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Surveying the slopes

Skiing Montana, on a Montana budget

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Watch the latest crop of ski films and you’ll see skiers pursuing powder in Pakistan, jumping cliffs in Kazakhstan and airing it out in the Alps. In today’s ski world, the bar is high, the snow is deep, the skies are blue and the leaps are always getting bigger.

But while hardcore production companies urge their stars to ride the globe’s most exotic locations, Montana’s skiers—from gold medal Olympic athletes to camouflage-wearing Frenchtownians—can find excellent and diverse opportunities within a short drive of their homes.

More than 15,000 acres of lift-serviced terrain blanket the state’s resorts, with annual snowfalls regularly topping 300 inches, even in these drought years. Skiers of all abilities can find suitable terrain, from Big Sky’s “Big Couloir”—an experts-only chute that requires skiers to check in with ski patrol and come equipped with a partner, avalanche transceiver and shovel—to Blacktail Mountain’s velvety, beginner-friendly cruisers.

While the notion of dropping as much as a few hundred dollars on lift tickets, rentals, on-mountain food and lessons can easily make the sport appear cost-prohibitive, by timing adventures carefully and ferreting out the best deals, nearly anyone can afford to hit the slopes.

Dedicated ski bums have proven this regularly for years. For instance, original lowbaggers Klaus Obermeyer and Warren Miller lived in a milk truck in 1940s Sun Valley, living off wild rabbits and ketchup soup and starting up what would become their respective ski clothing and filming empires. The ski world has come a long way in the ensuing half-century, and whether you’re interested in skipping a powder morning to receive a world-class pedicure or you’re a duct-tape-reliant, sleep-in-your-truck bum hitting the slopes with only enough cash for a lift ticket, Montana’s ski areas provideth.

Moderate discounts abound for students, seniors, soldiers (and pass-holders at other resorts) at almost every resort listed. But the best deals for one-area skiers who don’t want to drive are long past, in most cases locked in last winter to help fill the coffers before the low-profit, high-development summer season sets in.

Still, skiers willing to drive for their turns can take advantage of a handful of inexpensive weekday options, like Lookout Pass’s limited $149 season pass or Great Divide’s two-for-$20 tickets.

But for the not-yet-addicted, the cost of outfitting yourself for the sport can prove a hurdle, with new ski or snowboard setups often running upward of $1,000. Before committing to new gear, check in with local secondhand stores for snowboard/binding setups running $100 or less. Ski setups typically cost more, but ride the coattails of your skiing/snowboarding friends by borrowing gear, asking for slopeside pointers, carpooling and packing your own lunch to keep the sport sustainable.

Or not. Those looking for a luxurious skiing experience have more options in Montana than ever before, and resorts like Big Sky and newcomer Moonlight Basin cater to the tastes of the high-dollar crowd with on-area spas, haughty slopeside lodging and all variety of amenities to make a back-Easter feel right at home. In other words, there’s something for everyone, and while you might have to drive a bit to find it, you won’t need to fly to Switzerland, Chile or even Colorado to make it happen.

Big Sky: Paradise lost

Catch a view of Lone Peak at sunrise and you’ll understand why Big Sky Resort ranks easily as Montana’s best in every category relevant to skiing the hell out of a mountain. The only-for-experts summit gives skiers on the more moderate lower mountain an unparalleled backdrop of impossibly steep granite chutes and alpine bowls to ski beneath.

The more than 150 runs are uniformly long, diverse, well laid-out and full of fun features. A comprehensive but under-used lift system blankets the resort’s two mountains, and run after run of deep snow lingers long after storms, even on the lower mountain. High-moisture weather patterns dump more snow here than at any other lift-serviced summit in the state, and all-aspects skiing guarantees that snow snobs will always have access to the best available snow conditions.

The 11,166-foot summit towers 1,700 feet above any other Montana resort. That elevation, combined with the state’s deepest snow, allows Big Sky to deliver the best skiing in the state—for those who can afford it.

At $61 a day, Big Sky charges just less than the average Montanan’s daily wage to access the slopes. For skiers more interested in face shots than a base-area manicure, the lack of on-the-cheap options can be frustrating.

But the mountain doesn’t cater to lowbaggers, arguably not even to average Montanans. By all appearances, Big Sky’s target market is high-dollar, out-of-state families looking for a Colorado-fied Montana ski resort, sans the crowds.

And therein lies the tragedy: the realization that this stunning, rugged and challenging mountain has been placed out of reach for most of Montana’s skiers. If it weren’t the most dramatic, best-skiing mountain in the state, mid- to low-budget skiers could cut their losses, ski elsewhere and not feel the pull to ski this particular mountain.

Catch Big Sky on a powder day and thoughts of dropping your day’s wage will be quickly lost in swirls of fluffy powder, run after untracked run.

