At the RIDGE Mountain Academy near Whitefish, student-athletes from across the country are receiving an offbeat education meshing together adventure sports, academics and life skills in the surrounding outdoors

Story by Dillon Tabish | Photography by Greg Lindstrom

It began with a healthy breakfast in the main kitchen of the 16-acre campus where the students from around the country live and study during the winter semester from January through May. Each student, utilizing the nutritional advice they receive throughout their time here, cooked up hearty meals and eased into the morning. Some days begin with a yoga session or early workout.

But on this day it was time to gear up — donning top-notch equipment and apparel that would fit appropriately on a professional athlete — before departing for a rather unique classroom: the vast slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Under the tutelage of Billy O’Donnell, a professional skier, and a crew of highly trained coaches, the five students spent the day honing their technical skills on skis and snowboards. Each individual weaved downhill, working on pivot slips and fluid turns while their mentors watched each and every turn, pitching individual feedback to the young men.

Front and center was O’Donnell, the academy’s energetic and visionary founder. He described skiing the same way a painter discusses artwork, praising the transcendent qualities of the sport and the creativity that should drive it.

“I don’t want you to ski like a robot. Be creative. Be dynamic on the snow,” he said before diving downhill with a fast, unmistakable presentation.

Tom Danley, a ski coach at RIDGE Mountain Academy, trains at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Tom Danley, a ski coach at RIDGE Mountain Academy, trains at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

This gap-year academy is his brainchild.

Nearly two years ago, the longtime Colorado resident began developing a center for student athletes seeking an offbeat education meshing together adventure sports, academics and life skills.

Gap-year institutions — offering a reprieve to young adults transitioning from high school to college — are not uncommon in Europe. But in the U.S. it remains a novel idea. At least for now.

O’Donnell, a former international ski athlete who holds master’s degrees in business administration and global studies from the University of Denver, was focused on 17- to 20-year-olds who may not be ready to jump straight into college after high school, or are seeking a detour from the conventional education path, and wanted to offer them an exciting session of self-exploration and outdoor discovery.

“There’s this in-between age where a lot of people don’t know what they want to do yet,” he said.

Rooted in his passion for adventure, the RIDGE Mountain Academy was born.

The new institution embarked on its inaugural winter semester in early January with six student-athletes from across the country, including Texas, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Illinois.

RIDGE Mountain Academy student-athletes gear up for a day of training at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

RIDGE Mountain Academy student-athletes gear up for a day of training at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“We have been working toward the launch of our first semester for the past year and a half and our team is ready to bring new momentum into young people’s lives,” O’Donnell said.

When planning the academy, he stumbled upon Whitefish, and relatively quickly deemed it a perfect location because of its proximity to the pristine outdoors and a top-notch ski resort. He also recognized a culture that reflected the active-lifestyle teachings that the academy would focus on.

Before gathering students, O’Donnell assembled a talented crew of guides and instructors from a variety of backgrounds, including pro snowboarder Sean Busby, talented ski mountaineer and competitive mountain biker Ben Parsons, pro skier David Steele and skilled rider and skier Tom Danley.

“The diversity of skills is fantastic,” Danley said. “These are the fundamentals you need to live in a mountain community.”

The first students at the academy were introduced to the adventurous curriculum that was designed for the winter. Each participant engages in physical training and coaching in their chosen discipline of backcountry skiing or snowboarding, with additional disciplines of Nordic skiing, ice climbing, and skimo racing. In the fall semester, the program will transition to mountain climbing, trail running, and mountain biking.

Each student must also take courses in avalanche safety and wilderness medicine, as well as a mountain snow science course accredited by the University of Montana.

Also, students are enrolled in an internship in the community, including the ski patrol at Whitefish Mountain Resort or local shops.

Their days are regimented and structured, with in-class and outdoor sessions that are designed to prepare young men and women of all abilities, from beginner to elite, to enjoy lifelong adventures.

“For that age group, it’s perfect. It’s a good fundamental basis,” Danley said. “They’re real impressionable. It’s right at that step where you can tell if you either like something or you really want to refine it and go further with it. It really sets the tone for what you do in life.”

O’Donnell at his Whitefish home.

O’Donnell at his Whitefish home.

Quinlan Conroy is the youngest student in the inaugural class. The 16-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, is O’Donnell’s cousin and enrolled for the winter while taking online high school courses. His goal was to expand his knowledge of the outdoors and become a better skier. Less than a month into the training, results were clearly emerging.

“I really like it. I’m on the way to being a more well-rounded skier,” he said. “It’s been really good. Each coach is their own skier, and they’re not all trying to get you to do the same things.”

Conroy has also learned a lot about nutrition and wilderness safety, skills he didn’t expect to pick up but appreciates now that he has.

“I’ve learned a lot about nutrition and the way it makes you perform,” he said. “They can really give you the facts about it.”

That’s the type of discovery that O’Donnell hopes to see.

The academy has an advisory board with several high-profile experts, including Brad Ludden, the founder of First Descents. There is also a fully devoted academic coordinator and administrative manager who both help with outreach and student registry. The goal is to grow the academy to over 20 students in the winter and fall semesters.

“For me, it’s beyond or better than I could’ve ever expected with how things are going,” he said, adding, “I’ve been learning a lot about how do we tailor all of this into a cool progressive gap-year format.”

For more information about the RIDGE Mountain Academy, visit www.ridgeacademy.com.