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Mountain High



Rain falls in the valley as I write this, and the mountains of Western Montana are getting hammered by another of the moisture-laden storms that continue to bring massive amounts of snow to our high country. Just compare snowpack totals to last year and you’ll see that in many places the high country has already received more snow than in all of last November, December, and January combined.

These deep dumps are building a heavy, long-lasting foundation of snow for the upcoming winter, but avalanche experts are already pointing to an ugly layer of surface hoar (i.e. “icy ball bearings”) that develops on much of it between storms, causing any additional snow that falls on top to be highly unstable.

This, of course, ups the avalanche danger for skiers, hunters and anyone else tromping around the woods on or beneath slide-prone slopes. November’s storms have already covered many of Montana’s peaks in two feet or more of white, but check the depths yourself at locations nationwide by logging on to:

Couple the current weather with the Farmer’s Almanac’s online forecast for a long, cold and very snowy winter, and it appears that the ski season is shaping up in a way not seen since the legendary winter of 1996–7.

Despite the rosy outlook, Mountain High has received numerous inquiries about this year’s ski forecast, and will finally here provide a foggy-goggled look into the crystal ball of six-sided crystaline pleasure. First, expect more snow than is practical. Dumps of biblical proportions will blanket the intermountain West in depths far too deep to ski anything but the steepest of slopes—like Discovery Basin’s double-diamond backside. The term “face shots” will lose value, as anyone who moves outside will receive the coveted blessing most often reserved for a select few. A backlog on plows, road sanders and dump trucks will prevent valley-bound skiers from even getting to resorts.

On a more serious note, hundreds of Missoulians will realize that their roofs are not up to code as they sag deeply into their living rooms. Skiers unable to access The Bowl will hike and ski nearly all the lines on Mount Sentinel, and avalanches hauling down its west face will relocate “The M” to the Oval, where jibbers will drop-in off of Main Hall into freshly-carved halfpipes.

But alas, only fools predict the weather, so until the snow flies, let us clear the goggles and focus on the few in-state ski areas where Montanans are already carving their early-season turns.

Big Sky opened a low-mountain beginner chair for one day last week in an effort to let locals “stretch out their legs and double-check their gear.” In the shadow of the venerable Lone Peak, guests were charged not $5, not $10, but $20 to lap the single green cruiser.

Meanwhile, Great Divide Ski Area near Helena charged folks not $20, not $10, but a true local’s price of zero dollars to carve turns on the Good Luck Chairlift, offering 3,000’ of fast corduroy cruising.

Closer to home, the winter weather pattern of snow, snow and more snow has started to cover the always-deep Lost Trail Pass with way more than its fair share. As I slowly drove the pass in near-blizzard conditions in mid-evening, the storm had dropped about a foot of snow on the road, and more—much more—was falling up high. The ski area proper won’t say specifically when they’ll start loading chairs, but stay tuned, as the mountain should be opening soon.

Snowbowl is sitting pretty with more November snow than they’ve seen in years, but word is they won’t be opening until a few more storms roll through. Most other nearby mountains—like Big Sky, Discovery Basin, Big Mountain and Silver Mountain—are scheduled to open for the season on Turkey Day, Nov. 27.

But while some of us are dreaming about the upcoming powder days, others are thinking about hunting, or boating, or hiking. And with some of the burliest high-volume rapids in Missoula’s whitewater neighborhood, the Clark Fork’s steady drop through Alberton Gorge is a destination of choice for any Missoulian looking for thrills—in the summer, that is. This time of year, however, river recreation is limited to hardcore boaters with proper cold-water gear and adrenaline quotas to fill.

But if you’ve been there and done that enough to find yourself yawning as you roll through Fang, or nodding off as Boateater introduces your yak to the vertical world, consider joining the Rocky Mountaineers as they hike an off-trail route along the upper gorge. Yes, I said hike. Veteran gorge-walker Steve Schombel (721-4686) will lead the half-day charge across slippery rocks and hidden beaches as he links the route with the crystal-clear tributary Fish Creek. Shuttles can be arranged, so call ahead to make it so. If there’s still daylight when you finish, you might want to check out the largest Ponderosa pine in Montana, not yet chopped down, just a short ways up Fish Creek.

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