Beartooth Basin is far from your average ski area in many ways. Located about 23 miles up the Beartooth Highway from Red Lodge, it is one of the few ski areas in North America open during the summer months and the only operating only summers. When most people are starting to dust off their bikes and dip into the water, the basin is just starting to turn its surface lifts.
The real adventure really starts on the drive to the mountain.
Swapping switchback after switchback on the Beartooth Highway, the valley starts to open up before one’s eyes; with high alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks dotting the horizon in every direction. It’s not long before cascading waterfalls and thick timber soon give way to wide-open emerald alpine steppe and the Basin enters into view.
There is no lodge or any permanent buildings at the basin. Lift tickets and other concessions are sold out of a crusty motorhome parked in the gravel parking lot. If you’re looking for ski in ski out lodging the jokes on you.
Instead of high-speed quads two Poma lifts usher skiers and snowboarders to the top. The operation is bare-bones to say the least and provides a needed reminder that the spirit of skiing is still alive, a far cry from the current age of corporate ski conglomerates.
“It keeps the love of skiing there and not the corporation,” said Lexi Wright, a Bozeman, Mont. resident and ski coach said.
Formally known as Red Lodge International Summer Racing Camp with operations dating back to the 1960s, the Basin is one of North America’s oldest alpine skiing training areas. The mountain opened to the public for the first time in 2003 and in 2011, Austin Hart and a driven group of Red Lodge locals came together to buy the mountain.
“We’re not rich dudes, we’re just trying to keep it alive,” the self-proclaimed ski bum Hart said, amid chattering lifts and gears clunkily spinning by one sunbaked June day. “If I wanted to get rich it wouldn’t be doing the ski industry.”
Just as Basin staff were starting to gear up for this year’s summer season in May, disaster struck. A 30-year old lift gearbox broke down on the mountain’s top lift. The cost to fix it: more than $30,000.
With the season soon approaching and a lack of funds staring the mountain head-on, he started a GoFundMe fundraiser and the public answered, as 248 people quickly came together to raise $20,550, ensuring the Basin could open again without outside help. If they hadn’t come through Hart said he would have had to take out a loan with his house as collateral.
“I don’t make money at all doing this so those are the decisions that make this operating really tough,” he said.
As soon as staff could order the multi-ton gearbox and haul it up the pass, the piece of equipment was rebuilt and fixed with a new motor. The opening date had to be pushed back two weeks but it happened, which is what matters most. Hart said if the Basin were to fall dormant for 2-3 years, the Forest Service from which it leases the land, might not allow it to fire back up.
“The fundraiser took care of the vast majority of the funds,” Hart said. “All of our local enthusiasts really helped us out.”
The untamed, wild nature of the Basin is what draws in die-hard snow enthusiasts. A cornice-drop entrance known as the Twin Lakes Headwall, extending over the entire horizontal top face of the mountain, serves as a mandatory high dive into the deep-end for all who dare swim among the snow sharks.
“Just such a unique area,” Professional skier Sander Hadley said. “Number one, the natural beauty and then number two, how awesome it is with these two Poma lifts, and everyone’s so friendly.
Hadley and fellow pro skier Karl Fostvedt spent the better part of the early summer building and maintaining the Basin terrain park. The two have been riding the Basin for years and little discussion needed between the pair as to whether they will continue their annual summer pilgrimage up the pass in the search for snow.
“It’s kind of how crazy how hard it is to keep it running because it seems like it’s such a little gem out there, you’d think there would be 100 people in the lift line,” Fostvedt said.
But there’s not, and that’s what makes the Basin special.
“A lot of really passionate and high-level skiers,” Todd Barber, a ski patroller at the Basin said.
Because of the extreme nature of the mountain and quick lift rides the terrain breeds development.
“We got mogul teams, we got race teams, park, big mountain- It’s kind of like a nice comprehensive,” Hart said. “Now we’re utilizing the potential that really is steep skiing, big mountain.”
The Basin makes the vast majority of its revenue renting out small sections of the mountain to mogul and race camps to groups like the Cody High School alpine ski team. For these groups, the mountain also provides a discount cost when compared to other North American summer ski areas, which it can pass off to young athletes trying to participate in a sport that has become increasingly expensive over the years.
“Because of the mountain, the economics of getting here- all of that fits into the lessening of costs,” said Nathan McKenzie, a coach with AdvantEdge Ski Camps said.
Due to those early season delays, the Basin lost some camp revenue, which is why the mountain still needs your help in its’ mission to keep the spirit of skiing alive.
“My goal is to see it survive so generations of young kids can come up,” Hart said.
To donate to the Basin visit gofundme.com/f/beartooth-basin-uphill-battle.