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Exposing secret stashes: A new backcountry guidebook aims to preserve access

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Devout skiers often find it difficult to shake the image of certain white squiggles on certain distant peaks. For Jeff Schmerker, that squiggle was a chute on the eastern flank of Lindy Peak, which looms behind the foothills of the Mission Range between Seeley Lake and Condon. As far as he knew, no one had skied it before. He scoured maps, called rangers, even zoomed in on the background of a photo a friend had taken at the waterfall above Holland Lake. Finally, one June morning, Schmerker just went for it.

"There's a point when you come over this crest and you can see Beanhole Lake and it's totally iced up," Schmerker recalls. "There was a little bit of blue water on top of it because it's melting in the spring, and I was like, 'I'm so happy I found it.'"

From now on, getting directions to Lindy Peak—and dozens of other white squiggles throughout western Montana—won't require quite as much research. In early January, Schmerker published an ebook through Amazon titled Western Montana Backcountry Ski Guide, documenting nearly 120 powder stashes from the Yaak to the Pintlar Mountains. He first hatched the idea in 2013, after a post on his personal travel blog about backcountry destinations around Missoula prompted a flood of emails from out-of-state visitors requesting more information.

Schmerker could relate. He'd developed a passion for skiing during childhood trips to Colorado, and first heeded the call of the backcountry as a college sophomore in Utah. When he and his wife, Laura, moved to Missoula in 2009, Schmerker saw plenty of opportunity in the surrounding mountains. Without any skiing acquaintances or readily available reference material, however, it wasn't always clear how to get there.

"It was a lot of trial and error," he says. "A lot of long days with not really good payback. Lots of soul-searching bushwhacks, a lot of calling Laura from the side of the mountain saying, 'I'm not going to get home until after dark because I've misjudged the exit.'"

Missoula skier Jeff Schmerker, who recently published a guide to backcountry skiing in western Montana, is pictured here in his native environment. - PHOTO BY AARON TEASDALE
  • photo by Aaron Teasdale
  • Missoula skier Jeff Schmerker, who recently published a guide to backcountry skiing in western Montana, is pictured here in his native environment.

The lion's share of Schmerker's guidebook is ripped straight from the former newspaper reporter's notes. Schmerker, who spends his weekdays writing marketing material for hotel chains, mortgage brokers and other clients, hopes the book will serve as a resource for local or visiting skiers who, like him, need a little help finding terrain beyond the popular backcountry slopes of Lolo Pass. He also confesses a secondary motivation, one that touches on the broader debate facing public lands here in Montana and across the West.

"If you don't know a place, you can't advocate for it," Schmerker says. "And in many cases, very specific locations need advocates. ... I want people to get out and enjoy these spots, but then to also realize that they're able to do that by the grace of a congressional act which can be reversed or rescinded."

Schmerker is on the board of Montana Backcountry Alliance, a statewide organization dedicated to advocating human-powered winter recreation—particularly as it pertains to U.S. Forest Service policy and ski area expansions. Asked if any of the destinations featured in his book are under threat, Schmerker immediately mentions the St. Regis Basin and Lookout Pass Ski Area's planned expansion, which is currently working its way through the environmental review process.

"There's going to be a lot of slackcountry [that's backcountry accessible from a resort] skiers in St. Regis," Schmerker says of the likely impacts of the expansion's first phase. "A lot of where the slackcountry is going to come down is a place where snowmobilers are going now, where they're high-marking. That's going to push [the snowmobilers] farther up into places where backcountry skiers are now."

Schmerker also has concerns about the long-term viability of year-round access to Lockwood Point, situated on the easternmost edge of Wishard Ridge about nine miles past Bonner. Lockwood lies on former Plum Creek land purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 2015, and skiers and snowmobilers currently access the point via a TNC-built trailhead just off Highway 200. However, that access crosses several private inholdings. Right now, Schmerker says, landowners are OK with recreationists passing through. "But if someone was to gate off their square—which they would have the right to—I think that would effectively end mid-winter skiing up there."

Schmerker is sensitive to the fact that, however well intentioned, his guidebook exposes some little-known powder stashes. That said, it's not like a guidebook to New York City bars. "You still have to go climb the mountain, which here is not always that simple," Schmerker says. "The other thing is, I really don't think we're in a time when you can afford to have places that no one knows about."

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