Misadventures Under the Big Sky: My first ski camping trip

This is a weekly column sharing stories of outdoor struggles in an attempt to highlight the suffering that accompanies any real adventure. When I run out of food, trip on a rock or the weather turns sour, I merely shake my fist in the air and yell “Is that all you got?” and laugh and continue on my way. Hopefully this column will illuminate the fact that one need not be a professional skier or climber to go on an epic adventure — they merely need to head off down the trail towards the unknown, blissfully unaware of the guidebook they’ve forgotten in their car.

In the winter of my sophomore year at MSU I was invited by my friend “Mountain Man” Jake to spend the weekend backcountry ski camping in the Crazy Mountains. Mountain Man is the perfect companion for this sort of trip: unnaturally strong, with wilderness skills developed during a childhood spent in a remote Alaskan town. Mountain Man Jake goes nowhere without a tin of chew or a flask of Old Crow.

Joining us was my good friend Iltis. He rocks long curly red hair, and once got into the VIP section at the X Games pretending to be Shaun White. His upbeat attitude, even when faced with miserable conditions, makes him an ideal adventure partner.

We hastily threw together the essentials including: a six-pack each of bottled beer, extra cotton socks, summer sleeping bags and several pounds of GORP. We avoided burdensome items such as extra warm clothes, real food and toilet paper.

Late Friday night we left Bozeman for the Crazies. Snowdrifts prevented us from reaching the trailhead. We camped on the roadside, realizing that several miles of hiking flat roads had been added to our trip.

We awoke early, eager to move and get blood flowing to our frozen extremities. Mountain Man and I had brought 70-liter backpacking packs, perfect to accommodate the supply requirements of a weekend trip. Iltis brought his school bag. It is unclear whether Iltis had never been camping before, or just thought the pack was much bigger. Regardless, he ended up attaching his excess gear to the outside of the pack and for the duration of the trip it would resemble an undersized Christmas tree with dangling oversized ornaments.

We set forth on ski set-ups as heavy as the crushing loads on our backs. By the time we reached Half Moon campground, a flat two-hour march, I had painful blisters on both heels. Luckily Mountain Man was prepared and rectified the situation with duct tape.

Soon after leaving the campground we lost the trail. Iltis and I resigned ourselves to following behind Mountain Man since neither of us had the strength to break trail (through the waist deep powder) nor the ability to read the map.

Ten hours after leaving the car we arrived at the serene Blue Lake, located at the heart of a pristine cirque bowl. It was a grueling day. Iltis and I cracked beers, Mountain Man cracked Old Crow, and we toasted to our courage and success.

We all shared a two-man tent that night. It was horribly claustrophobic, but the close quarters (creating more heat) probably saved Iltis and I, given our inadequate sleeping bags and the plummeting temperature that night. I barely slept because of the need to pee (we drank all the beer) and refusal to go outside. Mountain Man peed in a bottle.

Sunday morning Mountain Man prepared oatmeal, complete with fresh fruit and syrup, in a cast iron skillet he had lugged up. He laughed at the instant oatmeal packets Iltis and I had brought, suggesting that they were not even sufficient to fuel one for a casual sunset stroll.

We left our heavier gear stashed for the final descent to the car and trudged across the lake towards a pillowed face we intended to ski. Mountain Man insisted on digging a snow pit to assess avalanche conditions. Iltis and I insisted on watching. Ages later, Mountain Man poked his head out of a six-foot deep trench. He wore a look of disgust, possibly owing to the ceaseless complaints of cold that Iltis and I had lodged during his digging. “Not stable,” he proclaimed, “We go one at a time from here.”

Upon reaching the ridgeline, we exchanged high-fives and back pats, and finished off the last swigs of Old Crow. Mountain Man led the charge down, us following one at a time. My first turn was knee deep, my second I sunk to my waist, and so it went, pure elation, skiing the massive 400-foot descent back to camp. Two days for a 400-foot run … more high-fives. After brief discussion we elected to skip further ski runs and return to civilization. After all we were out of beer.

We gathered our stashed gear, and Iltis redecorated his miniature tree. Then we were off, whooping and hollering through the trees back towards the trailhead. Several hours later we made it to the car.

Sweaty yet cold, exhausted and starved, our grins reached ear to ear. Another successful adventure. We raced to the nearest bar in order to share a greatly embellished version of our tale in efforts to impress some girls.

Got a story you’d like to tell? Contact us at sports@exponent.montana.edu.