Among the many feelings I did not feel in the godforsaken winter of 2020-’21 was the good kind of fear. Not the “are my parents healthy and safe” anxiety or the “is my partner going to murder me for breathing too loudly in this tiny apartment we’ve been trapped in for months” paranoia (there was plenty of that), but the grippy gut fear you can only get from moving your body in the wild.
Until I didn’t get it for a whole season, I didn’t realize how much I would miss the knee quake of adrenaline that starts in my lungs and keeps starfishing out every time I’m in the mountains. The good kind of fear that comes from feeling alive. From staring down a skinny chute, skis hanging over the edge and thinking, “Maybe.”
Of all the slots and lines and gullies to stand on top of, and of all the kinds of terrain features I’ve been missing, the ridge at Bridger Bowl has been lodged into my mind since sometime in late 2019. I can see it when I close my eyes. Aesthetic and articulated, tipping steeply down into the valley, just unknown enough to make me pucker up.
I’m not from Montana, it’s not my home zone, but last time I was there I lucked into a pack of local skiers who were just the right kind of open and loose. Not snobby or standoffish like some ski-town locals can be. Happy to hang out with me, as long as I could hang. There’s an older generation often called the Ridge Hippies who were the first to ski the steep lines on the Bridger Ridge and lap the terrain long before Schlasman’s lift went in in 2008, as well as a crew of scrappy younger skiers who are finding new ways to explore the mountain. That rangy character-filled pack somehow makes Bridger feel both highly progressive and full of the best parts of the past. It feels like any artificial part of skiing doesn’t fly here, and it’s just about the downhill and the feeling of float.
Bridger is special because of that openness and closedness, which shows up in the skiing here, too. The terrain off the ridge is a proving ground, not to be trifled with, and plenty of the lines there are unskiable, or even stupid to attempt. But even though I was an out-of-town interloper, the locals were willing to slow down enough to give me a rundown of where we were going and what to expect before they gunned it over the horizon line. I followed them into the D Route zone, side-slipping across the top of the ridges, grateful for any direction, feeling my heart pounding from trying to keep pace. At one point I zigged when I should have zagged and got caught in a close-out. I had to shimmy myself back up and find the next little slot I could ski through. By the time I found my line, I was sweaty, pissed at myself, and scared. I was sure I’d been ditched by my new friends, and made a fool of myself in the process.
But when I got to the traverse, they were waiting, and that good kind of adrenaline came flooding back.
“Thought we lost you!” one of them said. “It can get a little sketchy there.”
The moment was everything I love about skiing, everything I’ve been missing most in this lonely, locked-down year of antisocial isolation: camaraderie, risk, exploration. That internal tingle of the unknown that makes you feel extra alive, with all your sensors firing.
There’s brain science behind why I’d been craving that feeling. Psychologists who study what’s called sensation seeking—which is the personality trait that makes us chase novelty and action—have found that skiers rank high on the seeking scale. We need more sensation and adrenaline to feel like ourselves, and to make our neurons light up. We crave it deep in our brains. If you are the kind of person who loves to move fast in the mountains, maybe you’ve felt that in yourself as you tip over a downhill slope. Maybe you’ve been missing that fear feeling, too.
There are so many sensations to seek, and so many ways to get them at Bridger Bowl. At the end of the day we carved down chopped up groomers to the Grizzly Ridge Station, the family-run, highly lovable bar at the base. We shared pizza and pitchers and rehashed other ski days and told half-true stories. And that, too, is really what I’ve been missing: the post-adrenaline hum, the people, and the tall tales. The carefree feeling of staying in your ski boots till the sky goes dark. To me, the best parts of skiing are the fear and the rush, and the full-body satisfaction that comes after.
I hope to be back at Bridger Bowl this winter, and I know exactly where I’ll be going first.
Where to Eat, Drink, and Play in Bozeman, Mont.
Bozeman is 30 minutes from Bridger Bowl and is the best place to station oneself during a visit. Here’s where to find all of the essentials.
Wild Crumb, run by a pair of expert-baker twin sisters, serves up feathery croissants and crusty loaves of bread. Get there early before they run out of the good stuff.
Stop by Bumble Bean Espresso Bar, an unassuming shack on the road to Bridger, to get a great, hefty breakfast burrito on your way up the mountain.
Backcountry Burger Bar serves only Montana-raised beef and bison. The menu features 10 amazing burger choices plus sandwiches and hand-cut fries.
Rent a fat bike from Owenhouse Cycling and tool around on Bozeman’s miles of town trails maintained by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust.
More Long Reads From SKI
The Last Resort Visited Prior to the Pandemic, One Writer Craves a Return to Aspen
How a Weekend Trip to Zermatt Transformed One Skier Forever
You’ve Never Thought About a Powder Highway Road Trip Like This Before