things organized and the lifts spinning. Now they are, and with rain in the forecast for the Flathead this past weekend I fled east and south, to the land of sun, strafing wind, jutting limestone reefs, and country little-known by even Montana standards.
Danni and the rest of the C-Team were keen on the skimo race happening Sunday, but with low 60s projected in Choteau for Saturday and the free rental car from my accident still available, I woke up in the dark Saturday and made track for skiing. Conditions were gorgeous going over Marias Pass, and a stop at the Two Med Grill for more espresso kept inertia running high for the fast and rolling drive down to the Teton River. The drive up into the mountains had me marveling at how little snow was available below 6000′, so before anything looked good I found myself at the ski hill parking lot, geared up and asking patrol if I could skin up through the area and go explore. Turns out they have a longstanding tradition of hiking from the top lift (~7100′) up to the summit of the mountain (pictured above), but were not keen to have me up there alone. But they knew two other folks who were headed up that way. 30 seconds into the introduction I realized I knew one of them from a magic summer day in the Bitterroots years back. Noelle and her husband Sean know a friend of mine from grad school, and though they live in Bozeman now spent eight years working in Choteau and skiing Teton Pass and the surrounding backcountry. You can’t beat good company and local knowledge.
Sean and I geeking out.
One reason Teton Pass will never be a destination is the location; a long and rough drive from a place which is already in the middle of very little. Another is the terrain; there’s not much of it and it’s pretty flat. But the big reason is the snow. Between facing east in the land of sun and being subject to the infamous Front winds, powder doesn’t stay that way for long. There was a storm warning for Sunday, but Saturday was warm and on the tail end of two weeks of snow drought. We didn’t have stability concerns (ECTN, 4-5 feet of snow), but we did wonder about just how bad the sastrugi and windboard would be in the 2000′+ south-facing couloir we were looking down.
Noelle entering the steepest part.
Turns out it skied great, but I was very glad to be on my new skis. We had everything from windblown death cookies and hardpack to rotten corn, often everything in the course of one turn from one side of the gully to the other. The Currents turned fast, had great edgehold, and dealt well with the continual weirdness. They ski better than I do, which is all that can be asked.
Sean in an icy choke, still barely halfway down. Above photo was taken atop the prominent triangular rock near the summit.
The best thing was running into great folks purely by coincidence, and getting to ski a great line on a gorgeous day. Sean and Noelle are much better skiers than I am (not a hard thing to accomplish), and had a forthright and easy-going communication style about weather and how we were going to ski the line. I was immediately at ease, and able to concentrate on skiing what was for me somewhat intimidating terrain. We negotiated the treed runout, skinned back to the resort, and I had a beer at the (excellent) bar before heading back down to meet the team in Choteau.
For someone who grew into adulthood in southern Utah and northern Arizona, the undulating scrub and twisted trees of the Front just feels right, and Choteau is on the surface sleepy and orderly in a way which holds a lot of appeal. I doubt we’ll ever move there, but it’s nice to think about.
The team arrived near dusk and we rallied, according to C-Team regulations, for a stout dinner with beer and pie featuring prominently. Then up early-ish for a drive back into the mountains much changed from the day before. It had snowed all night and snowed all day, with wind continuously varying from mild to hurricane force. The rapidly drifting-in skin track at the top of the races first ascent added to the proper alpine feel. The race itself was great, with a variety of skiing terrain and good skiing on powder over death cookies. They had a better turnout than either the Big Mountain or Bridger races had this year! The Team cleaned up, with Amber and Phil both winning. I was proud of myself for going deep on the last ascent to pass two guys, even though they both blew me away on the subsequent descent. We spent the rest of the day drinking really good free beer, eating fantastic food from the lodge, and skiing weird snow in a fantastic setting. Teton Pass isn’t a place to go for pure lift-riding satisfaction, but the ambiance and backcountry cannot be beat.
We’ll be back.