The snow fell in a heavy blanket of silence. Fat, wet flakes floated down through the pines as we made our way along the sled trail. An hour before, I had rendezvoused with our group of friends in an empty parking lot four miles up an unplowed road from the last claim of civilization in Philipsburg, Montana. We loaded the snowmobile sled with enough food, beer, and whiskey to supply a small army and sent one of our party on up the hill on the smoke-belching steed to shuttle loads. The rest of us skinned up the 3,000-foot gain to the Altoona Ridge Lodge.
Rounding a corner and emerging from the shroud of white, the lodge stood in a field of young growth pines. The roofs of the buildings were burdened by the feet of fresh snow that had fallen over the last few weeks. Arriving at the cabins, it was clear we were in for a treat—to be staying in and skiing out of this hideout of remote backcountry comfort for the next four days. The lodge was composed of three simple cabin-style structures, one for cooking and living large—complete with deck-view looking out 150 miles toward Montana’s southwestern border—a large bunk house to sleep nine, and, to top it off, a small building dedicated to the wood fired sauna.
Perched just below the ridgeline of a peak labeled simply “Point 8,500” on the topographic map, and amidst the immensity and empty reserve of the Flint Creek Mountains in Granite County Montana, the feeling of complete removal sank in quickly. With no link to the outside world except radios, the buzz of life beyond the pines faded into the quiet of the darkening, snow-filled landscape and the crackle of the fire in the cast-iron stove. Sleep came easy at 8:30 p.m. once the sun had fled the world and dinner was cleaned up, and with a rough plan of attack sketched for the following days and several dispatched Pabst Blue Ribbons, we retired to our sleeping bags.
Rising with the sun to piping hot bowls of oatmeal and strong black coffee felt natural in this cold world. Our group sat with steam obscuring our faces from clutched coffee mugs as the wood stove fought off the freeze in the main lodge. Insulating ourselves with calories and caffeine before the day’s foray into below zero weather and eight inches of fresh snow overnight was done quickly. Laughing and chiding each other, climbing skins were stretched on skis, and avalanche beacons were tested.
The main skiing area above Altoona is a horseshoe shaped ridgeline topping out on Point 8,500, and extending around to another peak across the valley. On the inside of this contour lie pillow lines hidden amidst the blanket of white bark and ponderosa pines, as well as huge open slopes scattered with outcroppings of limestone.
A short tour from the lodge put our group of skiers and shooters above a zone called Gills Rock Garden, a veritable playground of boulders heavily laden with snow, giving it the appearance of a disheveled white bedspread strewn with pillows the size of VW Beatles. Our team of skiers and snowboarders drooled at the prospect of the hunt, but before dropping in we dug a pit to check the snowpack stability and gauge the level of avalanche danger. After large amounts of new snowfall and subsequent cold temperatures, weak layers in the snow pack called “facets” can set up, making it very easy for whole slabs of snow to break off on slopes. Looking down a perfect line of fresh snow, this danger was pushed into the back of our minds, but safety is paramount and having a team of well-versed individuals in the backcountry who understand this risk is essential.
Our pit test showed little sign for concern on this lower angle slope, and the green light was given to our team of five riders to go fourth and shred. The joy of shooting photographs of skiing is much in the same as that of skiing itself. Skiing allows me to flit across landscapes like an exuberant sparrow, dodging in and out of trees and hopping up and over logs and rocks with speed and ease. It gives me the ability to enjoy a landscape in an entirely different aspect than you would traversing it by foot. Capturing this exploit in still frame draws me in on the lightning movement of those moments that otherwise would dart past in an instant.
Six hours slip by quickly as the snow continues its relentless onslaught, and as the sky darkens we gathered our group from different corners of the snowscape around us via radio. Back at the lodge, with wet cloths steaming above roaring stoves, and a shared sense of exhausted camaraderie, the day’s end brought us to rest in the little lit cabin lost amidst the immense blackness of the countryside.
The house rules jotted slap-happily on a piece of paper next to the sauna door read, “Birthday suits recommended. Sauna is a completely non-sexual zone, not a brothel or sex club.” Not a note that I wouldn’t expect from the lodge’s owner and operator Denison Von Maur, a particularly wild spirit and doggedly uncanny character. Denison mentioned casually across the sweltering reach of the sauna that he spent about 180 days a year at the lodge by himself, with his wife, and with periodic visits from people coming to enjoy his personal paradise. I can’t say that I blame him—living with all the basic comforts we require as humans and without the busying worry and reach of the ever-advancing world has a powerful appeal. Denison was happy to see visitors come and share the place and peace here at Altoona that he has come to cherish though. For a reasonable price, hunters, skiers, hikers, and many others make the trek in to this backcountry Eden.
Overnight, temperatures took a drastic swing upwards and the next morning we were met with a fresh layer of snow that had fallen wet and heavy. Sun and blue skies expedited the snow’s heft and by midday the lines we had picked to shoot the day before had proven to be dangerously unstable and prone to avalanches. The other end of ski photography is found here, with some days giving you nothing but long waits, frustrating conditions, and fleeting light. After hours of pit digging and confusion, we end up riding low-angle trees, which are far safer than the big open chutes that take the main stage on the aspect above Altoona.
It’s frustrating giving up the prize when so much effort has gone into getting to that point of close conquest, but the biggest thing I have taken away from my mountaineering experiences, and the one thing I keep closest is when it gets too close to the edge, give it to the mountain. In the end we come to these remote and beautiful places as visitors, small and helpless to the forces of nature in play around us, and it makes life worth living being able to do so. But making sure we know where we stand on that edge, and making sure we can return another day, is the most important call to know how to make.