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Far Out Places: The Crazy Mountains

Driving from her home in British Columbia to Montana,  Robin Van Gyn noticed something peculiar. Her destination, the Crazy Mountains, was nowhere to be found on any of the maps at the gas stations along the way. She thought it was a fluke at first, but it kept recurring. Confused, she eventually pointed to the map underneath the clerk’s counter and inquired about the elusive range. The clerk responded with bewilderment, no one seemed to know what she was talking about. Van Gyn walked back to her car perplexed and continued with her drive. 

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It wasn’t until she reconnected with a few friends at Spark R&D, the splitboard binding company in Bozeman, that someone had an idea of what she was referring to. 

They existed “but no one really goes there,” they told her. 

“Why not?” she tentatively asked and got the answer no snowboarder wanted to hear: those mountains don’t typically get much snow. Now Van Gyn was a little worried. She hails from the land of deep powder and pillow lines, and when she accepted an invitation to join  Jeremy Jones , Mark Carter, and TGR’s production crew for a foot-powered expedition in the Montana wilderness she didn’t quite know what to expect.

Robin with her tent at the team's basecamp in the Crazy Mountains. TGR Photo.

Van Gyn eventually linked up with Carter and cinematographer Dan Gibeau, and followed them to Livingston, Montana. From there they convened at a farm to gather their belongings, yet Van Gyn couldn’t quite shake the lingering skepticism. Not once had she spotted anything rideable. Then, while driving, they appeared out of nowhere. 

She gawked at the Crazies, and it almost felt like whiplash. They were unusual, and what particularly struck Van Gyn was their size, which was most evident from the top of the range. She estimates that their crew could have traversed it in two days—Jones by himself could probably do it in a couple of hours, she thought. 

The view felt like a mirage; the Crazies manifested out of nowhere and they were the only ones going to be riding there.

The thing about the Crazy Mountains, which are simply referred to as the “Crazies”, is they’re a bit of an anomaly in the state’s southern central landscape. While technically part of the greater Rocky Mountains, they’re less of range and more of an island of mountains in a sea of farmland. Aside from inconsistent snow conditions, the Crazies are also so mysterious because they are so difficult to access. One of the most contested spots in Montana’s geography, these mountains are a pocket of public land immersed in a network of private property. 

One of the many fresh lines Mark Carter carved during their expedition. TGR Photo.

Disputes between landowners and recreationists have plagued the area for years. It’s a messy and complicated history, according to the Public Land/Water Access of Montana (PLWA). Established back in the late 1800s, the area is administered by two National Forest Districts: the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest and the Custer Gallatin National Forest. It’s easiest to think of the area as a convoluted checkerboard of private and public land, which was a byproduct of Northern Pacific Railroad. In order to build the track, the Federal government compensated landowners with parcels of land; some have made their way back to the National Forest, but much of it is still privately owned.

The politics surrounding the region have become so muddled that it’s nearly impossible to discern what the public can access and what is considered off limits. For those who attempt to venture out there, they do so at the potential risk of hefty fines. Right now there are only two points of public entry that PLWA knows of. There’s technically more but they’re gated. Cross those gates and you’d be trespassing.

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For Far Out, TGR knew we wanted to do a segment based here in the Rocky Mountains, but it couldn’t be wilderness because of permit limitations for filming.

Last year the Crazies had a record-breaking amount of snowfall, which was what made the whole expedition possible. Ben Gavelda Photo.

Jeremy Jones first spotted the Crazies on a summer drive years ago. He was instantly intrigued by the 40-mile range rising 7000 vertical feet from the surrounding prairie. He didn’t have to see the range covered in snow to know that’d he eventually find a way back here. This year they had the best winter they’ve had in thirty years, and it was the catalyst we needed to consider it as a viable option. At first, we weren’t even sure if we could make it happen. The prevailing interpretation of the Crazies is that they’re simply inaccessible, especially in the winter. Brittany Gibeau, one of TGR's producers that helped bring the trip life, remembers even her parents and close family friends, who live nearby, being skeptical about it coming together. “There’s no way the Forest Service would be cooperative with permitting,” they told her, but that wasn't the case. They were more than thrilled to help. “It was one of those trips that everything fell into place,” Gibeau says.

There was zero hesitation from the Forest Service. They even assisted with finding legal points of access for the public, as they were eager to inform the public that this is, in fact, their land. “A lot of people don’t realize you can snowmobile or ride in there, and it has endless Alaska-style lines,” says Gibeau.

