Wild, untamed, and home to some of the gnarliest lines you can ski from a chairlift. Such is the lore of Montana’s Big Sky Resort, which had piqued my interest — as a big-mountain snowboarder and adventurer — for more than a decade.
I came to Montana to find what seems to be rapidly disappearing from many ski areas under corporate conglomeration. I wanted to ride some extreme terrain, yes, but I also wanted to spend time with the people who built their lives around that terrain, the people increasingly forced out of mountain towns to make room for the next multi-million-dollar development project.
Big Sky was supposed to be the place to find both. A place where — despite being accessible to Ikon Pass holders and adjacent to the one-percenter’s private Yellowstone Club, where the likes of Justin Timberlake and Tom Brady spend their ski holidays — the locals were still just as hardcore as they’ve always been.
I came, in essence, to find out what this place was all about.
Triple black diamonds that will scare you
Big Sky has no shortage of the goods. This includes a series of newly minted “triple black diamond” runs, a rare classification meant to instill caution in the traveling, Ikon Pass-holding ski public. Since the pass’s inception in 2018, that public has swarmed to places like Big Sky with their skis waxed and their egos ready to wax poetic about heroic alpine pursuits.
The locals, I soon learned, were becoming increasingly wary of underprepared globetrotters who seemed to know little more about the mountain than the names of the runs they hoped to brag about. “Big Sky offers the type of terrain that diehard skiers travel tens of miles into the backcountry for,” said Patrick Conroy, a video producer with the resort’s media department. “It’s easy to scare yourself here.”
The most extreme areas, including Big Couloir and North Summit Snowfield off the top of Lone Mountain, are classified as “Special Access Terrain.” They may not be open on any given day, with unpredictable wind and rapidly changing avalanche conditions often closing both for days at a time.
Should you be fortunate to catch Big Couloir, you’ll have to sign a waiver clearing the resort of any responsibility for your own adventurism before beginning the traverse to the drop in. You must ski with a partner, and avalanche gear including a beacon, shovel, and probe are highly recommended to the point that you’ll probably — and justifiably — be jeered at if you don’t have them.
“You have to be careful here,” says Conroy. As someone who’s on the mountain every day, he had joined me for dinner at Westward Social on my first night in town to offer his tips on terrain and, I gathered, to make sure I wasn’t coming in too hot-headed. “If you don’t know what you’re getting into, you get cliffed out and have to get rescued. Even with all the growth and expansion, at the end of the day, the mountain still keeps us humble.”
Terrain that is shaped by the wind
“No matter which way the wind blows, it’s leaving something good,” says Conroy. “But the steeps are even more challenging when they’re not full of powder. I find myself more gripped then because it’s like a puzzle. It never skis the same way twice. What move do I make next?”
Lone Mountain, whose monolithic peak towers over the resort and is viewable throughout the surrounding valley, is a full-on microclimate in itself, with westward wind routinely barreling over its windward ridge and settling on the skiable faces. Because of the wind factor, avalanche danger is omnipresent at Big Sky.
“Every day, Big Sky Ski Patrol methodically assesses the snow stability on Lone Mountain,” says Mike Buotte, Snow Safety Director with Big Sky Ski Patrol. “The absolute priority is safety. Opening high-alpine terrain requires extra careful work, both on the mountain and with data analysis. Our safety, and yours, requires diligence and, oftentimes, patience.”
“The most rewarding days are when we have fresh snow, and Lone Mountain is safely open, wall to wall, in a timely manner with skiers enjoying safe access to the exceptional terrain Big Sky has to offer,” Buotte adds.
Riding the last frontier
I awoke the morning of my first day on the hill to a storm rolling in. Clouds covered Lone Mountain, impeding the view of Big Couloir — my primary target for the trip — from my eighth-floor room at the Summit at Big Sky hotel.
“It’s actually insane that this terrain is avy-controlled, almost too good to be true,” I said to Kass McCarthy, my pro guide from Big Sky’s ski school, before we dropped into Liberty Bowl from the 11,166-foot summit of Lone Mountain. Moments earlier, on the ride up the Lone Peak Tram, I had asked her about the triple black diamond runs. “What they really mean is that I’m going to have to add another diamond to my ass tattoo,” she had said. “The resort added a third diamond in order to separate them from the more ‘normal’ extreme terrain here.”
During my first morning on the mountain,