Finding Neptune - Ski Mag

Finding Neptune

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Finding Neptune

The Heaven and Hell bash was rolling. Word had been running around the mountain all week about this party, inspiring the locals to devise costumes, trade nights at work, and prepare their livers for the evening's soiree. Some were dressed like St. Peter-white robe, clipboard, halo-and others, the Devil-black cape, trident, horns. Many of the 20-something women had a sort of naughty Britney Spears thing going-angel with cardboard wings, glittered cheeks, short skirt, and white blouse tied in a knot above the belly button. Their wings flapped when they danced, a detail not lost on any of the men occupying this dance floor in Big Sky, Montana.

Bodies collided in the laser-lit simulated smoke that filled the room, and a guy dressed like a Beatle (circa 1967) kept swinging his arms through the fog. He wasn't doing your standard hippie-trot or classic eight-ball zombie-hop. His was much finer work; elements of swing, jazz, tap, disco, break, and something I guess you'd call native faded in and out like a hazy slide show. He was in total control of his body-athletic, confident, and groovy. Under the black light, his teeth, shirt, and pinstriped hip-huggers glowed bright and creepy.

Suddenly he lunged at me. I readied myself to take one on the lip, but instead he picked me up and bear- hugged all six feet, two inches, and 225 pounds of me.

"Byorth! What're you doing here?"

It was Alex.

If skiers define mountains and mountains define skiers, then Alex Jacobi is a fair sketch of Big Sky. Skiing nearly every day of the season, he's totally in tune with the area's weather, terrain, and people. He is the telemark skier with alpine expectations who pushes the limits of what Chet Huntley originally considered skiable terrain when he opened Big Sky in 1973. He is also the raft guide who gets you home safely in the summertime, and the waiter who entertains you between cocktails and dinner, living off your tips in a house down the road. He is the ying to the resort guest's yang.

The Alex I remember from Bridger Bowl was always recognizable from the lift. Back then, he skied without poles, arms out like wings, cranking these aggressive telemark turns that were more G than S. On powder days, you'd see nothing but two hands sticking out of a passing cloud like mole ears, and on scratchy days he'd be crouching low, laying out surf turns like a snowboarder. His theory for going without poles: It would help him master his balance and stance. "Poles are crutches," he explained to those who wondered why a grown man would go without them. "You can't double pole plant if you don't use any."

Friends knew him as a mountain clown who, despite just learning to telemark, would ski anything, anywhere, anytime, then yard-sale on the cat track back to the lift. Alex is as captivating in-person as he is on skis. His stories of skiing, travel, misfortune, and luck pique with intimate, physical humor-he'd be a ringer for charades. Conversations run deep into politics, religion, sex, Toyotas, music, broken skis, family, and some story on page C 9 of The New York Times.

About four years ago at a coffee shop in Bozeman, I had a conversation with Alex that changed everything. I had recently started a real job, and Alex offered his condolences. I had forsaken the idyllic life we had shared. He was also feeling the pull to move on. All ski bums eventually hit that big decision wall, and most climb over it, bound for a life of looking back on the "glory years." Only the lucky few find their calling on skis.

Alex told me he intended to do just that-by becoming a patroller at Big Sky. "You can't beat being a salaried ski bum, can you?" he said. Either way, he seemed certain that a life centered on skiing at Big Sky was in his future. Besides the patrol gig, there was another, even greater reason for moving there.

"Terrain," he said. "All you have to do is wait for the next tram to get it. Er since I saw Lone Mountain in an ad, I wanted to go there. I traced all the lines I'd be able to ski from the tram with my finger. 'Look at that line. Look at that line. Look....' I was drooling."

And so, while I went to work, he followed the lure of the tram. Into the wee hours of the Heaven and Hell party, dancing, drinking, and catching up, we mumbled something about meeting the next day so Alex could show me his mountain.

It's not in a ski bum's nature, especially Alex's, to live by the clock. Instead, life is a series of routines. There's the powder-day routine. The backcountry, work, and partying routines. Alex knows them well, but he's lost more than one job because he'd simply forgotten what day it was. So when it came time to meet at the tram, I wasn't surprised he wasn't there.

