Lonnie Ball: The kid who skis it
"I had to laugh when you asked how long I have lived in Big Sky," Lonnie Ball said as we loaded Swifty two weeks ago on a sunny powder day. "Mary and I live in Bridger."
Ball and his wife Mary ski at Big Sky Resort nearly every day. As a retired owner of Montana Powder Guide and nearly full-time photographer, Ball drives the 80 miles from Bridger to Big Sky for the terrain and access to that terrain.
"We could hike the ridge (at Bridger Bowl) all day, but we'd be up there with nearly 1,000 other people," Ball said, also noting that even on the busiest days at Big Sky Resort there is still only a maximum of around 600 skiers off the peak. The peak offers fresh line after fresh line, according to Ball, and he skis it all.
I met the Balls at the bottom of Swift Current around 11a.m. (they had already done a couple runs). Riding the Lone Peak Triple over to the Tram I commented on Ball's sweet skis.
"They're the best snowboard on two feet," Ball joked. His Pow NAS were given to him by Snowboarding Manufacturer Lib Tech to demo, and aside from getting a little bumpy on traverses, he loves them (and they look cool too).
We did two tram laps, and then took Erika's Glades down to Dakota Chair, where we found ourselves in the peaceful arms of Dakota Territory.
If you ski at Big Sky often enough, you'll eventually find yourself sharing a chair or a tram car with the Balls. Rare was a run where someone didn't wave or holler at Ball. He is a Big Sky legend, and for good reason. Ball has been skiing Big Sky for years, and, aside from a stint in Utah (where he met Mary) and Jackson Hole (where he has a run named after him, and where he was the first person to ever jump into Corbet's Couloir in 1967), he's lived in Montana for most of his life-guiding, patrolling, and skiing.
Ball and I both grew up in Great Falls and learned to ski at Showdown (although for him it was still called King's Hill). Great Falls is that blue collar part of Montana where every dad takes off work to watch his son wrestle, and every cowboy finds a friend at the Steinhaus or the Halftime. It's a city where one learns to tell stories in that slow and patient way cowboys do. Although he's not a cowboy in the traditional sense, Ball is a fine storyteller with no shortage of tales and experiences to share. I asked him about his most memorable times skiing at Showdown and at Big Sky. He told me the story behind a poem written by Eric Gustafson (a member of a legendary ski family in Montana) about a time when Duke and Rib Gustafson saw 15-year-old Lonnie packing snow before a ski race at Showdown. The poem is as follows:
He worked that slope, He packed the powder
Softened snowflakes, wafting ‘round.
Between the poles the slalom twisted
For hours more he'd tamp it down.
This task was his and all the racers
Preparing the course for that days event
The price they paid, for every gate rut
Had to be packed before they went.
His mind was soft just like the powder.
With numbing cold, high mountain breeze
When he looked were two dark figures
Bouncing down between the trees.
The gray mist powder sailed about them
Effortless they floated by
Like angels sent from skiers heaven
Their message brought on snowflaked sky
They paused near him and smiled through goggles
The Gustafson brothers, Duke and Rib.
"Howdy son," they articulated
As he loosened up his bib.
Just a kid, the brothers noted,
Working the pack like they had done.
Years before they both competed
Races long past and many won.
They watched him pack as he sweated.
They rarely stopped when powder fell.
One more question, they posited,
Before they drifted down that hill.
"Ya gonna pack it ... or you gonna ski it?"
They left him with the question said,
Then disappeared in clouds of powder
The phantom floaters in his head.
He raced that day one last measure
Before he shifted his soul that day
A powder hound just like the brothers
He found his passion his life's highway.
Ball is "the kid" in that poem. Putting pen to paper about a man who knows Big Sky Resort better than almost anyone is a challenge. How can I capture the surety and strength of his voice when he tells stories or of his skiing as he smoothly descends Marx and Lenin? He is a man who has snapped a photo or two of each member of the Kircher family at some point, has photos all around the resort and the community, competes (and wins) Powder Eight competitions around the country, and is working on a story about the best food to try at each dining outlet around the entire mountain. Not to mention his generosity of spirit and genuine nature are contagious, creating connections wherever he goes. Look for Ball on the hill, in the Headwaters Grille during lunch, or at Moonlight Lodge before the lifts start turning in the morning; he'll gladly ski with you or share a story or two about Big Sky and his love for snow. It's people like Ball who make this community a wonderful place to live and ski, even if he does live in Bridger.