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Beyond the summit

A family expedition to Big Sky turns into a father’s quest to manage his own expectations

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“Well…” I said, pausing to determine what deep fatherly wisdom I, a person who rarely leaves home without a headlamp and emergency bivy, could summon. “It’s not a terrible idea.”

After a short pause, Silas said, “Okay,” and jumped into the deep snow. He was my son. He also was light enough, at 70 pounds, to stay on top of the breakable crust. He skied effortlessly past me, crying, “This is fun!”

He seemed to derive equally gleeful pleasure from watching me stuff my face in the snow another dozen times that evening before we made it back to the ranch just as darkness settled. After a white-tablecloth dinner of locally harvested steaks in the lodge, and a prolonged visit to the outdoor hot tub, the boys fell asleep in our cabin in minutes. As Jacqueline and I sat and watched flames lick the stone fireplace, I smiled thinking about how much fun the boys had had that day. It was almost enough to make me forget about The Summit. Almost.

By the time we left the dining lodge the next morning, the boys had stuffed half the contents of the meticulously constructed pastry display into every available pocket of their ski clothes. We were heading to Yellowstone for a guided ski with an LMR naturalist, and they were clearly determined to not starve in the wilderness.

After a 30-minute van ride, we began laying tracks across the pristine snow of the Upper Gallatin River Valley. Sitting on benches cut in the snow, we made hot cocoa at an overlook and watched the shifting clouds throw sunlight and snow showers across the sweeping valley and the pearly mountains beyond. I unsuccessfully tried to convince the kids to ski up an adjacent ridge. Drew, the naturalist, showed them where a weasel had chased a mouse. Then they wanted to turn around—much sooner than I’d planned. I was only temporarily perturbed. “Keep it fun, keep it fun,” I reminded myself. So we did, bombing hill after hill back to the van.

The hills of Yellowstone were a prelude to my big plans for the next day, when we drove the 10 miles from LMR to Big Sky. It was going to be epic—my family’s first day at Big Sky! The best big mountain skiing in the state! And we were going to ski as a family off the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Peak. We were ready for this. It would be a family triumph.

But then, on the chairlift, came the wind and snow. The light was flat, making it impossible to read the terrain. The kids complained about the cold. They were clearly more interested in the base area, which Silas had earlier compared to Disney World.

At first I was upset. This is Big Sky, people! But after some quality time stewing in the lodge, I settled down. Keep it fun, Teasdale, keep it fun. It was becoming my mantra.

Later, we eventually did make it onto the Lone Peak Tram, but only after Jacqueline, never a big fan of chairlifts, fought off panic on a disorienting ride through dense fog that unmoored all perception of ground and sky, up and down. The tram didn’t exactly help her relax. The boys were all twittering oohs and ahhs, while Jacqueline sat firmly gripping the bench. As our little metal box hanging on a steel cable swung disconcertingly close to the cliffs of Lone Peak, she cried, “We’re going to hit it!”

The peak itself was a wind-lashed world of white. Ski patrollers milled about preparing for their final sweeps down the mountain. I walked around the tram building to the edge of the mountain’s double black, south-side chutes. Below was only cloud and sandblasting snow, with no sign of anything you could put skis to. There was no way I could take my family down it—and there was no way they’d let me. They wouldn’t even leave the lee side of the tram building. We’d be riding that gondola right back down, and maybe that was adventure enough for this day.

I was feeling like a real pro at this family adventure thing. Apparently, all you had to do was continually give up when things got tough. It was starting to eat away at my very core.

That night, our last at LMR, we found ourselves riding in a horse-drawn sleigh to a log cabin where we would enjoy a gourmet rib dinner cooked over a century-old, wood-fired stove. But first the chef stood before the few dozen guests in the lantern-lit cabin to announce the menu and state: “We don’t think of vegetables as food here—we think of them as what food eats.” Then he led the room in a “non-denominational” prayer that started traditionally enough before suddenly turning into a skier’s plea. “The snow on The Summit was good, but it’s still a little skinny out there,” he proclaimed, before ending with a heavenly request for “Arctic fronts and moist Pacific air masses.”

Everyone laughed. A cowboy singer started to play. And we dug into our vegetable-eating food.

It was a merry evening, but as we rode back to our cabin in the sleigh—100-foot trees cutting black silhouettes out of the dome of stars overhead—I couldn’t stop thinking about that prayer. Why did he have to mention The Summit?

That’s when I decided we wouldn’t be driving back to Missoula the next morning. No, we were going to stay another day and ski as a family to The Summit. The kids, who loved LMR, were thrilled. The pastry chef, maybe not so much.

Which is how we found ourselves fighting our way up a snow-choked mountain talking about the Donner Party. We’d made the brilliant choice to wear skate skis, since we now loved them so much, even though they were blatantly the wrong tool for the job of breaking seven miles of trail. The Summit, that shimmering beacon of unattainable elevation, was supposedly only two kilometers away at this point, but as we flailed like seals on a Slip ’n Slide, it might as well have been 20.

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