I made a few runs with some other friends, and by early afternoon, I still hadn't found Alex. Part of me didn't want to. The hard fact was that my inner ski bum was being dragged down by my outer weekend warrior. I was flat out of gas after lapping on Andesite (Big Sky's mostly intermediate mountain), The Bowl, and the tram-served terrain. The tram took it out of me. All the lines are south-facing and can take a beating from sun and wind, like today. Each turn sounded like a hockey player stopping on a sidewalk. The elevation alone, 11,166 feet at the top, starved my lungs of oxygen-suddenly 2,000 feet of vertical was easier said than done.

I pulled over on top of the Lone Peak Triple and scanned the piste, rehydrating and resting. I picked out a guy linking super-tight turns down the Big Couloir-Big Sky's version of Jackson's Corbet's. Dressed real sleek, in all black, this guy made telemarking look like dancing: rhythmic shuffles, balanced and symmetrical. He slid to a stop at the apron of the couloir, then traversed looker's-left through a patch of rocks below a chute called Dobie's, which sticks out of the apron like a mixing spoon does a pile of mashed potatoes. He sidestepped up mid gully, stopped to readjust his goggles, then straight-lined it.

After exiting Dobie's, the skier dropped his knee and turned so hard, so fast, that he cut uphill. A cloud of ice crystals sprayed up, concealing his fall for a moment. He rolled and swung his legs around, using gravity to right himself. He set both edges down simultaneously, planted his pole, and jump-turned around it. The whole motion looked choreographed, yet vaguely familiar.

It was Alex.

"Man, that was a tough one," he said, as he skied toward me after the runout. "I don't know why they call it Lone Mountain. That's a stupid name. Why not call it the Neptune Thunder Crusher? That's what I call it."

Looking up from our p.o.v., I saw his point. Lone Mountain stands behemoth-like, a pyramid chiseled by the hands of an imaginative skier. Reaching out from Lone Peak are two ridges, one to the north and one to the south. Together they swallow you in a geologic hug. Below the south ridge are The Gullies-which number one to six (up to 10, if you know better), and below them is The Bowl. Fanning off the north ridge are the A to Z chutes, 3 Moons, Country Club, and all the lines off the Challenger lift. All told, there are hundreds of lines in the greater cirque, not counting the back sides of either ridge.

If Lone Peak is Neptune Thunder Crusher, then Alex is Neptune. And he has been crushed here more than once, episodes invariably ending in broken gear or body parts. He once rag-dolled out of the A to Z's after mistaking avalanche debris for a smooth runout. Toll: cracked ribs, sprained wrist, a halo of fluttering birdies. Across the cirque, he took a new line in the Gullies that he numbered "Three and a Half." He took some air off the rocks and experienced a "mystery failure," which sent him starfishing toward The Bowl. Toll: "Third rotation, I landed skis square on a rock and compressed an edge," he says. "It was my second day demo-ing these new Atomics, and it cost me $400 to get it fixed. Then I blew out both edges on the other ski eight days later."

We headed together to the Challenger lift, and on the ride up, I asked Alex about a rumor I'd heard-that he'd once fallen off the chair. "It was actually right here, Tower 5," he said. (We were about 30 feet up, and climbing.) "I was sitting with my right leg across the seat, doing my favorite stretch, like this." He lifted his left ski up and grabbed the tip, then pulled it toward his chin, using his free heel to fully flex his tele-binding, thereby stretching his calf and hamstring. "When I leaned forward to get a little more stretch, I just slid right out and landed flat on my back."

At the top, Alex disappeared into the patrol shack, checking us in for skiing Graceland-a series of snowy fingers between rock gardens on the north side of the A to Z's. So much of what Alex skis relies on the ski patrol's blessing, which is ironic, considering he was one of them for a time.

The season before Alex joined patrol, a patroller was killed during avalanche-control work. In another incident, two women were stranded all night in 36-degree weather after a patroller and liftie botched final chair and sweep. Both accounts resulted in Big Sky paying out large settlements, and the patrol's reputation being tarnished. Although Alex had nothing to do with either accident, antics like falling off the lift or talking on the walkie-talkies too much led to scrutiny of Alex's position on patrol. Mistakes during training became reason enough to trim a possible risk. Ultimately, Alex says, he was ousted for his personality, not his ability.

On graceland, i struggled with the scratchy windblown, jump-turning all the way down, legs barking, ego humbly laughing. The last time I'd skied with Alex, we were on par. Now his turns were fluid and nearly oblivious to the fact that the snow was riddled with sun cups. "Mank, frozen mank," he called it.

