Way Out West | A ski journal from Montana-Idaho

A misty, snow covered pasture, with steam rising from the ground (through blowholes of thermal water) surround a lone deer with great antlers

Will Robson saddles up for a truly epic adventure in America’s wild and wonderful west


18:02 The long transatlantic flight, with a connecting hop from Chicago O’Hare, is over. Onboard the United night flight to Bozeman, southwestern Montana, I’m laying across a row of empty seats, eyes shut. In front, a large bearded man in a camo trucker cap has settled in his narrow seat like a grizzly back scratching on a Sitka spruce. I’m guessing he’s heading home.

21:21 I’m on the road in a three-ton Chevy Suburban. Snow covers everything but the roads. After a gas station burrito stop, we’re heading 40 miles south on Highway 191 up into the Madison Range towards Big Sky: Montana’s most famous ski resort, and the third largest in North America.

22:33 Bleary-eyed, I tow my roller bag into the foyer ofBig Sky’s original ski lodge, The Huntley. Built in 1973 and named after the resort’s visionary founder, Chet Huntley, it still has a ’70s vibe, with crazy-paving interior cladding, massive wood beams and a sunken seating area. Bed beckons; I have 5,850 acres of mountain to explore tomorrow.

skier between fir trees


08:32 At the demo shop, I grab a pair of Fall Line-favourite Elan Ripstick 106s – ideally suited for the conditions. There’s a good snow base here in Big Sky, with a recent dusting, but no more powder is expected soon, despite January usually seeing the highest number of snowfall days. Fresh snow is seldom far away in the Northern Rockies in winter.

09:01 Dan Egan’s ‘Steeps Camp’ is gathering in the resort centre. The legendary extreme skier, and star of Warren Miller’s era-defining ski films, is glad-handing those of us signed up for three days of off-piste training. Those who’ve made the grade set by instructors Dan, Ben and Sean are sent down Big Sky’s infamous Big Couloir (or in laconic Montanan: ‘The Big C’).

It’s a 430-vertical-metre, triple-black diamond, 50-degree-pitched run from the summit of Lone Peak (3,404m), a great white shark’s tooth of a mountain dominating the skyline west of Big Sky.

10:48 My group, meanwhile, has found some fun gullies into the Stillwater Bowl on the Moonlight Basin side, and tree runs from the top of the heated and aptly-named ‘Swift Current 6’ chair. No cold, slow chairs here, Big Sky has spent heavily on modern lift technology. The terrain has everything from wide easy pistes (one six miles long) to gladed tree runs and, from the top of Lone Peak and its supporting web of steep ridge-lines, some of the most extreme skiing in North America.

18:48 Dinner at Everett’s 8,800ft restaurant, at the top of the ‘Ramcharger 8’ chair on Big Sky’s more recent Andesite Mountain ski area, centres on elk tartare and a glass of punchy Californian red, or two (we’re taking the chairlift back down).

I’m standing above the ‘Big C’. One of the last to go down. No one’s tomahawked so far. That’s good…


09:06 The cable car to Lone Peak’s summit takes 14 skiers and there are no easy runs off the top. We’re heading down one of the Dictator chutes. Is this Marx, Lenin or Castro?

Named in the 1970s by locals who had to boot pack up here, moves to change the chute names to something less politically incorrect as the resort developed failed. (That said, it was the last season for this characterful 28-year-old tram; a new 75-person version will be running this season.)

09:57 Dan, Sean and Ben change groups every half day to mix things up. They have different teaching styles, but Dan’s ski philosophy shines through. I’m starting to think about more than just balance and body mechanics; I try to stay calm and loose, entering a ‘flow’ state – it seems to work, although this afternoon’s ‘Big C’ may undo any progress.

looking over the edge into Big C couloir, a few skiers on the ridge below

12:02 I’m standing above the ‘Big C’. One of the last to go down. No one’s tomahawked so far. That’s good: Dan confirms it’s a no-fall zone.

12:09 The snow is deep, a little heavy and chopped, and I’m definitely not flowing; preferring to jump-turn my way down the steepest pitches, conversing coyly with gravity, rather than letting speed be my friend.

12:14 I gather a little pace in the second section of the couloir, after the rocky dog leg, and finish with a flourish alongside my group. We’re all flushed with delight and relief; grateful not to have been flushed by the ‘Big C’.

20:07 A celebratory steak supper at the Lone Mountain Ranch, a Nordic centre and ‘dude ranch’ down the valley from Big Sky. Outside in the darkness we pick out the jostling white bums of elk who’ve hopped the fence to eat the horses’ fodder.

skidoos line up behind Yellowstone National Park sign


10:04 I’m 10 miles inside Yellowstone National Park (an hour from Big Sky), riding a Ski-Doo over the 40-mile-wide caldera on top of a super volcano – past bison, bobcats, elk and coyotes – and it’s still 20 miles to our destination. This is how the American West captivates: the landscape is monumental, the volcanic topography gob-smacking and, unlike in our little country, a 60-mile Ski-Doo trip is no biggie.

