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Cowboy Heaven Consulting, LLC
6116 Walker Road
Bozeman, MT 59715
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Past Month's Moccasin Telegraph

December 2002

12/12/02

Right now a whole bunch of snow-starved local shredders are getting to be just mightily crabby about this persistent high-pressure area that’s parked over Montana.  It’s just not fair….

However, a majority of them were at the screening of Warren Miller’s new ski movie “Storm” here in Bozeman last night, and I’m glad to report snow or otherwise, the magic is still very much alive and well, thank you. 

Warren Miller ski movies are an institution, and this is the 53rd annual incarnation.  That’s right; one has come out every year since 1949, without fail.  Heck, I remember seeing my first in the Conrad MT Elementary School lunchroom when I was just a punk kid of twelve or so, and the skiing fever was burning in me like the Yellowstone Caldera. 

Hmm, well, come to think, the Yellowstone Caldera has been pretty quiet for the last few thousand years, which is probably a good thing or a big chunk of the northern Rockies as we know it would cease to exist.   Still, it bubbles away somewhere under the surface.  Definite parallels can be drawn to my own skiing passion.  It never disappeared entirely, but has gone slightly subterranean in recent years.  I just kind of maxed on Alpine skiing at some point.  The fire probably peaked during my college years in the late 70’s, when I was on the ski patrol at Bridger Bowl.  I still ski, but in recent years (and this may be unwise to admit) I’ve sometimes found resort skiing almost boring.  Unlatching the heels on my Randonee bindings, skinning up, & heading uphill under manual power as a means of reaching my peaks just lights my fire to a higher degree, although I do need some dedicated Randonee boots in a major way.  The old Salomons just ain’t really made for that….

In fact, my disenchantment with (at least mega-) resort skiing has grown to the point where I have an article percolating about how the ski industry is losing sight of their customer base.  I see I am not the only snowrider out there thinking along those lines.  In the current Outside magazine, there’s an excerpt from an upcoming book “Downhill Slide” by Hal Clifford that mirrors my own thoughts on the subject precisely.  As many of you have undoubtedly noticed, the cost of skiing has skyrocketed in recent years.  Lift tickets at places like Aspen and Vail are now over $70!  And that’s just the start.  Resort executives freely admit they are following the “Disney Model” designed to “maximize spending”.  Well hey, as a customer that just doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies, and the ski industry powers that be would be wise to recall the old song lyric “I ain’t quite as dumb as I seem” when they’re calculating yet another means of extracting more revenue out of their consumers.

Incredibly, skiing itself is no longer the major emphasis at some of these mega-resorts.  They maintain that the “average” skier only spends two hours on the slopes per day.  They clearly failed to sample the folks at that movie last night!  I am certain none of those folks spend two hours OFF the slopes per day!!  In spite of that incredibly mistaken assumption, the big-time resorts have been investing just a staggering amount of money into ski infrastructure, with lodges and condos and high-speed lifts galore.  Besides the stunning initial investment required, the operating expenses are mind-boggling, reportedly in the teens of thousands per MONTH in electricity alone to run a high-speed quad chairlift. 

So $70+ lift tickets alone are not going to put the profit/loss statements into the black, and the real money is being made in real estate; selling multi-million dollar lots and mansions to billionaires.   Unless I am mistaken, though, due to a host of factors, the pool of billionaires is not growing at quite the rate it was just a couple of years ago, and it can be argued that the whole mega-resort phenomenon is not a sustainable business model. 

The fastest growing segment of the industry is snowboarding, and correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think your average snowboard punk is just rolling in the green.  Rolling up the green, perhaps, but anyway….

So that explains the resurgence in interest in the smaller Mom & Pop ski areas, and the Outside article specifically mentioned our own Bridger Bowl as a shining example.  As a lot of you know, Bridger is set up as a non-profit corporation, one of only a handful of ski areas in the country with that distinction.  Still, I don’t exactly view Bridger as a Mom & Pop area myself (although it’s my home ski area, where I got good at skiing, and is as dear to me as nearly any place on the planet).  I am personally getting a charge out of checking out places like Discovery/Lost Trail/Maverick here lately, where the magic is very much alive and prices are still within reason.  Plus, of course, we have the vast mostly-untracked backcountry, where the price of admission is measured in calories instead of dollars.

