Over the Edge

Tuesday, June 22, 1999, Bear Tooth Pass, Wyoming. Altitude: 10,700 feet - I am standing on snow - I mean, I am standing on only snow, that has built up in a bank so high and so far off this wall, that it reaches way beyond the earth below. That is, I am standing on snow on the edge of a cliff, and there really is no ground below me for a great while, and there is nothing to stop my fall for 1,000 feet, except for a slightly angled wall of more snow. In short, I am standing in a force III wind, on an avalanche-in-waiting. There is no sane reason why I should be up here, except to watch the two men, who were standing beside me just a moment ago, before they jumped right off this cliff.

Ron Gerondale and Mark Polakoff are about 500 feet below me by now, and are racing toward the bottom of this bowl like pats of butter down the edge of a hot frying pan. They are downhill skiing here, at the Red Lodge International Ski Race Camp, in Northern Wyoming, because it is one of only a few places in the lower 48 states where you can ski throughout the month of June. These men have been doing this most of their lives, and nobody has committed them yet. Both are from Red Lodge, a short drive down the mountain from here; Gerondale is retired, and Polakoff is a registered nurse. We are the only people out here today, and they are taking a virgin run down the slope. But the ride down this treacherous wall is not even the crazy part.

Gerondale describes the slope as "Intermediate" but he is not taking into account that, between runs, when the chairlift isn't in operation - like, today - you have to heft your skis onto your shoulder, crane your neck way back to get a bead on where you're about to climb, and haul yourself right up this near vertical wall of packed snow. This, I think, should bump the rating past "Advanced" and right into "Suicidal" and for most people it would rate as "This Sucks" but not for Gerondale and Polakoff. These guys have actually taken this ski-run / climb-up as many as five times in one day, which - excuse me - is about 5,000 feet of climbing, like schlepping yourself and your gear up the stairs of a 500 story building, with all the damn windows open and the wind howling, and it is freezing out here, and we're 10,700 feet above sea level, so there is no freaking air left, and I'm breathing heavy just holding my camera. Man, this is crazy.

This is the mountain where many skiers on the U.S. Olympic team train, and it has challenged its share of World Cup skiers, according to Pepi Granshammer, who officially opened the camp in 1966 and ran it for 27 years. "I think it's the best ski camp in the country," he says. "Because it has an excellent steep slope, and then a good, gradual slope to train on."

Mark Polakoff wears a racing helmet, because he still has at least a few of his marbles left. Gerondale wears only a ball cap, because he has a registered nurse (Polakoff) to help him when he slams into a stanchion. Both men have skied here for decades, and Gerondale actually worked here for a few summers. It takes them a half-hour per run, with most of that being the hike up. "The first climb of the day is the hardest - you have to kick in the steps," Gerondale says, referring to the holes he punches in the snow-wall with his ski boots.

I wait at the top, peering over the frozen precipice, watching these guys make the climb. At first, they look like small ants, with their skis swinging to and fro like arachnid appendages, and they slowly and quietly grow larger as they make their ascent. Meanwhile, a few other skiers show up to try their luck, not really knowing what they're in for, and, I gather, not too concerned about it. Ron Gerondale and Mark Polakoff finally reach the top, and then they take a few breaths, put their skis on, and head right back over the edge.

(Left to Right) Brandon Doty digs into a turn on his way down the slope. John Adkins boards up for a trial run. Buck Ericson and Monty Nelson have braved a slope east of the race camp, and Ericson adjusts a ski, while Nelson reconnoiters another run. "We're just messing around," says Buck.

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