A love of skiing and the desire to document Montana’s 17 mostly “mom and pop” ski areas are combined in a vivid new coffee table book by Craig Hergert.
In “Montana: Skiing the Last Best Place,” Hergert uses scores of images to show the quirky, quaint and quality ski hills, where attire is anything from Carhartts to Pataguchi and chairlifts range from tow ropes to high-speed quads. Warren Miller, the esteemed ski and snowboard filmmaker, writes in the book that Hergert has done a “masterful job” of catching timeless feelings in breathtaking color, taking in not only the physical beauty but also the ambiance of their communities.
“Craig has spent thousands of days getting up before dawn to climb to just the right location, so that when the sun comes up and before the lifts turn on, he will get that magic photo that will excite you and make you want to experience freedom of your own on the side of that same hill,” Miller wrote in the foreword. “Being in Montana and absorbing some of the views captured by Craig will make your heart race as you drive toward them from the flatlands in between.”
Hergert said the idea for the book came to him about eight years ago. The Bozeman-based photographer said he was watching the Big Sky building boom and decided he wanted to document small towns and small ski areas before they changed. “And the honest truth is I wanted to go skiing,” the self-professed ski bum added. But he notes that beyond documenting ski areas, he wanted to share the hidden treasures so that Montanans might want to visit a new mountain. “And I also wanted tourists to see what’s out there and not just go to the big resorts,” Hergert said. “I included a little bit about the cities and towns nearby, especially since the area is part of it. “There’s a lot of love in all these places. Very few people are making much money, especially the smaller ones, but they are so important to the communities.”He added that what people won’t see are the magazine-type photos of tight shots of people making perfect turns.
“There’s plenty of that out there,” Hergert said. “I wanted the wide open scope of towns and ski areas.” He started at Lost Trail Powder Moutain, which in the book is noted as a “little gem” with some of the best snow in the state and lift tickets that max out at $36. Along with the iconic snow ghosts in Whitefish and the cold smoke of Bridger, Hergert shot photos of ski joring in Wisdom, White Sulphur’s infamous hot springs, the alpenglow of sunrise on Ear Mountain and Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the breeze at Red Lodge.
He’s hesitant to say which is his favorite photo, since “that’s like asking which kid you like best — you have a favorite but would never tell them.” However, he acknowledges that a shot of Discovery Ski Area does hold a special place in his heart. Closer to home, Hergert hit Great Divide on a powder day in January last year, showing spectacular skiing in the Big Open, the beauty of night skiing and the “unique” watering hole that is Jester’s Bar. Great Divide owner Kevin Taylor said he didn’t realize Hergert was on a photo assignment until afterward.
“It’s refreshing that someone produced such a high-quality book,” Taylor said. “It’s good exposure, although I still think people from out of state will still go to resort areas. But there are some hardy souls who will come around on auto tours to the small areas and understand some of our limitations.”
Author Brian Hurlbut also contributed to the effort, writing short synopses of the communities and ski hills to explain why each is worth a visit. Hergert said he used a mix of digital and film cameras with a variety of lenses to take the photographs, which made it a bit difficult to get around at times. “Some days I would put skins on my skis and hike up the mountain across from the ski hill or get up early to get that one shot,” Hergert said. “Timing is the tricky part, and I finally had to concede that in some cases I wasn’t going to be able to get the perfect shot. But I did get the one that told the story.”