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RED LODGE — From a lake high on the Beartooth Plateau, my mother was sure she could see a faint wisp of smoke rising above the treeline. She pointed it out to me, but I couldn’t see what she was seeing.

Maybe sunlight was hitting a small cloud at a certain angle, giving it a slight yellow tinge, I thought. Either way, my priority was not chasing another wildfire. It was skiing the next day.

Each June and July, skiers from across the state travel to the Beartooth Mountains to descend expansive bowls and narrow couloirs from U.S. Highway 212. The range is one of the few in Montana where snow lasts through the summer. Many skiers ride a lift at Beartooth Basin — an advanced alpine skiing summer training ground that sits atop the pass.

As someone with a perverse attachment to the cold, I wasn’t ready to shelve skiing for the summer. So in mid-June, we headed for the Beartooths.

Having set up camp at a site west of the highway, we decided to check out a trail at the end of the road. We post-holed through rotten snow (why did I wear Tevas?), spotting chunky marmots and snowy vistas. A tired child wailed just as we crested the trail above an alpine lake.

On the way back, we saw the wispy yellow cloud, which I dismissed as “not smoke.”

The next morning, we headed to the spot we were going to ski. At a pullout, we watched skiers come down the bowl. The line looked slushy, and it definitely had a few bumps. Snow ran out at a partially frozen pool of water.

The conditions weren’t going to be great, I thought. But at least we were going to ski.

The group of skiers hiked up to where we were parked. The top of the chute was a short drive away, so we arranged a shuttle with them. At the top, we put on our gear and headed for the descent.

Making that first turn is always the hardest, but I was emboldened after one of the other skiers dropped in. The slope was steep, but the snow was far less soft than I’d anticipated.

At the base of the run, we strapped our skis onto our backpacks and followed the group up the bowl in our heavy ski boots. As I walked up, I tried to avoid trampling delicate plants.

We reached the top and said goodbye to our friendly guides. Among them was Paul Beck, who has lived in Red Lodge for 25 years. He has watched summer skiing in the Beartooths grow more popular over the years.

It doesn’t bother him much, he said, because the people who go there generally take care of the environment and are “people people” who help out with rides.

“For those of us that try to ski every month of the year, there’s no better place than the Beartooth Pass,” he said. “We’ve done that for years, and there’s always a little stash or chute or bowl that’s skiable in June, July, August and even into September.”

Conditions have been different in 2021, according to Beck. This year is one of the driest he’s seen in the range. Places where people usually ski in late June and early July melted out by mid-June, he said.

A symbol of the dryness was that wisp of smoke my mother had seen. It was from the Robertson Draw fire, which had started a few days earlier, and it was getting bigger. As skiers skated around Beartooth Basin, the gray cloud billowed above the sparse tundra.

What was worse, we knew that high winds and unusually high temperatures were in the forecast for the next day. A Forest Service official assured us that our campsite west of the highway was safe, but I didn’t sleep well that night.

We left the Beartooths early in the morning. In Red Lodge, we watched as temperatures and winds soared and the plume expanded. We left town around 2 p.m.

The smoke rose higher and higher as we drove on Highway 212 toward Joliet. It stayed in view as we drove past Columbus, Big Timber, Springdale and Livingston.

It finally faded away as we neared Bozeman. At home, we put our skis away for the summer.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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