The Best of “The Big” 2012

Ski Season 2011-2012 is in the books–digitally speaking–and it was a banner year here on “The Big Mountain” north of Whitefish, Montana.  This was especially true if you are a local ski tuner/repair guy.  And it was also true for those of us requiring their services.

Sure, the season started late and then went slow for an extended period. And even once we got deep snows, I still managed to find enough rocks and stumps to get my man Casey (the ski tuner) and I on a first name basis.

After a couple of really good, super-deep seasons, this year’s 303 inches seemed mostly pedestrian–when compared to last year.  But, looking back at the photo-pictorial record of this season, it looks more and more like a pretty magnificent year.   You can look at the pics assembled here and make your own call.

Opening day came on Saturday, December 10th, 2011–a full-week after we were supposed to open.  We were waiting on the “one good” storm that never came, or at least not until January.  So, we opened to marginal snow conditions, skiing on the backside (north-facing slopes) only.  But we had back-to-back inversion days on Saturday and Sunday, opening weekend. Nice!

With very little early season snowpack, we were forced to “download” from the summit of the mountain back to the main village.  In plain speak, that means we rode the chair back down to the village–instead of skiing, because there wasn’t enough snow coverage yet.  The ride back down was anti-climactic, after a 20 minute wait to load the chair.  “Woohoo! We’re skiing again–or we were just minutes ago.  Now we’re riding a chairlift down the mountain.  Hey look at all the grass!”  The discussion naturally turned toward the Resorts’ summer mowing (or lack thereof) habits and snowmaking capabilities.  We appreciated the manmade snow but hoped not to need it.  It was another La Nina winter after all.

Little by little, day by day, with relentless snow-making, we were treated to more and more available terrain.  We had enough snow for the visiting Murphy boys to have some fun snowboarding before Christmas.

And, by New Years we still had lots of grass and shrubs still clearly visible.  Fortunately we were treated to some magnificent late afternoon views on New Years Eve.

We were skiing and seeing the splendid view of sunrays across the valley.  It was mostly easy enough to ignore the grass everywhere.   The view looking west, of Upper Whitefish Lake in some partial sun, made the lake look a brilliant gun-metal blue.  If only I’d taken the picture before the shade overtook the lake again.

Many of us were still skiing on our “rock” skis (backups) until around mid-January, when all of the sudden, La Nina’s fickle, winter faucet turned on.  We got 4 feet of snow in one week and 7 feet for the month.  At that point, we were saying “now this is the Big Mountain we all know and love.”  All we ask of La Nina is to bury us deep.  And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day.  Lather, rinse, repeat, redundantly.

January also brought some more splendid view days.  

I am a sucker for the beauty of natural light.   The play of light and shadow varying from the mountain, across the valley, all the way to Flathead Lake.   It looks like the chiaroscuro effect of the Baroque Era painters (e.g. Rembrandt).  It seems to demonstrate the hand of God illustrating our local canvas.  We get that a lot.

Shade where I’m standing often enables the light across the way to look quite brilliant.

Above, the village roads looked electrified from where I stood….under a magnificent sky that extended as far as you could see.

The deep snows of January enabled greater mountain exploration.  Late afternoon in Evan’s Heaven is always a treat…and this view below was almost screensaver worthy.

There’s Harlan (Steele) in repose at lower left (above). He seemed to be with me for about half of my photo-op worthy moments.  Thanks for your patience Harlan.  We ripped it up!

Weekend night skiing allowed us to ski until as dark as we wanted.  This January sunset was enjoyed among friends.  Thanks Steve & K. 

Sometime in January, word on the mountain had it, that some industrious folks had built a shack off in the tree-line near the top of Swift Creek.  Having just started skiing the Swift Creek trees (the tree-line at skier’s right of the run) on a regular basis last year, it was no “big-thing” to investigate the truth of the matter.

It’s true, the Big had a “stoner shack” of its own.  Just like the legendary one at Keystone and other places.  Although ours had much less capacity (seats maybe 3 or 4) and apparent usage.  It was equipped on the inside with an old Chair 11 sign and outside you can see the poached “closed sign” partially visible.   Nobody said that the shack’s builders and patrons were good citizens on the hill.   Industrious–sure.  Citizens–not so much.

