FLYING WITHOUT WINGS
February 10, 2022
Bold, joyous, antiauthoritarian, gritty, can-do, and a devil-may-care outlook on life—perhaps no two people sum up Big Sky like Lonnie and Mary Ball.
In the 1950s and 1960s, you didn’t have to go farther than Conrad, Montana, to find some of the best powder skiers in the West. It all went down at the state’s first ski area, Kings Hill, now Showdown, which opened in the Little Belt Mountains south of Great Falls in 1936.
Conrad was home to 1,900 people circa 1950—2,600 people today—but the small farming community included skiing legends like Onno Wieringa, one of the first 10th Mountain Division soldiers, whose son, also named Onno Wieringa, would later run Alta for decades. Even the ranchers in Conrad skied. The Gustafsons were, and still are, a famous quarter horse family, but skiers from Colorado and beyond knew their sons, Duke and Rib Gustafson, for their effortless powder skiing. The Conrad town mechanic, Jim Ball, and his wife Doris, an entrepreneur, skied too. In February, 1947, the Balls brought a boy named Lonnie Lee into their world of hard work, self-sufficiency, and unpampered skiing in the Montana style.
Back then Kings Hill’s 2,000-foot rope tow zipped skiers up 8,200-foot high Porphyry Peak, which col- lects about 20 feet of cold Montana snow a year. It wasn’t long before young Lonnie was skipping school and hitchhiking out to Kings Hill where he ruined untold mittens on the burning rope. Up on the hill, Duke and Rib took him in and taught him how to crouch low and tweak his upper body for floaty turns in deep snow.
“It was flying without wings,” Lonnie says, referencing the book that had inspired him to ski, Flight Without Wings, the biography of Hannes Schneider, the Austrian ski school instructor who essentially taught the world to ski.
Lonnie picked up skiing fast, so he decided he’d try out for the Great Falls High School ski racing team. Rib had raced in college at Montana State and landed scores of top-ten finishes. But for Rib, those days were over. He was a powder skier now. Still, Lonnie wanted to emulate him and trained all summer, run- ning bleachers.
And then, just before the very first tryout, Kings Hill got plastered with an early-season storm. Deep, fluffy snow blanketed the peak and piled up high among the conifers. Anyone who wanted to be on the ski team had to help prepare the training run. Which meant instead of powder skiing they’d be side-stepping.
“We were all out there packing the course on our skis, up and down, up and down, getting it ready, and out of the woods came Duke and Rib,” says Lonnie. “They saw me and slid up—and just kind of frowned.”
“Hey, kid,” Rib said.
“Are you going to ski it or pack it all your life?”
Before Lonnie could answer they vanished in a cloud of smoke.
As a photographer, Lonnie’s photos of Mary have landed on Big Sky brochures, the sides of buses, billboards, trail maps, glossy magazines and newspapers. “We were singing for our supper.”
If you know the name Lonnie Ball, you know how this goes.
For the next 60 years and counting, Lonnie skied it, and not with the team he didn’t try out for, but with pros and some of the sport’s most impactful figures, like the filmmakers Warren Miller and Greg Stump, and the father of powder skiing Alf Engen, not to mention legions of ski bumming friends so many of whom went on to shape the sport. His favorite ski partner? Mary, a gorgeous schusser in her own right, the love of his life, his wife.
Now in his mid-70s, and still a stalwart Big Sky ripper, Lonnie can look back and see the mark he left on the sport. He was the first to ski Jackson’s Corbet’s Couloir. He helped bring heli-skiing to Alaska, and opened the Ridge at Bridger Bowl—one of the birthplaces of American steep skiing. He ski patrolled at Alta and Jackson’s Teton Village. At Jackson, they named a run after him, or his antics anyway. Ski manufactur- ers have long leaned into his expertise with product, but also with marketing. Lonnie ran a guiding outfit for film and magazine shoots, ski tests, and industry powerhouses like Jake Burton, who nicknamed him “Launchy.” In his role, he almost always got to ski first.
Together, Launchy and Mary have likely skied Big Sky more than anyone else—with 4,500 trips up the Lone Peak Tram alone, including dozens of laps before it even opened to the public in 1995. As a photog- rapher, Lonnie’s photos of Mary have landed on Big Sky brochures, the sides of buses, billboards, and trail maps. Other images of her have appeared in glossy magazines and newspapers. “We were singing for our supper,” he says.
To tell a bit of Lonnie’s story it’s best not to follow a strict chronology like a résumé. But damn if his CV isn’t worthy—today, Lonnie is a nominee for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. “Lonnie’s been so committed and passionate about skiing for so long, and on the cutting edge of so many of its trends, you have to wonder, who is this guy?” says the film skier Dan Egan, a Hall of Famer who nominated Lonnie for the honor this fall. “He’s the guy who makes everyone else look good, and when you meet him, it’s like opening a skiing history treasure chest.”
