You’ve probably spotted them from the chairlift at Whitefish Mountain Resort, a squad of snow-suited, hard-booted snowboarders riding with power and relaxed grace, carving broad arcing trenches into Big Mountain with their bodies parallel to the slope, their mittens skimming the snow like a surfer riding a barrel wave.
It’s mesmerizing to watch the long skinny boards inscribe razor-thin calligraphy into a corduroy groomer, while the rider’s horizontal stance seems to defy physics.
But ask a member of the rarefied alpine-carving community — there’s only handful of devotees in the Flathead Valley — and they’re likely to deliver an impassioned testimonial about the purity of carving with such a degree of precision.
“It’s a special feeling when you’re locked into that turn, and you’ve learned to trust your board. You know it will hold,” John “Vertical” Gibson said on a recent weekday on Big Mountain, where his board’s cursive script adorns the fall lines of ski runs on a daily basis.
It’s not uncommon to see Gibson — easily recognizable in his loudly patterned one-piece snowsuits, full-face helmet and quiver of alpine-carving boards — either riding solo or with an elite tribe of other alpine-carving enthusiasts, some of them who once raced at the highest levels across the globe.
That’s not to say the sport of alpine-carving is mainstream, however, nor is it experiencing a renaissance. Still, it keeps Gibson and his crew so engaged — “addicted” is also an apropos term — with the niche carving community that they’ve gathered annually for a carving-specific event in Aspen, Colorado, until the event’s main sponsor, Bomber Industries, declared bankruptcy.
Rather than be deterred, Gibson and his friends began cobbling together plans to bring an alpine-carving event to Montana, and settled on Turner Mountain Ski Area in Libby, which the group of around 80 alpine carvers (also referred to as “hardbooters”) has rented out from Feb. 10-14.
Enter the inaugural Montucky Clear Cut, an event crafted for carvers that will entirely benefit Turner Mountain, a nonprofit, volunteer-run ski area that’s stood out as a precious gem of ski areas since it opened in 1961.
“It’s kind of a niche within a niche within a niche,” Dave Redman, one of the event’s main organizers, said of alpine carving. “To have an entire ski area to ourselves, exclusively for carvers, is going to be really excellent.”
It wasn’t until I went riding with Gibson and his friend Rob Berney, a former U.S. Snowboard Team Member who nearly competed in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, narrowly missing out as the fourth-ranked rider (there were three slots available), that I recognized just how different alpine carving on a snowboard is from more traditional snowboarding or skiing.
An alpine-carver’s turns are so sweeping that wide, groomed runs are ideal, but the threat of skiers straight-lining down the hill is a real one indeed, as Gibson found out some years ago after enduring a collision that resulted in a concussion — and is the reason that he wears such a serious helmet.
Watching Gibson and Berney carve up runs on Big Mountain, I realized that snowboarding’s alpine counterpart is like a high-performance hot rod. Paired with stiff, ski-like boots, contemporary carving boards offer a level of control and response that transforms the energy of the board into sheer speed.
Add to that the nearly horizontal stance of the rider, and the technique of gliding a mittened hand across the snow — carvers use Shoe Goo and a patch of P-Tex 2000 to fortify the palm of their handware — and the speed and precision of alpine carving is a high-octane affair.
To say that Redman is stoked about the event is an understatement, but he’s even more thrilled to host it in Libby, where he attended high school and grew up riding early snowboard models at Turner Mountain Ski Area.
“I was one of the first snowboarders in the area, and definitely one of the first at Turner,” he said. “At that time Big Mountain didn’t allow snowboards on it. Schweitzer would and Fernie would, so we’d go ride there. But there was only a handful of us around the Pacific Northwest. And then it exploded in the late 80s and early 90s.”
When he approached the board that oversees operations at Turner, their response was encouraging. But to make ends meet they set an Aug. 1 deadline for Redman to frontload the event with 50 registered riders to secure the resort reservation.
The carvers rallied to meet the deadline, and around 80 riders were registered when this article went to print.
If all goes well this year, Redman plans on making it an annual affair.
“Turner has just amazed me with how much work they do out there with a volunteer staff,” he said. “In the past decade-and-a-half they have installed a chairlift, updated their groomers, made improvements to the lodge. I just wanted to do something to help Turner that was also a good opportunity to meet up with the alpine carving community.”
For more information, visit montuckyclearcut.com.