Outdoor classroom: Ridge Academy launches gap-year program in Whitefish

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Ridge Academy founder Billy O’Donnell, right, instructs Timmy Palthey after a warm-up run. “Quiet down the upper body. Eventually we want to see a quieter upper body and getting stacked up right, so we want to stack up the legs so you have your ankle, your knee in that line,” O’Donnell said.

There are multiple classrooms at Ridge Academy, the largest one being Big Mountain.

At the new academy campus situated on 16 acres south of Whitefish, five student-athletes from Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Vermont wake up daily around 7:15 a.m., cook breakfast and go over a checklist of gear needed for the day’s adventure at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

This is the first class of Ridge Academy, a gap-year program focused on mountain sports for student athletes. The inaugural semester started Jan. 9 and goes through May 17.

Often the gap year is the period between high school graduation and entering college or a career. For many students it is a time of self-discovery, exploring interests, traveling, interning, volunteering and learning new skills. 

For Ridge Academy students, it’s all of the above in addition to shredding powder with professional coaches.

Before heading to the mountain, the students clock in some physical training with a personal trainer at The Wave fitness center. 

“What they’re doing now is based on what mountain athletes need to succeed in their sports,” said Burket Kniveton, a coach and program coordinator at the academy.

“Everybody is incoming with some experience. Here, we take it to the next level. We have a really robust snowboarding and skiing staff, whether it’s working on freestyle tricks in the park or freeriding skills inbound, or when we go into the backcountry,” Kniveton said, adding that by the end of the semester students should be able to traverse the entire mountain.

There are several other winter sports students can engage in during their time at Ridge: freeskiing, backcountry touring, ski mountaineering racing, alpine racing, ice climbing and mountaineering. 

The academy also offers a fall semester where students can choose from rock climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking, trail running and skateboarding.

While refining student skills on the mountain, Ridge builds individualized programs based on students’ interests, teaching them how to balance sports, physical training, academics and health.

Academically, students take a college field course in mountain science as well as courses in wilderness medicine, avalanche training, photography and videography. Students also have the opportunity to take more college classes or complete high school online, which is what one student, in his junior year of high school, is doing.

 “Ridge is a really unique gap-year program. It’s helping them understand they can live an active mountain lifestyle,” Kniveton said.


On Jan. 21, there were three coaches on the mountain including Ridge Academy founder Billy O’Donnell, who instructs the skiers while Kniveton who instructs the snowboarders.

O’Donnell is a professional athlete and coach. He discovered his passion for mountain sports as a college undergraduate in Colorado. He has worked as a ski coach, raft and alpine guide, managed athletes and helped grow a transitional living program in Colorado. Among other entrepreneurial ventures, he continued his education earning double master’s degrees. 

“I have a passion for mountain sports and a passion for education,” O’Donnell said. “I wanted to put together a full academy for student athletes — a true gap year experience. The main goal is to learn about self-scheduling and, ‘How do you fit so much into a busy day? How do you fit in getting your food ready, going to a yoga class, getting your training on the mountain in, plus academics, plus an internship, plus some free time? How do you fit all that in, and that’s what we do.’”

On the front of Big Mountain, skiers do a warm-up run and then group around O’Donnell, who offers pointers on stance and balance

“Eventually we want to see a quieter upper body and getting stacked up right,” O’Donnell said. “So you guys worked on balance yesterday — fore and aft. Without being technical at first what I’d like you to try and feel is being stacked over your skis, but starting to let those skis turn on edge. These skis really arc well. So on that downhill ski feel it arc and feel the stack.”

One by one the skiers, including 18-year-old Timmy Palthey of Vermont, make their way down working on stance. Palthey heard about Ridge from a friend who was researching it.

“It sounded like an awesome place. I love skiing,” Palthey said. 

Palthey has been skiing since he was a child. His goal at Ridge is to become better and intern with the Big Mountain Ski Patrol.

“I just want to become an all-around better skier and I also want to learn how to safely ski in the backcountry. I’d like to come out to remote places like Montana and be able to skin out in the backcountry,” Palthey said.

Down the Toni Matt run, snowboarder 18-year-old Kirby Cuenod of Texas practices transitioning from skidded and carved turns under Kniveton’s guidance. After, Kniveton points out the thick to thin line left in the snow by the edge of Cuenod’s board.

“A pure carve turn you don’t lose any speed, you’re completely up on edge,” Kniveton says. “I’ll demo into it.”

Later, they work on riding switch-foot, another technical skill needed to minimize the risk of injury while riding in the terrain, Burket said.

Cuenod’s goal at Ridge is to perfect his jumps and park riding.

“I’m just out here to have fun, get to know a little bit more about the mountain,” Cuenod said.


The cost to attend the academy is $250 a day, which covers tuition, food, lodging, academic oversight and use of equipment. Currently, there is rolling admission for the winter semester.

For more information, to schedule campus tours or apply, call 730-8524, email info@ridgeacademy.com or visit www.ridgeacademy.com.


Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

Academy student Kirby Cuenod carves through the trees on Big Mountain. Cuenod’s goal at Ridge is to perfect his jumps and park riding.


Above, Matt Gault, right, and Quinlan Conroy use foam rollers at the end of their workout at The Wave fitness center before hitting the slopes. 


Timmy Palthey speeds down a run at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Timothy traveled from Vermont to attend the Ridge with the goal of interning with the Big Mountain Ski Patrol. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)


Ridge Mountain Academy founder and instructor Billy O'Donnell leads a couple of his students down a run at Whitefish Mountain Resort. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)


Ridge Mountain Academy founder Billy O'Donnell speeds down the mountain while teaching a group of students at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Wednesday.

(Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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