My heart rate is somewhere around 160 beats per minute. Respirations, probably 30. I can actually feel the balls in my hip sockets straining to lift my skis. And there are at least 1,000 vertical feet of Downing Mountain still looming above me.
The lengths I’ll go to in pursuit of a ghost.
The skin trail snakes up through the pines, zigging one way then zagging the other. The going is steep, the turns sharp. I wonder if our guide, the inexhaustible John Lehrman, is even human. Despite a thorough waxing back at Downing Mountain Lodge, the cushy HQ for Lehrman’s family-run backcountry ski operation, the skins stretched across the bottoms of my Volkls continually accumulate snow. It’s like walking up a staircase with weights on each ankle and a basketball clutched between my knees. Hips just weren’t meant to move this way. I stop, breathe deeply, and mutter a quiet thank you to whatever genius invented the chairlift.
We’ve been at it for what seems like hours. I fight the urge to check my watch and glance back to see Matt Gibson materialize from a clump of pines. We’re high enough now to get a good view of the Bitterroot Valley: Stevensville, Hamilton, and the snow-covered Sapphire range across the way. The mountains stretch north toward Missoula and south toward Darby. A hawk wheels in the air beyond the ridge. For a moment, I almost forget the pain spreading down my quads. My breathing slows.
The view isn’t what I came for, though. Matt is quick to remind me of that.
“Just set a good pace and keep moving,” he coaches, skinning up behind me. “We have a ways to go yet.”
I get it. I’m usually very conscious about setting a pace I can maintain for long distances. It’s the only way to travel efficiently on, say, a seven-day wilderness canoe outing in Ontario or a three-day pack trip in North Dakota’s Badlands. This feels different. I’ve been a ski junkie since age six. I’ve been to camps, skied the Alps, even joined the National Ski Patrol. I’ve skied my fair share of backcountry terrain in Montana. But I haven’t skinned, at least not enough to make it count.
I came to Downing Mountain to descend, specifically down the vast gladed fields of virgin Bitterroot powder that Lehrman’s outfit promises intrepid backcountry skiers all season long. What I’m getting is a lesson in how to climb. And as with scores of past lessons learned in the outdoors, I get the distinct impression that I’m in over my head.
My first taste of off-piste skiing came in the fourth grade, on the sledding hill at the Tom O’Leary Golf Course near my parents’ house in Bismarck. North Dakota got hammered by blizzards in the winter of ’96. Huff Hills, the ski hill south of town, was hopping. Local sports shops couldn’t restock ski inventory fast enough. The white stuff stirred something deep inside people. Everyone wanted to shred.
My buddy Cole got this thing called a “snowboard” for Christmas, and with the weekdays between ski weekends growing painfully long, our crew decided to sniff out in-town alternatives to Huff Hills after school. We took turns on Cole’s snowboard, speeding down an out-of-the-way slope near the sledding hill. We even built a jump. I lugged my skis along once or twice. It was a blast, until Cole broke his arm.
That same winter, driven by a new desire to ski what others weren’t, I set my sights on what seems to be the only patch of snowy backcountry in North Dakota. The knoll above Huff Hills called out every time I rode the lift, a snow-kissed promontory amid a sea of crowd-choked runs. Curiosity turned to lust, and lust to obsession. For weeks I watched as the snow got deeper, pictured myself charging down a perfect line between cottonwood groves. No one else was trying it. I told myself I had to be the first.
I was breathless when I finally summited that hill with my dad and our third musketeer, David. They’d finally caved to my repeated lunchtime suggestions, and we’d floundered through waist-deep snow for half an hour, skis across our shoulders and poles dangling from our wrists. As we clipped into our bindings, I gazed out at the Missouri River Valley below. The view paled in comparison to the sight just beyond our ski tips: untouched powder, heaven on earth.
Looking back, the run itself was far from impressive. I’d never skied in powder, and wound up falling several times in yard-sale fashion. It didn’t even last long. Maybe 100 vertical feet, max. But it was the feeling right before the plunge that I’ve been chasing ever since, and that’s lured me out of bounds at scores of resorts. That feeling has drawn me to the Beartooth Plateau, to remote snowfields along the Rocky Mountain Front, even back to that knoll at Huff Hills. It’s the reason Downing Mountain sounded so tantalizing. But so far that anticipatory rush has eluded me. I’m desperate to feel it again.
Besides Lehrman and Matt, we have seven in our group: photographer Chad Harder; Kettlehouse’s kayak-savvy Cheyenne Rogers; cyclist and climate scientist Nicky Phear; designated freestyler Erik Samsoe; rock climber Dave Kratochvil; documentary filmmaker Katy-Robin Garton, who, rumor has it, can pull the skins off her skis while still in her bindings; and Don Gisselbeck, storied for his 77-consecutive-months-and-counting ski streak. I felt the butterflies begin to stir as the lot of us geared up outside the lodge. We kept a good pace for a while, climbing in a long line through the pines, cracking jokes and getting acquainted. This group is pro-league. Most have racked up serious vertical footage on skins over the years. I’m a T-baller in comparison. It didn’t take long for the butterflies to settle into a deep ache.
The view from the craggy crown west of Downing’s summit is breathtaking. We tuck into a gentle bowl holding six to eight inches of new snow, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Lehrman promised us “super-fast powder skiing” today, and the lines are ours for the taking.
I’m late to the party, of course. Most of our crew has already made several laps by the time I reach the top of the bowl. As I strip the skins off my skis, Katy rips down the hill, leaving a set of perfectly symmetrical curves in her wake.