By the end of January, Whitefish was the place to ski.  Tahoe was thin, Colorado and Utah were disappointingly thin, by their own measuring standards.  We were at just about average by then.

So, after a five year hiatus, some friends decided to join us again for another round of skiing the Big Mountain.  It just so happens that during those five years I learned how to ski. I have slowly but surely developed into a skilled, knowledgeable Big Mountain guide–capable of taking folks to the limits of their ability level, without going over-board (at least that’s how I see it; though I suppose its best to allow others to judge).

The friends brought snow with them, another 4 feet in a week and 22 inches in 24 hours. That was the most snow in a 24-hour period since 1996–which was coincidentally, the first year I ever skied here.  This year, we shoveled like crazy people–for that one week.  And we even had some nice view days to enjoy the new snow with.   Thanks Brad & MB.

Lets try to get back out in less than five years next time…and since you’ve done it each time you’ve visited, bring fresh snow with you when you come.

It was only a few weeks after Brad & MBs visit, that my buddy, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Morris made it out, also for his “every five years” ski trip to Montana.  He didn’t get the epic, optimum weather for powder-skiing, but he did get some decent opportunities to conquer the Big’s steeps….but not before the obligatory Summit overview of Whitefish photo-op.  This is a mandatory photo–even on a cloudy day.

Morris, ever the adventurous sort, was ready for my “Intro to Pow/Steeps” Course.  He dug following Harlan through First Creek, for his first Double-Black descent on Big Mountain.  And he enjoyed his crack at Evan’s Heaven.

There are few greater joys in life than conquering the steeps on your favorite mountain–that first descent down new terrain is especially rewarding–Morris was chuffed at the bottom of Evans.   Even Murph got a kick out of Morris’ enthusiasm.

During his week here, Morris conquered a number of iconic Big Mountain trails, including First Creek, Gray’s Golf Course and the East Rim Nose.  He deserved to be chuffed, after skiing down into the teeth of this next vista. 

Nicely done Morris.  See you again in 2017.  How bout we shoot for 2013?   That way, we can keep building your “steeps” resume.

March had a record 23 of 31 days with measurable snowfall on the mountain.  Although, some of those days had summit snows and village rains, with the dividing line creating some interesting effects on the mountain.   Sometimes, the rains made the snow ski better. It seemed counterintuitive at the time, but truth is truth.

Also of note during the winter of 2012 was the fact that Whitefish Lake never froze over–for the first of the six winters that I’ve lived here.  The south and north ends froze, but it never met in the middle.  The whole US was 8 degrees warmer on average this past winter, and I suppose we had to share in some of those effects.  The pic below shows the open water hanging strong in the deepest of our mid-winter.

March’s wet but variable weather yielded some great vista-views too.  Not the least of which, was one of my favorite, classic Northern Rockies views seen below.  

Before we knew it, April was upon us.  The final week of the season didn’t give us much fresh snow to play with, but we were able to enjoy some spring “corn” (soft, melting) snow conditions.  Once again, Steve and K, Harlan and I enjoyed skiing the “5/4” line (underneath/adjacent to Chair’s 5 and 4).   And many of us say that “Langley never skies better than it does as corn.”  At least Steve, K, Harlan and I do, anyway.

The final week of the season even brought us some thunder-snow-storm like conditions. Like almost everywhere else I’ve lived, conditions can change very quickly.  It’ll be nice one minute and snowing the next.  Graupel (hard, pellet – pea-sized) snow is always fun, especially when it pelts your face at 40 miles-per-hour.   Below, the ongoing storm in the valley looked quite spectacular and ominous from the mountain.  Thus affirming the truism that it’s “better to be up here…than down there.”

The final weekend brought us the 7th annual “Pond Skim.”  It is always a crowd-magnet.

It was sunny at the beginning of the Pond Skim, but instead of getting a photo, I opted to ski another run.  By the time I got down from that run, it was snowing to beat the band.

