BOZEMAN, Mont. - After her 500-foot climb, Ellen Gemperlien arrives at the top of Bridger Bowl's Ridge flushed but composed. She's done this before.
Gemperlien swings her telemark skis off her back and digs around her backpack for a jacket as her companions join her.
She was here yesterday. And the day before. Gemperlien is here five days a week, all winter long. She's been doing it for years and plans to do it for years to come.
Today, the sky is a harsh gray, and snow is falling haphazardly. It feels like a thick front is about to blow over the ridge, an exposed knife blade that slices into the black clouds. Gemperlien and her friends quickly prepare for a traverse south.
Soon, they are off, but not before another group of skiers and snowboarders summit. Another batch is not far behind.
They are part of a countercultural grouping perhaps too small for anthropologists to track, but certainly noticeable in Bozeman.
They work as waiters, bartenders, lift attendants or not at all. They drive Volvos, Subarus and Volkswagens. They're more likely to rent than own, and they often have more skis than kitchen appliances.
In Bozeman, they're called Ridge hippies. Elsewhere, they are simply ski bums.
"I know a lot of people who have been called Ridge hippies," Gemperlien said. "I think I've been described that way. I've definitely been described as a ski bum."
Gemperlien, a 27-year-old Pennsylvania native, works nights and
weekends for REACH, an agency for the mentally handicapped. In the summer, she's worked at summer camps and ranches, toiling extra hours to afford the ski season.
She has no illusions about where her life is focused. "When people ask me what I do in the winter, I have to say I ski," she said.
The hike to The Ridge isn't much fun.
The climb is virtually straight up, with no switchbacks and few places to stop and catch your breath.
There's no lift. A rope tow exists for the ski patrol only. Anyone who wants to access acres of steep, ungroomed skiing from the Ridge must strap their skis to their back, pound their ski boots into icy foot holds and walk up the mountain.
The air up there is thin, and if you're not a strong climber, the hike begins to sear the lungs. Many Ridge hikers shuck off layers of clothing before they start, because even on the coldest days, sweat begins to stream down faces.
And Ridge skiers and snowboarders must pay for the privilege. Along with a lift ticket or more commonly, a season pass skiers hiking the Ridge must have an avalanche beacon, which cost $250 new, and a shovel. For safety's sake, they're also required to hike and ski with a partner.
Those rules might weed out the less committed, but they certainly don't stop the dedicated. On a day with fresh powder, a line of hikers snakes up the trail, as dense as the gold seekers climbing Alaska's Skagway Pass. The skiers and snowboarders say it's worth it.
"It's the best skiing on the mountain," said Phil Sgamma, a Bridger rental shop employee from Buffalo, N.Y. "And it's a good workout."
Because of the way Bridger Bowl is shaped, much of the mountain's most challenging skiing is on The Ridge, where steep narrow chutes often don't allow room to turn. It's not all treacherous, however, and while some slopes are relatively gentle, they're only reached by taking a narrow, hair-raising traverse.
The skiers also talk about the relative quiet of The Ridge, the isolation from the rest of the Bridger Bowl's skiers, the tranquility that comes from being on top of a mountain.
But mostly they talk about the snow. Even when the lower, lift accessed slopes are hard and crusty, they climb.
"You know it's only going to be better up there," said Jeff Brownson, another rental shop worker.
Brownson and Sgamma hike the ridge during their lunch hour. One run a day, four to five days a week, 90 to 100 days a year.
Brownson, a 23-year-old from Wenatchee, Wash., said that doesn't qualify him as a Ridge hippie.
"There are people who are up there eight hours a day, every day," he said.
The most Ridge hikes Brownson has done in a day is four. The rumored record, he said, is 13.
"Most of the locals do a six pack a day," he said.
The number of regular Ridge hikers is small enough that many know each other, if only by first name.
"It's a little bit of a club," Sgamma said. "There's a couple dozen I see here that always ski the ridge. They're here all the time. It's a lifestyle."
At the base of the hike, where the Bridger chair lift terminates, skiers and snowboarders talk and joke as they prepare their equipment for the hike. The chatter stops as the hike begins, and things become more terse at the top, as hikers gulp from water bottles and climb into Gore-Tex jackets. As soon as they're ready, they head off on long traverses, north in the direction of Hidden Gully, Northwest Passage and the Apron, or south toward The Nose and Super Couloir.
"You definitely don't stay and chat," Sgamma said. "No friends on a powder day."
The Ridge has its own rules, codes and taboos.
Different runs are better on different days, and it takes a veteran to know which runs are protected from the sun, which will hold their snow, which lead to hundred-foot cliffs.
The ski patrol, which rides the rope tow, often volunteers to carry up the skis of hikers.
"I feel guilty enough just riding," said Merik Morgan, a nine-year veteran of the Bridger ski patrol. "It's a service. It's like the Bridger Bowl lottery system."
There's an ulterior motive, too, Morgan admits.
"People have a tendency to appreciate us and obey our rules more," he said. "It improves guest relations."
Occasionally, Bridger skiers and snowboarders employ creative financing to avoid working in the winter. Unemployment benefits have been known to fund a season of skiing for some.
"They're on the governor's ski team," Sgamma jokes.
There are even customs governing how you drive to Bridger Bowl. During the drive, skiers make a point of ignoring a carved wooden whale that adorns a ranch gate. Seeing the whale is bad luck.
"You're not supposed to look at the whale on the way up," said Holly Poag, a 29-year-old originally from Cadillac, Mich. "Then you salute the whale on the way down."
Not everyone is convinced of the whale's power, however.
"You hear of someone who has glanced at it, then wrecked a ski," Brownson said. "I haven't felt its presence yet."
Few skiers say their life's ambition is to ski The Ridge every day. Most have future plans, although they often get postponed.
Gemperlien moved to Bozeman midway through college at Kent State in Ohio. She eventually finished her degree at Portland State, but for now has put thoughts of a career on hold.
"I'd love to go back to school, for special ed, or counseling," she said. "When I'm having so much fun skiing, it's hard to think about it. It would be such a different lifestyle to have a career. I'm in no hurry."
Brownson followed his girlfriend to Bozeman ("I'm not afraid to say it," he said), after she got a job with a local television station.
Like his fellow employee Sgamma, who studied astrophysics, Brownson is over-educated for the rental shop, with a degree from Washington State University in biology.
He, too, is no hurry to start a career and said he plans to ski for the next few years. And while his mother was initially disappointed, Brownson said, now she supports his choice.
"You can't complain," she said. "It's healthy and as long as you have a happy son, what more can you want?"
At work in the rental shop, Brownson and Sgamma trade barbs with the other workers, many of whom are also skiers.
As Brownson mounted skis for the next day's school group, he talked about his plans for skiing the rest of the week.
When a co-worker reminded him that "some of us have responsibilities," Brownson didn't miss a beat.
"That's what summer's for."