Home on the Range With Pro Snowboarder Mark Carter

mark carter ranch
Courtesy of Rachael Yarbrough

There are 15 of us bumping slowly uphill at Colorado’s Aspen Highlands Resort, shoulder to shoulder in the open-air passenger trailer of a Pisten Bully snowcat, in pursuit of a four-course peak-top dinner at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro. Black, acrid smoke intermittently bellows from the exhaust stack kitty-corner from where pro snowboarder Mark Carter and I are sitting, causing most of our companions to tuck their noses down into zipped-up jackets or pull neck gaiters to their eyes. Carter’s just rolling his hallmark toothpick around in his teeth, taking in the view and grinning and telling stories about ripping dirt bikes on rangeland and shooting guns in the sunshine.

You’d be hard pressed to expect less from the son of a cattle-ranching family four generations deep.

Carter grew up in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, a tiny town about 250 miles from Jackson Hole.

He spent his boyhood rambling around Carter Ranch, the 40,000-acre parcel purchased by his grandfather, Mark, in 1964, developing a taste for unmonitored adventure and a tolerance for the sometimes-harsh weather that accompanies it in the Bighorn Basin. With only a smattering of people around, life was insular and revolved around the outdoors, both as workspace and respite.

“As a ranch kid, there wasn’t a ton of recreation on the weekends,” he tells ASN the following week from his Wyoming home. “You worked or you found something to do.”

Still, his first spark with snowboarding came from ordinary days on the ranch. “My old man would take us, when it snowed in the winter, he would pull us behind the truck in the sled, like little plastic sleds,” Carter continues. “We’d go check cows and we’d run up the mountain and he’d pull us through the fields. I remember him pulling us behind his horse through the field, checking calves, and I was just so enamored with the snow and sliding on it that I couldn’t get enough of it – and I never did. It was always over too quick.”

mark carter snowboarding
Courtesy of Sean Black

Carter cut his teeth at tiny Meadowlark Ski Lodge, where it cost about $3 to lap 600 vertical feet on a Poma lift all day. When his parents split and his mom moved to Casper, Wyoming, three hours away, he started meeting kids in the new neighborhood. They skateboarded and snowboarded religiously, and they knew there were places and ways to make riding a living instead of just a hobby. He fell in love with the culture, and suddenly life seemed like it could be a little bigger. He set his sights on going pro.

But, for a ranch kid, chasing that dream isn’t easy – financially or socially. “We just didn’t have that much money,” he tells ASN. “Even then it was expensive, gear and everything. … I lived two lives, because I’d go back to the ranch and nobody snowboarded there. It was this life with my friends and skaters and snowboarders [in Casper], and then I’d go back to Ten Sleep and I was [with] the cowboys.”

Meadowlark closed for Carter’s last two winters of high school, and he turned his focus to football. He earned a scholarship to Black Hills State University in South Dakota and excelled in the game, but there was never any love lost between him and academia; once he got his hands on a season pass to nearby Terry Peak Ski Area, the joy of it all came rushing back. He decided to quit school and just go snowboarding – all winter long.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that a kid raised in a place like Ten Sleep would try to leave rural life behind once he realized what might be possible; people put small towns in their rear view all the time and never look back. What’s different about Carter is that he never really left – and simply won’t, ever.

Friends from Casper convinced him to move to Jackson after two winters at Bridger Bowl, Montana, with stints at the ranch in the off-season; he got a job on the park crew, met riders like Bryan Iguchi, Lance Pitman and Willie McMillon and took second in Travis Rice’s innovative all-mountain Natural Selection contest in 2008, which opened the door to pro contracts.

mark carter ranch
Courtesy of Rachael Yarbrough

Both pairs of boots – cowboy and snowboard – have been firmly planted in Wyoming soil ever since. But the transition wasn’t exactly smooth.

“There was nothing cool about being a rancher in snowboarding,” Carter says of his early career. “I struggled with that. I was like, ‘Oh, man, nobody’s going to think I’m cool,’ you know, kind of thought I was a kook. It wasn’t until I really embraced my roots. And that’s only been within the past 10, eight years – where I was really like, ‘No, man, this is who I am. I’m a f–kin’ rancher. I’m a ranch kid. I came from this world. I work hard’ – [that] that template’s totally changed.

“I think that helps me stand out, because I’m not the best snowboarder in the world, but I am an interesting character and I come from a very unlikely place to be a pro snowboarder. I didn’t have the opportunities of growing up around an amazing mountain; I mean, I spent my whole life in the mountains, but not snowboarding. Summer vacation was like work for me; it wasn’t like all the kids went to play all summer and do whatever they wanted. I was like, ‘I know what my summer entails: cutting weeds and working and getting up early.’ There’s no sleeping in; it’s moving sprinkler pipes every day.”

Despite a full pro snowboarding career that takes him all over the world to ride the kinds of peaks and powder that we all dream about – the kind he dreamt about as a teenager – he still comes back to the ranch every spring to sink postholes for the fences, repair irrigation systems, brand cattle and, these days, help get the ranch’s nascent beef business, Carter Country Meats, off the ground.

