This article first appeared in The Ski Journal Issue 15.4
High on the steeps above us, a skier catches an edge in the summer slush. He rag-dolls before belly sliding a good hundred feet, losing skis, poles and goggles along the way. Cheers erupt from the lift line as the man stands, shakes the snow from his sodden hoodie and takes a bow.
We’re at 10,900 feet on the Wyoming and Montana border, skiing spectacular terrain under mid-June sunshine. The yard sales are massive here, and so is the enthusiasm. Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area’s slogan is “The Spirit of Skiing,” and, with most other North American lift operations shut down for the year, it’s a compelling destination for those unwilling to let the season die. High in the Beartooth Mountains, North America’s lone summer-only ski area is a celebration of being outside in the mountains and sliding on snow without pretense or ego.
On tailgates and outside truck campers, an eclectic crowd geared up—racers in GS suits, park kids in baggy hoodies, and old hippies in duct-taped pants.
Driving up Beartooth Pass from the campsite this morning, a lack of snow made great skiing seem unlikely, especially considering forecasted highs of 98 degrees in nearby Red Lodge, MT. As my buddy Adam Watson—a roommate from my long-lost ski bum days—and I climbed the switchbacks, dwindling snowfields, melting remnants of roadside kickers and trailheads of skiers gearing up to hike to towering couloirs offered us renewed confidence. We crossed green tundra into Wyoming, rounded a curve toward the top of the pass and the 1,000-foot, snow-covered Twin Lakes Headwall appeared before us like a mirage.
People have been summertime skiing this headwall in the Shoshone National Forest since the 1960s when Pepi Gramshammer, Erich Sailer and Anderl Molterer started the Red Lodge International Summer Racing Camp. In those days, racers ascended the hill by gripping some of the steepest rope tows imaginable. Nowadays, uphill travel is a little friendlier, assisted by two platter Poma lifts that grant access to 600 acres of high-angle, north-facing terrain.
In a tiny dirt lot atop the headwall, a gray-haired guy in a dirty old Fila vest directed traffic, squeezing in as many trucks, vans and sticker-clad wagons as possible. But the lot attendant doesn’t just wear a single hat. He’s also one of Beartooth Basin’s owners, Kurt Hallock. As a kid, Hallock made sandwiches for the race campers of the 1960s. Now he’s part of a small and ever-evolving ownership group of Red Lodge locals that took over operations of the ski area in 2002.
Despite its laid-back character, Beartooth Basin’s operational challenges are immense. Much of it comes down to the sheer remoteness of the place and the short window for a ski season. Most years, Beartooth Highway doesn’t get plowed until around Memorial Day, which is Beartooth Basin’s targeted opening. Even when the road is open for the summer, it is often shut down by storms, and nearby Yellowstone National Park gets top priority from Forest Service plows. Therefore, for the month or so of preseason work that goes into getting the place open, a small, dedicated crew has to snowmobile in 20-something miles from the closed highway gate near Red Lodge.
Prep work includes avalanche mitigation, chipping and blasting away at the massive cornice topping the headwall, farming snow, and annual maintenance of the two Poma lifts, which were built in the ’80s. The Cummins 4BT biodiesel-fueled generator used to power the lifts can’t be towed up until after the road is open—nor can the generator’s fuel tank, the vintage Argosy trailer that acts as ski area headquarters or the ice-cream-truck-turned-ticket-office. On top of all that, before the place opens to the public, it has to pass the same lift inspections and protocols as the big resorts.
The area’s four primary owners bring a varied skill set to the hill—there’s expertise among them in welding, ski patrolling, engine repair, cat driving, mountain guiding and geophysics among other things. What few skills the owners don’t possess, they supplement by employing a small group of about a half dozen loyal ski-bum friends per day. Hallock’s day job as a lawyer helps with the administrative work of the ski area’s licensing and operations, but during Beartooth Basin’s short season, he also parks cars.
On tailgates and outside truck campers, an eclectic crowd geared up—racers in GS suits, park kids in baggy hoodies and old hippies in duct-taped pants. Across the parking lot, Hallock’s wife, Jimena, sold lift tickets from a vintage GMC ice cream truck that once peddled popsicles to Little Leaguers in Billings, MT.
Adam had been unable to turn down a foray into this weirdness and drove out from Wisconsin on a day’s notice. He and I nipped from a whiskey flask for a bit of courage after checking out the only way to begin a run: dropping a cornice onto a 50-degree face.
Not all the terrain is steep, Hallock told me—the pitch is gentler toward the bottom.
I pointed out that the parking lot is at the top of the hill, meaning we’d have to ski the steepest lines to get down to the easier stuff before taking the Poma back up to our cars. He shrugged.