Of course, I should probably add the caveat that I am not picking on our other local ski area, which does have mega-resort aspirations and the skiing to back it up.  I think the view from the top of Lone Mountain alone is worth the $52 price of admission at Big Sky, although certain other aspects (like the real estate prices) mirror the Vail/Snowbird/Whistler model to a T.  If lift tickets went to $72, though, I believe I would have to re-evaluate my cost/benefit analysis.

So when “Storm” opened with helicopter shots and rapidly progressed to extolling the virtues of the ski scene at Aspen, I was somewhat less than totally enthralled.  That feeling soon passed, though, and to my surprise I found it being replaced by unbridled enthusiasm.  I think that feeling was contagious in the Willson last night, and I didn’t see anybody who wasn’t infected.  It reminded me how much I love this place, and why.  A preponderance of the crowd were college age, give or take, but there were not a few folks pushing the far side of middle age, and being a parent I take no small delight in seeing that some of the former mountain prodigies I remember from twenty years ago were there with their own offspring; and if they aren’t just the cutest little buggers….

Oh, yeah; the movie had its share of helicopter skiing in the Chugach, and high-end resort skiing, but by that point my jaded cynicism had evaporated like the recent skiffs we’ve had lately in lieu of actual snowstorms.  Even the segment on Sun Valley brought back great memories of late-70’s ski trips there in my ancient Tojo (’71 Land Cruiser Station Wagon, whose doors had the alarming tendency to fly open on corners).  Some buddies spent summers working on the railroad, all the livelong day, and winters in Ketchum collecting railroad unemployment and skiing daily.  Oh, the memories…. One trip out there was during the big winter festival at Whitefish, and most of the Sun Valley contingent had gone to Big Mountain for the weekend, leaving their season passes behind.  There was, ahem, enough resemblance between us that we appropriated those passes and just tore up the Baldy Mountain, which lay under a 30” fresh dump of, if not Bridger-esque cold smoke, certainly tolerable pow.  And then, there was the time we went back there during spring break, when the skiing nearly took a back seat to the evening activities.  I remember (pretty much, anyway) one night when there were 26 of us sleeping in that two-bedroom condo.

THAT’S the kind of magic I’m talking about, and it was palpable at the movie last night.  Warren Miller, God love him, deserves to have gotten sufficiently rich at his gig that he can live at the Yellowstone Club.  I found it immensely reassuring that nearly equal time was given to backcountry skiing, with Glen Plake hiking for his turns in the Sierras, extensive footage from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, and astounding footage of skiing on South Georgia Island near Antarctica, where high-speed quads are scarce indeed, and creature comforts haven’t been upgraded significantly since Ernest Shackleton and his marooned crew survived their “Endurance” ordeal there.

So I trust that in spite of global warming, one of these days we will, in fact, get a significant dump of snow, and personally I can’t wait!  I haven’t had the fever this bad in a long time, and there’s only one cure.....

 

12/9/02 Rapper Snoop Dogg gave a concert in Bozeman Friday night, the first appearance by a major (or even minor) rap artist in Montana.  In this morning's Bozeman Chronicle, a fan was quoted as gushing that this seminal event proves "He's finally recognizing Montana as being accepted in the hip-hop world".  Word, yo....

Upon receiving news of this endorsement, both members of Montana's black population collapsed in hysterics.  I'll have to agree, and I am like, so not down with that!

 

12/6/02

The sun is just going down on a beautiful Friday afternoon here in southwest Montana, and a fine day it’s been.   Of course, this time of year it gets dark about 5:00, so there’s still lots of day left.  Still, it turned out gorgeous, which is getting to be a mixed blessing.

Today was $10.00 day at Big Sky.   That’s right, normally a $50 won’t quite get you a lift ticket there, but today a ten spot would have bought you very limited skiing.  As in only a couple of runs open, with a grand accumulation of six inches of natural snow, plus another eight of man-made.  I’ve been up for $10 day under somewhat better conditions than these, and right now after a bunch of snow-starved Ridge Hippies that normally ski at Bridger Bowl have been up there all day, that modest base will have been shredded down to mere wisps of snow, and a goodly number of ski and snowboard bases will also be a bit worse for wear.  Shredders, indeed…..

