Life in Big Sky Country With Mystery Ranch’s Ben Nobel
We recently took a trip to Montana to explore Bozeman, ride motorcycles, and hike in the Rockies (oh—and test the Flint and Tinder Flannel-lined Waxed Trucker Jacket). While we were there, we enlisted our buddy, Mystery Ranch’s Ben Nobel, to show us around Big Sky Country. Here, we catch up with him on his work, his ski addiction, and what it’s like to take your daughter camping for the first time.
What’s it like living in Montana?
I like that the good stuff around here takes effort to get to, because I think the reward is just better all around when you do have to go through some shit in order to get the goods.
It’s not very developed, so access kind of sucks, but I like that. Good backcountry skiing is hard to get to. You need a snowmobile, and that’s a barrier to entry that most people aren’t willing to invest in. And the weather can be pretty harsh. It can be frickin’ cold and really windy. If you’re out in the mountains doing something, hunting for example, or fishing, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with that. It can be pretty gnarly sometimes, and I like that. I like the fact that it’s not just a giveaway. I like that the good stuff around here takes effort to get to, because I think the reward is just better all around when you do have to go through some shit in order to get the goods.
What’s a memorable experience from your time at Mystery Ranch?
It’s such a close group of people out here. [Mystery Ranch Founder] Dana gives us so much freedom for creativity and freedom of thought. I remember at one point—I think I had been here four years—it was wintertime and it had snowed two feet, but I still came into work at 8:30. Dana came into my office and looked me dead in the eye and said, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
That was the point I really realized that I’m willing to put the time in for this guy. He gets it. He’s a clairvoyant type of a guy when it comes to product development, he’s really smart, and he’s come up with some really cool products over the years. But he also had done a really good job of developing a really loyal community of people who work here.
And in your free time, you’re on the board of directors for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. What made you want to join that team?
Understanding avalanches and knowing how to navigate the alpine environment is critical to your survival and your goal to live to ski another day.
I’ve been skiing in the backcountry for about 20 years and unfortunately have lost quite a few friends to avalanches. Early on in my skiing career, I realized that education and understanding the snowpack is crucial. It’s a pretty dangerous sport. Nine times out of 10, the victim of an avalanche is the trigger, so it isn’t some fluke thing. Understanding avalanches and knowing how to navigate the alpine environment is critical to your survival and your goal to live to ski another day.
So 10 years ago—about as long as I’ve been at Mystery Ranch—I started volunteering for the Avalanche Center. It’s become a very important part of my life—to share the knowledge that I have with the rest of the community, whether it’s people who are really experienced and they just want to continue their education or newcomers who’ve never been in the backcountry and just want to make sure that they know what they’re doing and be able to make good decisions.
I’m sure your work at both Mystery Ranch and the Avalanche Center keeps you busy. What do you do to disconnect?
Firewood warms you three times: once when you cut it down, once when you split it and once when you burn it. That was always a good piece of advice I got from my grandfather.
Boy, that’s changed a lot over the years. I really do love cutting firewood. There’s something really basic and simple about it, and I like to do manual labor and run in the mountains to wind down.
And, I’ve got a kid now. That’s definitely changed my whole life. I used to play in the mountains 250 or 300 days a year. Now I love playing with my kid and watching her grow up. I bought a camper, which I never thought I would do. But I did, and I took my daughter out camping this summer. I remember lying in bed one night thinking about how I can recall being 25, wondering what it was going to be like to introduce my kid to the outdoors. And then all of a sudden it dawned on me that I was doing it. It was a pretty heavy moment, and it’s just a really powerful experience to show her all the things that I’ve done. Hopefully, that can continue, and she likes it.
What’s the best part of being a dad?
I’m kind of a sensitive dude when it comes down to a lot of this stuff. I cry a lot. Like, I dropped her off at preschool and bawled the other day. All these little things that I’ve anticipated in life—teaching my kid how to ski, bringing my kid out in the mountains, watching her interact with animals. Now that it’s happening, it’s so emotional.
