The Mountain vs. Mind Conundrum

We know you told your parents you were coming to MSU for the excellent engineering program and interdisciplinary research opportunities, but everybody knows you really came here for the skiing.

Although you might be tempted to ditch your studies as soon as the first snow falls, the folks back at home might not be too thrilled to hear you have given up your dream of becoming the next Jake Jabs to drink PBR and roadtrip to every ski resort in the Mountain West.

>> MOUNTAIN CHOICES: Where to ski in the Big Sky

“Mountains” may come first in MSU’s slogan, “Mountains and Minds,” but that doesn’t mean skiing and snowboarding come before academic pursuits.

So for your enjoyment and a potential GPA boost, we offer the student-skier’s guide to success:

Photo by Matt Wiegand

1) Find a M/W/F or T/R only class schedule for the spring semester. Having at least one extra weekday to devote to skiing cuts down on skipping class — as long as you hold yourself to not cutting class for a powder day (most of the time).

2) Schedule all your classes during the morning or afternoon — ideally, afternoon classes allow you to hit fresh tracks at Bridger or in the backcountry before returning back to campus refreshed and relaxed, if a bit smelly.

3) If you commute to Big Sky, ride the Skyline bus and bring homework.

4) Get a job at a ski resort. It’s a good way to get your skiing fix while maintaining some modicum of responsibility and earning a bit of extra cash. Be a volunteer patroller, lifty, ski instructor, dishwasher or server. You usually get a free or discounted pass, rack up some hours on the hill, and get to enjoy all that ski culture has to offer without actually being a bum.

5) Conversely, don’t get a job at a ski resort. It may drive you crazy to be on the mountain all day but not have free reign to do as you please — which might only motivate you to spend all of your time off the clock on the mountain and not studying. If you need extra cash, a job that allows you to work at your convenience might be your best option. Don’t rule out on-campus jobs — squeezing in an hour or two of minimum-wage slave labor between classes beats devoting an entire weekend day working an 8-hour shift when you could be playing in the snow.

6) And, if all else fails, become a snow science major — skiing literally equals studying.


Bridger Bowl is a 30-minute drive or free bus ride away — unless it’s a powder day, and then expect bumper-to-bumper all the way up the canyon. The “locals mountain,” Bridger can’t claim high-speed lifts, but the side-country terrain and recently expanded Slushman’s lift access to runs that are worth the wait.

Hiking is, at Bridger, a community staple. Boot packing and skinning are essential skills, if one is truly hoping to experience what the resort has to offer. A transceiver, shovel and probe are required to access Slushman’s and the boot pack to the ridge, but beginner to moderate terrain allow new skiers plenty of runs to play on.

The low day-to-day costs of skiing at Bridger make it a great place to head for a day or two, while investing in a season pass can be worthwhile, given the close proximity to Bozeman.


Let’s cut to the chase: Big Sky or Moonlight Basin?

Moonlight offers the cheapest season pass deal in the region, but covers less acreage than its corporate neighbor. Big Sky spans two mountains, dominating Lone Peak and its neighbor Andesite, which means skiers can spread out and lift lines are rarely long when all the terrain is open. Its base area is located in the Big Sky mountain village, with convenient hotels, restaurants and bars within walking distance.

Moonlight offers a more homey vibe, with fewer lifts, a more compact base area, convenient slopeside bar options and lift lines as short as Big Sky’s.

The real debate between Big Sky and Moonlight has to do with terrain. Moonlight is most widely known for the Headwaters Ridge, a span of steep technical lines for extreme skiers. On the opposite side of the ridge are Big Sky’s A-Z chutes, which bake in the sun all day and offer significantly less vertical than the Headwaters on the “dark side” of Lone Peak. But Big Sky operates the Lone Peak tram, which shoots you straight to the peak (albeit after waiting forever to get on the 16-person tram on a powder day). The high amount of tram traffic means Big Sky’s tram-accessed steeps get tracked out rather quickly, but if you can get on the list early enough you can shred the highly visible Big Couloir. On the other hand, if you have both a Big Sky and a Moonlight pass, you can drop onto the north side of Lone Peak and shred the epic North Summit Snowfield, which pops you out on Moonlight terrain.

Tree skiing and powder are staples of both resorts, as well as ample high-speed groomers when untracked snow is hard to come by. Ultimately, the choice is yours, young powderhound. Follow the snow and explore.


In the backcountry you must be the judge of your own safety. Therefore it is essential that every backcountry skier fully understand the dangers of the terrain and adequately educate and prepare before venturing out to make the first cut in an untouched hillside. Even a light covering of snow is enough to slide and, although you should never go out alone, you and your friends should never cut into it at the same time. Luckily, Montana has several education courses for you to seek out, even a few free ones. Check out the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center website for more information:

Despite the fact that you do not have to buy a pass and do not have the option of buying an overpriced lunch, backcountry skiing is still an expensive sport. The helmets, gloves and snow gear are all very similar in cost but every backcountry skier must also have and carry with them an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe.

A decent avalanche beacon will cost around $200 while you can get a good shovel and probe for around $50 each. You will also need a pack ($200-$1200) to carry your ski equipment as well as avalanche safety gear and probably a lunch.

The skis for backcountry are more expensive than regular nordic skis — you would be lucky to get a pair of unused backcountry skis that are a couple of years old for less than $600 while new skis usually run between $800 and $1000. Additionally, they are generally a bit longer and much wider.

In addition, to make the climb easier it is necessary to buy rondenay bindings and skins. The rondenay bindings cost around $400 to $700 and depending on the size of your backcountry skis you may need wider brakes for your bindings that will cost another $30, climbing skins cost between $100 and $200.