As for skiing or packing, Lonnie didn’t quit the high school ski team right then and there mid-side- step because his would-be coach, who’d heard the entire conversation, threatened to make Lonnie walk home if he didn’t stay and help. So he quit the next day instead. That was the end of his racing days,
“Being on patrol, of course I had to make sure the powder was good out there for people.” —Lonnie Ball
though he did run the gates one last time, the story of which speaks to his potential. In 1975, at the National Veterans Championships Ski Race at Big Sky, he shocked the field by taking third in the downhill and fifth in the slalom.
“The best part about that was Tippy Huntley gave out the awards,” Lonnie says, referring to the wife of Big Sky founder and TV presenter Chet Huntley. “She planted a big kiss right on my cheek that I never washed off.”
It can all sound gilded, but the ski world didn’t just open itself up to Lonnie. He had to work for it. After graduating high school in 1965, Lonnie landed an apprenticeship in the field of construction cranes, first as an “oiler” in charge of keeping the machines lubed, and then as an operator himself. It was the height of the Cold War, and hundreds of Minuteman Missiles, the nuclear-tipped interconti- nental kind, were sown into the fields of central Montana. The military needed private crane operators to build the silos.
Now picture Lonnie in the cab of his machine, earning $3.52 an hour while reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation—he was taking correspondence classes in literature at the time— until the workmen he’d lowered 60-feet into a missile hole had finished for the day. Later, like so many Montanans, he worked on the pipeline in Alaska, where he got to know helicopter pilots who would let him hitch rides up and down the 800-mile-long project. One day he flew into a sprawling man camp in Valdez at the base of the Chugach.
“I saw that range from the air and my eyes were opened,” Lonnie says. “I went to the top brass and said you guys need to set up a heli-skiing service. They just looked at me and said, ‘We’re in the oil business.’ ” A decade later, his vision came to life after he shared what he had seen with the extreme skiing pioneer
Doug Coombs, who would go on to open Valdez Heli-Ski Guides based in part on Lonnie’s advice.
Around 1963, Lonnie got serious about ski patrolling and passed the senior patrollers test at Missoula’s Snowbowl. He then darted down to Bozeman for the first avalanche class at Bridger Bowl. He was 16. He’d been working as a junior patroller at Kings Hill, but his boss didn’t like him.
“He was always on my ass, looking to catch me doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, which was easy,” says Lonnie. “Being on patrol, of course I had to make sure the powder was good out there for people.”
The Gustafsons had been talking up Alta, Engen, and how great the skiing was down in Utah, so Lonnie applied for a patroller position at the lift company, which was looking for people with avalanche experi- ence. His boss at Kings Hill gave him a glowing recommendation, probably to get rid of him, he thinks.
Mary took ski lessons using her uncle’s skis from his days in the 10th Mountain Division. “They didn’t last long,” she says. “I broke them.”
Lonnie got the job.
He spent that summer working cranes. By then he was making more than his dad ever had at around $15
an hour—$130 in today’s dollars. Cash rich, he bought a sea-foam green 1959 Chrysler Imperial, the kind with the giant fins off the back and the spare tire mounted into the roof of the enormous trunk. He bought new powder skis, 210s with a P-Tex base that were maybe 70 mm underfoot. He couldn’t wait to use them.
“When the snow fell on the missile sites there was an ironworker who just got up and left,” Lonnie says. “The foreman said, ‘Where you going?’”
“To get my coat.” “Where’s your coat?” “Oklahoma.”
Lonnie basically staged the same exit, and by the end of October he was driving the Imperial down to Alta, where he got to improve his avalanche and forecasting skills under some of the fathers of avalanche science and mitigation Ed LaChapelle, Ron Perla, and Binx Sandahl.
It was there on his first day at Alta that he also met the most influential person of his life. He was at the bar at the Alta Lodge (where patrons brought their own booze, by the way, because, Utah). He got talking to Mary Harrow, an Oregonian who’d come to work at the resort to improve her powder skiing. Mary had been a competitive breaststroke swimmer, but the University of Oregon, where she was studying anthro- pology and art, didn’t have a women’s swim team. Instead, she took ski lessons using her uncle’s skis from his days in the 10th Mountain Division. “They didn’t last long,” she says. “I broke them.” The two hit it off immediately.
Lonnie and Mary skied together almost daily at Alta, taking lessons from Engen, and ever since have been inseparable. Where Mary skied, Lonnie skied. He asked her to marry him and she said yes.
“Mary’s as big a part of Lonnie’s story as Lonnie is,” says Dan Egan. “She’s been there every step of the way.”
