Skiing the Big Mountain
The sun has set on another great ski season here on the Big Mountain.
The 2012-13 ski year, while under-delivering on the total snowfall front (at 257″), did deliver some distinct highlights and plenty of memorable moments. Here’s the proof—or at least a few pics that illustrate some of those great moments.
We started the season with three weeks of relentless powder days. Our legs weren’t ready for off-piste bombing….but we did it nonetheless. Skiing above the inversion layer (of clouds) was just an added bonus. Inversions are God’s way of telling folks to get out of town and up on the mountain. It’s wet and dreary down there…and it’s glorious up here.
The deep snows early, set us up well for the Christmas hordes from the Canadian steppes. 3,000 acres is just enough to accommodate the 7,000 folks who celebrate the holidays in Whitefish and on the mountain. We need all 3,000 acres of Whitefish Mountain Resort to spread everybody out. And sometimes it still feels like we are stepping on each other’s toes. Whitefish feels a lot like South Alberta and not Montana over this time—best evidenced by the completely sold out milk racks at Safeway. All through the holidays, locals are heard saying “its only a week, right? Next week, it will be just us here.”
Like troopers, we pushed through it. Knowing that at least we had 3,000 acres and we had fresh snow to play in.
Some of that early season pow, had us skiing Evan’s Heaven for last run, day after day. Evan’s is known for being a little softer, a little deeper, a little less-tracked, and since it’s a long cat-track ride back to the chairlifts, we usually save it for last. The late-afternoon views in Evan’s are often worth the trip.
The steep terrain of Evan’s Heaven is as challenging as you want to ski it.
Over time, we skied all of it…from the “Back-Door” to Lee’s Way. If the snow is soft, the lower Evan’s tree-line is one of the mountain’s great joys. But don’t take my word for it. Come up next season and decide for yourself.
Here above is the (east end of the) biggest Evan’s cliff—known locally, colloquially, as “Buckle Your Boots.” We like skiing the chute at skier’s left of the cliff….which offers this view above. Though, on a particularly foggy day, I did happen upon some other tighter, shorter chutes at skier’s right of the cliff—after skiing upon the “cliff sign” basically mid-rock. The only way from there, was to turn right and look for a chute I could do, or “huck” it. Its a “big boy” huck, no question about it, no matter which side you choose. And people do it. We watched a snowboarder huck the 25-30 foot portion in early March. He hucked right off the middle of the biggest drop (seen from a distance in the pic below). Crazy~!
Coming back from Evan’s after last chair, takes you down Russ’s Street toward town. The town view always give us a lift, knowing that we are still skiing, doing a last lap for those still working down below. Somebody’s got to represent. Those stuck in town, or worse, in the flatlands of the plains, require our service, doing one more run for them. We do our part–such is the service portion of being a full-time ski bum.
Shortly after seeing town, Russ’ Street turns west toward the main village. And on nice early season afternoons, you often ski into the setting sun. As we skied past Hogan’s East one December day, these side-by-side “Sun-Dogs” below were a stunning sight to behold.
These “Sun Dogs” looked as if they were lifted from the “Bible Stories” kid’s book at the pediatrician’s office. They certainly appear to convey divine providence, on some level.
And while the skies often seem to be channelling divine providence, the Jesus statue near the top of Chair 2, remains mired in the court system. One fellow, who skis maybe a half dozen days a season, is offended by the presence of the statue on Forest Service land.
Save Jesus stickers have become popular enough that they are being sold locally. Irony and capitalism intersecting for fun and profit.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the Jesus Statue Case, divine providence didn’t keep the snow-faucet turned on much past the holidays. The early season snows eventually gave way to some prolonged dry periods. January, February and March each had long stretches (>7-10 days) without snow. Droughts in ski-areas wear thin on the powder-hounds. Even when they are punctuated and highlighted by the proverbial Colorado “Bluebird” (blue sky) days.
We made do and suffered through…knowing that life is tough, especially for ski bums.
I used this season to keep plugging away at new terrain–those areas which had previously been above my ability level. There are still huge swaths of our 3,000 acres that I’ve still left for myself to conquer in the future…but this year I conquered some big ones. For instance, “Space”–which you won’t find on a map. It’s the area between Schmidt’s Chute and Elephant’s Graveyard. Space is steep, tight, and full of drops. In a word, it’s “gnarly.”
It has to be 5-6 acres at least, featuring it’s own cliff/chute band. The cliff/chute area is the seemingly small open area seen in the pic above. As seen below from up close, you can see that it’s a lot bigger than it appears above from the distant shot from the East Rim.
And, it used to be, under my old skill-set paradigm, that we would ski Schmidt’s while our more skilled and aggressive friends might ski Space (Doug–you know who you are). One day last season, Doug entered Space…..and came out sans one ski pole. This season, we found it for him. Its hanging in the tree at center right.
All that was left was to retrieve it. That may wait another season. None of us are that comfortable working overhead on an icy ledge. Doug, you’re probably on your own here.
In addition to Space, I also began systematically conquering the skier’s left chutes of Haskill’s Slide (our signature Double-Black Diamond run on the mountain). Known to the resort’s activities crew as the “Kings and Aces” chutes, these are short, narrow and steep enough to (borrowing the phrase from Powder Magazine) “weed out the wussies.”
I was plugging away at these chutes, picking them off one by one, on good snow days…only to go “over the handlebars” one day in one of the bigger chutes. I was sliding down headfirst, on my back, knowing a rock/cliff was immediately below me. Somehow, I got my feet back around and underneath me….and skied away to tell about it, here and now.
As I made it back to my feet unscathed, I said my thanks for being “lucky to be alive” still. Nothing reinforces humility like going headfirst down a chute, in a run known to have killed multiple skiers over the years. I now ski Haskill’s with even more respect.
