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Memories of The Mountain

by Pat Hill  |  Thursday Dec. 1st, 2016

My last full ski season began the winter after I graduated from high school. That was in 1976, back when Bridger Bowl only sported three chairlifts and a T-Bar. Back when it used to get cold—and stay that way awhile. Back when it used to snow.

I’d enlisted in the U.S. Navy that October via the delayed entry program, which essentially meant that I would not leave Bozeman for boot camp in San Diego until March. I had a night job that dovetailed in with a season as a ski bum quite well, working as a houseman in the evenings at the Ramada (now the Grantree) Inn. And there wasn’t much more I’d rather do than ski back then.

It did seem to snow a lot more in the Bridgers in the 1970s than it does today. Bridger Bowl got an extra bit of help courtesy of a cloud-seeding experiment taking place in the Bridger Range during the middle of that decade, and two- and three-foot powder days were not that uncommon. That amount of fresh powder had a tendency to empty classrooms at both the college and high school level, helping to lead to a new rule instituted by Bozeman Senior High School: three unexcused absences meant an F was awarded to the student in question, regardless of their performance in the classroom.

Bridger Bowl always opened on Thanksgiving when I was in high school. That ski season of 1976-’77 was no exception. And anticipation had been building since the previous season’s end, really. We really did pray for snow. We indulged in a bit of sport we called “rock skiing” in the scree around the ‘M’, jumping down through the loose rock like it was a mogul field, and often getting some bumps and scrapes in the process.  And we spent a lot of time in the ski shops, getting the new gear assembled (or put on layaway), and admiring what was new on the shelves at the Round House, the Sport Chalet, and Bridger Mountain Sports. I set myself up that season with a new pair of 200 cm. Olin Mark IVs and some Nordica boots (still have the skis—those Nordicas have disappeared into the sunset).  

I went skiing every day that season, right up until the day before I left for boot camp. Not always a full day, but every day. Most of my time was spent on upper Bridger, where, catching the midway chair back up to the top, a skier could get in dozens of runs in a day. There were ridge skiers then, seeking the deep both in- and out-of-bounds, but not as many as today. With fewer lifts and fewer skiers, there was a lot more untracked snow to be found without the hike to the top. And though I loved powder days, I spent much of my time in the moguls on Upper Bridger, letting my skis get to know the bump patterns, catching a bit of air along the way, sliding in and out of the North Bowl on the trek down, and hopping back in the midway line for another trip down.

                                                                                                                 The Late Henry Bliss

Freestyle was in those last few ski seasons I got to enjoy fully. Spending the days up on the hill, I got to know some of the more colorful folks catching people’s attention with their particular and sometimes peculiar styles, garnering nicknames like Johnny Mogul and Slowdog Noodle. Catching air was always in style, and there were a couple of jumps at Bridger to test your skill with: the Teacup, the Rock, the Travis Killer, to name a few. Often it was nearly as fun to be watching the action from the chair as it was to be making it. A filmmaker named Warren Miller thought a lot of the action at Bridger Bowl back then, too, and soon began to gain fame making ski movies—and the secret of Bridger Bowl was soon out of the bag.

I remember my last day of that season well. It was a cold day, overcast and dark. The snow wasn’t very good. But I took all of my favorite runs, hit my favorite jumps, took a final tree run, and a final tuck all the way down Sunnyside. Then it was time to pay a last visit to the bar in the basement of the old Saint Bernard Lodge, the Dirty Dog. That bar was a place of legend, where skiers gathered to tell tales of the day and drink down cheap pitchers of beer. There weren’t many people in the Dog that day, as there hadn’t been that many skiers, and I soon caught a ride back down to Bozeman with another skier.

The next morning my parents drove me up to Butte, where I boarded a flight bound for San Diego and U.S. Navy Boot Camp. The physical part of that training was not tough: I’d been skiing every day, and was in pretty good shape. But I missed the mountains, and one mountain in particular. After boot camp and some training, my home port was also San Diego. There was a bit of skiing to be had, and there were a few of us Bozeman boys stationed in San Diego at the time. We’d hit up Big Bear Mountain east of Los Angeles, and I even made it up to Mammoth Mountain once or twice, but I didn’t get to ski at Bridger Bowl until after I got out of the Navy in the early ‘80s.

By then, Bridger Bowl, of course, had changed. The Saint Bernard burned down that decade, and no more tales of daring-do were being shared at the Dirty Dog. There was a new lift on the mountain, dubbed the Pierre’s Knob chair, and there were moguls instead of powder in the South Bowl! The ticket prices had more than edged up, but so had the price of gasoline. And that mountain was a lot more crowded than I remembered it being.

I’ve skied less than a dozen times since that final season at Bridger Bowl. Every now and then, a friend will try to get me to strap on the boards and head on up to the hill. They say the new fatty skis are the way to go. Then I look at my old Olins and remember the old days, and usually head to some hot springs instead. But some of the best memories of my youth were made at Bridger Bowl.   

About the Author(s)

Pat Hill

Pat Hill is a freelance writer in Bozeman. A native Montanan and former advisor to Montana State University’s Exponent newspaper, Pat has been writing about the history and politics of the Treasure State for nearly three decades.

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