There is a fragment of the human soul that shows itself only at certain times. Soldiers rely on itin battle. Athletes defer to it when there’s no time on the clock. Mountaineers use it when the elementscorner them in a dead-end situation. It’s instinct. And not everyone has it. When Joey Weamer walkedthrough the door of P.D. McKinney’s, a greasy spoon in Red Lodge, Montana, I never would’ve guessed hehad it. Three days later, clinging to the edge of a 3,000-foot wall of ice and rock in a blinding electricalhailstorm at 11,000 feet, I was glad he did.
*** Joey’s grin glowed against a dark five o’clock shadow. His sleepy eyes and baggy clothes gave him the look of a rodeo clown. His messy black hair reeked of grunge. But there was something different about this twenty year old. “You must be Porter,” he said, thrusting his hand out of a black sweatshirt. “I didn’t think I stuck out that much,” I quipped, glancing over my shoulder at the crowded restaurant. “I know everyone else in here,” he replied flatly. Ah! Small town! That was the difference. I remembered similar communities from my childhood in Maine. I forgot people like this existed: real people, snowboarders who ride because they like the feel of snow and gravity’s nudge, not because it’s a fad. After more probing, I discovered that Joey, whose services I’d retained to guide us around Beartooth Pass, had not explored farther than the pass’ famed road runs. As we outlined a plan, it became apparent that everyone in the group-Joey and his friends Dan Armstrong, Pat Fillner, and Ben Barbie, as well as photographer Greg Von Doersten and riders Mikey Franco and Misha Thompson-would be pioneering new ground. This had the makings of a good story, I thought. The following day, my story unfolded nearly too well. Following Ben’s smoking Subaru up the seemingly endless pass, I began to understand why riders migrated to the Beartooths every spring.
Mountains laced with chutes stretched to the horizon, giving the landscape the appearance of a poorly iced cake. The rugged Beartooth plateau was created four-billion years ago by an upthrust of the continental plate aptly named “Beartoothia.” The first human residents of the area, the Crow Indians, named the swath of mountains stretching from Livingston southeastward to the Clark’s Fork canyon Na Piet Say, or Bear’s Tooth. The surrounding Absoroka-Beartooth Wilderness, north of Yellowstone National Park, consists of nearly one-million acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and holds 28 peaks over 12,000 feet-including Montana’s tallest, Granite Peak (12,799 feet). The region is massive. So much so that explorer James Kimball described it in the late 1800s as “terra incognita and a mystery for nearly a quarter century past.”
For a snowboarder, that translates into “a pantload of remote terrain.” Joey broke us in easy the first day. Misha and Mikey donned their gear on the Gardner Headwall near the top of the pass. The snow was wet but ridable. After digging a cursory snow pit to examine the snowpack temperature and check for free water (liquid water moving through the snowpack in warm weather that leads to avalanches),we decided the slope was stable enough to ride. The crew dropped into Hourglass Chute-a 1,500-foot-long couloir that choked into a ten-foot-wide crux. Watching Mikey carve down the left edge of the couloir, I remembered how difficult it is to snowboard in the spring. Rocks lay strewn across the slope. Drainage runnels stretched the length of each run, and the top four inches of snow sloughed with every turn. The ride was a good one, but the conditions made it deceptively difficult, requiring concentration and precision, as well as excellent “slough management.” Two-thousand pounds of wet snow is nothing to joke around with, as Misha realized when she was side-checked just above the crux. After three runs-and subsequent hikes-we called it a day and headed into town. The 69-mile Beartoothighway (U.S. 212) is a National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Red Lodge to Cooke City and acts as the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The highway, the sole benefactor of the Park Approach Act passed in 1931, was completed in 1936 after years of political log-rolling. Red Lodge, a historic coal-mining town that revels with rodeos and Harley rallies, rests at the eastern edge of the pass. Here dogs don’t get hassled in bars and 45-year-old couples dirty-dance the night away to the strains of the local ski-patrol band. The small-town ambiance is anesthetizing, and before we knew it, the Jackson contingent of our crew was four beers deep in the Snow Creek Saloon, two-stepping to the house band. We woke up early the next day at the M.K. campground with the intention of riding a skinny, winding couloir that drops nearly 3,000 feet from an extension of Reefer Ridge into Rock Creek Canyon. We scoped the line from the M.K. road and left a truck there for ferrying later on.
