Bagging big lines; the best part of ski season

Not all ski lines are created equal. Ski lines can be steep or mellow, gladed or rocky, open or narrow. There’s no end to the countless combinations of terrain one can find to ski in the backcountry. But there are certain lines, few and far between, that are different. They distinguish themselves from the surrounding terrain by virtue of their character, inspiring awe and fear in all those who glimpse their snowy flanks. Some lines are set apart by their aesthetic qualities, others by vertical relief. Many are combinations of the two. They captivate the imagination in a way that other lines simply can’t.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem offers no shortage of big ski lines to explore. Many sit right in Bozeman’s backyard, and yet, are simply unattainable for much of the season. Most require copious amounts of snow and bombproof stability before the thought of skiing them can even be entertained. That’s what spring is for. Sporting longer days as well as the maximum snow depths of the season, spring often coincides with increasing snowpack stability. It is during the months of March, April and May that big line season begins.

I picked off my first “bigger” line of the season a couple weeks ago in Yellowstone National Park. It was a line I had been eyeing for some time, a steep aesthetic couloir burrowed into a towering mountain face. It was warm in the valley the day I skied it, but I was optimistic that the snow up higher would remain cold. The approach to the base of the couloir was a hot, sweaty ordeal nonetheless. The air temperature was probably in the 40s, far too hot for March. Luckily, this particular line was high and north-facing, and the snow became colder as we skinned towards the base of the couloir.

There was one party ahead of us on the line that day, and they were preparing to drop in as we began booting up. The first person, a snowboarder, elegantly ripped down the steep upper pitches with ease. He pulled off to the side of the line next to us as his partner prepared to descend. We briefly chatted with him as his partner snowboarded down. He turned out to be none other than snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones, making for an unexpected and memorable chance encounter. As he and his partner continued their descent we returned to the task at hand, booting up the remaining few hundred vertical of couloir rising above us.

The top of the line was spicy. The slope easily pushed 50 degrees on the upper pitches, but the snow was soft and edgeable. I dropped in first, making conservative hop turns through the upper pitches before opening it up on the apron below. Slough raced past my ski tips and I occasionally stopped to let it go past. I soon found myself at the bottom, and several minutes later my partner joined me. We gazed back up at the behemoth we had just descended, excited to have hit it in good conditions. For me, it marked the beginning of big line season. And, as the best part of ski season comes into full swing in the coming weeks, hopefully it’ll be the first of many more big lines to come.

Photo courtesy of Theodore Grover
Photo courtesy of Theodore Grover