WORDS: Taylor Boyd | PHOTOS: Chris Wellhausen
Jason Robinson is from Whitefish, Montana. It's a small town that borders Glacier National Park and sits next to a ski area by the same name.
"We could leave my folks' house and hike down to the lake in five minutes. From pretty much any point on that lake, you can see the ski area, so it’s a ski town, you know?"
He tells me this as he finishes a crab cake in a bar two-and-a-half-hours south and 1000 miles from the nearest ocean. Jason, or J Rob is he’s more often called, is a rambling man, but Montana pulls him back. This time, it’s a quick trip. Here in Missoula, Chris Wellhausen and I have met up with J Rob, each of us arriving from distinctly different directions and destinations, hundreds and thousands of miles apart. For the next four days, the furthest we’ll be from one another is a ridge away.
Our objective is a simple one. Ride two ski areas—not resorts—in Jason’s home state. We'll make a loop, and in 96 hours we'll be right back where we started in Missoula. Or close. It turns out we'll be about ten miles from this bar, sleeping on the couches of two gracious college students from the University of Montana and one employee of the local REI.
Between now and then, J Rob will repeatedly remind us that he is one of the best all-terrain snowboarders there is—he would never say that, but while watching him it’s apparent—and that the humble ski areas in his home state are partially responsible. He is a product of these places off the beaten path, and his approach to life and snowboarding mirrors their modesty and understated rowdiness.
We wake early and shove our bags into the car as exhaust steams in crisp air. A mom-and-pop operation called Discovery is our ultimate destination, but not before we stop to locate caffeine by the cup. A go-to spot in Missoula has what we need to keep us awake and occupied during our hour-and-a-half drive, and as we near Discovery, our windshield wipers fight thick flakes. Things are looking good.
We boot up in the parking lot and make the 100-yard walk to the ticket window. There’s no need for a shuttle bus here. You park at the base of the lift. Discovery's owner, Ciche Pitcher, greets us in ski boots and makes the switch to softer footwear before joining us on his snowboard to give us a tour of the mountain. That’s the type of place it is. By morning, conditions will be much softer than they are this afternoon, but with Ciche as our guide, tomorrow's potential is presenting itself in every direction. Despite the crust, J Rob jumps off a rock and handles a sketchy, moguled landing with the ease that only some of his caliber could. We holler in disbelief, and Jason shrugs with a laugh.
As our boots dry by the fire that evening, the quiet that persists in Discovery's neighboring town of Phillipsburg is broken when J Rob's longtime friend Dillon Candelaria shows up at the house we're staying in. Dillon is one of a kind.
"Dillon is one of my best friends from growing up," J Rob explains. "He was pretty much my best snowboard buddy. We shared a lot of cool experiences and really pushed each other growing up. We have some similar qualities—we're both pretty happy and stoked people—but I almost see us as opposites as far as, he's really in your face. He's like my mom in that way. They'll kind of say whatever they want, to whoever they want. Some people may be offended, but they have great hearts and don't mean any offense to anyone. He's just always been down."
That night, Dillon, J Rob, Chris and I find ourselves at a restaurant on Broadway Street, which implies something larger than the sleepy main drag that it is. Returning full of barbecue to our home for the evening, we hide from the snowstorm on our covered porch while we wax boards before retiring. From those steps in the morning, lingering wax shavings covered by fresh flakes, we can see Discovery in the distance. We find a coffee shop a few doors down from where we spent the previous evening and make our way to the Disco lot.
Since the lifts stop turning yesterday, a fresh foot has filled in much of the previous day's variability, and the opportunities presented prior are now viable. The energy created by Dillon and J Rob together on their snowboards feeds sessions that find us exhausted, inhaling fried chicken at a local watering hole, as we fuel up for the night's mission to another small ski area.
The sky is puking again. A drive quoted electronically at two-and-a-half hours ends up taking twice that. Winding down the windiest back roads, passing another car every half hour or so, we're entranced by snow in the high beams, as midnight conversation turns to J Rob's formative years in this state.
"This is the only place I grew up, so I don't know anything else," he explains. "I think it's a humbling place. From what I've seen, people aren't as materialistic or as influenced by Hollywood and that sort of thing. I think people approach things a little more with that mentality. The winters here are good. In the winter, skiing and snowboarding are the ideal forms of entertainment."
We pull up to the hot springs near Lost Trail latenight and fill a tiny wood-paneled hotel room with damp gear, then starfish on our respective mattresses. A pink-haired Pam Robinson greets us ecstatically in the morning. J Rob's eccentric and charismatic mother is also at Lost Trail for the Smash Life Banked Slalom, an event that honors her late son, Aaron—the person who has perhaps inspired Jason as a person and snowboarder, more than any other.
Smash Life brings together a tightknit crowd of snowboarders from around Montana, its bordering states, and others that require drive times of twelve hours or more. While the majority of attending riders take advantage of the practice window on the course, Jason forgoes his chance at feeling out the berms before the event, in lieu of pow turns and pillow drops in the plentiful natural terrain that lies in every direction at Lost Trail. We spend the morning doing our best to follow the instructions written in chalk on a sign sitting at the bottom of one of Lost Trail's five lifts: "Rip it, don't slip it."
At the awards ceremony that evening, we learn that his strategy paid off, when J Rob's time is announced as the second fastest of the day. A bonfire towers over its onlookers, warming the frigid Montana night, as those dedicated to snowboarding in its entirety reminisce on the day and the legacy we’re here to honor
Shaking off the evening's cobwebs with a coffee—classic—we link up with a crew of Jason's close friends to continue our exploration of Lost Trail. The scale and volume of terrain available here trumps that of many resorts with lift tickets sold for three times as much, subsidizing faster chairs and fancier lodging. Montana is markedly minimalist, and this place epitomizes that maxim.
The day ends by the fireplace in the lodge. As our outerwear dries, the flames warming it become harder to leave. We have nowhere to stay, but we can't stay here. As we assess our options, a young man named Alex offers his Missoula couch to us. It's settled. We have a place to sleep for a few hours before catching flights that will disperse us each to places more hectic than we've enjoyed during these last few days.