We were eager to get back out after the previous afternoon’s glimpse of Cooke City’s potential. Brett, Ellen and Cam were excited about a shot they had spotted off Woody Ridge south of town. The rest of us decided to go up to the south ridge of Henderson Mountain to go check out a zone we thought we could do sled laps on.
First, brief overview of the terrain around Cooke City. Cooke City sits nestled in a valley, right near the Montana-Wyoming border. Directly south of town is Republic Mountain and the iconic face known as “The Fin”. The Wilderness boundary sits a mile or two south of town, keeping this side of Cooke City essentially free of snowmobiles. The land north of town is National Forest and the terrain is more rolling and less forested, making it ideal for snowmobile travel. About 10 miles north of town you again run into a Wilderness boundary and beyond that the mountains grow taller and more impressive, making up the heart of the Beartooth Mountains.
The three working sleds performed wonderfully, and soon we found ourselves at the turn off to head up towards Henderson. It was our first foray into towing on steeper terrain, but the hard-packed road did a good job switch-backing up, and we soon found ourselves at the top standing on top of some beautiful ~1000ft shots.
The zone ended up being perfect for sled laps. Three people took the sleds down while the other four picked their way down the steep, tree-lined chutes and we reconvened in the meadow below. The timing worked out perfectly and the sleds would often be pulling up right as the skiing group reach the bottom. Getting towed to the top definitely removed some of the earn-your-turns reward I normally associate with backcountry skiing, but the novelty of it was exciting and helped make the day memorable, despite the wind and sun affected snow.
Eventually the sleds began to run low on gas and we headed back to town having covered over 16 miles and skied ~3500 ft of vert. Not bad for a quick three-and-a-half hour jaunt. Brett, Ellen and Cam were already back when we returned, soaking in the hottub and enjoying the amazing views from the house.
Filled with leftover energy from our two-stroke powered day, we set about building the infrastructure for our evening activity, Gelände Quaffing. Invented by some Jackson Hole ski bums in the 1980’s, Quaffing involves sliding a stein of beer along a surface (in our case, a piece of plywood lugged all the way from SLC specifically for this purpose) to a partner who attempts to catch and drink the stein, preferably by its handle. Brett’s semi-recently broken back was bothering him from the day of skiing (you think he would have been responsible and saved his mobility for drinking events but noooo) so we settled on teams of three, with one person tossing, one person drinking and one person refilling, rotating through the roles as many times as possible in a minute. In later rounds, we added additional complications such as a mandatory spin before catching or required through-the-leg catches. In the end, we were all amazed at both how fun the game was, and how much beer a series of partially-filled steins could deliver.
We woke up the next morning delighted to see 6 inches of fresh snow. After the prior day’s laziness, I was itching to get out touring into some bigger terrain. Garret, Ellen, Brett, Nate and I decided to head up the east facing terrain off the shoulder of Republic Mountain. The snow was falling gently as we skinned up Republic Creek and it was clear from the smooth snow that the night had been calm. We spotted a lower angle ramp, arching from south to north, that looked like a promising passage through the otherwise steep and pillowed face and we began making our way up.
The terrain around us was wild, in a way I had only seen in ski movies, with spines, pillows, and cliffs everywhere. I definitely came away with a newfound respect for the magnitude and consequence of the lines that pro skiers seem to hit so casually. Unfortunately, none of us are pro skiers, and we began to wonder what we would ski. Then, about two-thirds of the way up the face we rounded a corner and found ourselves under two of the most perfect looking chutes we had ever laid eyes on. Separated by a thin snow-covered ridge, both chutes were flanked by short cliffs and filled in with smooth, untouched snow. We knew we had to ski them.
Fueled by what we had just stumbled upon, we made quick work of the rest of the skin to the ridge. We stopped briefly before cresting the ridge to dig a pit and it confirmed what we had hoped for, perfect stability. We made our way to the top of the first chute and decided Brett, Ellen, and I would ski it while Garrett and Nate would ski the other one.
The weather was beautiful, with intermittent snow flurries and moments of brief sun. We enjoyed spectacular views of The Fin as we transitioned and we were soon ready to drop. We voted to let Brett go first as it was only his second day back on skis and his first powder turns of the season. A quick radio check and Brett pushed off, arcing a long, powerful ski cut through the powder. Glancing over his shoulder and seeing no issues with uncontrolled sluffing, he let out a whoop and carved back into the gut of the chute.
Brett spotted a safe zone part way down the chute and pulled to the side so he could have eyes on the entire length of the run. Ellen dropped next and swooped her way down past Brett and out to the bottom. It was then my turn to drop. I double checked my boots and then pushed off downhill, arcing a couple turns off the flanks before entering the tighter part of the chute. The snow was as good as I could have dreamed of, entirely unaffected by wind or sun, and skiing much deeper than the six inches we had originally estimated. I gleefully made my way down to Ellen and Brett joined us shortly after.
Nate and Garrett joined us at the bottom and reported similarly mind-blowing conditions in the chute they had skied. We were all smiles from our first taste of Montana powder and headed back up to the ridge for more. As we skinned up, a snow squall came in and it began to really snow. Upon reaching the ridge, we decided to drop skiers left of the chutes, down a short face. This face must have seen more sun because there was a definite crust lying under the powder. The skiing was still spectacular, but upon reaching the bottom of the pitch I was surprised to look up and see a wall of sluff sliding towards me. I was able to slide backwards out of the way and the snow piled up harmlessly against a tree in front of me. While the pile would not have been deep enough to fully bury someone, it was definitely a good reminder to assess each slope independently and stay off high consequence terrain until the new snow had had a chance to bond.
We decided to ski out back towards Republic Creek so we could take advantage of the full relief of the ridge. The remainder of the run was an excellent blend of tight trees, open shots, and small cliffs and drops to play around on. Arriving at the bottom, we were all craving more, so, with a couple of hours of daylight, we headed back up our skin track for a final lap.
The sky had cleared by the time we regained the top of the ridge and we enjoyed some beautiful views of the mountains north of town. We decided to traverse north along the ridge before dropping in order to shorten our ski back to town. We soon reached the end of the ridge where it merges into the north face overlooking town. The ridge wraps around slightly, forming a bowl of sorts that begs to be skied. Garrett traversed far skiers left to take some photos and, one by one, the rest of us dropped into the bowl, disappearing into a cloud of cold smoke.
The remainder of the skiing beneath the bowl was just as good as our previous run and we had a blast party skiing out. The only real excitement came right near the out track when I suddenly heard Brett yelling “Stop! Stop!”. I pulled up to see Garrett on his side on the sloped bank of what appeared to be a creek bed. On closer inspection we realized there was no way the cleft in between the two snow banks was caused by a creek, and instead was actually at least 20 feet deep. The map shows mining claims in this area so we think it was some old mining remains. The gap was the perfect width to catch an unsuspecting skier and, while probably not deep enough to kill, definitely could have been a trip-ender. We picked our way carefully out to the fire road after that and were relived to all make it back to town safe and sound.
Despite the scary end to the day, we were thrilled the wind had remained low all day and were thrilled to get back out and ski some more powder the next day.