"You want to hit last tram?" Alex asked. My body said no, but my mouth said yes. We were joined by my friend Bob Allen, a photographer. Once in the tram, Alex pointed out a line he had skied the day before-a sketchy route above the South Wall. It looked barely skiable, but barely skiable lines get Alex fired up.

"This is why I left Bridger," he said, nodding toward the window. "There are so many lines you couldn't do before the tram. The terrain just wasn't open. You could hike it sometimes, but you couldn't get 10-lap days like you can now."

He stopped for a moment, then pointed to one route in particular. "There," he said. "That's one of two lines on the mountain that you can ski from the very top of Lone Peak. This one drops into Dobie's. It doesn't have a name and is only skiable on huge snow years. They won't let anyone near it. There are a bunch of lines they won't let people ski, but I keep asking patrol every day. I'll wear 'em down eventually."

As the tram eased above the final 65-degree stretch, the mountain grew closer and passed by faster, giving me that familiar inner-belly tingle. "What line?" I thought. All I saw was a bunch of rocks. Sure, there was a little snow here and there, but a line? When we checked with patrol, they told us we could ski Big Couloir-but that only two could go down. There were three of us. I realized my teles and leather boots weren't even in the ballpark of beef to handle the terrain. As I stared down the throat, my ego jumped ship. The last time I skied with Alex, we were equals. Today, Neptune would ride alone.

my second day demo-ing these new Atomics, and it cost me $400 to get it fixed. Then I blew out both edges on the other ski eight days later."

We headed together to the Challenger lift, and on the ride up, I asked Alex about a rumor I'd heard-that he'd once fallen off the chair. "It was actually right here, Tower 5," he said. (We were about 30 feet up, and climbing.) "I was sitting with my right leg across the seat, doing my favorite stretch, like this." He lifted his left ski up and grabbed the tip, then pulled it toward his chin, using his free heel to fully flex his tele-binding, thereby stretching his calf and hamstring. "When I leaned forward to get a little more stretch, I just slid right out and landed flat on my back."

At the top, Alex disappeared into the patrol shack, checking us in for skiing Graceland-a series of snowy fingers between rock gardens on the north side of the A to Z's. So much of what Alex skis relies on the ski patrol's blessing, which is ironic, considering he was one of them for a time.

The season before Alex joined patrol, a patroller was killed during avalanche-control work. In another incident, two women were stranded all night in 36-degree weather after a patroller and liftie botched final chair and sweep. Both accounts resulted in Big Sky paying out large settlements, and the patrol's reputation being tarnished. Although Alex had nothing to do with either accident, antics like falling off the lift or talking on the walkie-talkies too much led to scrutiny of Alex's position on patrol. Mistakes during training became reason enough to trim a possible risk. Ultimately, Alex says, he was ousted for his personality, not his ability.

On graceland, i struggled with the scratchy windblown, jump-turning all the way down, legs barking, ego humbly laughing. The last time I'd skied with Alex, we were on par. Now his turns were fluid and nearly oblivious to the fact that the snow was riddled with sun cups. "Mank, frozen mank," he called it.

"You want to hit last tram?" Alex asked. My body said no, but my mouth said yes. We were joined by my friend Bob Allen, a photographer. Once in the tram, Alex pointed out a line he had skied the day before-a sketchy route above the South Wall. It looked barely skiable, but barely skiable lines get Alex fired up.

"This is why I left Bridger," he said, nodding toward the window. "There are so many lines you couldn't do before the tram. The terrain just wasn't open. You could hike it sometimes, but you couldn't get 10-lap days like you can now."

He stopped for a moment, then pointed to one route in particular. "There," he said. "That's one of two lines on the mountain that you can ski from the very top of Lone Peak. This one drops into Dobie's. It doesn't have a name and is only skiable on huge snow years. They won't let anyone near it. There are a bunch of lines they won't let people ski, but I keep asking patrol every day. I'll wear 'em down eventually."

As the tram eased above the final 65-degree stretch, the mountain grew closer and passed by faster, giving me that familiar inner-belly tingle. "What line?" I thought. All I saw was a bunch of rocks. Sure, there was a little snow here and there, but a line? When we checked with patrol, they told us we could ski Big Couloir-but that only two could go down. There were three of us. I realized my teles and leather boots weren't even in the ballpark of beef to handle the terrain. As I stared down the throat, my ego jumped ship. The last time I skied with Alex, we were equals. Today, Neptune would ride alone.

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