Lifelong Adventurer Eyes Whitefish for New Mountain Academy

Billy O’Donnell is developing plans for an institution for young adults looking to learn and train in the outdoors

Billy O’Donnell has enjoyed quite the adventurous life, touring high-country powder around the globe as a professional skier, scaling technical pitches of rock and ice, pedaling through mountain labyrinths and paddling into wild water as an all-around sports devotee.

No doubt, O’Donnell is an acolyte of action, and now he wants to mentor a new generation of adventurers from a home base in Whitefish.

The longtime Colorado resident has landed in the Flathead Valley with a vision: Ridge Mountain Academy, a center for student athletes seeking an offbeat education meshing together adventure sports, academics and life skills.

Since discovering the valley last winter thanks to his friend — professional kayaker Brad Ludden — O’Donnell has spent the last few months piecing together his ambitious new project and connecting with locals who can help him realize his dream, including Montana West Economic Development, The ZaneRay Group and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

O’Donnell’s plan is to develop a gap-year program for 17- to 20-year-olds who may not be ready to jump straight into college after high school, or are seeking a detour from the conventional education path.

“There’s this in-between age where a lot of people don’t know what they want to do yet,” he says.

At the Ridge Mountain Academy, which will start with a winter semester slated for next January, enrollees will have a list of outdoor opportunities at their disposal, each with a fully immersed regimen and curriculum that look to shape them into competition-quality athletes.

The sports O’Donnell is planning to focus on right away are alpine skiing, alpine racing, ski mountaineering, freeskiing, snowboarding, backcountry touring, Nordic skiing and ice climbing. O’Donnell said the academy would still allow students to train in other sports, too, like hockey, and eventually the academy could eventually grow to feature a fall semester with a wider range of activities.

“The goal would be to provide intensive athletic training for mountain-based sports the same way that traditional sports have had for a long time,” O’Donnell says.

The academy will have coaches who help students train in whatever sport they desire, while also focusing on the other aspects that are vital to success, like nutrition and mental preparation.

The academy will also have an academic component, and O’Donnell is currently looking to develop relationships either with community colleges or online colleges, so that students would be able to sign up and take classes while training and living in Whitefish. Students will also be able to take wilderness first responder courses, and internships with local businesses will be provided to offer more real-life training, according to O’Donnell.

At the same time, O’Donnell says the students will learn how to live an independent, balanced and well-grounded life, making a healthy transition from being a teenager to a young adult.

The overall goal, he says, is to help young adults cultivate and strengthen their passion, focus and happiness in life’s activities, whether it’s competing in a sport or simply enjoying an active lifestyle.

“I want to translate my passion for education, sports and health to a younger generation and be able to pass that along to a new generation of athletes,” he says. “And to expose student athletes who were just playing soccer or football to this whole other range of sports that they can do the rest of their life, which are the mountain sports.”

O’Donnell has deemed Whitefish a perfect location for the academy because of its proximity to the pristine outdoors and a top-notch ski resort. He said there’s also a culture in place that reflects the active-lifestyle teachings that the Ridge Mountain Academy will focus on.

“There’s a huge population of potential guides and coaches locally who I’ve been meeting here with likeminded attitudes toward fitness and the mountains,” O’Donnell says. “That’s what I’ll need to help build this program. We’ll be living in town and training as athletes in the mountains, so when (the students) grow up they can build that training into their life and have a skillset to continue living life in a balanced, healthy way.”

Growing up in Wisconsin, O’Donnell was introduced to the thrill of adventure early on.

“I grew up in a family that was very sports and athletics intensive, but also focused on education,” he says.

He started with the traditional sports, playing football, basketball and baseball. For college he went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and that’s when he discovered a new suite of outdoor activities — alpine skiing, rock and ice climbing, mountain biking and kayaking.

“I just immersed myself into the full mountain sports regimen and self curriculum,” he says.

After graduating he became a ski coach, raft guide and climbing guide throughout Colorado before landing a deal to ski professionally. With major sponsors like HEAD and Obermeyer, O’Donnell competed in big mountain freeskiing and skiercross across the U.S. and even traveled internationally. He became a regular face in Freeskier Magazine and ski films throughout his 20s.

As any professional athlete must do, O’Donnell faced life after the action, and he returned to school and received masters degrees in business administration and global studies at the University of Denver. He spent five years working for a renewable energy company, but pretty soon the excitement of adventure called his name and he answered. He opened a private waterski school in northern Wisconsin, named North Pines Water Skiing.

But the allure of the mountains stuck in his mind, which is why he’s here today envisioning his next adventure.

For more information on the Ridge Mountain Academy, email O’Donnell at info@ridge.academy.

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