Andy Hoye floats a turn down to JBY co-owner Landon Gardner. Photo: Aaron Deskins

Another Montana Hidden Gem

Tucked into the steep and deep northern Swan Range, the Jewel Basin Yurt delivers remote backcountry skiing—with easy access and plush accommodations. And by plush we mean you don’t need to shiver in a snow cave. 

We were busy testing our Peak SC skis deep into spring, but as soon as we had some solid working protos we of course ran them off the manicured slopes and headed to Jewel Basin Yurt to let them go feral—as is their wont. 

JBY is one of many gems of Montana skiing. The yurt is run in the VRBO style—no guiding, no outfitting, just self-supported ski touring in winter and hiking in summer. You can snowmachine or ski tour to it. From there, it's about a 10 minute snowmobile tow or 30 minute skin to some of the best skiing in Montana. 

That’s not hyperbole. Montana is a big state and it gets all types of weather. Down in southwest Montana, the higher peaks see thinner and drier snowpacks. Up in the Jewel in the northwest, the denser snowpacks hover around 12 to 14 feet. That’s 144 inches of settled snow with new layers dropping frequently. 

The deep snow is nice, but the beauty of JBY is that it serves such a range of terrain—not just the gnarly stuff. When the avalanche danger is in the red, you’ll find low angle/low hazard hippie skiing in old growth trees. When the danger is low but the light is too, there’s steep and jumbled treed terrain to pop around in above the yurt. And when conditions eventually go blue and stable, you can traverse north/south ridgelines overlooking Glacier National Park while choosing between pinner chutes, summit descents on alpine faces, and bowl skiing on a range of aspects.  

JBY was the invention of two skiers from the robust skiing community of Missoula. Landon Gardner spent eight years on the World Cup mogul circuit. But the competitive life delayed his backcountry dreams. Aaron Deskins grew up in a log cabin in the Mission Range and first discovered yurt skiing in his early 20s outside of Cooke City. Aaron had the backcountry experience and Landon had a handle on the business plan. They also had friends to help. A “Hairbag” crew that made a yearly sojourn into the Missions for a rugged backcountry camp. “Landon and I love snow camping,” says Aaron, “but you spend so much time just surviving when you’re out there that it can take away from the skiing.”

Independently they’d been on the lookout for a spot to erect a hut or a yurt—mining leases, public land permits, private holdings—but nothing came together. Finally, Landon stumbled upon a hunting lease on private property beneath the Jewel. Two years later in the fall of 2017 they built the deck and erected the yurt and outhouse. The first guests arrived in January of 2018—the day Landon’s son Sawyer was born. 

Ever since, JBY has been a smash. Avalanche groups have headed up for training—JBY is a proud supporter of the Flathead Avalanche Center. Ditto with the mountain rescue crowd. But mostly the guests are groups of friends with enough knowledge, skill, and fitness to ski and stay at a remote yurt without guides or instruction. Legally JBY can’t (and does not) provide either. 

Nobody is getting rich. Everybody is having a good time. The winter days tend to involve skiing your ass off and then enjoying après with deck beers as the sun sets over the Flathead Valley. Even if you can’t find decent skiing, which is exceedingly rare, you can still have a good time with the good people you brought. “It’s not a business that we’re paying off mortgages with,” says Landon. “It’s more of a fort for friends. Our friends, and folks we’ve never met.” 

For the Peak SC trip last April, Landon was out, but Aaron and his 21-year-old daughter Iris were up for testing skis while we flew camera drones. It was high avalanche hazard on steep terrain, and the alpine was also out, which in a lot of places would have been a bummer. But it being JBY, a squall moved in and we skied five inches of new snow on top of a spongy base with the lichen beards hanging from virgin timber all around. It was the type of low-angle skiing and terrain that anyone with their Avy 1 training and some mountain sense can identify. 

And that could describe some of the friends that Iris—who skis like a professional although she bakes croissants for a living—brings to the yurt. Hell, some of them barely ski and are happy to spend the day cooking and playing cards by the fire. 

After digging a snow test pit, Aaron and Iris Deskins rip skins. Iris has her Avy 1 through Beartooth Powder Guides and is taking her Woofer (Wilderness First Responder) course this winter.

Says Iris: “I started in high school by going with my dad to get to know the area. As I got more comfortable running the snowmobile and dragging the trailer up there without help, I began touring in those safe zones by myself. Sometimes I need that. Later I went up with friends. Now it feels easy and like something I can do. I don’t need to have my parents there, even though I love skiing with them. Going to the yurt is an experience that you leave feeling good about—and feeling changed from. You can find fun things to do without putting yourself in scary terrain or shredding gnarly lines. A lot of my friends just like playing in the snow and chopping wood.” 

Of course, it goes off at JBY too. Our VP of Product is a JBY volunteer—stained the outhouse brown last year—with stain. He’s skied 48 degree chutes on corn snow under full sun with that Hairbag crew. When the squall hit last spring it snowed five inches in a few hours. That type of PNW/BC pattern can often spill over into the Jewel. 

Aaron’s best day ever came on one of the annual Hairbags trips. “It was March of 2019,” says Aaron (“Earl” to the Hairbags). “We had a storm cycle that kept dumping cold dry snow. We were able to just crush waist-deep cold smoke (see top photo) and it kept snowing and snowing. We just skied the terrain above the yurt. It’s 1,500 to 1,800 vertical feet of steep tree skiing. Every run finishes at the yurt. The Norse gods were blessing us. Odin [Norse god of ecstasy and outlaws—Ed.] was smiling on us.” 

  • I skied the 104 SC and I was nervous as hell at first because I never ski a brand new ski in the backcountry before I ski it on area. But I really liked the way they skied. Even the 184, which is big for me, was fun and manageable right out of the box. They’re a bit stouter than my twin tips, but they were playful and bouncy in that spongy snow. I hope I can ride them again soon!

    Iris Deskins

  • The 98 SC I was on had a lot more oomph than my last few pairs of backcountry skis, but the rocker gives them a ton of float. They held the arc really well in longer sustained turns, but I could come out of that and make a slashy turn, too. My skis need to do both those things. My initial impression was super positive.

    Aaron Deskins

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