The Montana Council has always been crazy busy during the warm months.
K-M Scout Ranch High Adventure takes participants on canoe trips on the Missouri River or on backpacking trips in the North Moccasin Mountains.
Camp Melita Island lets campers hone their skills with a variety of aquatic activities.
And Montana High Adventure Base takes adventurers on expeditions into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
What was missing, thought chief program officer Peter Jones, was an opportunity for Scouts and Venturers to experience a winter sport that was part of the Scouting program and already popular among a large portion of the local population: downhill skiing.
“I’m a passionate skier,” Jones says. “I was like, ‘We should try to put together a winter ski program.’ ”
The result was the Big Sky Ski Weekend, now in its third year. It’s a unique opportunity for youth: the chance to ski at a quality resort for a fraction of what it would cost the public.
Throw in a night of winter camping and an opportunity to earn the Snow Sports merit badge, and you’ve got yourself a great winter weekend program.
“I go skiing all the time,” says Gus Swant, an 11-year-old from Troop 1207 in Helena, Mont., who participated in the Big Sky program last winter. “But this was my first time at Big Sky.
“They had a whole bunch more slopes. And the snow was wonderful.”
Really nice ski resorts like Big Sky Montana aren’t cheap. That was the first obstacle Jones and his team of volunteers had to figure out.
Thankfully, the Scouting name still goes a long way.
“I approached the general manager and asked him if he’d be open to hosting a Scout program,” Jones says. “He said, ‘Sure,’ and he turned me over to the operations manager. Then we put the program together.”
It helps when both sides have something to gain. Big Sky gets to recruit a future generation of skiers. And the council gets to offer a great outdoors winter program at a reasonable cost.
For $90, the Scouts get accommodations, all meals, a ski lesson, equipment rental and lift tickets for two days of skiing.
“Big Sky has all different levels of trails,” says Nathan O’Donnell, 15, from Troop 649 in Belgrade, Mont. “And it’s bigger.”
Jones’ team estimates the package would normally be around $550 per person. He was able to offer scholarships to participants based on recommendations from their Scoutmasters.
“Big Sky says, ‘It’s on your goodwill.’ ” Jones says. “ ‘If you say they’re on scholarship, we won’t make you pay for it.’ ”
Fun for All Skill Levels
For lodging, the Scouts spend the night on property owned by a local nonprofit organization just outside of Big Sky. Many Scouts choose to sleep outside in tents in sub-freezing temps instead of in the heated lodge.
Because they’re Scouts, of course.
“It was fine,” Nathan says. “I do it a lot.”
The good news is they’ve got nearby access to warm water, heated rooms and hot meals. Jones says he recruits a handful of cooks to provide meals, usually with an outdoors theme. In the past, they’ve had meat from bison and antelope donated to the cause.
“And we have lots of potatoes here,” Jones says. “It’s never hard to find 100 pounds of potatoes.”
The first half-day is spent in ski lessons. Everyone — no matter the experience of the skier — takes a lesson, courtesy of a trained Big Sky instructor.
Classes are divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. The beginners might spend the entire weekend on the bunny slopes. Intermediate skiers might start on the easier slopes and work their way up.
Advanced skiers are allowed to zip to the top of the mountain as soon as they prove their mettle.
When the lessons are over, the youth ski in groups alongside volunteer chaperones provided by the council.
“I never have a problem finding volunteers who are willing to go skiing for the weekend,” Jones says.
And a Merit Badge, Too
Thomas Miller, a 14-year-old Scout from Troop 649, considers himself an intermediate skier. Last winter was his second time to experience Big Sky Ski Weekend.
“We went on a bunch of fun routes,” Thomas says. “It has a lot longer trails than where I usually ski. Each route took 10 minutes instead of 3 or 4.
“It was a lot more fun.”
If the Scouts need a rest from skiing, they can ride a tram all the way to the top of the mountain for the amazing view.
In the afternoon, they spend time with members of the ski patrol, who volunteer their time to help the Scouts earn the Snow Sports merit badge.
“They were all very good and experienced at teaching stuff and explaining stuff,” says Kerwin Swant, 13, from Troop 1207. “He gave us tips on how to ski better and have more stable positions.”
Last winter, Nathan was lucky enough to be selected as the Scout who got to be buried in the snow — a demonstration of how search dogs can dig out avalanche victims based on scent.
Watch a video of the Big Sky rescue dog in action:
By the time the event is over, the participants have gotten a taste of big-time skiing, earned a merit badge, had the opportunity to spend the night outdoors and participated in a physically demanding exercise with their friends.
What else could you ask for from a weekend Scouting program?
“We put about 100 Scouts into it, give or take a few,” Jones says, “and it’s been sold out since the day we started it.”
Whenever Scouts are out in the snow, encourage them to show courtesy to others and exercise caution and common sense to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries.
In other words, observe the following responsibility code, endorsed by the National Ski Areas Association, National Ski Patrol, Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors:
- Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
- Remember that people ahead of you (or below you) have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
- Do not stop in any place where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.
- Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
- Use safety devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
- Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
- Know how to load, ride and unload safely prior to using any lift.
Aidan Wosoba, a 12-year-old Scout from Troop 1207, Helena, Mont., didn’t know what to think of the early morning explosions he heard last winter during Big Sky Ski Weekend.
Turns out, it’s all part of the plan to keep skiers safe from avalanches.
“They use dynamite to blow up excess snow so they won’t have avalanches and stuff,” Aidan says. “I didn’t know what it was, so I was a little freaked out at first.”
Later that day, the Scouts learned from ski instructors how to recognize the increased possibility of an avalanche, including:
- slopes of more than 40 degrees;
- accumulations of new snow;
- variations of the quality of snow layers;
- sounds that suggest cracking or settling of the snowpack.