Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2017.
Ahhh, September turns.
Headed south out of Hamilton, Montana, I’m beginning hour 34 of 44 on a blitz drive from Skagway, Alaska to Saratoga, Wyoming. A summer of guiding in the rearview, a few days of family and fishing on the North Platte River ahead. It’s the middle of September, and skiing is—relatively—out of mind. Then the truck tops out on Lost Trail Pass, an understated junction in pine stands on the Idaho border, and my itinerary changes.
White. Blankets. In September. Slow, fat flakes land softly on my windshield. At least nine inches of snow covers the ground and trees.
I pull off in front of the sign for Lost Trail Ski Area and reach for my camera. This is a nostalgic pass. I learned to ski at Lost Trail after my family moved to Hamilton when I was four, and I last remember skiing here as a pint-sized punk who feared the rope tow. Mom huddled by the fire in the lodge with a book; Dad led me around the mountain monitoring my progress. I wore a tiger-striped helmet in those days, and Dad’s longtime buddy Dave Campbell would instruct me to growl (“grrr”) audibly every time I shifted my weight from one ski to the other—an exercise to help me commit to my turns.
Twenty-something years later, Dave’s the host in Hamilton who warned of snow on Lost Trail Pass the morning after we tipped back single malt scotch.
I click a couple photos of the sign and then, to no-one’s surprise, take a detour up the snow-filled access road. Gotta go see it, right? Lost Trail is a small skier’s mountain which means the parking lot, lodge, and ski lift all sit right next to each other. No espresso bars, no valet lots, no nothing. “Idyllic” doesn’t do it justice. My parking spot doesn’t exist at Vail.
I’m the only person around. The snowfall and low clouds, which conceal the top of the mountain, add to a growing sense I’m feeling: It would be a sin not to ski right now.
In the interest of time—I’m trying to maximize this Wyoming trip because I rarely see my brothers—I pull out the Nordic skis. It’ll be a quick jaunt around the lodge. I dance a jig to pull on my rain pants without sticking a sock in the snow and lace up my boots. There are more than a few things to be said for driving around with your life in your truck, and one of them is the ready availability of, well, everything you own—from the iMac to the ski setup.
I kick and glide my way around the lodge, down the bunny hill, past the rope tow, and up a service road before I’ve finished thinking about how stellar this road trip is. Skis on my feet. In September! At Lost Trail! There’s not enough snow to cover all the shrubs, but the goods are light and fluffy. As I link a couple pokey telemark turns back to the lodge, I form an already foregone conclusion. This just won’t do.
Back to the truck. Nordic skis and boots in, alpine touring gear out. As I’m sticking my climbing skins to my skis, I call my mom. “Try to guess what I’m doing right now,” I say. She can’t.
The most prominent run at Lost Trail is called South Face. It’s a wide-open, black-diamond shot that drops 600 vertical feet from the summit ridge back to the lodge. I used to try to keep up with my dad, barely staying upright, as we wrapped each ski day with a lap on South Face. We high-fived the first time I descended without falling.
This time I break trail, skiing up South Face rather than down, through deep wind drifts and around occasional rocks. Tell mini-me that someday he’d be climbing this trail, by choice no less, and he’d have asked a great question. “Why would you do that?”
After about twenty minutes, I stop beneath exposed rocks on the trail’s headwall. This foray isn’t worth busted gear or knees, and I’m just about to the top. So I strip my skins and lock my heels into ski mode. I can barely see the lodge, an angular gray mass through the fog and still-falling snow.
Seconds later, dusty snow catches my chest as I slash over a rollover that I remember falling down as a tyke. I hoot and holler down South Face, dodging stumps and surfing a few legitimate September powder turns.
Cruising past the lodge, I stop at the truck and pile snowy gear into the back. Hour 35 of 45 was a smash. I high-five mini-me and make for Wyoming. This is why we do it.