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Steep thrills: Beartooth Pass ski area opens to public next week
DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette StaffA snowboarder seems to float above the Beartooth Plateau as he launches off a jump near the Beartooth Pass.DAVID GRUBBS/Gazette StaffA boarder glides along a rail. Empire Freeride’s snowboarding and freeskiing school will feature jumps, rails and a quarter pipe at the Red Lodge International Summer Ski and Snowboard Camp, one of several camps offered on the mountain slopes.

RED LODGE - Maybe you've seen them while driving over the Beartooth Pass, the ski lift towers that seem to lean precariously over the side of the mountain.

Yes, people actually ski up here at the top of the world, which is hard for some to believe, especially those who are scared by simply driving up the crooked, highway that seems to climb to the sky.

The Red Lodge International Summer Ski and Snowboard Camp's lifts cling to the slopes above Twin Lakes at an elevation of 10,800 feet above sea level. All of the runs are rated advanced intermediate to expert. That means they are nearly vertical.

"It is steep and can be quite intimidating," said ski lift co-owner Rob Hart.

"In some places you get all 700 vertical feet (of ski hill) in one turn," said Jeff Gildehaus, of the Custer National Forest, which oversees the ski area's permit.

Hart and Joe Maxwell, of Red Lodge, and former Red Lodge resident Kurt Hallock, now of San Diego, bought the ski area last year and are gearing up to open the mountain to the public May 30. They are the first local permit holders. They originally planned to open tomorrow, but a lift tower that was wiped out by an avalanche took longer to replace than predicted.

Ski area welcomes camps In addition to offering the public access, the ski area will also host ski racing and freestyle skiing and snowboarding camps. Clubs from around the United States and the region have reserved times to practice on what is considered the steepest training site in North America.

Mount Hood in Oregon and Whistler in British Columbia are more well-known for their summer programs. They are the ski areas that draw big crowds. But Hart said the Beartooth Pass has a distinct advantage.

"We have varying terrain," Hart said. "Racers get to mix it up here. It's not just race, race, race.

The Beartooth Pass terrain varies from bowls to glades and chutes. It's all steep, ranging in pitch from 15 to 50 degrees.

Gildehaus said even though the hill is open to the public, because of the difficulty of the mountain guests are initially guided to assess their skiing or snowboarding skills. Those unable to demonstrate adequate ability are turned back.

"The first turn is double black diamond and then some," Gildehaus said. "It's treacherous when the snow is still frozen in the morning."

Wyomingite opens camp Empire Freeride is one of the camps using the Beartooth Pass ski area this summer.

Jimmy Chin photo Empire Freeride’s camp will be put on by Mike Gimmenson, seen skiing down a Beartooth chute.

The camp, geared to youngsters interested in freeskiing and snowboarding, will include a terrain park with table tops, grinding rails and a skiercross course.

Empire was started by Mike Gimmeson, 25, of Jackson Hole, Wyo. This is his first camp.

"I grew up in Powell and spent a lot of time up there exploring and skiing," Gimmeson said. "The place was hopping. People from around the world were training there.

"We have world-class skiing in our back yard," he said.

So far, Gimmeson has signed up 40 youngsters for two sessions between June 12 and June 26.

Gimmeson said he wants to provide a public terrain park, as well as an exclusive park for campers.

"This year my goal is just to get the word out," Gimmeson said.

Gimmeson's previous experience includes a two-year stint as a ski instructor for Jackson Hole Mountain. He's also been featured in ski videos and did some ski racing as a teenager.

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"I never got into racing, though," he said. "I always wanted to get into the backcountry and jump."

The camp's structure is loose, with Teton Gravity Research, makers of extreme skiing and boarding videos, on hand to shoot film. Some of TGR's top athletes, like Nick Mercon and Greg Tufflemire, will be coaching and riding.

Austrians started clinics Austrians Pepi Gramshammer and Eric Sailer founded the ski area in 1966 to coach Olympic hopefuls. They attracted top European Olympic skiers and coaches to train young American racers.

Lift towers were erected in 1984. Before that portable lifts were used. And prior to that, Hart said the rear wheel of a Jeep was used to power a rope tow, winding up and letting out the line.

Guenther Jochl, who went on to manage Sugar Mountain Resort in North Carolina, was the second permit holder for the ski area. Jochl's permit lapsed for a year before Hart and his friends purchased the operating permit and two ski lifts from the Forest Service last year for $65,000.

Hart owns Crazy Creek Chairs in Red Lodge. Maxwell is a past coach and current president of Silver Run Ski Foundation. Hallock is an attorney.

Hart said he got involved because he hated to see the ski area close down.

"It's a great place to learn to ski terrain with varying degrees of difficulty," he said.

Season's short, cost is fair The Red Lodge International Summer Ski and Snowboard Camp will employ about five or six people to operate the lifts and patrol the mountain. The season will run until July 4, or however long the snow permits and interest remains high.

The cost to the public to ski is $35. Only 100 people will be allowed on the slopes each day. The hill will be open from 8 a.m. to 1:30 or 2 p.m., depending on the weather. Skiers will be required to sign a liability waiver.

To make sure the hill is open, phone Crazy Creek Chairs at 446-3446.

Slopestyle jam scheduled A slopestyle jam for skiers and snowboarders is planned atop the Beartooth Pass on June 21. The jam will feature rails, dual table tops and a quarter pipe.

The event is sponsored by Empire Freeride, Freeskier magazine and Newschoolers.com. Teton Gravity Research will be shooting video.

Registration is at 9 a.m. in Red Lodge the day of the event. The jam starts at 1 p.m. For more information, log on to www.empirefreeride.com

Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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