When I was 12, I skied Moonlight Basin for the first time. Lone Peak’s powerful topography and the Headwater’s steep ridge line loomed over me as I tried to figure out skiing in the west. From the time I was 12 through my gap year after high school I skied at Moonlight every weekend, day off of school and many school days playing hooky. I taught there for a couple years, following little kids around through the tight trees and drinking hot chocolate by the fire. That place was home. I knew the mountain like the back of my hand. I could have skied certain runs with my eyes closed if there weren’t other skiers around. I chased high school boys and friends around that mountains, learning that if I wanted to ski and hang out with them, I had better keep up. I spent time with my dad and brother on that mountain, eventually working our way up the Headwaters. I had stood at the top of the Headwaters and looked across to see Ennis and the whole of the Madison Valley. I hunkered down at the top of that ridge when the winds picked up and snow blew so hard you were stripped of all senses except feeling cold. I picked my way across the sharp volcanic rocks to find new lines, dodged the snow weasels, competed in my first and only ski competition and grew into a family of skiers, boarders, employees and jaded locals that made up Moonlight Basin.
My junior year of high school, my parents divorced. All I wanted to do was ski. I used it as a coping mechanism. It’s hard to think about much when you are standing on top of the Headwaters, looking down a chute, your thin metal edges the only thing holding you on to the earth. I got older, I skied with my family less and friends more. I graduated high school and the last thing I wanted to do was go straight to college. So I moved to Big Sky. I was freshly 19 and had finished my summer working at one of the whitewater outfits on the Gallatin. I spent 4 weeks packing mules and working in a backcountry elk hunting camp and then started caretaking for a special need child in Big Sky. It was announced that summer that Big Sky Resort would be buying Moonlight, it was something we all saw coming but tried hard to not believe it. I started the ski season as a Big Sky Ski Instructor, it was mostly the same people, the same mountain and the same snow. We mostly went about things the way we did at Moonlight. There wasn’t much policy change that we were aware of. Just some procedures were different and our jackets. It was a tricky transition. There has always been a divide between Big Sky and Moonlight. Moonlight was the “darkside” always considerably colder, darker and and a little rough around the edges compared to Big Sky. A few months into the ski season, due to some unfortunate decisions and policy changes, my whole world got ripped out away from me. When I was 19, I got my pass pulled and banned from the resort. I couldn’t believe it had just happened but it did. The resort wanted to “make an example out of us” since the Moonlight employees were “having a hard time adjusting to Big Sky policy”. Of course, we were not completely blameless, but we were certainly not worthy of an almost 3 year ban. I was heartbroken. It was as if the final grip, the last of the stability in a life still not healed, had been stripped away.
I moved back to Bozeman, the trusty Suburban caught on fire and I had no vehicle. I spent some time in Missoula working on the poplar tree plantation. We did controlled burns and later planted 75,000 poplar trees. I went and lived on Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie for a few months, working as an Environmental Steward doing trail maintenance, public outreach, and education. I came back to Bozeman and finally went to college. I started taking classes in the College of Ag, hoping to study Wildlife Habitat Management. I got a job teaching at Bridger. Two years of wildlife, an inevitable switch to Film and Photo, two more years of school and few seasons of teaching at Bridger, brought me to this moment. My ban was lifted and I could ski at Big Sky again.
I got the Montana Pass which lets me ski the first time in four years there. Driving up to Big Sky usually brings some bitterness, just too many memories that were tainted by that fateful season. It seemed to me that I had moved on from Moonlight, it was gone, a distant memory of some of my highest highs and lowest lows. I didn’t think anything on the Moonlight side would be open since it was still so early. We headed over to meet up with some friends at Challenger. Once we got to the top of Challenger, I noticed the Headwaters lift was running. After a run down Challenger, we went back up it and decided to check out Headwaters Bowl. I started down the rocky traverse, and suddenly years worth of eclipsed emotions came rushing to my head. I looked across the ridgeline, unchanged in my absence, down the line of chutes, remembering the hike to them in my way too big pink ski boots, down at the bowl at the bottom to the spot David and I learned how to do 180s. I watched people and friends start their descent down, I could hear their skis scrape on the wind-blown early season snow, knicking rocks every few turns. I pointed my skis downhill and felt like I never left, I knew each turn because we’d met before. I felt strong, I felt fast and I felt at home. We got on the chair and did another lap, dodging the increasing number of rocks getting exposed on the traverse. We met up with more friends, did more laps. I stood there a few laps in, looked across the Madison Valley, I was having a hard time taking in what all had happened in the last four years. The last time I stood there I was 19, naive, young, lost, and broken. Now I am 23, four years of college under my belt, stronger, some sense of direction, wiser and confident. I felt like I had lived a lifetime in four years. Suddenly I was not bitter at the place for what had happened, I was thankful for it and know that I would not be where I am today.
The skiing itself was exactly how I remembered it, but better. I haven’t had a chance to ski open steep lines in a while. It was automatic, use your edges, meet the mountain with the same intensity it’s coming at you with, get in the front of your boots, channel your inner Chris LeDoux and let her buck. Hold on with everything you have, don’t be afraid, the mountain can sense fear, embrace speed, engage your thighs, feel your skis do their job, trust your equipment, trust your body, trust the snow. No matter what happens you’ll make it to the bottom. It felt good to be back. It felt good to feel strong. It felt good to be skiing the runs that shaped me as a skier and helped raise me. It ignited something inside me, I haven’t been that excited about skiing in a few years, in fact, last year I only skied a handful of times at Bridger and didn’t ever get up early enough for a full day. I left Moonlight feeling like my excitement and passion for skiing had been renewed. Feeling strong and familiar, welcomed home so to speak, was a great way to start the season.
I ended up getting a Bridger pass, which I am so excited for, I will be able to go up a few times a week, and see Bridger not as a place where I had to ski because it was my only option, but where I choose to ski. I’ve grown up so much post Moonlight, it helped shape who I am, but it is time to make new memories. I can’t be upset with Big Sky anymore, if I would not have experienced what I did, I wouldn’t be here today.