So it appears that I’ll have to pay full price for my tram ride to the top of Lone Mountain, and even though I have tightwad tendencies, I’ll have to say it’s worth it.  Big Sky has become a world-class resort,At the top of Lone Mountain and even if you are daunted by the prospects of descending the 4000+ vertical feet off the tippy-top, the view from up there is out of this world.  I’ve seen clear down to the Grand Teton, plus a staggering scope of other Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho mountains.  I was up there with marginal snow conditions during the Christmas Break a couple of years back, although there was a bunch more snow than we’ve got right now.  Still, a sign at the top tended to arrest your attention, stating that of the two runs open; one was rated “marginal”, and the other “not recommended”.  You gotta like that!  We opted for marginal, and it was.  Lots of folks were opting to ride the tram back down to more feasible slopes, and the summit of Lone Mountain is one place where there is no shame in that.

Part of the reason I am anxious to get back up there again, is that now I am immensely more familiar with the country to the west and south of there (already was pretty familiar with the other directions….), and really want to see it again from the bird’s-eye view.  I spent perhaps too much time, and a staggering amount of energy climbing around in those mountains ostensibly hunting elk.  And if you think I’m tipping my hand as to a slammer elk spot, well, maybe I am, and maybe I’m not….

Oh, it can be.  Wasn’t this year, though.  I took some absolutely frightful hikes around in there, which thank you, but I really don’t believe I’ll elaborate further on the exact locations of.  Suffice to say elk were scarce.  Not non-existent, though.  The problem is that even up at 10,000', there was very little snow.  The elk have literally 100% of their habitat available to them, and that, folks, is a whole lot of country.  Plus a substantial percentage of the elk that winter in there come out of Yellowstone, and since there’s minimal snow there too, those elk probably still haven’t left the Park.

So, I ended up with my elk tag still in my wallet, to my intense chagrin.  I need to keep reminding myself that we did get a couple of bulls (my son’s & his bud Aaron’s) under some darn adverse conditions, and I had my chances too.  Just not at the caliber of bull that I am holding out for.

One like this, for instance.The Famous Mike Elk  I can take slight consolation in the fact that a whole bunch of other hunters came up short also, although fortunately some of our clients took good bulls.  Still waiting on those photos, guys….

And that, in a nutshell, is the point of this column.  The list of outfitters who are having consistently good success in recent years is getting quite short indeed.   Fortunately, we know which areas are producing, snow or no snow, and which outfitters are consistently having clients get good elk.   The big migrations out of Yellowstone and the Bob Marshall Wilderness just aren’t taking place anymore, and a lot of formerly very successful outfitters, through no fault of their own, are facing abysmally low success rates. 

It’s certainly not from a shortage of elk.  Every elk management unit in the state is above population objectives, and with minimal hunter success and nearly non-existent winterkill for about five years now, there are more mature bulls out there than perhaps at any time in modern history.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get them.  There are still some migrations taking place off public land, and the outfitters who are lucky enough to be based where those are taking place are in fat city.  Fortunately, they are good folks, & as the saying goes, it couldn’t happen to nicer people.  Otherwise, the best hunting is primarily taking place on larger tracts of private land, big enough to manage for trophy quality.  We, ahem, know where those are, too.

So, this should be a cautionary tale if you’re choosing an outfitter yourself, and particularly if you’re thinking of coming here for a non-resident do-it-yourself hunt.  I was in the game processing business here for over fifteen years, and so know a whole lot of hunters.  In fact, that’s about the only thing I miss about it, is seeing ‘em all regularly.  Still cross paths with a lot of them, though, and I’m telling you, there are a whole lot of people that didn’t get an elk this year.  That’s why the bison business is so brisk ;-). 

Now some of those folks don’t get after it all that much.  They’ll get out and hike around some, but basically if they don’t run into elk within dragging distance of the road, they’re not going to look any further.  It can be argued there is some merit to that line of thought, and its prevalence is attested to by the fact that probably at least 75% of  the elk we’d get in showed up in one piece.