Students score perhaps the best deal at Big Sky; just show current proof of enrollment and you’ll ski for $42.

And while this mountain’s overpriced nature makes cutting liftlines tempting, don’t—at least without knowing the consequences.

There’s an entire staff dedicated to catching line cutters, and they’re rewarded with cash when someone is caught. Once busted on charges of theft of services and criminal trespass, count on a night (or two!) in jail as a weird jurisdictional arrangement takes you from Madison County to Gallatin and back to Madison again before you can see the judge. Of course, some days at Big Sky are so good, it might just be worth it.

Big Mountain: White on white

People living outside of Montana often confuse Whitefish’s Big Mountain Resort with Big Sky Resort near Bozeman, and these mountains do indeed share a great deal more than just similar names.

Both regularly rank in the top tier of the nation’s ski destinations for snow quality, short lift lines, “rustic” Montana ambiance and the like. Both are truly big mountains, both receive lion’s shares of Montana’s out-of-state skier visits and both claim to cater to locals and destination skiers alike.

But that claim is false. While Big Sky will remain the greatest skiing experience in the state for years to come, it simply does not provide reasonably priced opportunities for skiers in the Montana-wage bracket. Big Mountain, however, fills that niche nicely with moderately priced lift tickets during the less-busy early and late seasons.

For instance, schussers who “ski the Fish” from Thanksgiving to December 19 ski for just $25 a day, and late-season junkies can get their fixes from April 1–10 for just $20. And while skiing during these shoulder seasons can mean subjecting expensive ski gear to expensive rock damage due to thin snow cover, most of the mountain has been open—and well covered—in recent years. At Big Mountain, skiers can score rare wintertime views into the heart of Glacier National Park, ski amid the most spectacular “snow ghosts” in the state and explore the broad mountain for days on end—without ever having to cross their own tracks. The newly cleared gladed runs of Good Medicine or Powder Bowl should exhaust the strongest skiers, who should then hit the infamous Bierstube, a perfectly out-of-its element bar located in the heart of a semi-glitzy base area. Or try the Hellroaring Saloon, where a heaping pile of nachos will fill the gullets of the hungriest skiing posse.

Blacktail Mountain: Greenhorn’s paradise

Blacktail Mountain made national news when it opened in 1998—not because of its showcase terrain or overzealous marketing department, but because it was the first ski area to open on public land in two decades. And while the mountain holds some of the most consistently friendly groomers in the state, it is perhaps the mountain’s lack of pretentiousness that makes it a most excellent place to learn to schuss.

Located 90 minutes north of Missoula, high above Flathead Lake, the area is unique for its base-area-at-the-top setup and its affordable, pro-family atmosphere. And while an average skier can explore the entirety of this mountain in less than a day, Blacktail does provide a reasonably priced alternative to its pricier neighbor to the north, Big Mountain.

Note that three-fourths of the runs are ranked intermediate, although skiers accustomed to the rankings at steeper areas, like Snowbowl, should be feeling pretty confident after a day of Blacktail skiing; many of the blue runs here sport a decidedly greenish hue. Bump skiers, tree skiers and anyone seeking some near-death airtime should probably look elsewhere, while most beginners will find this mountain’s terrain (and pace) right up their valley.

Skiers under the age of seven, over the age of 70 or celebrating a birthday ski free, and Thursday’s tickets run an easy-to-justify $15.

Bridger Bowl: Steeped in community

Bridger is Montana’s only community-owned ski area, a fact that has helped keep this bipolar hill inexpensive and low key. The terrain is varied, of course, but Bridger’s two-facedness is a result of a feature known locally as “The Ridge.”

Why bipolar? While green, blue and black runs cover the bottom of the mountain, experts head to the top for a 400-vertical-foot climb to The Ridge. After checking in with ski patrol (like Big Sky, a partner, transceiver and shovel are required to ski certain sections of the mountain), skiers can sample the truly extreme terrain of couloirs and cliffs that has spawned the likes of Scot Schmidt and Doug Coombs, two of the most influential big-mountain skiers of all time.

Great deals can be had by watching Bridger’s website calendar: For instance, head to Bridger for its annual birthday bash Jan. 14 and you’ll ski or ride for $10, and similar deals can be found throughout the year.

Discovery Basin: Something new, something blue

With Western Montana’s excellent ratio of ski areas to skiers, resort owners use complex methods of offering discounts to get people committed to skiing their particular hill for the season. One of these offerings is a “frequent skier card,” a not-always-valuable up-front discount card that commonly provides a few days of free skiing, as well as discounts throughout the season.

The card offered by Discovery Basin—a six-chair, rapidly expanding and uncrowded gem near Georgetown Lake—stands easily at the top of the pack. Purchase one by Dec. 15 and for $25 you get nine days of free skiing and half-price tickets Tuesdays through Thursdays. Only 200 of these passes will be sold, so interested parties should be sure to purchase as soon as possible. Discovery also offers $15 tickets for college students on a variety of days throughout the season, but check their website for details.

