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Beyond the summit

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



Snow choked the air and swallowed my skinny, traction-less skate skis with each step. The trail ahead launched up a mountainside, disappearing into a curtain of snow. I looked up through ice-encrusted eyelashes and called out, “You know we’re 2,000 feet higher than where we usually ski at Lolo Pass?” My wife and two young sons—Silas, 12, and Jonah, 8—were too busy kicking herringbone steps up the mountain behind me to answer.

In theory, this was a fun family ski to the high point of the Lone Mountain Ranch Nordic system, called The Summit. We’d tried to get there days earlier, but had been turned back by a similar storm. Rather than accept it as a teachable moment, I decided to try again, weather be damned, because of my irresistible attraction to high points—especially ones with alluring names like The Summit.

To keep the family’s spirits up in the face of the storm, I told them about the Donner Party and their turn to cannibalism to survive winter. Then I mentioned the Uruguayan rugby team from Alive whose plane crashed in the Andes.

“I want you guys to know,” I said with a grin, “that it’s highly unlikely we’ll have to eat anybody to survive up here.”

My wife Jacqueline flashed a perfunctory smile and then informed me that before agreeing to future family ski outings she would be looking at the map and consulting with me about our plans. Given that we hadn’t seen another human for hours and were currently trying to climb a high, snow-blasted mountain on skate skis, I couldn’t blame her. Jacqueline is game for almost anything, but she’s from Florida, and still getting used to this whole snowbound alpine world.

As we climbed onto an exposed shoulder of the mountain, she cried, “My god, there are even couloirs up here!”

I unsuccessfully choked back laughter and said, “Those are cornices, honey.”

Her glare told me it didn’t matter what they were called, and that I was failing as the family expedition leader. Admittedly, as a die-hard adventure hound, I was still figuring out the whole family thing. Heck, when I originally found out that Jacqueline—my sometime girlfriend, now full-time wife—was pregnant, I was somewhere in the American West living in a Volkswagen van lashed with skis, mountain bikes and ladders (I cleaned windows on apartment buildings to pay for my travels). Settling down, to the extent I’m capable of it, has been a fitful process.

Skiing in the mountains is one of my life’s great joys, and I’ve been eagerly dragging the boys with me since their necks could support their heads. I fervently hoped Silas and Jonah could experience that same joy. I’d like to think I’ve learned how to push them without pushing too hard. But as a gung-ho optimist with a tendency to underestimate the size of mountains and other important things, sometimes I blow it.

Like now, for instance. As my children pulled themselves through the storm behind me, I realized this arctic death march was sure to ruin skiing for them. They’d already been skiing for hours, and now they would turn on me at any moment, declare me a terrible father, and announce they weren’t climbing a foot farther. The problem was that we were miles of deep snow and thousands of vertical feet from civilization.

“Okay, fine,” I announced loudly and with a bit of showmanship. “If the snacks in my pack aren’t enough, you can eat one of my limbs. Preferably my left arm. But not a leg please—unless you’ve got the kind of deep-down hunger that an arm just won’t satisfy.”

It was the last day of our ski vacation in the greater Big Sky region, an area often referred to as Montana’s premier skiing destination. We’d come here four days ago to ski it for ourselves and stay at Lone Mountain Ranch, a high-end, historic guest ranch touted by Cross Country Skier magazine as the top Nordic ski resort in America. I’d been hearing about the ranch’s trail network since I moved to Montana 13 years ago, so when they offered to host us for a few days I figured it would make an idyllic family ski vacation, especially with Big Sky and Yellowstone just up the road. Plus, I’m a sucker for LMR’s specialty: log cabins with ski trails right to the doors.

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