Even now, those Alta days count among some of the couple’s best. Mary’s powder skiing improved dra- matically—it used to be quite hard to ski untracked powder—while Lonnie skied the main 45-degree chute off Baldy top to bottom and developed a style of powder skiing—the Alta crouch—that he still uses to this day. Later, when Onno Wieringa the younger was working his way up the ranks, he got Lonnie on High Rustler—perhaps the most famous steep powder shot in the world—twice before anyone else could ski it. “We were like gods,” Lonnie says.
That next winter, 1966, the skiing world was abuzz when Jackson Hole opened its aerial tram. “Big Red” linked the base with Rendezvous Peak at 10,450 feet. Lonnie was tapped to join the ski patrol there thanks to his avalanche experience, and so after another summer of cranes, the couple drove the Chrysler to Wyoming. They skied by day and worked night jobs at the rowdy Seven Levels Inn.
It was in Jackson that Lonnie logged some of his strongest memories. There were only about four skiers in the world at that point who were doing flips on skis—Stein Eriksen being one of them—but at the end of each day, as Lonnie was doing his “super sweep” off Rendezvous Peak to close the mountain, he’d come barreling down the Laramie Traverse with his full patrol pack on and throw a front flip into Laramie Bowl. “Even 20 years later doing a flip would scare the heck out of ski area management, so I was way ahead of that,” he laughs. “Some of the time I didn’t make it, but most of the time I did.” Still today, that spot and the black diamond run below it are called Flip Point.
As for Lonnie’s singular fame among skiers, that came in January, 1967, when he became the first person to ski Corbet’s Couloir, the steep shot right below the Jackson Hole tram that Barry Corbet, a local instruc- tor, had peered into seven years prior and proclaimed, “Someday, someone will ski that.” To this day, Lonnie insists he didn’t really mean to be that someone. In his telling, a cornice he was standing on over the chute shifted, forcing him to jump in. This happened right as a tram car passed overhead.
“My boss told me not to do anything stupid when I signed on. I was really worried I’d lose my job over it,” he says. So Lonnie stayed silent for weeks while witnesses tried to piece together who’d done it. Finally he came clean. He got first tracks in what would become the most iconic line in North American resort skiing. “It wasn’t until much later that I realized what a big deal that was,” he says. He was 19 years old at the time. And he kept his job.
The following winter Lonnie returned to Great Falls to teach private lessons at Kings Hill, and in 1969, at 22 years old, he and Mary had their first child, a son named Kelly. A daughter, Melissa, followed a few years later after the couple had moved to Bozeman, where Lonnie worked on the Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol and started a popular campaign for the area to open the Ridge.
By then he’d scored a movie camera that his brother, Jim, had gifted him. The thing kept freezing up, though, so Lonnie got a Canon F-1. He quickly realized the trick to ski photography was quick camera access, so he designed a neoprene case he could strap off the front of his avalanche pack. Most of the shots he took were of people skiing powder. He was ahead of his time on that, too. “I had so many publications early on tell me, oh, we don’t cover that kind of skiing,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Lonnie and Mary used some crane money to buy a lot at the base of Bridger Bowl where Lonnie built a house, the construction of which, he says, will be finished when he dies. Around that time, he launched Montana Powder Guides, which he hoped would turn into a heli-skiing company, until insurance costs made it impossible. Redirecting yet again, he became an on-demand avalanche forecaster, guide, and logistics per- son for companies like The North Face and Burton that would send athletes out to Montana for product testing and magazine shoots. He skied Bridger Bowl almost daily.
That changed in 1995 when Big Sky opened the Lone Peak Tram. The Balls knew the workers building it and they invited them to ride it before it officially opened. Of course, Lonnie photographed those trips with Mary as his model, and the media used those photos for all the stories about this new tram. Eventually, the Big Sky marketing department approached him and asked him to be one of the resort’s photographers. It wasn’t long before he was the head photographer.
“Lonnie is all about forwarding the stoke,” says Dax Schieffer, who met Lonnie in the mid-1990s while working for the resort’s marketing department. “He didn’t really care what the clothes looked like, or what the gear looked like, or if you could see the logos. He’d be out there shooting in the worst conditions—wind blowing, dark skies—because that is what he loves.”
These days the Balls still ski Big Sky about 80 days a year, which means they’re slowing down. Lonnie’s hips have given out, which hasn’t affected his skiing. “He can literally ski better than he can walk,” says friend Dave Stergar. He helps manage the contractors that clear the roads of snow in his subdivision. Mary loves her garden. The Chrysler is long gone. They drive a Cadillac now.
But there in the house, along with a museum-worthy collection of skis, and prints of powder skiing’s pioneering days, Lonnie and Mary have kept every season pass they’ve ever had. That’s well over 50 each, they’ve only ever had to buy four of them.
“I believe that sums up a successful ski bum’s life,” he says.