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Exposure Therapy

Anxiety grips me. My heart is thumping. Breathing shallow. I’m standing on the edge of a cliff, in Big Sky, Montana.

Ryan Turner photograph

Ryan Turner photograph

by Brian Schott

I’m standing on the edge of a cliff, in Big Sky, Montana. But the cliff is only in my mind. I’ve awoken in the predawn under damp sheets. Too much stress in my midlife: work, money, wife, kids, a sick mom.

I’ve arrived in Big Sky one day ahead of my wife, Lyndsay, and two young boys, Myles, 3, and Ethan, 10. I have one day to attack the high alpine terrain here with my buddy Drew Dolan before a spring break family vacation. I’m hoping the no-fall terrain Big Sky is known for will help dispel the feeling that I am falling.

The Lone Peak tram gets top billing here, but the Headwater chutes on the north face of the 11,166-foot Lone Peak are as rowdy as inbounds skiing gets in the U.S. Ten minutes into the knife-edge ridge hike, I wonder if my general anxiety might be due to my tendency to take things to extremes. Nah. Skis balanced on my shoulder, I carefully pick my way along the wind-scoured trail as I track Drew. With 1,800-vertical-foot shots spilling away below us through rocky alley after rocky alley, the Headwaters is equal parts mountaineering and skiing. My boots feel slick as soap on the andesite rock.

“There aren’t a lot of places in the world where you can ski this kind of terrain and have virtually no one on the hill next to you,” says Drew. “They let you get after it here.”

After a few laps in the Headwaters, we tear down to the Lone Peak tram. The 15-person beer can shaped cabin climbs 1,450 vertical feet, bringing 225 people to the summit each hour—an extremely small capacity in the ski world. It was built for the terrain, and keeps skier traffic low.

At the summit, clouds puddle in far-off valleys and 150 miles away, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons tooth the sky. We gingerly pick our way across the wind-scoured Otter Slide and dive into Marx. Drew and I navigate the exposed 45-degree zone to First Gully, where we carve steep, chalky turns back into the bowl.

The next morning, for the first time in months, I’m physically tired, but mentally fresh. I’m also excited to ski with my family on the more peaceful terrain below Lone Peak’s Matterhorn-like summit. The elbowroom on the groomed slopes is vast, and we cruise on rolling intermediate runs under the Southern Comfort lift, coaxing Myles to use his edges. We lose Ethan after a communication mix-up, but Ski Patrol is right there to help, assuring us the mountain has eyes. It does, and he’s back with us before the parental adrenaline gets mainlined.

Later, we make snow angels in our bathing suits next to a steaming pool. Lyndsay even gets to take a nap. The chill time is almost better than the skiing. Myles celebrates his fourth birthday and we open presents and eat cake. My children’s laughter is like a field of uncut powder.

The next morning I step outside as the rising sun casts an ember glow across the sky and lights up Lone Peak. I don’t shoot a photo. I let the long exposure burn in my mind so I’ll have it for some future morning when I wake up on the cliff edge.

Brian Schott is the founding editor of Whitefish Review.


From the Deep Winter issue.

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