Showdown Montana, Dec. 31
Ben Haugen, Showdown Montana's energetic operations manager, insisted I visit on New Year's Eve. "It's the best day of the year here," he exclaimed. "You gotta see our torchlight parade and come to our party!"
Starting my adventure on New Year's seemed appropriate, even if it meant diluting my pursuit of the most epic piste in the state with parties, fireworks, a torchlight parade and, as it happened, a beer-fueled game of butt darts. I was on a quest—a 3,332-mile mission to check out 15 Montana ski resorts and find the best run, the most knee-trembling inbounds thrill ride. In 13 days.
There'd be challenges: the sub-zero temperatures, the dives down rock-rimmed chutes, the dining on ungodly numbers of base lodge burgers. En route, I'd arc turns with dedicated, diehard skiers while braving every kind of snow that falls from the sky. I'd carve around towering timber, through thigh-deep powder and some of the most seriously badass bumps I've ever encountered.
For the name alone, Showdown, in Niehart, Mont., was the perfect place for the kickoff.
"I'll be there," I told Haugen.
Upon my arrival, Jim Gold, one of the local skiers who offered to show me around, took me directly to the mountain's three signature black diamond bump runs, Cliff Hanger, Glory Hole and one he called "Oh My God."
Oh my god, after finishing my legs felt like I'd fallen off a cliff, and I surely didn't earn glory in the Hole. All three runs were short and steep with VW-sized moguls. I preferred Dynamite, another quick blast down an open glade. It was less visited and naturally rugged, and I could make a lap in eight minutes from the chairlift's midway station.
After skiing hard all day, I looked forward to relaxing with a beer and watching the evening show-on-snow from the deck of the lodge, but plans changed. When the guitar player for the après-ski party called in sick, Gold, a budding musician, got his first chance to perform live—under one condition: I had to take his place in the torchlight parade.
I donned his coveralls over my ski clothes, then spent two hours after the lifts closed in the small summit lodge drinking Bud from gallon milk jugs and playing butt darts with 50 other Carhartt-clad torch carriers.
A highly competitive game of agility, concentration and precision, butt darts pits two athletes in a race across the room while squeezing a coin between their butt cheeks (clothes on; yeah, it's hard). The first person to drop their coin in a plastic cup gets a point. My fellow torchbearers convinced me to join the fray in the second round, when the stakes doubled—two coins at once.
Shoving two shiny quarters up my crack, I waddled across the floor and released them toward the cup. Score on the first try! Showdown skiers were certainly a gregarious group.
Some people might wonder why I would travel thousands of miles on icy roads to check out 15 Montana resorts during one of the snowiest winters in memory. They obviously aren't ski addicts.
I made turns as a toddler at Whiteface, the Olympic mountain in Lake Placid, New York. As a teenage downhiller on the U.S. Ski Team, I spent most of the late 1970s schussing at 75 mph down premier slopes in the Alps and North America. I was a member of the Dartmouth Ski Team, one of the Division 1 powerhouses on the NCAA skiing circuit. I joined the women's pro tour in 1985 and have skied professionally ever since.
The only problem with my ski obsession was figuring out how to get my fix. Last year, I planned to move from New England to Montana. I'd be a stranger in new ski territory—a Meriwether Lewis on sticks. I needed to know where to go.
As much as I love to go fast, I love powder even more, the steeper and deeper the better. I've skinned for hours into the backcountry for a mere three minutes of nirvana down a cirque of virgin snow. Could Montana have something so close to heaven?
The sum total of my experience in the state consisted of two visits to Bozeman's Bridger Bowl in the 1980s, three visits to Big Sky over the last 30 years, and a hand-ful of days at Red Lodge Mountain, most of them spent coaching my sweetheart, Jack Ballard, on the nuances of a carved turn. I figured I'd remedy the problem during three separate trips from the East Coast, with a few ground rules.
The resorts would be public, which excluded the private Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks. They also had to have a Montana address, which ruled out Lookout Pass Ski and Recreation area, based in Mullan, Idaho. I had a day or less to sample each area, so I'd rely on locals to show me the signature slopes and their favorite powder stashes. My search would be unabashedly subjective, influenced by weather and the company. Mostly, I wanted rad rides and big mountain skiing on the blackest of diamonds, but I found much more.
Teton Pass, Jan. 1
The mercury barely crested minus 18 degrees en route to the Teton Pass resort near Choteau, my destination after Showdown. Despite the arctic conditions, this renaissance mountain warmed my skier's heart when I saw the magnificent untracked cirque towering above the parking lot. Unfortunately, it was at least a year away from getting lift access, so it was out-of-bounds for my smackdown.
I found Teton's owner, a Kiwi named Nick Wood, in the ticket booth. Struggling financially, the ski area closed after the 2009 season. Wood found it for sale on the Internet. He bought it for $279,000 in July 2010, then poured more than a million bucks and a mammoth amount of sweat equity into reopening it.
In four short months Wood added a new surface lift, cut several black diamond runs through an old burn area, renovated the buildings, and installed a women's bathroom with designer sinks.
Wood recruited Doug Benson, the newly hired Snow Sports School director, to find me some fresh snow. Benson didn't mind our leisurely noon start. On a big day, Teton Pass might have 300 skiers, but this was New Year's at noon, and obscenely cold. The 20 other skiers at the mountain lounged comfortably inside the day lodge, sipping hot cocoa and debating the lunch menu.
"There's no rush," Benson said. "It hasn't snowed in three days, so it may be a little wind-blown, but there's still powder."
He was right. After leaving foot-deep tracks down the burn, we headed to the trails on the left side of the Big Bear lift. I only paused once to catch my breath before plunging down Firewater, a steep fall-line run below the cirque—but not because I was winded. The view into the Bob Marshall Wilderness was in-your-face incredible. Firewater was the cream on this icy day, but it was too early to know if it was the crème de la crème.