“How’s the snow?” I shout to Don, who’s packing up his own skins nearby.
“Great,” he shouts back, grinning. I stuff my gear into my pack, clip into my bindings and position myself over a trackless expanse of snow, waiting for my heart to climb up in my throat.
Nothing. The feeling isn’t there. There’s the familiar anticipation of a stellar run, the adrenaline-induced twitches and rapid-fire eye movement, but none of that fleeting magic I felt 16 years ago.
The powder is soft, and my ears fill with wind and the rushing sound of skis cutting snow.Seconds tick by. I speed closer and closer to the pile of packs in the basin below. When I stop next to them, I nearly fall over. My knees are shaking. I’m exhausted.
“Awesome, dude!” Chad shouts, walking over for a celebratory high-five. I smile, ditch my pack and sit down for the first time since I left the lodge. It’s not the exertion that bugs me; it’s the feeling that I’m chasing a ghost. I lap the bowl one more time before we start back toward dinner and a night’s sleep.
There’s one more run on the way. The route Lehrman has mapped back to the lodge requires a yo-yo act up and down the mountain. We skin over a ridge into a neighboring bowl, shoot down a short line, and begin trekking up to the summit. The day’s last run is a snaking line along Downing Mountain’s southeastern ridge and through its main basin. Erik finds a two-foot lip of windblown snow above the bowl and leads the charge over it. It’s the first time today we’ve skied as a pack, and we’re like kids on a playground. The bowl is thick with pine saplings. We weave our way through, whooping and hollering, then leapfrog down the chute that leads directly to the lodge.
Inside, we convene around the fireplace while Lehrman and his daughter prep dinner. Everyone’s buzzing about the day. “That snow was incredible.” “Those lines were sick.” “This lodge is beautiful.” Chad cracks jokes about the DJ Dave and Barney Kook music video “Yoga Girl,” asking Katy when she’s going to show off her ski-skin trick. By the time dinner hits the table—steak, followed up with pie and ice cream—the room’s vibe is as warm as the fire. Someone plugs an iPod into a set of speakers. We decide to hit the hot tub, and pass around a flask of Jameson while we soak, the lights of Hamilton below us blending with the stars above. The only thing better than tonight’s lodge party is the knowledge that come morning, we’re going back up for more. I fall asleep in my bag in one of the lodge’s bunkrooms, hoping to find a ghost on day two.
Over breakfast, most of our group decides to head back to Missoula. Matt, Erik, Katy, Chad and I agree we’re not done yet.
The skinning is easier the second time around. I set a steady pace and manage, for the most part, to keep up. We reach the upper basin we skied yesterday before noon, and I settle in for lunch and an Eddy Out before tackling my first run.
The bowl is thoroughly shredded from the previous day’s skiing. I carve my turns close to a pair of yesterday’s tracks, trying to preserve as much untouched snow as possible. Everyone’s skiing as tightly as possible, trying to milk the untracked powder. Erik, now ready for some really big air, finds a massive snow-covered rock to launch off of. Chad squats downhill of it with his camera. Katy stands in the snow with her own camera a few yards away. I dig my Nikon out of my pack and hunker down for the distance shot. “Go for it!” Chad shouts. Erik shoots down the slope, his flannel shirt rippling as he picks up speed. He pops, he sails, he lands. His weight comes down over the backs of his skis, but he recovers his balance and skids to a stop in a cloud of snow. We all cheer.
I’ve tapped some reservoir of unexpected energy, and I’m all over the mountain. The aches are gone, replaced with the need to ski what most people haven’t. We skin into the next bowl and rip down, then head to the summit for the weekend’s finale. There, on an outcrop of rock overlooking the Sawtooth Creek Drainage. Katy decides to show off for the cameras. In a move born of yoga-caliber balance and flexibility, she lifts her ski behind her back, unhooks one skin and, kicking her foot forward, peels it off in one swift motion. The loose skin flutters in the air like a ribbon. She does it again with the other ski, smoother this time. I really am running with the pros.
We reach the top of the last bowl. As we start down, I duck left around a large boulder, steering away from yesterday’s tracks. The saplings aren’t quite as thick over here, and apparently none of us skied this line yesterday.
I stop for one last look at the Bitterroot Valley, the dense line of cottonwoods and ponderosas marking the river’s path. Suddenly I’m back on that knoll above Huff Hills, staring down at the Missouri River’s bluffs and the horizon beyond. Then I remember I have nearly 1,000 vertical feet of skiing left—far more backcountry than any flatlander could hope for. My attention wanders downward, to the view immediately in front of my ski tips. The snow is untouched, a vast field of pristine powder. Even the saplings are weighted in white. Almost like ghosts.
Downing Mountain lowdown
Accommodations and activities: With three bedrooms, nine beds and one pull-out couch, the 3,000 square foot log lodge can handle a sizeable party. Backcountry skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, Jacuzzi, barbecue, sunning on the deck and foosball will fill your days.
Nightly rates: Weeknights costs $50 per person, with five adults minimum required for exclusive lodge booking. Weekends and holidays are $60 per person per night with a two-night minimum. Children 13 and under stay free; children ages 13 to 16 stay for half price. Weekly rentals are also available for $2,500 for up to 10 people.
Dining: Self-catering is standard, but a variety of catered meal options are available. Call or email for menus and pricing details.
More Info: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 406-531-1486 for John Lehrman or 406-531-1478 for Jennifer Lehrman. Visit downingmountainlodge.com for more information.