Western Ski Tour Recap
By Brian Threlkeld
Seven high school students, three adult leaders and twenty checked bags. It was early at the Portland Jetport when we convened, ready to board our flight to Bozeman, Montana for a week of back country skiing. However even before checking our bags, our flight was delayed that would result in us missing our next connection. We rallied everyone and our gear to the bus station bound for Boston making alternative arrangements to get us safely to our destination. At the time we didn’t draw parallels to the importance of flexibility and adaptability in decision making, but the similarities would reveal themselves in due time.
After a long day of travel, (and a solid run through the Minneapolis airport to make a tight connection) we finally arrived in Bozeman to falling snow and an even faster falling mercury. The thermometer read -26 and not much reprieve was in sight for the first few days. Regardless, we got to bed and arose the next morning for our first foray into the back country to get introduced to some of the basics: uphill travel, transitions between uphill and downhill travel, foot care, cold (and layer) management and avalanche beacon searches. After a full day learning and skiing outside, we piled back into the vehicles and rolled back to our basecamp, talking about what we’d learned and what the rest of the week held in store.
Back country skiing trips aren’t just about the skiing. They’re about teamwork, smart decision making, thoughtful analysis of plans, risk assessment and adaptability. In addition to the skills required for safe and fun trips, living together, cooking together and cleaning together are also inherent in the process. We weren’t just out there making turns through untracked powder, we were shopping for groceries, cooking meals, listening to avalanche forecasts and planning for a three-day hut trip later in the week. The skills utilized at the house and out and about in Bozeman were equally as important to learn as the backcountry skills (and even transferable in nature), given that we as OSI staff were focused on helping to shape these high school students into good citizens of the world who can contribute in positive ways to their families, schools and communities.
As the week went on, we kept skiing, we kept making and revising plans based on current and forecasted conditions and we kept working together as a team, talking about the necessary ingredients to a successful trip and building a strong community.
As day four rolled around, we were up, packed and out the door by 7:00am with the Big Belt Hut in the Helena National Forest in our sights. We arrived at the trailhead to meet one of the hut’s owners and grabbed on to a two row as we were shuttled seven miles up the trail behind a snowmobile. For the majority of us, this was the first time getting towed behind a snowmobile, and easily one of the highlights of the trip. The ride wasn’t to last however as we skinned up the final three miles to the hut, situated below a mountain ridgeline at 8,600 feet about sea level.
The Big Belt Hut provided ample opportunities to refine our skills. Students dug snow pits to analyze the snowpack, they explored small zones for skiing potential, they learned the art of backcountry cooking and even got to build a little jump behind the hut to work on their 360’s and other youthful tricks. Nights were spent recapping the days, cooking group meals and getting plenty of sleep inside the comfortable hut warmed by the wood stove. Personally, I could have stayed there for a week and I’m sure the sentiment was the same throughout the group. However, when day three dawned, and the students had planned the entire day’s ski out, we donned our boots, clicked into our skis and began the ten-mile trip out back to the cars (this time we weren’t relying on the snowmobile to transport us).
The ski out was incredibly smooth, thanks in large part to the group’s plan they’d created themselves, and we soon found ourselves back at the vehicles changing out ski boots for shoes and Gore-Tex ski pants for jeans. Despite long days, the students weren’t fazed and were already looking forward to the next day -- our last full day and a few more hours riding lifts and skiing inbounds at Bridger Bowl.
By the evening of our last night in Montana, we watched a slideshow of images from the week, recounting the memories we’d created, and more importantly, we sat down as a team to talk about what we’d learned and how it tied into strengthening communities back at home. The big take away was that the skills utilized in backcountry skiing are the same skills utilized to create strong communities where we live: a capacity to be self-determined, a growing confidence, a desire to maintain creativity, self-efficacy and a resilience to navigate a changing world.
Through our active, outdoor pursuits, we can find the platform to redefine what is possible, for ourselves, our communities and our world.