10.01.2014

The Truth About Skiing The Blaze


In my last post, I mentioned a big adventure I had planned. I also mentioned how hard it is to get around to writing in the summer so it has taken me until now to write about it.
Driving to the trailhead, a first look at our objective



I had longed to ski The Blaze the entire time I have lived in Bozeman. Living here gives you many great outdoor activities to choose from and any time options are abundant some great things get put aside for a long time. Alas, it took me nine years to get around to skiing The Blaze. It is always fun to do an iconic activity for the first time and walk away with first-hand knowledge of the local lore. I can now add, “skiing The Blaze” as a topic I can converse about with strangers.

Mike and I hiked in on July 4, skied on July 5 and hiked out on the sixth. It was a big ski adventure with the added bonus of getting to spend two nights camped out in the backcountry early in the season. We weren’t sure what we would find in terms of snow conditions and crowds but we got incredibly lucky on both accounts.

After hearing about skiing The Blaze for so long, we expected to find a crowd, especially considering that July 4th fell on a Friday making for a three-day holiday weekend. But we both wanted to do it and we were ready to deal with the possibility of lots of company. Surprisingly, we had little. During hike in, we ran into Jason and his dog and that turned out to be the only person we saw on The Blaze the next day.

Our theory is that everyone took all or part of the 5th to recover from festivities on Independence Day so they opted to ski on the 6th. We saw a party of six and party of ten looking for a campsite after we were done skiing and ran into about six more people heading in with skis on our way out the next morning. All totaled that would have been at least 22 people attempting to ski The Blaze on July 6th. Very lucky for us.

I always approach summer skiing with the attitude that you never know what you’ll get. Our luck continued as the ski conditions we found on The Blaze were prefect. Temperatures never got too warm in the afternoon but weren’t too cold in the morning either. We weren’t on top until almost noon with no ill consequences. No mush or firm snow or funky conditions, and we had really nice turns from top to bottom. Plus a big sunny rock to lounge on at the bottom of the snowfield!
1,600+ feet of beautiful turns
Two things people never tell you about skiing The Blaze…

It is hard.
Skiing The Blaze is a much bigger outing than I had imagined. It is a long approach so you either do it as a super long daytrip or as an overnight. Each has its disadvantages, and as I mentioned we opted for the overnight.

This first day was a long tootle to get to our campsite. The fact that it rained for part of the day didn’t make it more difficult but it didn’t contribute to the fun factor, which was already low. We camped by Dubois Lake (Jane Lake on some maps), which was flat and mostly dry but trampled by horses and covered with their droppings. Ick! A convenient but not so appealing place to hang out.

Does this creek-crossing make me look bad-ass?
One thing that made the approach more difficult were two tricky stream crossings. The water was deep, cold and fast moving. At the first big crossing, I watched Mike and Jason cross it and got word that the creek bottom was sandy with few obstacles to navigate. Much easier than I had expected.

The second creek crossing was significantly deeper and faster moving.  For a short, lightweight person like myself I faced challenges that the guys did not. I had to solidly plant my ski pole before taking each step making it possible to find balance and move steadily through the fast moving water.  Luckily there were no slick or wobbly rocks so my footing was solid. Mike got a photo of the first big creek crossing, which I’m told makes me look “bad-ass” but not of this one. In his words, “I didn’t take out the camera in case I had to move fast.” 

Additionally, everyone talks about how The Blaze is a seven-mile approach but that is only to the point in which you turn off of the trail. From there it is about 2,000+ vertical feet (and who knows how many more miles) to reach the top. 

Our objective comes into sight
It took a bit (1/2 to 1 hour, maybe? Can’t remember) to reach the snowline and when we did we found 1,600+ vertical feet of skiing awaited us. Hiking up the snow was difficult as there was not an established boot-pack and skinning wasn’t working so we opted to hike up the meadow to looker’s left of the snowfield. Skiing The Blaze is a delight – a long, consistent run, which we estimated to be 25-30 degrees the entire way. Who knew boot packing up a similarly angled meadow would be such a pain in the ass? It seriously was torture.

The Blaze is an iconic ski summer or winter. Located in the Madison Range, it is an easy drive from Bozeman
Note the killer meadow on the left









So the advantage of camping out is that you can split up the monotony of the long hike with skis on your pack and not have to deal with one extremely long day. Another advantage to me is that you can get in additional time camping out in the backcountry. 

The disadvantage of doing it is an overnight is that on the day you actually climb The Blaze your backpack will have less stuff in it and it will be really floppy for carrying skis. This made the unpleasant task of boot-packing even more annoying.  Could be personal preference. Maybe you love boot-packing and won’t notice a floppy pack. Maybe your gear is so high-tech and LITE you’ll be able to bring your tiny Ridge pack to hold all of your camping gear yet empty it can carry skis with ease.

Ski The Blaze in a day? Spend the night? It’s a lose-lose situation if you ask me. 

Many people say they will never do it again
The funny thing is that when you haven’t skied The Blaze and talk about it with people who have, they will tell you it is great. But that’s about all they will tell you. They seldom mention the tricky creek crossings or the long and tedious approach.  Seldom will they claim they will never ski it again. It’s not until you actually ski The Blaze that people will reveal these realities.

Overall, The Blaze is a great summer ski. It is close to home, holds snow late into the season, and there are spectacular views from the top. You are rewarded for your efforts with a long and consistent run; one of the best in the area winter or summer. It is an iconic ski tour for sure. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’ll never ski it again, but it is not something I’d choose to do every year. Time will have to go by and nostalgia will have to grow before I ski it again. For my next trip to The Blaze, it is likely that I’ll get be convinced to go based on a first-timer’s enthusiasm and planning rather than being the one to take charge.

Now that I’ve skied The Blaze I feel like I’m a member of a club I didn’t even realize existed.  Go ski The Blaze, join the club and add to the conversation.
Jason and his dog

Notice the border collie in both photos. Herding his owner.
If you want to find out more about skiing The Blaze, just Google it and you’ll find some first-hand accounts, like this story. It includes a few good photos and I especially like that they skied The Blaze and still made it to their pizza delivery gig in the evening.