DEEP: The Future of Snow: Bridger Bowl

Low-elevation powder turns in Montana

The Bridger Mountains. PHOTO: PORTER FOX

Day 7: Bridge Bowl
Mostly sunny, with a high near 32. Light and variable wind.

There are a few things beside snowfall that differentiate Bridger Bowl from Big Sky. Driving up Bridger Canyon Road you notice there is less traffic, more ranches, more cabins and haystacks. The mountain itself is part of the Bridger Mountains, a 45-mile rocky spine that starts at Bozeman Pass, where Sacagawea led Lewis and Clark on their expedition. There’s plenty of time to get familiar with the long row of mountains, hemmed by cliff faces and thick cornices at the top, driving along it on Highway 86.

We turn left at the giant wooden skis that mark Bridger’s driveway and find a parking spot close to the base lodge. Bridger Bowl is one of the few nonprofit, community-owned ski areas left in the country, and you can feel it in the parking lot: beater pickup trucks, blue jeans tucked into ski boots, kids everywhere and people waving at one another. They’re happy to be here, happy to be paying just $49 a day for ski ticket, but really they’re happy that Ullr has treated them well this season. After a dry spell, three storms in the last month have covered up the rocks and filled in the gullies along The Ridge.

Bridger’s peak is lower than Big Sky’s base, putting it at risk in a warmer climate. As Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center forecaster Doug Chabot mentioned, the Bozeman area is already seeing fewer below-zero days and more rain-on-snow events during the winter than ever before. Thankfully, Montana Republican State Representative Joe Read introduced a bill last year that officially made global warming a natural event that will be a boon to the Montana economy. In a conversion with Think Progress (http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/02/17/174917/montana-climate-zombie/) he said,

“The science is driven by grant money. It’s all on the side for writing studies that global warming is happening. There’s nothing on the side that says I wish to write a paper that global warming is not an issue. Money has been flowing into the grant purse.”

Another story in Think Progress last week found otherwise. A recent study of 11,300 years of ice cores found that the rate of warming since 1900 is 50 times greater than the rate of cooling in previous 5,000 years.

It’s cool and sunny today at Bridger, though. I meet Editor-at-Large, Matt Hansen’s older brother, Aaron, at the bottom of the Bridger lift. He’s eating a sandwich and talking to friends. They want to ski the ridge so we ride up and ski to Schlasman’s, a recycled chairlift that used to be the Alta’s Peruvian lift.

Bridger is all about traversing and hiking—a fact that simultaneously preserves powder for weeks at a time and keeps chichi tourists away. You can access just about the entire Bridger Range through the resort’s open boundary gates, leaving hundreds of lines that Scott Schmidt, Doug Coombs and Tom Jungst all skied when they were students at Montana State University.

We traverse left off the top of the chair, along a ridgeline then sidestep up. The ridge is barely wide enough to fit a pair of skis. Halfway up we awkwardly take our skis off, shoulder them and climb for another 10 minutes. At the top, the sky is jet blue and there isn’t any wind. Aaron points to the wind streaks and rime on the cornice and says it isn’t always like that.

It’s steep where we drop in, and the whole snowfield sits above a cliff with hundreds of feet of exposure. We make steep turns in the soft snow then bank right above the cliff. There’s another cornice there that leads to a perfect north-facing cirque. The top is layered in powder and my skis sink in. It’s about 35 degrees and I make one turn and then another, powder flowing around my knees. They say the rocks are softer and rounder in this range compared to Big Sky. Either way, I don’t hit bottom the whole way down.

It’s a terrific powder run and the rest of the afternoon is the same. Cold, dry snow and lots of it. There’s little talk of global warming on a day like today, but no matter what Joe Read says, it is happening every second. Here are some facts from Protect Our Winters:

• The last decade has been the hottest on record. Each of the last three decades has been much warmer than the decade before it, with each one setting a new and significant record for the highest global temperature. (NOAA)
• In the Lake Tahoe area, spring arrives two weeks earlier now than it did in 1961 (NASA)
• In the Northeast, by 2039, the average ski season will be less than 100 days and the probability of being open for Christmas will decline below 75 percent (Burakowski, 2008)
• Snow-based recreation in the United States was estimated to contribute $67 billion annually to the US economy and support over 600,000 jobs. So when we look at the cost of inaction, it’s serious business.
• Even though the winter of 2011 was above average in the US in terms of snowfall, it was a below average winter temperature-wise throughout the northern hemisphere, the eighth below average winter in a row. The climate trend is one of warming. (NOAA, 2011)

This trailer for the film, Chasing Ice, shows some visual evidence of what is happening to the planet:



Next stop: Paradise Valley, Livingston, Montana

This series follows a yearlong, global project to document disappearing snow in the Northern Hemisphere. We’ll be interviewing meteorologists, scientists, skiers, farmers, and anyone who knows anything about snow along the way. The coverage started in Portland, Oregon, on a trans-Rockies road trip, and will continue across the U.S. and Europe.

Add a comment

  • Bobby W.

    The top of the Ridge above Schlasman’s lift is 8,800 feet (lift goes to 8’700′). Not sure how this equates to being below Big Sky’s base of 7,500 feet. Schlasman’s used to be the Peruvian lift indeed, but at Snowbird, not Alta. Bridger’s base is relatively low at 6,100 feet, which traditionally has has been above the snow line, but that may change if temps keep rising. The Bridgers are a great “little” range that ski big and hopefully they will remain snowy!

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