In the Field
Alexandra van Zyl
It’s widely believed we are a product of our environment. The place we call home has a profound influence on our decision making and the way we interact with the world. Beau Fredlund’s environment is the wilderness of the mighty Yellowstone National Park and the remote Absaroka Beartooth Mountains on the edge of Montana. Out here, in the realm of the largest mammals to prowl the Americas, Fredlund’s life has evolved to fit the contours of the landscape around him.
Now 40,barely a seedling in whitebark pine years, he shares the lofty height, quiet and observant qualities of this much-loved endemic tree, as well as the intelligent curiosity, natural grace and bright eyes of the family of foxes that lives under the old, abandoned cabin across from his house. This combination works well in Cooke City (population 77), which is fabled to be the snowiest community in Montana, where Fredlund has made his home for the past 16 years.
Cooke City is now one of the gateways to Yellowstone, but hardy prospectors first placed it on the map in the late nineteenth century. The isolation meant its founding settlement was short-lived, but the hard edge of last frontier lawlessness still endures thanks to a close-knit community of rugged locals. Seven months of the year, the Beartooth Highway is closed beyond this point while the crisp, cold climate faithfully delivers a thick, dreamlike blanket of powder.
A representative sign hangs in front of the only grocery store: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Except for bears — bears will kill you.” It immediately sets the mood. Today, the horses tethered to the Miner’s Saloon hitching post have metal coats with thirsty engines. Famed for sledding, the noisy machine scene is the antithesis of Fredlund’s philosophy. But despite being an anomaly, he has become part of the community, so he stays.
Fredlund’s approach is different. He doesn’t seek to shred his environment — instead, he chooses to slip into it, become a part of it, and float over its contours. A skier’s setup tells us a lot about how he interacts with the environment. Not surprisingly, Fredlund is usually found on skis with 122 mm underfoot and Scarpa Alien boots (785 g/1.73 lbs). He skins straight up from his front door, crossing his furry neighbour’s tracks, occasionally those of the elusive wolverine.
He didn’t start here. Growing up in Billings, Montana, an hour from the closest ski hill, young Beau was into freestyle, but following a bad accident on a rail, his instinct was to turn towards quieter places. He and his friends began to build kickers in the backcountry, even purchasing the first low-tech binding on the market to escape the slopes. He ventured deeper into nature after high school when he got a job with the Forest Service in Red Lodge, maintaining trails to start with, before working his way up to Wilderness Ranger.
Later, as a freshman studying in Bozeman, Montana, he had a season pass for Bridger Bowl. “But I was curious to learn more about the backcountry, ski untracked slopes, and have bigger adventures than riding chairlifts,” he says.
It was the very same year he first went to Cooke City. “We had excellent conditions, sunshine and powder,” he recalls. “I got a sample of the potential of the place. A couple of years after graduating, I moved there because it was so wild, and there was so much to explore. No one else was ski touring in the high mountains.”
It was a significant watershed in his life. Nowadays, Fredlund can only be found at a ski resort once or twice a year. It’s hard to picture him on slopes swarming with humans, given that over the past 20 winters, he’s averaged 120 days in the backcountry.
The truth is, he often finds himself skiing alone, but not by design. “People tend to think I’m a lone wolf, but in reality, it’s hard to find a partner out here,” he admits. His solo expeditions were incredibly satisfying, but he felt compelled to share his experiences with others. About 12 years ago, he took the leap to become a ski guide and eventually founded Yellowstone Ski Tours, his high-end backcountry guiding service.
Fredlund now had the means to share with others the lessons he has learned from his environment. He hunts deer in the stretching shadows of autumn; and cures his venison jerky in preparation for winter’s long days in sub-zero temperatures. He studied photography as a minor at university and now turns his lens towards the majestic creatures he roams the woods with as the seasons change. Fascinated with the texture, nuances and particularities of the snow that blankets his world for much of the year, he began teaching basic snow science and avalanche courses in 2009 and regularly sends data and observations to his local avalanche centre.
As a result, skiers get much more than a guide who helps them stay safe, find face shots, and bag vertical metres. Fredlund’s clients quickly become immersed in his love for the Yellowstone ecosystem and personal approach to the outdoors. True to his calling, he only employs fellow guides and in-the-field specialists with the same incandescent flame of passion in their eyes for these lands.
Fredlund’s personal touch extends to the Yellowstone Ski Tours newsletters he writes — they’re like updates on snow conditions, animal sightings and safety tips you’d receive from a good friend. Most clients are returning customers. “They’re people I know and trust and enjoy skiing with,” he agrees. It’s easy to see why clients keep returning when the package includes pristine landscapes, champagne powder snow, foraging herds of bison, natural hot springs and such knowledgable, agreeable company.
Frelund’s years in this far-flung nook have witnessed his evolution from ski bum to ski guide, and his housing has followed suit — recently upgraded from a yurt (romantic but freezing) to his own solid four walls. His guide business is also building a firmer, more permanent foundation with his recent acquisition of a permit to guide in the neighbouring Shoshone and Custer Gallatin National Forests. His range of wandering has expanded, and he can take his faithful clients even further from the bustle of civilization. There are no other tracks to worry about here — well, at least not human ones. As Fredlund strides softly through the towering pines leading his group, breaking trail in a shimmering halo of ice crystals, it’s clear how wilderness has shaped this man’s life.