By Annie Fast
These days, it’s possible to ride a snowboard without ever really having a mountain experience-hell, you don’t even need snow. Which is just a shame, because battling the elements in the great outdoors is half the fun. Riders end up in some amazing places in pursuit of the shred-Beartooth Pass is one of those places. Snowboarding was the reason we came here, but camping by a river in the Montana spring, watching the last of the embers burn out in the campfire with a group of friends is a nice bonus.
Our campsite was at the base of the Beartooth Mountains outside Red Lodge, Montana just after Memorial Day. Our hick crew consisted of Stan Evans as photographer and “person in charge of dealing” and rider Heath Lilly rounding out the Man-tana section. Travis Rice and Standard filmer Rich Goodwin represented Wyoming, while Chris Coulter and Brandon Ruff made up the Utah contingency (even though Coulter maintains his New Mexico roots). By the time I got there, it was full-on mountain-man time. No one had shaved or showered in recent memory, everyone’s outerwear was some shade of brownish-black, the campsite was littered with bits of firecrackers and bullet casings, and everything smelled like wet boots. Perfect.
The Great Out Of Doors
Beartooth Pass Road heads south from Red Lodge to the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It was built after the Great Depression and opened in 1936. The pass winds up crazy-steep switchbacks through the Beartooth Mountains, across one of the highest continuous plateau in the U.S. with vistas of giant, glacier-carved valleys and numerous 12,000 foot-high peaks. Keep following the road and it ends up in Cooke City, Montana-one of the most popular snowmobile destinations in the rockies. Looking out across these mountains makes you feel very, very small.
Stan had discovered a new sled-to spot over the top of the pass. I showed up a few days after the rest of the crew and dropped into Billings International Airport. Heath Lilly slowed down just enough to let me dust off the Froot-Loops-covered front seat and jump in. We drove through dry valley heat into the moist foothill meadows and on up the wintery pass. The rest of the crew was out in the great unknown. Heath and I unloaded the sled and started across the frozen plateau. We rounded the first corner-and just then, Heath remembered to mention the semi-frozen lake crossings required to get into the backcountry. Crossing a lake on a snowmobile works for the same reasons that jumbo jets fly and battleships float—reasons I don’t understand. Using that same ignorant confidence, I tucked my boots into the snowmobile runners, and Heath did a confidence check. We were, you know, pretty sure that if we gassed it, we’d make it through the water, even though we were doubling on the rental sled (nope-no insurance). We had the following pep talk before Heath grabbed the throttle:
Heath: “Yeah, looks good.”
Me: “Yeah, we should make it-just gas it.”
Heath: “Totally. Yeah, it should work.”
Heath: “All right. Hold on.”
We got to the other side with no problem-the powder paddles on the track doggy paddled through the water enough to keep it up and moving (TWS disclaimer-don’t try this at home). The “secret” sled-to spot was about five miles and three more lake and river crossings further back into the high Alpine bowls. In between the wind-sculpted features, sloping shoulders, and steep chutes we found evidence of the rest of the group-snowmole tracks going up, down, over, and high marking every ridge of the drainage we’d come over. We had obviously been missing out on the thrill of the hunt.
Pathetic tracking skills led us in circles and eventually back toward the trucks, just as the rest of the crew showed up. They had found tons of perfect transitions for kickers. Brandon said we also missed out on all the fun of shooting cornices with handguns-damn.
Unlike winter days in Montana when the sun sets at lunchtime, it stayed light until eight, so the potential for some serious sunny shredding the next few days was high-that is, unless it rained.
What A Pisser …
The next morning, fingers were poised on the panic button as spring rains drizzled all over the campsite. This trip was Stan’s idea, so it was therefore his fault that it was raining. He was now in charge of entertaining the troops, because rain down low means serious winter crap up on the 11,000-foot pass. The motivation required to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag into damp clothes and hang out around a wet campfire was absent in the group, with the exception of Chris Coulter. The previous night, Chris had shown himself to be the MVP of camp-he was the camp cook. When everyone else seemed ready to add boiling water to a Cup O’ Noodles, Coulter intercepted them and busted out bags of fresh vegetables, spices, tortillas, spaghetti, sauces-you name it. Coulter diced, chopped, boiled and sautéed, while Travis entertained his ADD, running through the woods firing off Roman candles; and the rest of us zoned out on the campfire.
There would be no riding-instead we went into the town of Red Lodge and had breakfast at a cafe that was already serving drinks in the adjoined bar. The bar had a weird, L-shaped pool table that held Travis’ attention through breakfast. I think there were two days of hanging out in town, ’cause sure enough it rained the next day, too. Travis and Rich were only a couple hours’ drive away from the warmth of home-the Beartooth mission was so ready to disintegrate.
Stan and Heath decided to brave the elements and go up to scout the pass some more, while Coulter and Brandon went to nest in their sleeping bags back at camp. The rest of us made our way into the Snow Creek Saloon where Travis beat me, then Rich, then me, then Rich at Air Hockey and then at the Big Buck Hunter arcade game.
Across the street at Mountain High Pizza, things really started to heat up with the discovery of Big Buck Hunter II: Sportsman’s Paradise. Travis and Rich went head to head a few rounds. Ultimately, Travis was competing for the Triple Buck Bonus every turn and ending with perfect streaks. Needless to say, Travis never hit a doe.
Hot Snowboard Action
Thankfully, on the third day, the rains gave up and it was go time. We rallied up the pass through a series of switchbacks past signs that alternately welcomed us to Wyoming, thanked us for visiting Montana, welcomed us to back Montana, and told us we were back in Cowboy Country (Wyoming or Montana?) on each switchback.