I think her attitude and her energy is so like mine, which is weird. A lot of people tell me we look alike. She’s a mini-me, and I’m just so proud of who she is. I can’t wait to be able to speak with her. Because she can’t really talk right now, and I want to see the world from her perspective.
What’s the one thing that you hope to pass down to your daughter the most?
I will make a commitment to Frances, my daughter, to do everything I can to help protect this sensitive Earth that we live on.
Stewardship of the land. I think that it is our duty as parents of the next generation to instill a dedication to protecting the planet. I am scared that my generation hasn’t done enough, and I’m afraid that we’re going to be passing on more problems. I will make a commitment to Frances, my daughter, to do everything I can to help protect this sensitive Earth that we live on. I want to make sure that she sees both her mother and me working hard to do that.
I also want to focus on work ethic. I want to make sure that she realizes that nothing comes for free, and good things take hard work. One of those, I think the responsibility that we have is to make sure that we focus that hard work on protecting this planet.
So I know that you’re also an avid hunter. What do you love most about hunting?
Everyone should read Undaunted Courage in their lifetime. It’s a book by Stephen Ambrose about the Lewis and Clark expedition, which I think is a huge part of American history that is under-showcased.
It’s such a different way to be in the mountains. I didn’t grow up hunting. I had spent most of my 20s climbing and skiing, so the whole goal was to move as fast as you can to get to the top and then get out as quickly as you can. Hunting is totally different. Hunting is way slower, and you’re way more in tune with the atmosphere. The temperatures, the wind, the elevation—it all plays a pretty important role. It’s really kind of one of the only sports that you have to pay such close attention to. It’s given me a whole new outlook on what it’s like to be in the mountains.
Let alone the fact that it’s just such an extraordinary experience to harvest your own food. It is so emotional, and it’s so raw to be there at that moment. It’s challenging and really hard, it’s a ton of work. Sometimes you’re in grizzly bear country, it can be pretty dangerous. Yet when the time comes and you feed your family with meat that you harvested, it’s a pretty historic moment.
I think it fuels a lot of my commitment to the conservation of public land. And to the health of our habitat and health of the population of wild animals. It definitely is a pretty eye-opening way to experience the mountains and very humbling.
We’ve also talked a lot about how you're a big skier, what about skiing is so addictive to you?
The indescribable feeling of sliding down a steep slope in powder is kind of... There are no words for it, and maybe that’s why it’s so exciting—because I think we’re all trying to figure it out.
Yeah. That’s like the biggest, hardest question for me to answer because I don’t know why.
I started skiing as a kid, and it’s just so damn simple. All it is is just sliding down a hill. I’ve evolved a lot into coming up with some really big objectives and skiing big peaks and traveling all over the world to try to find new places. I’ve been pretty lucky to have gone to the places that I’ve been and stood on top of the mountains that I’ve been on.
The accomplishment of summiting a big peak is a huge draw for sure, I think that’s part of the reason that a lot of people climb and ski in general is the feeling of accomplishment, especially if you’re human-powered. But then there’s the flip side about the indescribable feeling of sliding down a steep slope in powder is kind of... There are no words for it, and maybe that’s why it’s so exciting—because I think we’re all trying to figure it out.
But it’s also brought me to where I am today. I wouldn’t have my career or my friends or even my wife without skiing. I think my whole life has been dedicated around this really simple thing, and I’m good with that. In this day and age, it’s a messy world, it’s complicated, work is hard. It’s nice to have something that gives you so much joy and so much happiness.
So kind of between hunting and skiing and just your overall lifestyle, it seems like you’re always outdoors. What would you say is the biggest lesson that the outdoors have taught you?
Well maybe I’ll put this one off the record, but maybe not. The biggest lesson I learned is don’t fuck up and die. I hate to say that so bluntly, but the mountains are a humbling place. They’re big, they’re powerful, and I think that in this day and age we can easily kind of get ahead of ourselves thinking we’re invincible in whatever little bubble we’re in. The mountains can deliver us a big piece of humble pie. Which I think we all should chew on as often as we can because I think the more that we realize that we’re just a part of something much larger, this ecosystem that we live in, I think the better off we’re all going to be.
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