Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Chasing snow ghosts

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



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Inside, we convene around the fireplace while Lehrman and his daughter prep dinner. Everyone’s buzzing about the day. “That snow was incredible.” “Those lines were sick.” “This lodge is beautiful.” Chad cracks jokes about the DJ Dave and Barney Kook music video “Yoga Girl,” asking Katy when she’s going to show off her ski-skin trick. By the time dinner hits the table—steak, followed up with pie and ice cream—the room’s vibe is as warm as the fire. Someone plugs an iPod into a set of speakers. We decide to hit the hot tub, and pass around a flask of Jameson while we soak, the lights of Hamilton below us blending with the stars above. The only thing better than tonight’s lodge party is the knowledge that come morning, we’re going back up for more. I fall asleep in my bag in one of the lodge’s bunkrooms, hoping to find a ghost on day two.

Over breakfast, most of our group decides to head back to Missoula. Matt, Erik, Katy, Chad and I agree we’re not done yet.

The skinning is easier the second time around. I set a steady pace and manage, for the most part, to keep up. We reach the upper basin we skied yesterday before noon, and I settle in for lunch and an Eddy Out before tackling my first run.

The bowl is thoroughly shredded from the previous day’s skiing. I carve my turns close to a pair of yesterday’s tracks, trying to preserve as much untouched snow as possible. Everyone’s skiing as tightly as possible, trying to milk the untracked powder. Erik, now ready for some really big air, finds a massive snow-covered rock to launch off of. Chad squats downhill of it with his camera. Katy stands in the snow with her own camera a few yards away. I dig my Nikon out of my pack and hunker down for the distance shot. “Go for it!” Chad shouts. Erik shoots down the slope, his flannel shirt rippling as he picks up speed. He pops, he sails, he lands. His weight comes down over the backs of his skis, but he recovers his balance and skids to a stop in a cloud of snow. We all cheer.

I’ve tapped some reservoir of unexpected energy, and I’m all over the mountain. The aches are gone, replaced with the need to ski what most people haven’t. We skin into the next bowl and rip down, then head to the summit for the weekend’s finale. There, on an outcrop of rock overlooking the Sawtooth Creek Drainage. Katy decides to show off for the cameras. In a move born of yoga-caliber balance and flexibility, she lifts her ski behind her back, unhooks one skin and, kicking her foot forward, peels it off in one swift motion. The loose skin flutters in the air like a ribbon. She does it again with the other ski, smoother this time. I really am running with the pros.

We reach the top of the last bowl. As we start down, I duck left around a large boulder, steering away from yesterday’s tracks. The saplings aren’t quite as thick over here, and apparently none of us skied this line yesterday.

I stop for one last look at the Bitterroot Valley, the dense line of cottonwoods and ponderosas marking the river’s path. Suddenly I’m back on that knoll above Huff Hills, staring down at the Missouri River’s bluffs and the horizon beyond. Then I remember I have nearly 1,000 vertical feet of skiing left—far more backcountry than any flatlander could hope for. My attention wanders downward, to the view immediately in front of my ski tips. The snow is untouched, a vast field of pristine powder. Even the saplings are weighted in white. Almost like ghosts.

Downing Mountain lowdown

Accommodations and activities: With three bedrooms, nine beds and one pull-out couch, the 3,000 square foot log lodge can handle a sizeable party. Backcountry skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, Jacuzzi, barbecue, sunning on the deck and foosball will fill your days.

Nightly rates: Weeknights costs $50 per person, with five adults minimum required for exclusive lodge booking. Weekends and holidays are $60 per person per night with a two-night minimum. Children 13 and under stay free; children ages 13 to 16 stay for half price. Weekly rentals are also available for $2,500 for up to 10 people.

Dining: Self-catering is standard, but a variety of catered meal options are available. Call or email for menus and pricing details.

More Info: Email or call 406-531-1486 for John Lehrman or 406-531-1478 for Jennifer Lehrman. Visit for more information.

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