Pond Skims have become a spring staple at many winter resorts - skiers and riders try their luck gliding down a ski slope and then across an icy pond.
But at Big Sky Resort, the annual Pond Skim is a ritual in creativity and daring, pushing the boundaries of a ski culture classic. Last weekend, Big Sky pulled it off again, with these key ingredients for the perfect Pond Skim.
Big Sky's pond is never just a pond. Every year the shape and approach are a surprise - participants tackle double ponds, giant kicker entries, and s-curves. 2012 brought the most elaborate pond yet: a tetris-piece shaped pond with two separate entry points, a jump, and endless skimming path combinations.
Ballerina, banana, giant ape, beach babe - skimmers don't skimp on wild attire. And neither does the crowd.
Rules are, there are no rules - Big Sky encourages the unexpected. Daffys, 360s, ski and water ballet moves are all fair game.
Over 100 skiers and riders skimmed to the tune of thousands of cheering spectators this year. And every spring it gets bigger and crazier. There's just something about standing in a sea of neon onesies that makes you feel like you're part of something bigger.
We've known Jessica Biel rips since she descended the North Summit Snowfield last winter on a trip to Big Sky - how else do you think she keeps those shapely gams and derriere in perfect Hollywood condition? Now, she's taking her snowboarding to the next level and taking an avi course - not a bad idea with so many early season slides this winter.
We're not usually ones to flaunt our celebrity skiers, but with Jessica touting Big Sky as one of her go-to mountains to fellow skier David Letterman, we'll take this cue from Jessica: In or out of bounds, skiers need to be prepared. Jessica has the savvy to educate herself on the necessary precautions to take on the mountain, and it's not a bad idea to follow suit.
Big Sky Resort works hard to manage avalanches in-bounds, but it's always good to carry an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe, and know how to use them wherever you're skiing. And front, side, or backcountry, remember to never go alone. Again, not a bad idea - especially when your next ski partner for the Big Couloir could be none other than Jessica Biel.
Two years after a life-threatening ski accident, I hiked the A-Z Chutes with Trevor, the snowboarder who saved me
It was two years ago that Trevor and I first met, and though the moment is still quite vivid, I didn't remember his face or his name. I was too preoccupied with what had just happened - I'd crashed into a tree near the Natural Half-Pipe, and I didn't even register who was asking for my cell phone, calling ski patrol, and sitting with me as we waited for professional medical help to arrive.
In the hospital days later, I got a Facebook friend request from a Pennsylvanian teen. His name was Trevor, and he wanted to know if I was OK after my accident - he was the one who had found me, saved my life, really. He had noticed a photo of me hiking the A-Z Chutes at Big Sky. He'd never skied them, but asked if I might take him when I got better.
After months of recovery time, I did get better, and made a point to get back on the slopes. But post-accident I wear my avalanche beacon on Mr. K, avoid most glades, and head in whenever light gets flat; I've challenged myself by getting back out there. Deep down, I'm still a scaredy-skier.
But when Trevor told me he was coming to Big Sky this winter, I knew our mission would be to ski the expert sidecountry A-Z Chutes. It was a beautiful bluebird powder day, and we hiked the ridge with determination, stopping at a gnarly run called Castle Rock. Teetering on the ridge, my heart was racing. But skiing with Trevor had me feeling emboldened, and my nervousness turned into whoops of excitement as we hit wide powder turns.
Then we went cliff hucking, something I generally avoid. Trevor got ready to hit Big Rock like a pro as I inched up to the edge of the smaller drop, and hesitated. "You've got this," Trevor said, and I pushed off, proceeding to get the least amount of air in the history of cliff hucks, my ski tips hitting the snow straight-on and immediately ejecting me from their bindings. I tumbled through the powder, but found myself laughing in delight as I self-arrested; falling didn't have to be scary. It could be really, really fun.
Then Trevor suggested we ride the trees. I'm much more wary of tree runs these days, but I thought about whom I was skiing with - when it comes to life saving abilities concerning tree-related ski accidents, Trevor has definitely proved his worth. So into the powdery glades I went, and Trevor made sure to stop and check on me every so often as I took my time weaving through the once menacing-looking trunks.
We came out unscathed and smiling, exhilarated. I couldn't help but put my arms out and turn my face to the sun as we slid back down to the base area, soaking in the feeling that with Trevor's help, I was gaining back my confidence. I had been afraid of hugging another tree. Instead, I hugged Trevor.
