by Kevin and Vanessa O’Donnell
In 2000, I met my wife, Vanessa, while we both were working in Yellowstone National Park and after the summer season she moved to Big Sky Resort and I moved to Grand Targhee Resort. I went to visit her and we had first date at Big Sky on Valentine’s Day, at a small Chinese restaurant that is now long gone. We were able to ski Big Sky the way it should be skied, long days, all conditions, going big, with big smiles. The following winter Vanessa joined me in Grand Targhee. We skied the best snow of our lives here, but always looking for that next day, next storm, next foot of pow.
Today we have three kids, 9, 8, and 1. We always thought about going back with the kids later on in life. Once I was diagnosed with ALS, Vanessa asked me where my dreams would take us. We are so lucky that Team Gleason got us back skiing at Big Sky and Grand Targhee.
Team Gleason flew us into Bozeman, MT. The next day we picked up a rental car and headed to Driggs, ID. We made a quick stop to meet Jackie Robin, who treated us to lunch at the Hungry Moose ❤️ and a wonderful gift basket was waiting for us when we got there. Jackie was our Big Sky coordinator but also organizes an ALS fundraiser in Big Sky every year called Soul Shine. Jackie welcomed us and made sure that we felt all the love from her big heart, we did and so did our kids. We picked up rental skis in Big Sky Village and loaded up.
Once the car was strategically packed we hit the road south to Driggs. This portion of the drive is amazing, driving along the Gallatin River through the northwest corner of Yellowstone, then onto West Yellowstone and Island Park. Snowmobiles outnumber cars in the winter in this area. We continued on into Teton Valley Idaho, The Tetons to the east in full view. This was the only time we saw the Tetons because it snowed every day we were at Grand Targhee, thankfully.
The following day we woke early to head up to Grand Targhee. Our family was really stoked the kids had never skied in the Rocky Mountains. Vanessa and I were eager to ski again in the big mountains. As we rounded the final turn and Grand Targhee came into view, the kids were in awe and slightly intimidated. The kids have all been skiing since they were 1 years old, as soon as they could walk, so they skied great but their skiing improved greatly with daily lessons organized by Sydney, our Grand Targhee organizer. We couldn’t thank her enough for all that she did. Sydney even babysat for us, so we went out on a date, all paid for.
Since the kids were in lessons and daycare in the afternoon, it allowed Vanessa and I time to spend together. We took turns, just the two of us, just like 20 years ago. We had skied 100’s of days together in our 20’s-30’s, but only a handful of days skiing without kids since.
The last day at Grand Targhee, we were treated to eleven inches of fresh powder. Orla started off the day with a toddler dance party using the mini speakers gifted to us by Kristen Kern (in the gift basket from the Hungry Moose in BigSky). She held it like a boom box and danced around feeling the excitement for the day ahead. We sent the older kids to the Shoshone lift and Vanessa got in the powder line up on Dreamcatcher. I watched Orla while Vanessa got some sweet turns. She later recounted to me that she stopped on the slope alone deep in the snow as tears of joy filled her eyes, thinking she never thought she would do this again. We switched out and I was ready to rip.
I was not able to ski the way I had in the past, but I had an awesome time. I also realized that I was fortunate to have been able to ski this area in the past and was extremely thankful to be back. After Orla went to daycare Vanessa and I skied the rest of the afternoon together and even saw our kids on the slope with their instructors. A day with deep snow is a day in heaven for people like us.
The next day we packed up and headed to Big Sky. The condo at Big Sky that Team Gleason organized was amazing with plenty of room including games for the kids and a hot tub ready for us. Also, Jackie made sure our house was stocked with fresh groceries. When traveling with a family, having a house stocked with food when you arrive felt luxurious. My mother joined us for this portion so she could help with Orla and we could ski.
Big Sky Ski Resort treated us to four days of skiing with our family and ski valet which made life so easy for us, keeping our skis right at the base of the lifts. The first day, the four of us skied together and were so excited to hit the slopes. We cruised long groomers, enjoyed the heated seats on the chairlifts and went on a mission to find all the terrain parks. It was a great day. My daughter said, “I will never forget this trip.” I can’t say how that felt to hear her say that. It was a perfect blue-sky day at Big Sky.
The following day the kids had a full day of jibbin’ lessons requested by our son Oaklee. When you ski with him you would be surprised how many things he finds to jump. In their lesson, they worked on their jumps and Indra learned a safety grab. Vanessa and I went and skied the Challenger Lift, my favorite lift from years past. Right up to the top! Feels like you’re on top of the world when you’re up there! We spent more time looking at the view then we probably ever have. We then headed over to the Shoshone outdoor hot tub and spa. We all had an amazing time swimming and playing in the water. It was single digits outside and the warm water felt great. The kids thought it was so fun to be swimming outside in such cold weather.
As I mentioned, Vanessa and I had our first date on Valentine’s Day 2021 at an Asian restaurant in Big Sky. This time, we found the closest Asian was a small sushi place. Vanessa and I enjoyed a nice night together reminiscing of times past and about the trip’s adventures. After our amazing dinner we went across the street where a band was setting up to play. We did not see much of the band as by the time they started it was past our bedtime and we had to go. Some things have changed.
Jackie had an amazing day of cross country skiing planned, but the plan was derailed when a vicious bug swept through our group. The duration of the bug was swift but it affected the whole crew over the next couple of days as we packed up and headed back to Bozeman.
Team Gleason, thank you for making the Rocky Mountain Skiing Adventure a reality for our family. It truly was a life changing experience that came at the perfect time in our lives. The gratitude that our family has to Team Gleason is very hard to express in writing, these memories are written in our hearts and will bring smiles and stories re-told for many years to come. We will carry these memories, always. Giving me the opportunity to share an experience with my wife and our children allowed them to join me in one of my biggest joys in my life!
ALS definitely changed my life and the lives of those I love, but it can NEVER take away my freedom to choose and persevere despite the circumstances. Life challenges give you the potential to grow your character to unimaginable heights; it all comes down to your perspective! Our family chooses “NO WHITE FLAGS!”
The O’Donnell Family