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Mountain High

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I’d forgotten about precipitation when Sunday’s sudden downpour dropped me to my knees. “Please, God. Let this be the snowiest winter ever. Forever and ever. Amen.”

As the hellfire residue washes from our eyes and skies, let us remember that the first turns of the ski season are but weeks away. Many season pass deadlines are approaching quickly, but it’s not too late to secure pre-season prices on the pass of your choice.

Assuming you’ll be taking advantage of some of Montana’s 40+ chairlifts this winter, there are generally two options designed to feed your need.

The first is to choose your ski days as your schedule—and the snow—permits, dropping a sizeable wad of cash every single day you want to ride the white wonder. But this leaves people with the miserable option of not skiing, an especially poor choice for those who choose to winter in Montana.

Which leaves the urgent and only sensible alternative for true snow junkies: scrape your cash together and throw down for a season pass, and do it now. This is the most economical option for those maximizing their pre-artificial-knee years. Besides, only pass-holders find themselves catching quickie two-hour ski trips to the mountain, breathing clean air and gazing down on their poor friends trapped under the inversion.

Fortunately, Missoulians live within a short jaunt from a wide array of ski areas, with enough variety in price, snowfall and terrain to satisfy us all. Prices range from a screw-the-locals $990 at Big Mountain to $79 weekday passes at Lookout Pass.

So if Montana’s smoky summers make you feel like the Snow God Ullr has betrayed you, it’s time to take action. Wax and P-tex your boards. Rent some ski porn. Start praying. And send your ripped, cracked, gouged, rattling, bent or delaminated gear back to the manufacturer for a fingers-crossed warranty replacement. Then, as the sun sets on summer and your swimsuit-clad friends return from the Blackfoot with sun-kissed skin and empty boxes of PBR cans, you’ll be online, perusing trail maps and buying your ticket to heaven.

Although we know that mountain preference is a personal decision, the Indy has put together a list of one-day’s-drive season pass options to help prioritize your powder passions. Best of luck, and we’ll see you on the hill.

It’s got terrific terrain, but brutal bottlenecks. It’s got old chairs, but the slopes can be nearly empty on weekdays. It’s got excellent food, but a miserable access road. The bipolar nature of Montana Snowbowl (www.montanasnowbowl.com) has created a love/hate relationship with Missoula’s skiers, but when it’s dumping you can’t beat the steeps, trees and low-key atmosphere for which it’s renowned. Until Nov. 9, season passes run $441 for adults ($283 weekdays) and $399 for students ($253 weekdays).

Last year’s warm, soggy winter hit Marshall Mountain (www.marshallmountain.com) like a winter hurricane, dousing plans for a much-anticipated expansion and raining on a skier parade that nearly lifted The Little Mountain That Could into the next tier of Montana ski hills. That experience has left owner Bruce Doering noncommittal about the future of Missoula’s most affordable ski hill. By mid October, Marshall’s fate will be decided, but current options under consideration include a parties-only resort, a tube-and-terrain park without skiing, or another challenging season of blasting artificial snow onto low elevation slopes and low-cost hourly lift tickets. No season passes for sale as of yet, though.

Lookout Pass (www.skilookout.com) has multi-lift expansion plans in the works, but this on-the-Interstate hill is still offering the cheapest weekday pass options around. They’re closed Tuesday/Wednesday, but until Halloween, adult season passes run $189, with college passes going for $169. Weekday passes (Monday, Thursday and Friday) are a rock bottom $79, which is only $20 more than a single day of skiing at Big Sky (see below).

Discovery Basin (www.skidiscovery.com) put in a new chair last year, opening up a blue/black wonderland that complements perfectly their experts-only backside and their beginner-friendly frontside. Early season prices on adult passes are valid through Halloween, with unlimited passes running $365 and weekday passes $230. Student passes are just $199 if purchased before October 1.

Missoula’s favorite stash of lift-serviced powder, Lost Trail/Powder Mountain (www.losttrail.com) doesn’t offer any early-bird specials and the lifts don’t run on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, but they do offer the most consistent, thigh-deep snow around. A hefty $395 will get you an unlimited season pass, but the new chair doubling their acreage (and the best damn chili in a breadbowl) makes LT well worth the two-hour drive.

Drive west, young rider, and hit the under-utilized Silver Mountain (www.silvermt.com)—its location in the Pacific Time Zone gives oversleepers an extra hour to catch up with the Spokanites. They offer great prices—$299 adult, $219 student, and an empty-mountain, Monday-Thursday ticket for only $119. You’ll spend 15 minutes swinging in the world’s longest gondola approaching the mountain, making this mountain the Best Bet for Lovers, but hurry—these prices are good only through Sept. 15.

Tired of the mom ‘n’ pop ski areas? Ready for the big league of Aspen-style resorts with Aspen-ized prices? You’ve got two truly “Big” options in Montana, Big Mountain (www.bigmtn.com) and Big Sky (www.bigskyresort.com). Both have everything a big mountain skier could hope for: bowls, glades, steeps, loads of snow and uncrowded slopes. However, neither offers a weekday pass, neither offers a summertime early-season special and neither remembers the local clientele with a justly priced Montana homeboy/homegirl option. Regardless, sell some sperm/booty for a few weeks, and then fork over $970 to Big Sky ($565 if you’re a full-time student) or $990 to Big Mountain. If long-range forecasters’ predictions of an epic winter are anywhere near correct, it will be money well spent.

Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain (www.schweitzer.com) is offering a trifecta of excellence this year, a three-mountain pass that gives riders the chance to schuss all but 22 days of the season. Buy the $269 “Three-Mountain Pass” for access to Schweitzer and Stevens Pass on weekdays, and Mission Ridge all season (they’re both in Washington). Check the Web site for specifics, but if you’ve got a powder priority this winter and a few three-day weekends, this is tough to beat.

It’s a ways north, and you’ll have to get past the hypersensitive Ashcroft lackeys at the border, but if you’ve ever dropped into the bowls at Fernie Mountain (www.fernie.com) in British Columbia, you know that it sports the finest lift-serviced terrain on the continent. For $564 (USD) you can ski the heroic lines at four resorts—Fernie, Lake Louise, Nakiska and Kimberley—every day of the season. (Don’t mention any ski bum plans to the border agents, though, as such comments tend to encourage a thorough look-see...).

Bridger Bowl’s (www.bridgerbowl.com) non-profit status makes it a fine place to spend your ski dollars, and Bozeman’s backyard hill has some of the steepest terrain in the state to boot. No deals for weekdays, or for students, but an unlimited season pass runs $499 through Oct. 12.

If you find the steep terrain of Montana’s other mountains a bit intimidating, Blacktail Mountain’s (www.blacktailmtn.com) mellow, immaculately groomed slopes are an excellent place to learn the essence of The Corduroy Carve. Adult passes are $475; student passes run $275.

Marysville’s Great Divide (www.greatdividemontana.com) is routinely overlooked by Missoula skiers, despite the fact that it lies closer to home than many regular weekend ski destinations. Great Divide’s pleasantly challenging and uncrowded slopes make their $279 season pass option a reasonable choice for those looking to ski with the politicians, lobbyists and others who call Helena home.

With all these areas to choose from, remember that the single greatest drawback to committing to a season pass is the decreased likelihood of exploring other areas. Still, the benefits of pass ownership—getting to know a mountain intimately, bypassing the ticket line on powder mornings, or being able to justify even short days on the hill—far outweigh the shortcomings.

Every Monday night the MOBsters at Missoulians on Bicycles take a 20–30 mile road ride at a 15 mph+ pace. Bring your helmet and meet at the Adventure Cycling Association at 5:30 p.m. Call Nancy Nichols at 721-1776 for more info.

Women cyclists who dig the mud are encouraged to hit the singletrack on Tuesday nights for a beginner/intermediate Dirt Girls Mountain Bike Ride. E-mail jhuck@adventurecycling.org to get on the Dirt Girls’ mailing list.

After a few trip cancellations due to fire closures, the Rocky Mountaineers are back in the saddle again. Join Julie Warner (543-6508) for a two-mile, youngster-friendly hike to Fuse Lake off Skalkaho Pass Road. There’s about 800’ of elevation to gain, along with a waterfall and fun bouldering options, too.

The New Rocky Mountaineers (Gerald Olbu, 549-4769) are heading up the highest peak in the Swan Range, the 9,356’ Holland Peak. Count on a big day with a beautiful ridge walk, lots of vertical and enough stunning vistas to make lugging a camera along well worth the weight.

The 28th Annual Mount Helena Classic, a 5.6-mile trail run that gains 1,368’ up Helena’s in-town mountain, takes place this weekend, and for a mere $20 you get the race, a long sleeve shirt and a memorable workout. Call Steve Engebrecht (442-0924) for the race scoop.

Runners looking for a moderate and low-cost run should consider the University of Montana Open, a 5K run on the foot-friendly trails at Lubrecht Forest this Saturday, Sept. 13. There’s no advance registration, it’s only $5 and the top five men and women get the T-shirts. Call Tom Raunig (243-5413) for more info.

It doesn’t take a new Montanan very long to start feeling like an old Montanan, but even if you’ve climbed every peak in the Missions or boofed your kayak off the state’s most impressive drops you can rest assured that you’re still missing some extraordinary places. Yes, as we walk the mountain paths we walk in the footsteps of giants, and on Sept. 15 we’ll have the opportunity to hear two of them speak.

Join Campus Rec guru/global mountain climber/river rat Dudley Improta and flora/fauna expert Lee Metzger as they share their innermost beta on Montana’s exquisite recreational opportunities. They’re starting at 7 p.m. at Campus Rec, but call 243-5172 to get in the know.

The Glacier Fund (the park’s non-profit fundraising partner) is hosting its third annual “Last Night at Granite Park Chalet” on Sunday, Sept. 14. For $117 and an unparalleled stroll from Logan Pass, guests will receive a gourmet dinner, a night at what might be the most scenic structure around (warm, forest fire glow provided at no extra charge), and two meals the next day. All proceeds go to the Glacier Fund’s Backcountry Trails account, so call backcountry concessionaires Glacier Wilderness Guides at (800) 521-7238 to savor the flavor.

Pass on your outdoor schedule to: photo@missoulanews.com

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