Can you imagine a school that gets more done with deep, snowy days than it does without? An institution with students who use splitboards and backcountry beacons more often than they do calculators? Former pro skier Billy O’Donnell imagined such a school and made it a reality. He founded the RIDGE Mountain Academy in Whitefish, MT, an accredited gap-year program for 16 to 22-year-old backcountry enthusiasts that helps them develop the skillsets they’ll need to safely venture into the mountains. It’s one hell of a way to earn some college credits before jumping into the university life full time.
“I wanted to create a program that involves education, accessing the backcountry, and living like a professional athlete,” says Billy. “At RIDGE students learn those skills, while at the same time they’re growing to become more mature and ready for everything that’s ahead of them in life.”
If there’s anyone who can design a curriculum to maximize every single minute of any given day, it’s Billy O’Donnell. “We set things up so that students learn how to conduct themselves in a mountain town as healthy, productive athletes,” he says. The RIDGE Mountain Academy’s staff covers every aspect of what that means to Billy, from proper nutrition to practicing yoga, trip planning with an understanding of topographical maps and snow science, routine uphill training, downhill movement analysis, fitness metrics and more. Simply put, the academy life is as busy as it gets.
Students shack up just outside of downtown Whitefish in a cabin that feels more like a cat skiing lodge than it does a dormitory. In the lodge’s kitchen is where they meet with Health and Nutrition Coach, Christy Ewing, to discuss different food options for days ahead, as well as what kind of impact their diet has on their performance. Students are directly involved with preparing their own meals, which Christy says can be huge for personal development. “Building their efficacy in the kitchen and growing the confidence that they can cook for themselves is huge,” Christy says. “They’re learning about the food as it pertains to them here at RIDGE—like like how proper nutrition can help aid inflammation, maintain homeostasis, and things like that—but they can also apply this knowledge once they leave, too. My approach is towards mindful eating and integrating wellness into their daily lives.”
After early morning wake-ups and breakfast at the lodge the crew will hop in the company van and head either to the Wave Aquatic and Fitness Wellness center for fitness training and yoga, or straight to the RIDGE Mountain Academy basecamp to gear up for the mountain. Before leaving the basecamp, they’ll look over the area’s snow condition reports and assess the avalanche danger as a team, which Billy says is another important aspect of RIDGE. “I grew up playing a lot of team sports, and wanted to bring that team feel into things here,” he says. “The van rides, the locker room vibe downstairs; the students are getting ready together, training together, and supporting each other. The ones who are faster will wait at the finish line and cheer up every-last person, really making this all a big team effort.”
Depending on the day, on-hill time can consist of uphill training inbounds at Whitefish Mountain Resort, freeride coaching, touring the resort’s surrounding backcountry, or just ripping powder if conditions are prime. But even on those looser days, the coaches—all of whom shred proficiently and have extensive knowledge regarding proper form, style and instruction in their respective disciplines—are carefully monitoring and critiquing the students to help improve their riding or skiing. Whether they’re out of bounds evaluating snow conditions and tackling new lines or advancing their composure on features around Whitefish Mountain Resort, the program is designed to help them maximize their potential both mentally and physically on a wide variety of terrain. “What distinguishes RIDGE from other academies is our emphasis on accessing the backcountry, as well as the uphill touring and fitness elements,” Billy says.
Back at basecamp after mornings on the mountain the crew will have lunch and file in for class. A few days a week they’ll meet with RIDGE Mountain Academy’s Education Instructor Paul Rappaport, who has a master’s in geology and over 20 years of teaching about geology, glaciers, snow science and climate change issues under his belt. “With one of the core aspects of RIDGE being able to venture out of bounds, we focus a lot on what pertains to that,” Paul says. “It’s about being able to read the weather, and to look at topographical maps and really think about the contour lines and what they mean while planning an approach in the backcountry.” As an added-bonus to learning skills that will help them safely access the backcountry, students can earn up to 9 college credits with the University of Montana through classes taught in RIDGE’s core curriculum. And in 2016 RIDGE earned its accreditation from the American Gap Association, helping to make those credits more easily transferrable from UOM to other colleges around the country.
“We put in a lot of work over the semester, both in the classroom and on the mountain,” Billy says. “We’re doing big days in the backcountry, improving our technical skills, covering tons of vert, eating well—and we’re doing all of this day after day. It’s rigorous, but it’s supportive. And while most of our students likely won’t go onto become professional athletes, they’ll leave RIDGE knowing how to live like one.”
Special thanks to Brian Schott & Explore Whitefish for helping facilitate this editorial trip, and to the Pine Lodge & Morning Eagle at Whitefish Mountain Resort for downtown and slopeside accommodation, respectively.