12:05 Old Faithful is late. But I haven’t missed the final gasp of this legendary geyser, that’s blown every hour for more than 800 years. “It varies”, says ranger Kate. My camera’s ready, as two bison and I stand to one side of the gently steaming, sulphurous plughole. And then, with a gurgling hiss and hesitant puff, the geyser begins to climb to a majestic 100-feet column of steaming water. Mind-blowing.


Snowmobile tour of Yellowstone (yellowstonevacations.com) costs $427 (£335) per person, including guide, gear, lunch and fees.  

a bulking bison walks across the snow, cloudy misty behind it


11:04 I take the road less travelled on my way 350 miles to Sun Valley, Idaho, turning off the Interstate and heading west through the small towns of Howe and Arco. Entering Idaho, the landscape is desolate, with almost no traffic and entirely snow-covered but for wind-blown sagebrush peppering the rangelands.

11:39 As I speed along in cruise control, ticking off the miles to local radio, I pass a brown ‘historic’ signpost, telling me that pioneers came this way 161 years ago, avoiding trouble on the Oregon Trail to the south.

13:27 At a gas station, chomping on another burrito, I listen as two men discuss assault rifles for sale on the wall behind them. I look at my lonely little white car with Florida ‘Sunshine State’ plates at the fuel pump and decide to hit the road again. Guns ’n’ hoses: welcome to the jungle.

16:39 The Smokey Mountains appear in the distance, modest compared with the jagged Tetons 300 miles east. In the sunshine, each shallow, conical peak rises above the treeline, draped in smooth, unbroken snowfields.

19:02 I’ve checked into the four-star, über-cool Limelight Hotel in Ketchum, and over pizza, manager Bert is telling me about Sun Valley. Ketchum was a small mining town until the 1930s when US diplomat Avril Harriman chose to build the US’s first dedicated ski resort here. It’s 1,000m up from Ketchum to the 2,789m summit of Bald Mountain, the centre of the main Sun Valley ski area. The region is a ‘high alpine desert’, with low winds and an average of 250 days of sunshine a year – but it gets plenty of snow – 179 inches on average each winter. Harriman encouraged Hollywood’s elite to holiday here, and they’re still coming. Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks have houses here but, even though it would have made my day, they like that no one gawps at them here.

a lone skier on a big descent, huge snowy trees and big mountains in the distance for only company
Cold Springs, Sun Valley


09:45 I’m on the Seattle Ridge chair with ski patroller Kurt. Heading to Sun Valley’s new Sunrise Bowl, a 350-acre off-piste zone (making a total ski area of 2,400 acres with 12 lifts).

11:22 It’s a little skied out with no new snow, but we leg-burn down through the open bowl, stopping to restore a fallen boundary rope, then into ‘The Glades’ tree area, skirting some mighty firs to the Broadway chair.

12:29 Ducking into Kurt’s HQ, I get some WTF?! looks, but take in the atmosphere of drying gear, roster boards, lockers and patrollers resting between shifts.

18:32 I’m sampling Pelmeni dumplings and seven-layer cake at the tiny Cookbook restaurant on 7th Street East in Ketchum. It’s run by Ukrainian chef Vita and husband Burke. They launched a Ukrainian donation fund in March 2022: it raised $83,000 in five days.


08:18 It’s an early lift with local skiers to rip around before everyone else. We head for the famous Warms Springs run (3.6km long, 1km vert) for an obligatory non-stop carving run down an empty, crisp piste.

11:38 Having swapped skis for snowshoes, I’m clomping out of Galena Lodge, 45 minutes north of Ketchum, with lodge manager Chelan leading. Not something I usually rush to do, but it’s fun trudging through the soft snow in the famous sunshine, alongside the Big Wood River and looping up into the woods for a mile or so.

14:38 My road trip ends in Boise (pronounced like Del Boy’s mate), 150 miles’ ultra-scenic drive west of Ketchum, but not before a tour of Idaho’s Snake River Valley wine. Here, at the Hat Ranch Winery, Samantha Maxey tells me some customers arrive on horseback. Useful if your pony knows the way home. But for me, it’s my trusty little car taking me to Boise airport, and the return flight to London via Denver, after a truly epic adventure in America’s wild and wonderful west.

Fly from Gatwick to Bozeman (via Chicago or NYC) with JetBlue from £429
Five days’ SUV hire from £390 with Avis
For shuttles at Bozeman airport visit Big Sky Country Transport

Huntley Lodge, Big Sky has rooms from $259 (£200) per night
Limelight Hotel, Ketchum has rooms (£350) per night
For other accommodation options visit Big Sky’s website and here for Sun Valley

Day passes at Big Sky fluctuate, expect to pay around $175 (£135)
Day passes at Sun Valley cost from $189 (£145)
Dan Egan’s Steeps Camp costs $1,700 (£1,300), including three days’ instruction and a descent of the ‘Big C’ (ability and conditions permitting). Dan’s excellent teaching app ‘All-Terrain-Skiing’ is free and well worth downloading.