Steve and K skied during the festivities and photo-ops.  They even had a chair to themselves, in a day known for relentless lift-lines.

Pond Skim Day yielded some spectacular views.  You just had to capture it while it was available–which is such an apt principle, vis-a-vis’ a ski season.  You take what the Almighty provides when you can…because it might not be there a minute from now.

Alas, before we knew it, Closing Day came on Easter Sunday, April 8th.

Lots of folks dressed for the festivities–both Easter and the final festive day on the mountain.  As if some folks need an excuse to dress up. 

As always, a vigorous crowd gathered at the summit until the chair stopped running. It was a beautiful day for it.  And Gaye, who happens to groom our dog Lady, insisted on taking a picture of yours truly.  Rarely does my camera capture this face.  But here’s a rare exception below…with the peaks of Glacier National Park in the distant background.

While we waited for the chair to finish bringing the last of the skiers to the summit, folks assembled, regaled their exploits, and pledged to do it again next season.  God willing, we should all be so fortunate.   We don’t ever want to take ski season for granted.  It is a gift.

Steve and K were there, with Darnell and Anita. 

John (Gibson – Vert Champ 2007) was there on his “Big Mountain” carving board.

As was the little Easter Bunny girl.  When I moved into position to take a picture of the whole crowd from a distance, she just happened to be moving across in front of me.  She couldn’t help but think that I must be taking a photo of her–so she stopped and posed.   And I took this pic below.   She seemed like such a ham….of an Easter Bunny.   Too cute~!

When the final rider arrived at the summit, he was greeted in traditional manner…..with a volley of incoming snowballs.   After he cleared the lift area, the chair stopped running for the season as the crowd roared.  Ski season traditions are fun and festive, even as they come to their inevitable end.

Over the next 30-45 minutes, little by little, the crowd began to peel off, one or two at a time, for our last, lift-served run down the mountain.

During my final run, I took my time, stopping to take some pics along the way.  At the top of the “Chute” I got the following pic of the village and the lake.  I loved how the Whitefish Lake Lodge area, in the distance, was a brilliant green hue, from the sunlight shining brightly on it.  The pic doesn’t quite do justice to it….though it is beautiful nonetheless.

The spectacular views of the opening and closing weekend of the 2011-12 season were a fitting bookend to another great season.  It wasn’t the deepest year.  It wasn’t the coldest. And you could maybe argue that it wasn’t the best year ever….but it was a pretty darned good one.

This season did yield some very memorable moments.  From Morris’ first trip through First Creek, to my first venture down the narrower, center chute of Haskill’s Slide, to learning the Back-Door to Evan’s Heaven, and the east route into lower NBC (North Bowl Chute), it was a year of improving confidence, learning and bulletproofing new routes, and enjoying the opportunity to share them among friends and family.

I’ve never skied any better than I did this season…and I enjoyed it more than ever.  Skiing well is its own reward.   Come and see for yourself next year.  If you promise not to lollygag, I just might ski with you–for a run or two. R/JDPF

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6 Responses to The Best of “The Big” 2012

  1. Kevin Murphy says:

    Great post J! Hope to make a few runs with you in 2013! See you next weekend.K&L

    • Celeste says:

      Oh my gosh, what awesome phtoos! I couldn’t even pick a favorite because I like so many of them. It’s obvious from the phtoos that you guys must have a great relationship. So awesome that he’s willing to pose for you and man does that result in some great phtoos! Best wishes in 2012 to you guys!

    • Red says:

      I love that you have put so much effort and fun into crinetag the setting for photos of your son. They are an inspiration to me to keep it fun and original. Thanks so much for linking up and sharing your work with us.I am going to share your post on my FB page

  2. Gcoe says:

    – awesome that’s a big ol group! and all skeirs too! enjoy that while it lasts. cuz once the kids realize that all the cool kids are snowboarding, they are going to ditch those skis real quick. lolFebruary 24, 2011 9:49 pm

  3. Sibhusky says:

    Enjoyed your blog as usual. I came to read about The Big, but also picked up on the Tull blog. Now I need to look into that new album. Next year I may nab you for a run.

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