While Carter Ranch remains a working cattle ranch, raising and selling calves to several beef producers, it began to package and sell meat from its own herd under private label in 2013. It’s a thoughtful evolution spearheaded by Carter and his older brother, R.C., who runs the ranch’s day-to-day operations, grown out of local demand for local beef.

“We’re moving in the direction of fully absorbing all the cattle on the ranch for Carter Country Meats,” says Carter. “It’s a slow process.”

It’s obvious that the land underfoot is special to him, that he’s blood-proud about the acreage that’s been turning out his family’s livelihood for more than half a century. The simple, patient and natural way they’ve always done things in Ten Sleep – “Honest food from honest people” is the Carter Country Meats tag line, after all – is what makes their product, and their brand, not just artisanal, but different.

Their “Certified Country” standard includes all the buzzwords hot in the locavore movement – humanely treated, grass fed, free range, non-GMO, hormone free (“pure, healthy, happy cattle,” as Carter puts it) – but it’s more than that. They work with their diversity of natural assets rather than attempting to tame them, from the 27 natural springs that water the pastureland and cows to the juniper, sage and limestone that infuse the soil.

mark carter
Courtesy of Andrew Miller

They follow an unconventional timeline, too – one that lets the calves roam until they’re four to seven years old, a departure from the industry standard of 24 to 36 months. “We’re just utilizing the animal more efficiently,” Carter explains. “And I think the beef is just better the older a calf is anyways. They’re more beefy and it’s just kind of steering away from the norm.”

That’s simply how things are done on the ranch: quietly, unhurriedly, without much in the way of complaint and until it meets a standard set by family reputation, not just regulation. It’s a quality Carter reflects in his snowboarding; he’s a big-mountain rider who’s understood since he could walk that every day outside is different, even on the same piece of land. And that awareness, adjustments and respect for nature, along with a head-down attitude, are what get the shot.

“Even the hardest days snowboarding, I just always relate it back to the ranch,” he tells ASN. “I’m like, ‘Well, it’s not f–kin’ 20 below, and I’m not calving heifers, because there can be some days from hell on the ranch and I’ve never had those days from hell snowboarding. I always prioritize what kind of day I’m having compared to maybe what kind of day a rancher’s having.”

Not that those days are totally over. While he credits his brother with the bulk of the heavy lifting – “I’m really good volunteer help,” he jokes – Carter’s contribution to the business isn’t lazy or at his pleasure. His usual May arrival back in Ten Sleep tends to come on the heels of spring calving, but right on time for branding, which is critical before the cattle are turned out for grazing, a summer-long process of periodically relocating the herd to take advantage of the best-available pasture at the time. (And cows don’t sleep in.)

“If we are gathering and moving them, I’d get up around 4:30 a.m. to be on them just before daylight,” Carter explains. “Cattle move best when it’s cool,.” And moving them can take several days depending on how far up- or down-slope you’re talking – sometimes as far as 20 miles one-way. Traditionally, it’s done from horseback. But, years ago, the boys found a quicker way to keep the cows together: dirt bikes.

“My dad, he’s still as cowboy as they come, and we grew up working with horses and understanding how that all works, but we were always kind of shorthanded,” Carter explains. “Three guys can move a lot of cattle [with dirt bikes] when you would need, like, six guys [on horseback]. I mean, you can’t rope a calf off a motorcycle, obviously, so there’s pros and cons, but for gathering big country, I would have no other way than on motorcycles, for sure.

“You can go from point A to point B really fast and get all around the cattle, but when [there’s] a big bunch and we’re pushing, I like to have a bunch of horses in the back to be able to keep them moving, and the bikes keep the sides tucked in and steer [the herd].”

Carter’s good at steering. What he brings to the beef business is networking, marketing, vision … and heart. He’s really come as full circle as you can get: Yeti, one of his sponsors, now supplies coolers to Carter Country Meats that the company uses to ship its product sustainably to consumers. It’s like bringing families together, marrying his opportunities in snowboarding with growth for the ranch, and really, that’s Mark Carter’s whole M.O.: community building.

Under their Certified Country guidelines, “we really want to buy our neighbors’ cows, be able to give them a premium for their cattle rather than them having to depend on the commodity market’s every year ups and downs, because the rancher is the guy starving,” he says. In fact, they’ve already begun purchasing neighboring stock.

“I grew up watching these guys starve. It’s hard to make a living as a rancher. If we can somehow implement this into the market and help our neighbors, we’re going to start utilizing those cattle – like, spreading the love. It’s a template for something that’s going to be bigger than just Carter Country Meats, you know? Eventually, that’s what we want to be doing.”

How they’ll get there – and how he’ll continue to be part of snowboarding – is clearer than ever. “I’ve worked my ass off,” he says. “But that’s what made me what I am. It made me really appreciate what I have. I always have remembered my roots, and I think that’s the most important thing. In the beginning, I kind of lost that – I think I got a little distracted [by] the snowboarding – but once I found that, I can honestly say now that I know my path.”

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