BOZEMAN - The view from the top of the Bridger Bowl ridge was more spectacular than I had imagined.

Pausing to soak in the sight, I was thankful I wasn't panting like the day before, hiking at 8,000 feet atop the cliffs of Moonlight Basin where the air felt thin.

This was much more accessible and less arduous, especially since the addition of Bridger's newest amenity: Schlasman's lift, which carries skiers to just below the Bridger ridge.

It was girls' ski weekend, a much-anticipated event. I was with my sister Marshell and her friend Elizabeth Powers, who drove almost seven hours from Moscow, Idaho, where they are working on graduate degrees, to Bozeman to rip down some gnarly terrain.

They picked me up in Missoula and we headed east.

In many ways it's sad, maybe even pathetic, that I've skied in Montana for 22 years and never ventured to the top of the ridge at Bridger Bowl Ski Area until now. Everyone talks about it, especially if you live in Bozeman. Skiing the ridge is a lifestyle for some, a religion for others. I even attended a year of college at Montana State University, skied Bridger a dozen or more times, and know a half-dozen people who have skied the ridge, and yet, I had just never made it there.

Until now.

***

The ridge was part of Bozeman's transformation from a cow town to a ski town, said Doug Wales, a Bridger spokesman.

A Rolling Stone article in the early 1980s coined this subculture "ridge hippies," but anymore it's a wide variety of folks who frequent the ridge, said Doug Richmond, assistant ski patrol director.

"By the 1990s, we were seeing tremendous amounts of traffic," Wales said. "It became the thing to do."

It still is.

Bridger is unique in that it offers vast amounts of steep, backcountry terrain accessible to those with a beacon, but within the ski area boundaries.

Since the 1970s, the local nonprofit ski area has required beacons for those hiking the ridge, and strongly encourages shovels and skiing with a partner.

Certainly the number of skiers ascending the ridge has grown dramatically over the years. Decades ago, skiers would sign out each time before trekking to the ridge. It would take days to fill up one sheet, said Richmond, who has patrolled Bridger for more than three decades.

Anymore, there's an electronic counter near the top of the Bridger lift that tests to make sure skiers are wearing a beacon. Any time there's 9 to 10 inches of new snow it will record 1,200 to 1,400 trips a day to the ridge, he said.

***

And that was before Bridger installed Schlasman's lift last season, the first expansion to the ski area in more than 30 years.

Named after one of four miners killed in an 1885 avalanche near there, the two-seat chairlift was purchased from Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, according to the ski area's Web site. Schlasman's lift (pronounced Slushman's) provides access to 311 acres of new terrain, which offer 1,700 feet of vertical bliss.

Before the chairlift, locals would spend three hours hiking or "skinning" to access the terrain now available via a 10-minute chairlift ride. Some would attempt to access the area from the ski area boundary, but risked getting their passes pulled. Now, locals say it's nice having easier access, but it's bad that everyone else does, too.

"It's rejuvenated interest in Bridger Bowl," Wales said.

Originally, there was concern about installing a lift that would allow for easier access to more unmanaged backcountry terrain, Richmond said. That's why Bridger ramped up its avalanche education efforts.

Last year, the first winter Schlasman's opened, every season pass holder received a free avalanche educational video courtesy of Bridger and the U.S. Forest Service.

***

The fracture line on Saddle Peak just south of the ski area was still clearly visible from the Bridger lift a week and a half later.

A major avalanche triggered by a skier just south of the ski boundary was littered with tracks the day before, according to the Gallatin National Forest Center Web site. Luckily no one was injured, but it was certainly a close call, Richmond said.

"You have to respect nature," he said. "It's bigger than we are."

There were five of us making laps on Schlasman's lift. The last time around, we threw our skis over our shoulder to traverse north across the ridge. It was five women and Andrew Wells, our fearless leader. We came to a not-too-narrow chute referred to as "easy," which was fine for this first-timer.

Some routes have names, some have classic names that are universally known among ridge-goers, and others differ with each skier or snowboarder.

"People develop their own personal relationship with the mountain," Wales said.

The snow wasn't great, but the sky was blue for miles. Our group stopped to take in the view. Not a cloud in the sky. But it wasn't long before we saw a patroller to the south. It was close to 2:30 p.m. and they were trying to sweep the area, so our sightseeing was cut short. Time to move.

"The folks who ski the ridge are some of the nicest people you've ever seen," Richmond said. "We've got a pretty good culture of friendly folks. That's what keeps me working here."

One at a time we dove off the ridge, plunging into occasional pockets of chalky snow. Finally, I had skied the ridge.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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