My first time on the North Summit Snowfield, the run that epitomizes the Biggest Skiing in America
With 5,800 skiable acres, Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin make up The Biggest Skiing in America. But a big claim like that is about more than just stats. It's about expanse and variety. It's about elbow room and attitude. It's about an entire experience.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the North Summit Snowfield - the expert run off of 11,166-foot Lone Peak that requires a joint Biggest Skiing in America lift ticket, signing out with Ski Patrol, and some sizeable cojones to descend. It's the kind of big, gnarly skiing you only find in the backcountry or cat skiing - but accessible by the Lone Peak Tram.
Just last week, my friend Katie and I were North Summit virgins. We both have hundreds of Big Sky ski days under our belts, but when you're exploring as much terrain as Big Sky offers, there's always something left to discover.
For us that was the North Summit, so we enlisted the help of Moonlight ski patroller Pete Owens and North Summit vets Lyndsey Owens and Chad Jones. Newbies are encouraged to bring a guide for their first trips down to reduce the possibility of taking a wrong turn off the side of a cliff, and we had recruited the best.
It was a bluebird day, the snow was smooth and wind-buffed, and we braced ourselves for a heart-pounding descent. As longtime local Meg O'Leary describes it, the North Summit Snowfield is like an extreme version of a run on Marx, then First Gully, then Lenin, all in succession. Meg famously guided now avy-certified Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake down the snowfield last winter. I yelled to Katie as we made the steep traverse to our entry point - If Jess and Justin could do it, so could we!
And we did - following Pete to make powdery turns down the sheer face before sidestepping and traversing to more of the wide-open steep and deep. And while maybe we didn't rip it like a hardcore ski pro, or even like Jessica Biel, this terrain was straight out of a Warren Miller movie: for our turns on the North Summit Snowfield, we all felt like ski celebrities.
This, I thought, is the Biggest Skiing in America.
Katie Grice and Pete Owens pause during a traverse on the North Summit Snowfield
Chad Jones and Lyndsey Owens make turns down a narrow chute on the North Summit
Greer descends smooth, wind-buffed powder.
North-facing snow stays soft for Lyndsey Owens
At the helm calling the shots on when to open terrain over the past 30 years is Bob Dixon. Who better to talk to about snow and what makes Big Sky the Biggest Skiing in America? We took a minute to sit down with him; here is what he had to say about snow and what he likes best.
What do you think about this year, is the snow going to be good?
NOAA is calling for EL Nino, which is not good for the Northwest. Big Sky Resort sits on the cusp of the Northern and Southern weather patterns. An active Atlantic hurricane season has shown a more active La Nina, where an active Pacific hurricane season a more active El Nino. Mother Nature is cyclical. A dry summer means that precipitation needs to come sometime and winter will bring some snow. I don't really want an early season, however here the winds keep the skiing good.
Are there any patterns you have seen for winter conditions on Lone Mountain?
The end of November to December is the worst for avalanches. There are deep slabs and lots of instabilities in the snowpack. Then the Christmas crowds come and help the snowpack with skiing it in (compaction). Around January 6th the buses are leaving and a storm rolls in for the locals. January is good and March picks up more and April is great for snowfall. The coldest of the cold snaps come in November and early December. The coldest day ever was in 1988 and it was 62 below.
What is your favorite run on the mountain?
It's all about the right day. Consistently 1st Gulley, especially when the upper pockets are open. It has a consistent fall line and I enjoy the hoots and hollers from the chair when I do it right.
What is it about Big Sky Resort that you love the most?
Lone Mountain. No such thing as a bad snow year. That mountain gives you good skiing somewhere. The ski culture has changed, the mountain hasn't.
What does the Biggest Skiing in America mean to you?
The ski experience. That mountain offers so much different terrain. Southern Comfort for world class beginner terrain, to the Tram with great vertical descents, to the Couloir for the ultimate adrenaline rush. There is no waiting in line. The ski experience is more available, with so many acres per skier, this is what it is all about. We have the best ski experience, anywhere.
What has been the best snow year ever at Big Sky?
Consistent snow years add up great snow totals. But it's the epic days that I remember that outshine all those numbers. In 1986 we received 200" in two weeks. In 1994 we had a storm cycle that delivered 150" in a week and a half. I couldn't make a turn down little tree. That was an epic storm cycle.
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