Likewise, Picture Chutes, in Hellroaring Basin (aka the “West Bowl”) offers continuing challenges. This year I began skiing the larger chutes at skier’s right. You ski right up to the cliff sign and drop in, working skier’s right into the open spaces to avoid the cliffs/rocks.
Much of the terrain within the Picture Chutes cliff band, is still unskiable to me and most of my friends….but I did see a number of folks this season skiing areas that I had previously labeled unskiable. It’s all in the eye of the skier. If you see it and think you can do it, then “Have at it, hoss!” is the appropriate exhortation.
Most of the new terrain I have conquered over the last few years has occurred just like that. I ski up to something, look it over, and just “know” that I can do it. At that point, I just do it. And life is good. And flatlanders and locals alike hate me—for living their dream. Everybody hates the guy who skis more than they do. Its simply human nature.
Much of the mountain has become “within my ability level” over the last few seasons. I’ve worked very hard to get to an improved level. But, I can’t claim all the credit. I also have to give it up to Andy Pollard and Sam Cordi–two of the most well-regarded instructors on the mountain.
I spent 3 years in Sam’s ski group (one day a week for eight weeks during the season) and each of the last two seasons, I’ve been under Andy’s tutelage. Below is what I call Andy’s “Elite Group” seen after just coming out of Stumptown–accessed from Goat Haunt.
He tells us we are the envy of the ski school. I know we are an adventurous and improving bunch. Understanding the science of skiing is critical–at least as much so as putting in the time required for recognizing and realizing improvements. We’ve had some tremendous days in Group….and when you see us watch out, we can, in short order, track out a powder run. Here below, we were doing our part to shred Gray’s Golf Course.
And like Men’s Day Ski Group has become routine since moving here, I similarly feel privileged to see wildlife routinely on the mountain.
It’s always scary, seeing deer up close on a ski run. When they cross closely in front of you, you realize how badly you would lose in the collision damage assessment. Fortunately, deer sightings only usually happen during the early season and this year offered no close calls.
Other animals bring a real charge when you see them. At or near the top of the list are the ermine sightings. Ermine are basically, prolific hunting snow-weasels. They feed on mountain field mice. All of them live under the snowpack….and you only see them while they are out hunting. I saw two this season. Sadly, I couldn’t get a photo. It will be a particularly lucky day if and when I eventually do. Above is a reference pic, I pulled off of borealforest.org via Google.
What I did get a photo of, while skiing one March afternoon, was a series of pics of two Big Mountain Grouse. I was skiing Fault 2 toward the Elkweed sign, when I see the two birds, about 15 feet apart, about 30 feet in front of me.
As they saw me and perceived a threat, the one in the tree stayed put, while her partner, closed ranks.
At the time I was seeing this, it seemed like nature’s answer to a burning question. When faced with a perceived threat in life, what should you do? By their actions these grouse demonstrated the simple answer. The one that is exposed should move toward its already covered friend. In closing ranks, you will find a degree of comfort–in that you are sharing the risk and not facing it alone. The tree offered cover, the partner offered comfort. Its win-win for the grouse.
Though I wasn’t a real threat in any event.
Bird sightings are more prevalent than mammals…but it isn’t the fauna that keeps us skiing, its the snow. As the season bore on, we eventually got enough snow to carry us through–mostly anyhow. There were some dirt spots emerging all over the lower, south-facing terrain over the last couple of weeks of the season. Six “bluebird” days over the final two weeks, softened the snow into slush (known as “corn” snow). It skied nice….so long as you waxed right. 50 or more SPF was a requirement for multiple 3-day periods. And if you’ve been here more than once, you know that’s a Big Mountain rarity. I got a sunburned face, twice over this time.
I also used these Bluebird days to do some photo-reconnaissance for next season. Chicken Nuggets, another name you won’t see on a trail map, in the East Rim area, is one of next year’s quests.
I’m pretty sure I’ve got a route that will get me down without any mandatory airs. It will just take the right day, with soft snow and good visibility. I was fortunate to see two guys ski my route one afternoon in late March. They never hucked anything, just skied a gnarly, technical line.
At 50 now, that seems to be my lane…technical – yes; gnarly – maybe; hucking (jumping, dropping off of cliffs, trees, etc) – absolutely not. I like the challenge of skiing difficult terrain…and the “being able to ski again tomorrow” imperative is the most important part of that whole equation.
The more I ski, the more philosophical I become about it. But, that’s a luxury I usually only attend to in the off-season. During the season, its all “get up there and get busy” putting in an honest day—in the interests of being the ski bum with the best work ethic.
Before we knew it, the honest days came to an end, and another season was in the books. It was a season for the record-books, with numerous folks setting personal bests. For me, I skied more consecutive days than ever–at 121 straight. Those days gave me every opportunity to witness the magnificent skies that grace our mountain, town and valley. I don’t know where Montana’s “Big Sky” moniker was coined….but the Big Mountain definitely gives us a big enough sky to see just about every color of the rainbow and every cloud type known to science. The distances visible are quite impressive.
This view below illustrates what Lloyd “Mully” Muldown–the man for which this run was named–saw and wanted to share with the rest of us. In the far distance, is Flathead Lake aglow, in the near portion of the valley, is Whitefish, adjacent to Whitefish Lake, which serves as the backdrop for the grown-up Big Mountain Village area. All under another magnificent sky.
The sunsets on the mountain are quite often reason enough to night ski. They can be quite spectacular. And we always appreciate their inherent beauty.
They are a fitting way to finish a nice ski day…..and an apt representation to wrap up a Ski Season remembrance. May we have many, many more.
Another great season indeed~! JDPF