But I also know a fair number of guys who are obsessed with elk hunting, as am I.  They research and scout year round, kill elk with consistency, and really get into the high calorie expenditure when hunting season rolls around.  Some have horses, but I’d have to say the bulk of them backpack.  That means those elk come out of the mountains in their backpacks, also.  Sort of separates the men from the boys, as the saying goes.  Even a lot of those guys didn’t come across Mr. Big this year.

Major kudos go to one who did, though; Mike Lely.  So, just as sort of an example of the degree of dedication required, he spent the better partAnother view of the Mike Elk, 380+ B & C Gross of three weeks (not continuously) hunting elk.  Still, well over twenty solid days of elk hunting.  Well over.  And, a lot of those are near-24 hour days.  He is fond (well, probably not fond, but he does it anyway) of starting hiking at 2:00 AM, and will stay out there at the terminus of his hike till dark.  He should get a lucrative endorsement deal from the headlamp manufacturers!   So, inquiring minds will rapidly deduce that he is hiking somewhere around five hours each direction, at least.  You spend ten hours hiking, and ten hours lurking around in the deadfall, plus some driving time, and you’ll find it puts a hell of a dent in a day!

You’d also surmise that it would behoove you to be fit if you’re gonna take on that kind of thing.  Mike’s one of those negative body fat percentage types.  Now I’m not exactly a couch potato myself, although I do have some, um, loose flesh for my wife to grab onto when the need arises.  Still, not that many 45 year old guys can say they weigh the same or less than they did in High School.  Mike’s probably ten or twelve years younger than me, but I kinda suspect he won’t be in the market for those Sansabelt golf slacks by the time he hits middle age.  And hey, 45 isn’t middle age!  Well, I do know some 45 year old guys who are middle aged, but I ain’t one of them…. ;-).  Look at my man Joe Gutkoski (the Great Gutkoski, star of Field & Stream Magazine, see our September column).  He’s 75 years old, and going strong.  He didn’t get an elk either, incidentally….

But at any rate, getting back to just how hard elk hunting public land can be under these conditions; every August there’s a race along the top of the Bridger Mountains from Fairy Lake to the M outside Bozeman.  Twenty miles, with 5000’ vertical gain and 7000’ loss.   It’s widely regarded as about the most grueling event in these parts.  Mike’s ran it, and he says the day he hiked in there and shot this elk, butchered it, and packed out the first load of meat and antlers, was far, far worse than the Ridge Run.  I’m telling you, it must have been bad….

So if you’re serious about collecting a big elk under the global warming conditions we’ve had for the last five years now (and with only a couple of exceptions since the early ‘80’s), and want to do it yourself on public land, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared to expend that kind of effort. 

In the meat business, I had a thousand card Rolodex that was pretty much full.  Looking back at my customers, plus the hunters I’ve met since (lots), I know less than a half dozen guys who have the cojones to go at it that hard for a sustained period.   Reminds me of the time a guy came into our meat plant, which was within walking distance of the west slope of the Bridgers.  He came in on foot, which was most unusual in itself, and was all stooped over under a backpack which he looked just incredibly grateful to take off.  We weighed it, and it was just under a hundred pounds.  He called his wife to come get him, and I wish I could say I’d had the presence of mind to offer that man a beer!  Hopefully the knowledge that a crew comprised in large part of ex-college football players realized they were in the presence of a stud was sufficient.

Kurt Rued and Mike Lely, with the Mike Elk, recently deceased

So, here’s your choices as I see them.  You can go at it hard-core.  It comes with no guarantees, but I suppose that is part of its appeal.  Still, when you give it your all and come up short, well…. Speaking for myself, at least, it just strengthens my resolve, although it also makes me kinda crabby for a week or two ;-).  Or you can just drive around & hike a little and hope for the best.  Some big elk get killed that way every year, but as the saying goes, it’s not a sustainable model.  Or, you can go with an outfitter who has a situation where you can get into big elk with a bit less effort.  Even in those cases, the guys who are fit enough to get out and hike around did a lot better this year. 

Personally, I’m glad we live in a country where we have those choices, not to mention a state with a full five weeks of rifle season (and there is some faint possibility we may pick up another week or so!).  

 

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