Big Sky and the Big Sky Ski Patrol, Before and After

By Douglas (Dougal) McCarty

INTRODUCTION

Skiing was common for kids growing up in Bozeman Montana in the 1960s.  I took up the sport when I was in eighth grade, which was an old age for Bozeman skiing families, of which mine was not.  I bought my first set of equipment, lace up boots, wooden skis and a 25-dollar seasons pass at Bridger Bowl for a little over 100 bucks using money I made from my paper route.  I found skiing to have a steep learning curve, but after the first few years I got the hang of it and figured that the best way to support my new habit was to join the National Ski Patrol’s, Junior program.  The Junior Patrol adult advisors were Beep Dixon and Mark Lakey.  Beep became a professional patroller at Bridger Bowl and later transferred to Big Sky’s pro patrol the first year of Big Sky’s operation.

The Bridger Bowl Ski patrol had a wild west personality despite the gentlemanly and competent leadership of Duain Bowles.  Duain, no matter how he might have tried, could not dampen the occasional delinquency of the group.  The last straw came at a season’s end ski patrol party in the Bridger Bowl lodge.  The party was getting wild and the general manager, Emile Cochand, was walking up the stairs to break up the affair at the precise moment when the large size Beep decided to put on his skis and ski down the stairs, where he collided with the smaller size Emile, pasting him against the wall where the stairs made a sharp right-hand turn.  This event was the last straw and Emile fired the entire Bridger ski patrol without negotiation.  The next year was the first year of Big Sky’s ski season and the new ski patrol director, the well-known Montana mountain climbing guru, Jim Kanzler had a good pick of experienced ex Bridger Bowl patrollers to staff Big Sky’s first Professional ski patrol.

These first patrollers included:  Director Kanzler, assistant patrol director Todd Pitcher, Terry Onslow, Beep Dixon, Mike Donovan, Brian Leo, Dave Klatt, James Garrett, Steve Dubay, and Brent (Tony) Perkins as best as I can remember.  I joined the group the second year of Big Sky’s ski operation along with Tom Bowles.  Tom was Duain’s youngest son who had just graduated from high school and was a fellow member of Bridger Bowl’s junior ski patrol and we became roommates in the employee dormitory.   This facility had nothing on a small college dorm room, being just big enough for two beds with a bathroom down the hall.  Father Duain was a renaissance man who had many skills, one of which was designing automated irrigation systems for industrial farming in Eastern Washington.  Thus, when Tom left the nest the first time to join the Big Sky ski patrol, Duain gifted him a 50 lb. sack of beans he obtained from the corporate farm, and Tom’s mother Elie added a crock pot.  Each week we only had to stop by a store to pick up a fresh package ham hocks to load up the crock pot so that we always had a hot meal after a hard day of ski patrol work, usually with a stop at the bar in between.  Luckily, our dorm room had windows that opened to the outside.

SKI PATROL LIFE

To say ski patrolling at Big Sky the first few years was a learn as you go challenge is an understatement.  Based on his mountaineering, skiing, and leadership skills I cannot imagine a better director and leader than Jim Kanzler.  The most obvious problem under Kanzler’s direction was the massive amount of avalanche terrain hanging above the ski runs.  Ski patrollers “taking rides” was not uncommon.  I could not believe it when I was first set out on an avalanche control route on the high traverse above the Lone Peak bowl.  Two or three patrollers would take turns breaking trail from the top of the Triple Chair (now Powder Seeker) out across the bottom of the gullies all the way over to near the top of the gondola, stopping at points of perceived safety with landmarks such as Black Rock to throw hand charges in the direction of travel to bomb one’s way to the end of the cirque.  There were many pockets of wind slabs that had to be crossed below an enormous area with megatons of potentially unstable snow and fragile cornices hanging above your head.  

On one such high-traverse day, three of us started out from the top of the Triple Chair, with Brent Perkins in the middle and I was the last in the line.  Early in the traverse, we were crossing above a snowless low-angled talus cliff when the slope we were on started to move.  The lead patroller, I do not remember who, quickly skied out of the moving slab in the direction he was facing.  At the same time, I did what amounted to a flying kick turn and did the same thing escaping the way I had just come.  Brent was in the middle of the several hundred-foot-wide slab and was swept over the talus cliff.

The other two of us hurried around to the base of the cliff to find Brent sitting on top of a significant pile of debris.  He was as white as a ghost and looked like he had been through a cheese grater.  I will never forget his skis; they were orange colored Atomics one of which was completely delaminated from tip to tail.  We picked up all his pieces and helped the much-shaken Brent down to the patrol room.  

There were frequent rides like this that somehow did not result in disaster.  I remember once getting caught on the steep terrain of the Little Rock Tongue (LRT) after a long hard trail breaking traverse, only to get caught doing a ski check.  As I started to accelerate through sparse timber, I glanced up to see a horizontal tree limb that I was about to go under and shot my arms up just in time catch the limb and barely hang on as the snow continued sliding down around my legs pulling hard on my skis.  I almost lost my grip.  This one could have ended badly had I not been able to hold on to that limb.