Of course even the best deals are worthless if the terrain sucks, so it’s fortunate that Discovery’s, while not expansive, delivers in spades. With only 1,680 feet of vertical, the runs are a mere shadow of those at the state’s premiere resorts, but the mountain sports easy green cruisers on the front side, radically steep bowls on the infamous backside, and sustained advanced cruisers and tree runs off the area’s new Granite Chair. In recent years, snow cover has been a problem, so check the resort’s two-camera webcam before heading out.

The 90-minute drive from Missoula is mountain pass-free and mostly Interstate—ample reason to try the cafeteria’s exquisite homemade tomato bisque or clam chowder for only $2 per bowl.

Great Divide: Ski the Capitol

Located just north of Helena on the east side of the divide, Great Divide gets vastly different weather patterns than we receive in Western Montana. Sometimes this leaves the area wanting for snow, but time it right and the place can be a powder paradise. Two years ago the mountain was shut down because 60 inches of snow fell in one storm, leaving Great Divide unable to operate the buried lifts for days.

Great Divide has focused efforts lately on creating extensive tree skiing glades in addition to the mountain’s 140 runs, and these between-the-runs stashes can hold good snow for weeks. And while massive dumps drop here every year, the average snowfall of only 180 inches falls well below the state’s average. But if you time your trip to coincide with good snow, excellent mid-week deals easily make this diverse mountain well worth the two-hour, one-pass drive from Missoula.

Lookout Pass: On the lookout

Lookout Pass is in the middle of a multi-year expansion aimed at propelling the area from a one-lift hill into an easily accessible, deep-snow destination for skiers from Missoula to Spokane.

Last year’s expansion added a second chairlift and a much-needed addition of five advanced runs to what had been an almost exclusively moderate mountain.

But what Lookout has lacked in terrain, it’s made up for in deep, early-season snow—as well as next-to-the-Interstate convenience and screaming deals for midweek skiers.

Regardless of the weather, Lookout typically remains accessible, located about 200 yards from I-90 on the Montana/Idaho border and an easy 100 miles from Missoula.

Great deals for beginners abound, including free ski school for children every day and free lessons for adults the first Saturday of every month, starting in January.

The midweek season pass—good Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays—runs $149, or less than $3/day for those lucky enough to ski the full 52 days the pass is valid.

Most skiers, though, will be able to explore the whole mountain in less than a day, making it perhaps a better option for occasional trips as opposed to committing to a season pass—at least until the next phase of expansion.

Lost Trail: It’s the snow, stupid!

Everyone calls it Lost Trail, but the official name of the place is Lost Trail Powder Mountain, a moniker that would, at any other mountain, reek of marketing arrogance.

That’s not the case at Lost Trail, sitting as it does atop the Bitterroot crest on the Montana/Idaho border and providing Western Montana’s most consistently deep snow.

Two years ago the mountain doubled its size by adding a single, two-person chairlift, accessing a wide-open area ogled for years by skiers approaching from Missoula on Highway 93.

For many, the much-anticipated expansion area’s long, monotonous runouts combine with steep, windblown upper-mountain runs to create a ski experience too challenging for neophytes but boring for experts. But the owners have rectified the situation this year, adding a midway unloading spot two-thirds of the way up the mile-long chairlift that allows beginners to ski the new area but avoid the steeper upper runs.

Experts, however, will likely continue to find their pleasure on other parts of the mountain, where deep snow, tight trees and plenty of huckable cliffs dominate.

One reason Lost Trail owns the powder category in the region is the fact that it’s closed Monday through Wednesday. During that time snow accumulates, making deep snow the norm on its trademark “Powder Thursdays.”

And while it’s not necessarily rare in our state, this place is a true Mom ’n’ Pop throwback to an age when blue jeans and wool mittens were the norm. Thrifty diners can leave the lunch sack at home and opt for the $3.50 chili in a breadbowl, a meaty bargain that ranks as the best on-mountain dining deal in the state.

Marshall Mountain: Maybe next year?

Marshall Mountain is the closest ski area to Missoula, but a devastatingly warm winter two years ago forced the mountain to close for two years. Next year, however, says owner Bruce Doering, Marshall will begin refilling a void that other areas can’t.

“By-the-hour skiing is something we’ll be doing again, it’s absolutely a niche we can fill,” says Doering. “Marshall’s never going to be known for the deeps and steeps, but what we can offer that nobody else can is the hourly lift tickets, premiere night skiing…and terrain parks for snowboarders. We’ll have everybody else beat on that.”