At the top of the pass, we boot-packed up the ridge and traversed to the base of the bench we planned to ride. Then things turned sour. The hike to the summit of the bench took longer than we expected, and once on top, we realized the chute was hidden from view. Cornices, melting and weakening in the mid-morning sun, hung from the edge of the ridge, blocking our view of the terrain below. (Collapsing cornices are one of the biggest killers of spring skiers and snowboarders.) We took a bearing on the road below and picked a landmark two miles down the ridge that looked like the start of the chute. Two hours later, we realized we’d overshot it-by at least a mile. The expression, “When it rains it pours,” couldn’t have been more applicable than at that moment. As we clambered back up the ridge searching for the elusive chute, a massive thunderhead lit by web-like bolts of lightning changed course and began moving toward us. We picked up our pace as the cloud rolled overhead. “Holy shit!” I heard someone behind me say minutes later. Turning around, I saw Pat’s eyes bugging out as the metal edges on his telemark skis started buzzing. Suddenly, everyone’s edges were buzzing, and the group froze. Lightning bolts struck the length of the ridge, and thunder roared so loudly we couldn’t hear one another. Hail peltedus from all directions.
We are the highest, most electrically charged objects on the ridge. As that thought sunk in, the crew began ripping off their packs and turning off transceivers. Seconds later, we sat shivering under a pile of boulders, wondering if one of us would be the lucky recipient of 2,000 volts of electricity. I didn’t feel real panic set in until I saw Joey’s face. It was ashen white. Greg was trying to talk him down, explaining that we’d be fine, we just needed to let this cloud roll over. Joey wasn’t listening to him, though; his eyes were glued to Greg’s shoulder-length brown hair, which was standing perfectly on end, alive with electricity. Once the cloud moved on, we gathered the gear and resumed our search for the chute-or any way down, for that matter. After probing nearly a mile of the ridge, we approached its western edge-the spot we’d surveyed our approach from three hours before. Realizing how long it would take to hike out,how risky a blind descent would be, and how dangerous standing on the top of the ridge like human lightningrods was, the group’s nerves became truly frayed. As if on cue, another thunderhead was suddenly closing in around us. These are the moments when the survival instinct either shines or dims. And in fact, that was the exact moment Joey Weamer’s ghost-like image sauntered out from the cloud’s misty embrace and approached our desperate, shivering group. He calmly said, “I found the way down.” I wanted to hug the kid.
After picking our way through Joey’s escape route, the sky turned blue and our motley crew rode into the snowfields below. Conditions were soft and slushy, but after carrying our boards all day, we savored every turn. Lack of energy was not a problem. We were so relieved to be liberated from the ridge’s chilling grasp, we charged every shot. Runnels became hits, rocks obstacles to ollie. All the while, the road and the awaiting truck rose graciously to meet us. At the bottom of the run, we sat around the truck and gorged ourselves with food and drink. No one brought up our botched attempt of the couloir. Instead, we spoke of how well the team stuck together and how deceptive the Beartooths can be. Throughout the conversation, Joey’s eyes never left the ridge. His finger traced our planned route, then the route we ended up on repeatedly. He may have never explored these mountains, but Joey was obviously comfortable in them. Sitting next to the truck, he didn’t look like the rag-tag twenty year old I met at P.D. McKinney’s. He didn’t look like a rodeo-clown snowboarder who built kickers on road runs. Joey had grown up and discovered a piece of his being he didn’t know existed. He’d been tested in battle and didn’t retreat. He sunk the shot at the buzzer. In the Beartooths he’d taken a step on the way to becoming a mountaineer.ft and slushy, but after carrying our boards all day, we savored every turn. Lack of energy was not a problem. We were so relieved to be liberated from the ridge’s chilling grasp, we charged every shot. Runnels became hits, rocks obstacles to ollie. All the while, the road and the awaiting truck rose graciously to meet us. At the bottom of the run, we sat around the truck and gorged ourselves with food and drink. No one brought up our botched attempt of the couloir. Instead, we spoke of how well the team stuck together and how deceptive the Beartooths can be. Throughout the conversation, Joey’s eyes never left the ridge. His finger traced our planned route, then the route we ended up on repeatedly. He may have never explored these mountains, but Joey was obviously comfortable in them. Sitting next to the truck, he didn’t look like the rag-tag twenty year old I met at P.D. McKinney’s. He didn’t look like a rodeo-clown snowboarder who built kickers on road runs. Joey had grown up and discovered a piece of his being he didn’t know existed. He’d been tested in battle and didn’t retreat. He sunk the shot at the buzzer. In the Beartooths he’d taken a step on the way to becoming a mountaineer.