STEEP SKIING

Big Sky ski patrol year #2.  James Garrett, Dave Klatt (in front)  hiking up ridge above triple chair to ski south face, perhaps first ski of Marx (photo McCarty).

The Big One.  The conical shape of Lone Mountain, with its steep smooth, treeless slopes, and its solitary position between the Spanish Peaks to the North and the Hilgard’s to the South, beckons to be skied.  This was no different in the early 70s before a tram began to carry many visitors to the summit every year with the same desire.  The symmetrical shape of the Lone Mountain is unique.  The southeast through southwest sides are the smoothest, steep, and open mountain sides from summit to valley and any skier looking at the peak would think or say; I want to ski that!

 Lone Mountain south face, year #2 knee deep powder (photo McCarty).

Early in the winter of Big Sky’s second year, James Garrett, Brian Leo, Dave Klatt and I climbed up to near the summit and looked down the longest unbroken concave slope I had ever seen, which was immediately south of the long east ridge that defined the bowl of the ski area.  The day was windless, cold, and clear.  There was two feet of light powder snow uniformly distributed over the whole mountain.  Somehow the weather history did not produce any avalanche related discontinuities and we all were able to ski the wide-open, knee-deep line from top to bottom until our legs begged us to stop and look back with big smiles at our sets of parallel tracks.  

Before joining the Big Sky ski patrol, James was a government major at Montana State University, and he was fascinated by the philosophy of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.  The names of the two prominent wide concave faces on Lone Mountain’s south side were thus christened L & M after these two guys and the names stuck, surprisingly to this day.  The previous year, Garrett had a significantly different Lone Peak experience and first ski descent. 

While Lone Mountain stands alone like a giant traffic cone when viewed from the east, its symmetry is interrupted by a proportionally smaller ‘scoop’ forming a shaded cirque on the northeast aspect that was created by Pleistocene glaciation.  The cirque is flanked by the dramatic west facing wall on the right-hand side when looking up.  To the left of the West Wall are two spectacular steep couloirs that wind their way down from just below the summit.  The larger of the two, called now The Big Couloir starts close to the summit, it is steep and wide with a couple of dogleg turns before emptying out in the bowl above the Powder Seeker lift.  The Little Couloir starts lower and is bound on the looker’s right side by the abrupt edge of the West Wall.  This feature is shorter but much steeper and less well defined than the Big Couloir neighbor.   

The Big Couloir is the obvious line above the cirque that calls out to be skied.  Access to Lone Mountains operations during the first (and subsequent) years of Big Sky’s existence was controlled by the ski patrol for reasons of safety to the person wanting to climb up and ski down, and to other paying customers, where the possibility of a skier triggered avalanche is a significant risk to those below.

The Big Couloir was on many people’s minds that first season when Kanzler directed James Garrett and Brian Leo to hike up to the summit, carrying hand charge explosives for avalanche control, along with an awkward hand auger to bore holes in the massive snow cornice that bared entry into the couloir.  The plan was to drop hand charges into the boreholes once dug to blast off the cornice before it would grow, weaken, and collapse on its own at an inappropriate time, and thus mitigate the hazard to people below.

The day was crisp cold and clear, and many ski area employees, and customers gathered near the top of the Triple Chair to watch their progress, while management watched through a spotting scope near the base area.  Occasional explosions from hand charges broke the winter silence as the two patrollers worked their way up the ridge and slowly made their way to the summit.  At the top of the couloir Brian Leo, an accomplished climber and frequent climbing partner with Kanzler, put the less experienced (at the time) Garrett on belay with a climbing rope while James walked out on the overhanging cornice with the auger and started drilling the first hole to fill with a hand charge.

James had not yet finished this first hole when many tons of hard wind packed cornice snow collapsed below his feet sending a torrent of blocks the size of refrigerators down the Big Couloir while James, auger in one hand, dangled off the now vertical snow cliff that formed.  The collapse and James’s weight pulled Brian hard into the snow on the backside as he dug in his heals.  Brian gripped tight on the rope which he had only set up as a hip belay.  This incident caused all the spectator’s jaws to drop, including the area manager who was watching James dangle through the spotting scope.  The boss promptly called Brian on his radio to demand to know what the hell was going on up there.  Brian’s reply was equally prompt and to the point; “I’ll have to call you back, I’m kind of busy now”, he said in his radio as he held onto James who was thrashing and kicking at the end of the rope.

James somehow held onto the auger and with Brian’s help pulling and tugging they managed to get everything up off the precipice and onto the backside of the ridge.  The two patrollers put themselves all back together unscrewed the auger and stowed it in a backpack.  After they called on the radio that all was well, Brian said to James that he thought they earned their reward for the day’s work, and they entered the couloir from the side, skied down the beautiful line where they were met with greetings and cheers from the crowd gathered at the Triple Chair.  This was the first documented descent of the Big Couloir.


~~~ CONTINUE ~~~

~~~ SEE ALL THE PHOTOS ~~~

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