The guy parked next to us chatted eagerly about his many years skiing at Beartooth as he globbed SPF 100 onto his cheeks. After five minutes of chatter, he unzipped his coat to reveal his pet kitten. Non-skiers hung out as well, many dragging lawn chairs onto the dirty snow—parents of skiers, maybe, or just people who wanted to soak up the scene and get a tan despite the occasionally intense wind gusts. Others passing by on the highway bound for Yellowstone—random Winnebago retirees and leather-clad bikers—stopped to check out the novelty of midsummer skiing up here in the middle of nowhere.
I nipped from a whiskey flask for a bit of courage after checking out the only way to begin a run: dropping a cornice onto a 50-degree face.
The midmorning snow is surprisingly good. It’s soft but not yet slushy, hero snow that holds an edge in the tight turns up top but forgiving enough for knees that haven’t skied bumps in months.
Adam and I meet up with sister and brother freeride pros and sixth-generation Montanans, Maria and Jack Lovely. They’ve been coming here every summer since they were kids and know it’s best to get out after the snow’s had a chance to soften a bit.
The Poma line has a closing-day feel—it smells of sunscreen and patchouli, and everybody’s smiling, laughing and pumped to be here. During a good year, the Basin’s season runs from Memorial Day weekend through Fourth of July weekend, sometimes later. This year, though, a multi-week heat wave in early June has had the snow melting fast, and the amount of prep time the crew put in preseason will exceed the amount of time the lifts are actually spinning.
The Lovelys greet friends in the lift line, including another owner, Justin Modroo, who’s a liftie today—shirtless, shoveling snow onto the melting bottom ramp. Modroo, a former Freeskiing World Tour top-10 finisher, runs the Freeride World Qualifier and Freeride Junior Tour Summer Shred Fest comps here. The Lovelys know Modroo well from their days competing.
Like the terrain here, Beartooth’s surface lifts aren’t geared toward beginners. The Poma we’re riding spins fast and the loading ramp is a precarious snow pile, the lift having been installed with a deeper snowpack in mind. A few people miss their first try at catching the fast-moving stick and platter as it swings past, and when a guy grabs hold but fails to get the platter between his legs, the crowd cheers him on as he holds on tight, ascending the slope with arms outstretched, holding the platter like a steering wheel. Up toward the top, as the slope reaches its steepest point, he finally lets go and the crowd groans.
“The vibe’s been evolving the past 10 years,” Austin Hart says. The Montanan is a patroller and mountain guide by profession, and also part of Beartooth’s ownership group. “It’s pretty laid back. Sometimes from a risk management point of view it’s a little too laid back. Some days trend like that.”
Because of this skiing-first vibe, the place is doing well. Today, like most weekend days of this short season, lift tickets are sold out. The ownership group has a master plan, which it discusses annually over beers in Red Lodge, MT. This year, a big step in the plan came to fruition with the purchase of a PistenBully winch cat capable of navigating the steeps.
“Usually it’s one season at a time,” Hart says. “But we do talk about goals for the future, how to eventually realize the potential of the place. We’ve been so busy though, we’re getting near there with just having the two lifts.”
A half-century ago, an array of rope tows took skiers to plenty of terrain not currently accessible by the two Pomas. In addition to these two lifts, Red Lodge International Summer Racing Camp, Inc., as the ski area is still legally known, is permitted to run two additional portable lifts. This is something the ownership group at Beartooth would like to pursue in coming years, but for now most of the focus is on spinning lifts and meeting the area’s unique summer demand.
In the early afternoon, the clouds dissipate, revealing brilliant blue sky. The snow softens to a nice slush, the kind that makes for buttery water-ski carves. Refreshing rooster tails of spray rain down behind us. At the bottom, people relax on the rocks, picnicking, resting, soaking up the sun. But up top, the wind picks up, putting a damper on our plans for a pleasant parking lot lunch. Core shots galore remind us about the dwindling snowpack, and a blown-out edge signals my last run of the season.
At camp, we grill the jalapeño bratwursts the Lovelys have brought along—made from elk they harvested near their family home in Big Sky. At a nearby site, our neighbors wax skis in preparation for tomorrow. Running a waxing iron off a portable generator seems excessive, until I remember Beartooth Basin’s race camp roots. We make vague plans to meet here again next summer—it’s the kind of place worthy of an annual pilgrimage.
“We’re just ski bums working hard to keep it alive,” Hart told me earlier in the day. “We’re just selling you downhill skiing and then an uphill ride out.”
As the Lovelys pull away, Adam and I lounge in camp chairs and listen to the whoosh of a river running through the trees. We talk about heading into town to catch the pig races at the Bear Creek Saloon, or maybe standing knee-deep in a nearby alpine lake casting Woolly Buggers for fingerling rainbows. Bellies full of spicy elk meat, we crack fresh beers in the warm summer breeze.
“We’re just ski bums working hard to keep it alive. We’re just selling you downhill skiing and then an uphill ride out.”