Mark Carter was already familiar with the area from previously living in Bozeman. He couldn’t help but feel drawn to the unusual terrain when he’d pass through on his drive home. Everyone on the trip seemed to come to the same conclusion: these mountains were unique. To the Crow Native Americans, the Crazies have been regarded as a sacred gathering ground for vision quests. Rumor has is it that the other tribes wouldn’t even venture out there because of superstition. “Once we got up in there, it had a feeling unlike any mountain range I’ve ever been in,” Carter reflects. “It was really a positive trip for us, but it was heavy—really heavy.” Every line they skied required booting up with crampons, with the whole trip placing a heavy emphasis on mountaineering. Ultimately it was one of the hardest trips Carter has ever done, and he loved it. Carter says:

It was a huge effort and we worked our asses off, but just being up there with the crew we assembled was incredible.

The team found the best of both worlds. The terrain was perfect and the snow ended up being extremely cooperative. “We were able to summit quite a few peaks in a short amount of time,” Van Gyn says and this was because everything—the crew, the terrain, and the snow—lent itself to high productivity. They were tenacious. Once they got to the top of something they quickly found another place they wanted to go. Day one they found dust on crust, which they expected. Then, on day two, a storm rolled in and three inches were estimated in the forecast. Van Gyn recalls waking up to the sound of her tent shaking from the howling wind. The next morning they had received eight inches of fresh snow. 

The camp after the surprise "Snowmageddon". Nick Kalisz Photo.

“It was snowmaggedon—everything was buried,” she remembers. While they were initially thrilled about the new snow, they now had to tend to their camp. The kitchen was covered and the simple things like making coffee or breakfast suddenly became much more challenging. It was a rude awakening of how drastically the conditions can shift while camping in the backcountry. Once they’d collected their bearings and caught their breath, it was incredible. Essentially, the storm had hit reset on the mountains, but it also forced them to rethink their strategy. Snow stability would dictate their decisions moving forward. By day four, when they were able to ride again, it was game on. Van Gyn says:

It was really cool the way we worked it and having Jeremy so dialed in with what’s going to happen with the sun, when we needed to be there, and how long it’s going to take—it was great. 

Compared to Jones' vast backyard, the Sierra Nevada, the Crazies were a small and stacked range. Ben Gavelda Photo.

It was surreal because when Van Gyn first spotted the mountains, no line particularly stood out to her. But once you bagged one peak it became easier to find more and more lines. Even more interesting was the type of terrain that each rider gravitated towards. Each rider brought a different perspective to the Crazies. “We each took turns going to those zones,” Van Gyn elaborates and it led to a unique and productive collaboration. Before this trip, Van Gyn had never ridden with either Carter or Jones. In fact, she jokingly reminisced about a fan photo she got with Jones five years ago. Now she was bagging peaks and learning from the legend himself.

For her, to be invited was the ultimate honor. “I’m trying to expand my horizons in snowboarding and work with people who are experienced and can teach me to be better,” she says and the Crazies trip was exactly the challenge she was looking for. She had only done two splitboard trips prior, and simply setting out to bag peaks was completely new one for her. Even better was the fact that she wasn’t aware that was the objective until she got there. She was out of her element and that’s exactly what she needed. 

Getting out of Heli? No problem. But 10 days braving the elements in the Montana wilderness, that certainly tested her. 

Robin Van Gyn had never worked with Carter or Jones before this trip and loved being able to learn from both of them. TGR Photo.

Not only was she able to learn from both Carter and Jeremy, but often she found herself reaching her own limits. “Being able to say: ‘this is where I’m at and this is where I need to stop’,” she argues is an instrumental skill when navigating the backcountry, and for each member of the crew that threshold was different.

Moving forward, Van Gyn hopes to incorporate more trips of this nature into her repertoire. “I like to think of snowboarding as a menu, and I want to be able to pick and choose what I’m going to do,” she says and finds that splitboarding is one of the more beautiful ways to experience the mountains. Not only is it less harmful for the environment, but it slows everything else down. In a society in which everything has become so fast-paced and instantaneous, backcountry snowboarding strips you of that. The whole time you have to look at your line and the approach, and it forces you to analyze the run you’re going to take. You have to be thoughtful about it. 

“Such a big movement right now is thoughtfulness...I think for me right now I want to focus on putting that into my snowboarding.”

This is an egregiously false narrative, flirting with outright lies. The Crazies are not some unknown range where unknowing clerks “respond(ed) with bewilderment”. Nearly everyone in SW Montana, or in the Greater Yellow Ecosystem, who backcountry skis, hikes or climbs is very familiar with the range. The range sees loads of local ski action throughout the winter and spring. In the summer there are a myriad of established climbing routes and well beaten trails. The main trailhead parking area is actually insufficient to meet its current capacity and is often over parked. Jeremy Jones and his crew claimed to “have taken a snowboard where no one has taken a snowboard before” while High School kids in Bozeman have riden the same lines. The touring community in the area cringes as you spray constantly about a jewel of the area, and lie to make yourselves sound cooler.

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This is pathetic. You skied some cool line and got some good footage, why lie to try to make yourselves seem cooler? The Crazies get skied. Plenty. Nothing you did was a first.

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