First Come, First Served: History in the making at Montana Backcountry Adventures.

Across the bowl, a full tram worked its way to the top of Big Sky’s 11,166-foot LonePeak. From our remote rock perch-one ridge over from the resort-other skiers and snowboarders werebarely visible down Lone Peak’s northern ridge, silhouetted against the morning sky as they milled around thetop of the Challenger lift.

“That landing look all right?” a voice behind me asked, bringing me back to thesituation at hand. “Yep,” I answered, surveying the textbook rock drop below me while the mechanicalhunnnnnnnnn of the snowcat slowly faded down to the pick-up spot. “No one’s jumped that rock yet,” saidour guide from behind me. “Yep,” I repeated, thinking how obvious the comment was considering theuntracked bowl below us. He must have heard my eyes rolling, because he chuckled and rephrased thestatement. “I mean, no one’s ever jumped off that rock-you can name it if you do.” Imagine that-even rightnext to a world-class resort like Big Sky, there are still unridden lines to be pioneered. Our exploration teamincluded Montanans Nell Boshoff, Travis Byerly, Justin Mooney, photographer Stan Evans, and me. Ourtwo guides-Kyle Hockenstein and Chris Murphy-opened their snowcat operation, Montana BackcountryAdventures, for the 1997/98 season.

I stepped into my bindings, checked my hair, then made history with aleap from a six-foot-high boulder. The rock will forever be called “Ross Ewage” to commemorate my recentencounter with MBA’s port-a-pottie. This particular construction-site beauty rested on skis, making for apretty crappy time (literally) for the unlucky soul (me) trapped inside as his friends sledded him around forlaughs at lunch. We spent the morning making laps on Moonlight Basin’s steeper, south-facing exposures.Only a couple of MBA’s runs face directly into the sun, so on the majority of the slopes the snow stays drylong after a storm has passed. Not that it mattered, thanks to the foot of powder on the ground After rackingup a few thousand feet of fresh tracks, lunch was served in a spacious M*A*S*H-style canvas tent halfwayup the slopes. MBA provides an all-you-can-eat buffet, complete with a cool coffee mug to take home. Kylepassed around his homemade roasted-garlic mayonnaise, just to make the turkey sandwiches even moregourmet.

“The local deli in Big Sky drops off the sandwiches and soup every morning,” explained Kyle asJustin stuffed an extra sandwich in his backpack for the ride home. “I’ve been eating this lunch for twomonths now, and the leftovers for dinner. I love this stuff.” Aside from lunch, the cat is always stocked withwater, juice, brownies, candy, and energy bars. Sufficiently stuffed, it was time to get acquainted with moreof Moonlight Basin’s great terrain. Kyle took us to a slope Nell recognized from earlier in the winter. WhileMother Nature brought severe weather elsewhere, she provided MBA with only a rotten, shallow snowpackfor the month of December. Worried about how the first season might go, Kyle traded Nell and some of theother locals boot-packing duty for free cat time. By actually foot-stomping down the steepest runs, theexisting snow hardened, ensuring a good base for the rest of the winter. Now, after six weeks of nearlyconstant storms, Nell was reaping the rewards of his hard work on a run he named “Tailchaser.” Then wechecked out a run dubbed “Raging Bull” by the National Jewish Singles Club after they discovered how wellRed Bull and Absolut Vodka went together when they were out here the week before us. MBA began itsfirst year with an impressive 1,800 feet of vertical drop in an area that receives 400 inches of snow annuallyand features challenging terrain for riders of all levels.

“We have something here for everyone,” explained Chris. “Yeah, and we have so much still to open up,” Kyle added. “It’s going to be a really busy summer.”Kyle and Chris have exclusive rights to over 1,200 acres of north- and northwest-facing slopes. The landMBA operates on is owned by Moonlight Basin Ranch, aa group of environmentally friendly entrepreneurswho developed a community of townhouses near MBA’s staging area. Kyle and Chris should be busy formany years to come-lift service is planned for Moonlight Basin within the next five years, part of adevelopment called Ski Moonlight, which will also be accessible with a Big Sky lift ticket. The first two liftsare already in, with more on the way. As this expansion happens, MBA will simply move farther aroundLone Peak to other unexplored slopes.

“There is always going to be different terrain to explore,” noted Chris. “I’m really excited to see what else is out there.” We kept riding until dark, making the most of thefresh dump and MBA’s great terrain. Back at the heated hut where we’d started the day, we returned thebackpacks, transceivers, whistles, and shovels Kyle and Chris had provided. As we packed up our gear,Kyle told us about something special they’d developed-MBA’s version of night-riding. “On a clear, full-moonnight, it seems like daytime up here,” he said. “That’s why they call it Moonlight Basin.” When conditions areright, the heated, eight-person snowcat is fired back up for the evening session. The two owners, along withtheir lucky friends or clients, keep riding and skiing, sometimes until three in the morning. Utterly exhaustedafter our day in Moonlight Basin, I couldn’t imagine how these guys did it. Don’t they get enough powderduring the day?

But after a minute I realized I’d have hopped back in the cat in a heartbeat. In fact, Icouldn’t wait to float through MBA’s perfect, untracked snow by the light of the moon. For moreinformation about Montana Backcountry Adventures, check out their Web site at www.skimba.comor call (406) 995-3880.