For now, though, the mountain is focused on summers, hosting weddings, building a tricked-out mountain bike course with the Bike Dr., creating a new water park and securing a coveted liquor license. Stay tuned…

Montana Snowbowl: Keeping the faith

As the only high-elevation ski area close to Missoula, skiers have had a love/hate relationship with this steep and featureful backyard destination. It’s reputation as a “skier’s mountain” is well established, and the expert run “Grizzly Chute” is regularly noted as one of the country’s steepest. For this and other excellent terrain, Snowbowl has been profiled in Ski and Skiing magazines multiple times in recent years, earning a reputation as a “Great Unknown” and a “Hidden Treasure.”

But it’s the unknown and hidden aspects that make this mountain a prize to locals, and the accident-prone access road, two old-school double chairlifts and lack of moderate terrain do their part to keep out a glitzier, destination-skier crowd seeking a more “manicured” experience.

To this end, owner Brad Morris assures skiers that rumors about newly constructed lifts accessing new terrain are unfounded, and plans to install such remain a long ways off. The only changes we can expect this year are unrelated to skiing the mountain and more related to getting to it.

A newly rebuilt section of road will add a safer approach and expand the parking lot, although you can save the drive and get up the hill via the free shuttle bus to and from Missoula on weekends.

But woe is the weekend ’Bowl skier, as Missoula’s masses line up at the mountain’s two older lifts, beginner snowboarders scrape the hill’s bottlenecks into boilerplate and stopped chairs (the result of beginners failing to get on or off efficiently) keep powder-seeking lap-makers seated high above the ground.

But Snowbowl stands arguably at the top of the list of Montana mountains to ski on weekdays when the slopes are uncrowded and the lifts rarely stop. The low(er) base elevation, mostly southern exposure and close proximity to the Garden City’s gung-ho outdoor community means that the good snow gets skied out quickly, leaving steep runs bumped-out and glazed.

Glazed is a term better reserved for apres ski, and Snowbowl’s Last Run Inn has established itself for providing skiers or snowboarders with top-tier cuisine and (according to Independent readers) the best Bloody Mary in Missoula eight years running.

Moonlight Basin: Sharing the slopes

Moonlight Basin is the first destination ski resort to open in the United States in more than two decades, differing from the more or less locals-only ski hill of Blacktail Mountain.

The resort shares the flanks (but not the summit) of 11,166-foot Lone Peak with Big Sky, and legal bickerings have served to keep things a bit uncooperative between the two corporations. Regardless of the proximity and the worthwhile skiing experience, Moonlight does not yet compete with its larger neighbor.

Sure, the layout of the mountain is similar—super steeps for experts up top, long, meandering blue and green runs throughout the lower mountain.

But astute skiers will note that this mountain was initially designed as a real estate opportunity, with many of the lower mountain runs paralleling a Colorado-esque, cookie-cutter community of oversized condos.

But ride the new Lone Tree quad to its top and you’ll find terrain well worth the drive, although the best, steepest skiing still requires a half-hour hike.

Over the next 15 years, Moonlight is hoping to cover almost 4,000 acres with 12 new lifts, making it one of the nation’s largest. But sharing a mountain with the aggressive and well-established Big Sky may limit growth potential.

Maverick Mountain: Takes one to ski one

With only one chairlift, the options here are limited, but with its high elevation, two sets of nearby hot springs and always-uncrowded slopes, Maverick can be an excellent option for skiers heading through the Big Hole or just looking to try all of Montana’s offerings.

When I skied this mountain last year, no storm had passed through in 10 days. Still, with just a little bit of traversing, I blasted through numerous 10-turn lines of light, untracked snow before slipping back onto the run.

The mountain is only open Thursdays through Sundays. Weekday skiing will only set you back $15, and no voucher, proof of enrollment or coupon is necessary. The on-area food is limited, but Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, en route from Missoula, offers reasonably priced rooms, one of the best developed soaking experiences in the state, and gourmet, organic cuisine.

Turner Mountain: My own private powderhole

Like Maverick, Turner has only one chair, but its slogan of “Steep, Deep, and Cheap” makes it perfect for Montana skiers looking for the antithesis of Big Sky, and basing out of a Libby hotel can be one of the cheapest options in the state.

Turner, a little more than four hours from Missoula, sits in the wettest part of the state, and roads leading to the mountain can be in poor shape.

And while the slogan is accurate, the most notable aspect of Turner is that it can be all yours: For a party-specific rate, Turner will rent out the entire mountain to private parties on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Time your rental to coincide with one of the area’s regular storms and your group of powderhounds will have what amounts to a lift-serviced backcountry experience.

And Turner is small-time—its website suggests that skiers bring toilet paper, just in case. Just in case of what isn’t clarified, but it serves as an indicator that this mountain will not be crowded, even on powder days.

And in what might just be the best deal in Montana this winter, students ski free on President’s Day; be sure to bring proof of current enrollment.

photo@missoulanews.com

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