The boys got serious. There was a hit list of jumps to build and natural kickers to hit over the next three days. Stan, it seemed, had clocked into work that morning and intended to get the job done. Heath and Stan rallied off to get a shot off a cornice hit, while the rest of the crew went to build a cheesewedge. Stan got back, and minutes later, he and Travis sped out to “the dish” to get “the method shot.” On the way up to the method shot, Stan got served his final round of snowmobile ass-kicking for the season. Travis described the scene, saying, “Stan hit some rocks on a steep section, and then-I don’t know-it looked like he was Velcroed to the track of his sled-it rolled over him like twice.” Stan lived.
Coulter then had his fifteen minutes with Stan on a cliff in a neighboring bowl. During all this, the whole crew acted as a cheesewedge-processing-line. Rich and Travis cut out the blocks of snow; Coulter heaved them to Brandon who pounded them into the shape of the jump and put the magic board pats on the takeoff. Travis and Brandon then took off on their sleds to put the finishing touch on the virgin mountain paradise-by tagging the lake with their sleds. Brandon outlined a huge pentagram, and Travis outlined some sort of family crest. We left the wedge to ferment overnight.
Back at camp, I can’t remember what Coulter cooked, but I know it was good. The entertainment that night was the Mexican jumping beans that Heath had bought in Red Lodge. Unfortunately, he wasn’t having much luck getting them warm enough to move. Travis ended up lighting them on fire with his marshmallow-roasting stick, trying to get them to jump. That night, Travis showed himself to be damn fine marshmallow roaster, too. He can get a marshmallow perfectly browned, pull off the outer layer, roast it brown again, peel off a layer, roast, peel, roast, peel until it’s gone, without any marshmallow combustion. It must be a Wyoming skill.
The next morning it was kicker time again. Brandon Ruff stepped out of the shadows for a spin and touched down a little too soon, sustaining a serious blow below the belt. All the information I was given was that that there was massive swelling, prompting some concern as to whether his son Koston would be an only child. Brandon called it quits for the rest of the day-I didn’t ask any more questions.
On the way in that morning, Travis had spotted a rock ledge he wanted to build a lip up to. It didn’t make sense to anyone but him, there was no run-in so he’d have to get slung at it with the snowmobile-but the wedge got built that afternoon. A few practice slings and Travis was pulling every mini-ramp trick in the book. Rich could only stand there with his 16mm camera and mutter, “He’s a f-king machine.” This went on until like eight at night.
As we paddled across the last lake we saw what could only be described as an accident waiting to happen-a total junkshow heading in our direction. A crew of Salt Lake jibbers had heard about our mission and headed up to poach the kickers (we guess), doubling on their circa 1960 sleds, protected from the elements by denim and jersey at dusk. Our spot was only three days old and already blown out.
I bailed out the next day. The guys headed back up the pass for one last session, but on the way in, Travis lost his keys somewhere between the truck and the last lake. Despite the odds, Travis found a metal detector at the Top Of The World Store (the only store for twenty miles), went back, and located his truck keys in the middle of nowhere-just before sunset. The day was a total loss, but the trip was a relative success. No snowmobiles sunk to the bottom of the lake, we ate well, I got away with doubling on sleds, and after five stress-filled days, Stan was finally able to clock out of work with the shots. But most importantly, we got some quality outdoor time in. Last I heard, the Salt Lake kids almost sunk their sled (and themselves) in the lake when their sled slowed to five miles an hour bogging in the slushy middle of the lake. Actually, we never did see them again.
But I Don’t Have A Snowmobile …
Kids from all over Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota go to Beartooth Pass in the spring as part of the winter-extendo plan. The pass opens on Memorial Day weekend and the routine is to set up camp along the Rock Creek, wake up with the sun, and drive up to the top of the pass to shred the last of the receding snowpack. There are pinner chutes to point it through in the morning and kickers to build in the afternoon. Plus, you don’t need snowmobiles to shred.
The snowboard runs include the Rock Creek Headwall accessed by the first gravel pullout on the right, on top of the pass. The beginning of the run is a short walk across the tundra. Drive further along the pass to get to Gardiner Headwall. You can get dropped off at the top of the run after the next series of super tight switchbacks, and then you have to hike back out to the gravel parking lot. The runs closest to the road are the longest. That’s a lot of terrain, but it’s just the beginning-check in with the Red Lodge locals to find out more.
Next stop is Twin Lakes. It costs 35 dollars to ride the three T-bars, which are open through Fourth of July weekend. This is also the location of the Empire Freestyle camp, which has fun jumps, rails, and an old-school halfpipe. Just be ready to hang with more skiers than snowboarders. Check empirefreeride.com for camp dates.
New Mexico Green Chile Stew By Chris “Camp Cook” Coulter
Supplies: A large stockpot, cutting board, knife, soup ladle, skewers, and a quality camping stove.
1-2 pounds beef, pork, or chicken cut into two-inch cubes.
1 can beef or chicken broth (or 4 bouillon cubes)
3 cups of water
3 large potatoes
Half onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Bag of mixed veggies (for less prep time)
1-2 pounds of New Mexico green chiles, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese (optional)
1 flour tortilla per person (optional)
To save some time, precut everything at home. Crank the camp stove up to cook at a high temperature and stir frequently to prevent scorching. While chopping potatoes, bring the can of broth and two cups of water to a boil. Add chopped potatoes first-they take forever to cook. Next, get your camping bro to rotisserie the meat on skewers over the fire. Throw in chopped onion, garlic, carrots, celery, and most importantly, green chiles. Keep stirring so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. Be sure all the veggies are submerged under broth. When the meat is cooked thoroughly add it to the stew. Now it’s time to season-add salt and pepper first, followed by oregano and cumin. Once the potatoes are soft, add the final touch, cilantro. Now you’re ready to serve. Each person can add cheese, and be sure to complement your stew with a tortilla … Bon appetit.