Higher Ed

At Whitefish’s Ridge Mountain Academy, gap-year students build big-mountain skills— for college, for life, and for the sheer fun of it.
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At Whitefish’s Ridge Mountain Academy, gap-year students build big-mountain skills— for college, for life, and for the sheer fun of it.
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By Fredrick Reimers

It’s Big Air Monday at Ridge Mountain Academy. This according to student Matt Gault, an 18-year-old with stylish shades and a scraggly experimental beard. It follows closely on the heels of No Air Sunday, he notes, which was so declared by Ridge program director Billy O’Donnell to tone things down after one student hurt his wrist so badly he almost needed a helicopter evacuation out of the British Columbia backcountry. Today, though, the wrist is well enough that O’Donnell is coaching the kids on their second cliff drops of the day.

“Pre-jump it, so you end up floating off the lip,” says O’Donnell to a pair of students standing above the 10-footer. “Stay compact in the air so you control when you touch your feet down. Got that?” They nod, looking down the ramp and off the snowcapped boulder that forms the jump. There’s some trepidation. Big Air Monday’s first jumps didn’t go so well, with a pair of classic double-ejection-to-tomahawks that the students aren’t eager to repeat.

“Remember,” says O’Donnell, “knees up, hands forward.” With that, the 40-year-old former pro skier hops down a couple turns, positioning himself to evaluate their landings.

It’s day four of Ridge Mountain Academy’s winter-semester capstone experience, a weeklong backcountry ski trip at British Columbia’s remote Valkyr Lodge. The students, coaches, and a certified Canadian mountain guide have helicoptered in to tour and ski the Valkyr range’s vast snow-covered bowls and ridges, employing skills they’ve been honing since January at the program’s Whitefish, Montana, base. The Academy, founded only this year, offers a “gap year” program for 17- to 20-year-olds that mixes adventure sports, academics, and life skills. The goal is to prepare them for a more productive college experience and successful life thereafter.

The 10-foot drop is the sort of thing they practiced daily at Whitefish Mountain Resort, but the stakes are higher here, where an injury could mean an expensive helicopter ride. But after activating GoPro cameras and settling their nerves, they both nail the drop, sailing over the lip like downhill racers and sticking their landings. With the snow getting sloppy in the warm afternoon sun, these are the last turns of the day. The crew slaps on climbing skins and heads for the lodge, a three-story, 1,700-square-foot chalet 10 miles into the backcountry. “That was awesome,” says Gault. “I’m gonna hit that tomorrow.”

Gap-year programs, designed to give students a year to gain focus and maturity before they head off to college, are nothing new. The practice has long been popular in countries like Norway and Denmark, where half of all students delay university for a year to travel. It’s gaining a following in the United States, too. American programs exhibiting at USA Gap Year Fairs, a national circuit showcasing gap-year offerings, rose in number from 44 in 2012 to 91 last year. They range from art-history tours in Europe to volunteer development projects in Africa to Semester at Sea. A recent study indicated that students who delay college to travel have higher GPAs when they do enroll than those who enroll immediately. Harvard College includes a note in its acceptance letters encouraging students to defer for a year.

Ridge is the first gap-year program to focus on big-mountain and backcountry freeriding. “There’s an in-between age where a lot of people don’t know what they want to do yet,” says O’Donnell, an intense, energetic man who holds master’s degrees in business administration and global studies. “They end up wasting time and money in the first years of college. Gap years can give young people time to get focused and gain confidence and self-discipline.”

Sports like skiing got O’Donnell himself through a difficult adolescence. “They help people set and achieve goals and encourage a healthy lifestyle,” he says. It’s been shown that students who play sports in college do better in school than those who don’t. O’Donnell notes most kids won’t be able to make their university teams, but he hopes Ridge students will continue their own athletic pursuits, like skiing and mountain biking. “I don’t want them to end up sitting on the couch playing video games,” he says.

During the winter semester in Whitefish, the Ridge students lived by a highly structured routine.

They spent six days a week on the snow, freeriding, training in the terrain park, skinning uphill, and exploring the backcountry. (In the fall semester, the sports will shift to mountain biking and rock climbing.) Into that regimen they also fit yoga and weight training, rigorous avalanche training, a backcountry first-aid course, and a custom-built, university-level geology course. Each student also spent several hours a week at an internship—a few worked in ski shops, another pitched in at a nonprofit called Riding on Insulin, and one spent a couple of afternoons a week with the Whitefish ski patrol.

Backcountry skiing is the biggest opportunity, a discipline few teenagers have the opportunity to experience. And the rigor of uphill training has made the biggest difference for the students. When the crew arrived at Ridge in January, most of the inaugural class of six took an hour and 45 minutes to skin up 2,200-foot Whitefish Mountain. By the time they left for the B.C. ski trip, they could break the hour mark, even on two-a-days.

