Editor's Note: Disclosure: Emily Stifler Wolfe spent five seasons patrolling at Moonlight Basin before it merged with Big Sky, and wrote wrote a series of posts for the resort’s blog this winter. Find more of her work at emilystiflerwolfe.com.
Troy Nedved, the VP of Mountain Services at Big Sky, served as the guide for the day of heliskiing. Colton Stiffler photo.
Dan and Nancy Jocham weren’t ready for ski season to be over when Big Sky Resort closed on April 22 this spring. Lucky for them, it wasn’t.
On a warm, bluebird day in early May, the couple and a friend, Greg Awe, helicoptered five times to the peak of the resort–the 11,166-foot Lone Mountain–becoming the first members of the public to heliski on a commercial trip in Montana. Dan, 58, had never won anything in his life before scoring this trip in a drawing hosted by the resort. Anyone who purchased a Gold Pass for next season before April 8 was entered to win.
Retired engineers that live an hour away in Bozeman, the Jochams met at Montana State University in 1980 and mostly skied Bridger Bowl back then, but also hit up Big Sky pre-tram. After graduating, they got jobs in Pocatello, Idaho, and had kids, but each winter they returned to visit relatives and ski Big Sky. Since moving back to Bozeman in 1998, they’ve logged around 60 days a year at the resort. Between them and Awe, a lift operator at Bridger, the three of them have logged more than 100 seasons at Big Sky.
When you have a collective 100 seasons at the same resort and are finally enjoying your first heli trip on the mountain, you deserve some champagne to celebrate. Colton Stiffler photo.
“[Big Sky] is so big, and there are so many different elevations and aspects that you can always find good snow somewhere on the mountain,” Dan said.
These are people who have built their lives around skiing, and it’d be hard to imagine a more deserving duo to win the Golden Ticket, as the resort called the sweepstakes. Lifelong skiers, the Jochams raised their kids on skis, and their daughter Emily just finished her rookie year on Big Sky’s pro patrol.
As the bird banked away after the day’s first summit drop, the rotor wash sprayed shards of refrozen snow across their faces. Grinning like kids, they chased guide Troy Nedved down five laps totaling 10,000 vert.
The world fanned out beneath their feet as they skied sun-warmed snow. To the south, Pioneer Mountain, the Sphinx, Electric Peak and hundreds of other rugged ridge crests and peaks layered one in front of the other, reaching toward Yellowstone. After runs on Marx, the Dictators and the Gullies, the sun had wrapped around to the area’s signature line, the Big Couloir. Neither of the Jochams had skied it, and Nancy took a deep breath before peering over the edge of the cornice into the steep entrance. Her daughter Emily had suggested she could ski it, but she never thought she’d actually do it.
Nancy Jochem explains her family's deep connection to Big Sky.
One by one, they dropped in, making cautious turns down to the dogleg. Everyone was breathing hard when they stopped, and only partly from the exertion: Winding through walls of shattered andesite, the Big Couloir is an intimidating, awe-inspring place to be human.
Very few people have skied from a helicopter in Montana. It’s one of only three states in the mountain West without commercial heliskiing, and Big Sky could pull this off only because Lone Mountain is private land. But despite the lack of commercial outfits, in true wild west fashion, there are still people who have heliskied in the Treasure State. Indeed, it’s been going on since 1970, when three-time Olympic gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy and Big Sky local Fred Pessl heli-toured the area, skiing perfect powder on the run now known as Ambush.
Heli trips in the Treasure State are rare, so the Jochems reveled in the opportunity to enjoy one. Colton Stifler photo.
“Magnifique!” Killy supposedly said after lapping The Bowl on a second helicopter tour.
And choppers have flown at Big Sky since then. The resort flew during construction of its tram in 1995; the real estate firm Lone Mountain Land Company has organized a couple of heliski days there; and two of the Kardashian sisters flew to the base of the North Summit Snowfield in May 2015, snowplowing down a gentle pitch on the lower moraine.
The only large-scale helicopter skiing arrangement in the state, Montana Powder Guides, was based outside of Bozeman. For three decades starting in 1984, Lonnie and Mary Ball flew to every skiable piece of terrain they could land on in the Bridger, Tobacco Root and Crazy mountains. A former patroller at Alta, Jackson and Bridger, and the first to ski Corbet’s Couloir, Lonnie grew up in Montana and knew its potential. But the price of insurance was preventative, so they guided only corporate clients like Burton, The North Face and Warren Miller, and took friends out who paid pilots directly for flight time. Ball’s old photos show a cast of ski heroes from a bygone era: Doug Coombs, Scot Schmidt, Tom Jungst, Craig Kelly and others queued up to slice tracks in these rugged ranges.
The crew of the day overlooks Lone Peak. Colton Stifler photo.
Since then, because of the difficulty of acquiring special use permits on public land, almost all heliskiing in Montana has been on private property. The Crazy Mountains, east of Bozeman, are particularly ripe for it, because they are a checkerboard of land ownership, with private parcels scattered throughout. Mark Taylor, owner of Rocky Mountain Rotors and the pilot that flew the Jochams at Big Sky, says he has taken families heliskiing on privately-owned mountains and flown a TGR film crew over the range.
In Big Sky, some locals are enthusiastic this year’s heli trip may open channels for other late-season skiing on Lone Mountain, when the north aspects in particular are in prime condition. For Nancy Jocham, who turned 57 the day before and had knee surgery last fall, it was quite the birthday gift.
There's nothing like May heli laps to stoke the interests of locals. Colton Stifler photo.
“I’ve skied Jackson Hole, Salt Lake, places in Colorado, Targhee, Sun Valley, Mount Bachelor, all over, and I like Big Sky by far the best,” she said.
Annie Pinkert, the resort’s sales and marketing director, says she hopes to make it an annual tradition.
“Heliskiing in Montana is so rare and unique," Pinkert said. "We want to bring it to more people.”
From The Column: TGR Playgrounds
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