Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Chasing snow ghosts

A years-long search comes to its end on Downing Mountain



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I was breathless when I finally summited that hill with my dad and our third musketeer, David. They’d finally caved to my repeated lunchtime suggestions, and we’d floundered through waist-deep snow for half an hour, skis across our shoulders and poles dangling from our wrists. As we clipped into our bindings, I gazed out at the Missouri River Valley below. The view paled in comparison to the sight just beyond our ski tips: untouched powder, heaven on earth.

Looking back, the run itself was far from impressive. I’d never skied in powder, and wound up falling several times in yard-sale fashion. It didn’t even last long. Maybe 100 vertical feet, max. But it was the feeling right before the plunge that I’ve been chasing ever since, and that’s lured me out of bounds at scores of resorts. That feeling has drawn me to the Beartooth Plateau, to remote snowfields along the Rocky Mountain Front, even back to that knoll at Huff Hills. It’s the reason Downing Mountain sounded so tantalizing. But so far that anticipatory rush has eluded me. I’m desperate to feel it again.


Besides Lehrman and Matt, we have seven in our group: photographer Chad Harder; Kettlehouse’s kayak-savvy Cheyenne Rogers; cyclist and climate scientist Nicky Phear; designated freestyler Erik Samsoe; rock climber Dave Kratochvil; documentary filmmaker Katy-Robin Garton, who, rumor has it, can pull the skins off her skis while still in her bindings; and Don Gisselbeck, storied for his 77-consecutive-months-and-counting ski streak. I felt the butterflies begin to stir as the lot of us geared up outside the lodge. We kept a good pace for a while, climbing in a long line through the pines, cracking jokes and getting acquainted. This group is pro-league. Most have racked up serious vertical footage on skins over the years. I’m a T-baller in comparison. It didn’t take long for the butterflies to settle into a deep ache.

The view from the craggy crown west of Downing’s summit is breathtaking. We tuck into a gentle bowl holding six to eight inches of new snow, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Lehrman promised us “super-fast powder skiing” today, and the lines are ours for the taking.

I’m late to the party, of course. Most of our crew has already made several laps by the time I reach the top of the bowl. As I strip the skins off my skis, Katy rips down the hill, leaving a set of perfectly symmetrical curves in her wake.

“How’s the snow?” I shout to Don, who’s packing up his own skins nearby.

“Great,” he shouts back, grinning. I stuff my gear into my pack, clip into my bindings and position myself over a trackless expanse of snow, waiting for my heart to climb up in my throat.

Nothing. The feeling isn’t there. There’s the familiar anticipation of a stellar run, the adrenaline-induced twitches and rapid-fire eye movement, but none of that fleeting magic I felt 16 years ago.

The powder is soft, and my ears fill with wind and the rushing sound of skis cutting snow.

Seconds tick by. I speed closer and closer to the pile of packs in the basin below. When I stop next to them, I nearly fall over. My knees are shaking. I’m exhausted.

“Awesome, dude!” Chad shouts, walking over for a celebratory high-five. I smile, ditch my pack and sit down for the first time since I left the lodge. It’s not the exertion that bugs me; it’s the feeling that I’m chasing a ghost. I lap the bowl one more time before we start back toward dinner and a night’s sleep.

There’s one more run on the way. The route Lehrman has mapped back to the lodge requires a yo-yo act up and down the mountain. We skin over a ridge into a neighboring bowl, shoot down a short line, and begin trekking up to the summit. The day’s last run is a snaking line along Downing Mountain’s southeastern ridge and through its main basin. Erik finds a two-foot lip of windblown snow above the bowl and leads the charge over it. It’s the first time today we’ve skied as a pack, and we’re like kids on a playground. The bowl is thick with pine saplings. We weave our way through, whooping and hollering, then leapfrog down the chute that leads directly to the lodge.

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