It shows. As we head for a lunch break on the fifth day at Valkyr, we’ve already logged 2,500 vert up the shoulder of a ridge just east of the lodge. Gault skins alongside Ridge coach Burket Kniveton, engaged in a discussion about the addictive nature of video games. “I used to play 40 hours a week,” admits Gault, who came to Ridge after his university proved to be a poor fit. “I was just spinning my wheels,” he says. “Plus, my roommate was training to be a pastry chef, so he’d bring home all these samples. I got kind of fat.” After three months following O’Donnell around Whitefish Mountain Resort, though, he chugs along at a respectable pace. Distracted as he was by the interesting conversation, he is surprised at how easily the last lap went when he arrives at the summit. “It didn’t even feel like we were hiking,” he says.

From the top, the jagged Valkyr peaks and toothy Valhalla range—every bit as dramatic as their names suggest—fill the horizon. The kids break out their thermoses for lunch—“soup on the summit,” they call it. Following O’Donnell’s lead, they stab their skis into the snow to form backrests facing the warm spring sun.

“Great job on the stew, Timmy,” says Samantha Ray, Ridge’s nutritionist, of the Caribbean chicken stew that student Timmy Palthey made last night. Ray is along at Valkyr turning out a cornucopia of meals like sea bass with French garlic hollandaise sauce and roasted veggies and a steady stream of fruit smoothies with the students’ help, but back in Whitefish she performed a coaching role. She spent Sunday evenings with the students, helping them plan and prep their menu for the rest of the week—meals they’d cook themselves.

“Good nutrition and cooking are life skills we want them to go home with,” says O’Donnell. “It’s part of the whole package: How do you structure your day? How do you get your freeriding in, your yoga done, your laundry, your grocery shopping, all balanced with schoolwork?”

Ray also worked with each student on nutritional goals. One waifish student, as a result, has packed on 15 pounds of muscle. Ray has the crew on a largely gluten-free diet, mainly to show them how good they can feel with the best possible nutrition. Palthey, 18, from Tunbridge, Vermont, can tell the difference. “I ate like crap over spring break, and when I got back I had a lot less energy,” he says.

“I’m in the best shape of my life,” says Gault, shortly after waking up from a short snooze in the sun. “Let’s go shred.”

On the last day of the Valkyr trip, the snow surface has failed to freeze overnight and remains a sticky, un-skiable spring mush. The Ridge crew scraps the final day of touring and instead spends the morning working on their blue books, recording and analyzing weather and avalanche conditions. This is followed by a raucous session of the board game Settlers of Catan. Alliances are formed and broken, empires rise and fall, smoothies are mixed and drunk. In the afternoon, the students practice building a snow shelter to help them survive the night should they ever be caught out in the backcountry.

After dinner (turkey meatballs with mushroom sauce and smashed sweet potatoes; pinto-bean-flour spice cake for dessert), it’s time for the semester’s final booter session. Along with Kniveton, who does most of Ridge’s freestyle coaching, the students head out past the sauna building to a pair of kickers they built earlier in the week, and which they’ve been sessioning on most every evening.

Student Jack Clark, 20, is working on a switch 360. In shirtsleeves, with the Furious 7 soundtrack pumping from the iPhone in his pocket, he trudges back up the hill, skis across his shoulders. “You might want to smooth out the lead-in a bit more—looks like your skis were catching outside the track,” says Kniveton.

It’s Gault’s run next. “You should go for a grab with your back hand,” says Kniveton. “That sounds totally awkward,” says Gault. But he’s game. “Let’s do it!” He hikes uphill to the starting zone.“Burket, if you have trust, you should lay under the lip and shoot.”

Kniveton, a photographer, has his camera in hand to help the students get started on their media portfolios. One of Ridge’s aims is to help the students get sponsorships, perhaps even go on to ski-industry careers. This inaugural class contains advanced riders, but O’Donnell hopes to begin attracting students with more competitive racing or freestyle backgrounds—in order to spin them into the sorts of cross-discipline, backcountry-savvy freeriders who currently dominate the ski media.

Kniveton declines to lie under the lip, which is a good call: Gault’s trajectory is a little short. The photos are turning out beautifully, though, with the low orange sun casting a rich, warm tone over the proceedings. Finally, just at sunset, Clark, with his GoPro held at arm’s length, nails the switch 360. The crew erupts in cheers as he slides to a stop in the flats downhill.

“Let’s end on that,” says Kniveton. 

For Frederick Reimers, former editor of Canoe and Kayak and a regular contributor to Skiing and Outside, pretty much every day is No Air Sunday.