Dropping into “Christmas Gift,” Alex Dunn gets his wish early on Christmas Eve 2007.
Anyone glancing to the Bitterroot Mountains west of Hamilton has seen it: a doglegged avalanche chute, cut sharply through the trees and funneling 2,500 steep vertical feet toward town.
The appeal of this setup may not be immediately understandable to those who haven’t experienced it. But this deep, meditative pleasure can be addictive, and many self-powered backcountry skiers find a way to enjoy the uphill at least as much as the downhill to justify the effort.
Nevertheless, many backcountry operations find ways to work around this time- and energy-consuming effort. In areas where motorized recreation is permitted in winter—like many state and national forest roads—snowcats and snowmobiles bring clients to the top of runs with ease. For some, the fumes and whine of engines are a small price to pay for the easy access.
Valhalla Adventures, a high-end snowcat skiing operation permitted on the Stillwater State Forest near Whitefish, uses motorized snowcoaches to get clients into the woods. Valhalla’s self-proclaimed “Ski-E-O” Fred Dietrich provides a “full-service” experience for backcountry enthusiasts looking to spend their days skiing, not climbing. Clients are dropped off atop a seemingly endless sea of powder for 10–14 runs per day. With a 35-square-mile permit, Dietrich directs skiers of any skill level to the terrain they want, and they don’t need to farm turns.
“There’s so much snow, and so much terrain, we don’t usually need to go very far,” he says.
Prices for the “full service” experience, with all transportation, backcountry guides, meals and a whole lot of powder skiing, run $325 per day, a cost Dietrich sees as reasonable.
“We’re like a poor man’s helicopter skiing,” he says.
Downing’s Lehrman, on the other hand, looks to provide a quieter experience for his clients, and encourages them to ski, snowshoe or walk the 1.5 miles to the lodge. It’s a conscientious move he finds compatible with his business’s location just a few hundred yards from the 3 million acre Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness. With access to such pristine terrain, Lehrman says other backcountry skiers have questioned him about the role he’s playing in commercializing, or even just promoting, the wilderness experience.
“The destruction of the wilderness experience is not something I’m after, but my feeling is there’s just so much terrain out there, there’s room for everybody,” he says. “I mean, the lodge is already there, next to the largest wilderness area, so let’s use it. This is an ideal location to promote hike-and-ski.”
Others in the industry—even those employing snowmobiles to haul in clients—feel the same way.
Carl Sievers and Adam Simon purchased Yurtski mid-way through last season, and other than adding a second yurt a mile below their long-established Alpine Yurt, they see no reason to change a thing.
“We’re just trying to keep it going as it’s been going,” says Sievers, 30, “other than trying to not blow up any more snowmobiles.”
Operating on the Lolo National Forest at the southern tip of the Swan Mountains near Salmon Lake, Yurtski’s facilities are situated eight miles from the trailhead via heavily snowmobiled logging roads. While some parties opt for the five-hour uphill ski in, others grab the waterski rope tied to the owners’ powerful sleds, strap on their goggles and hang on.
Once they’ve dropped off the skiers and their gear, Sievers and Simon jump back on their sleds and head out. After the exhaust clears and silence returns to the remote valley, skiers strap on their skins and head farther upward, earning their turns quietly as they explore the alpine bowls and steep trees that define the area’s high country.
But while the majority of Montana’s coveted backcountry ski terrain lies in areas most commonly managed by the Forest Service, Yurtski is the only backcountry business that operates on agency land. In large part, that’s because regulations like endangered species analyses are stiffer and oversight is more expensive than for those operating on other agencies’ public land. This makes it more challenging for small businesses to secure permits.
Eight years ago, the Forest Service required Yurtski’s original owners to fund a full-fledged lynx analysis on their preferred location on the Flathead National Forest. That expensive deal-breaker prompted the owners to find their current location, where a lynx study was already funded and completed, and the agency was willing to work with them—even though they would still operate in “critical lynx habitat.”
Current owner Sievers says his experience working with the agency has been excellent.
“We’ve been pretty darn lucky,” he says.
On the other hand, state land—while typically lower and less-coveted ski terrain better known for timber production—is required by law to earn money for the state’s coffers. Valhalla’s Dietrich is quick to point this out, having looked into both state and federal land to run his business.
“The state’s much easier to work with than the Forest Service,” he says. “The Forest Service kinda laughed at us.”
By operating strictly on state land, Valhalla experiences less regulatory oversight and his permit fees help fund state education.
“Every bit of the license fees I pay goes right into the school trust,” says Dietrich, who uses a snowcat to travel existing logging roads and transport skiers to ski lines where trees have already been harvested. “If you’re gonna log the area, why don’t we take advantage of it with a business that’s sustainable? I mean we can make money for the state forever.”
Twenty-five miles west of West Yellowstone, in Montana’s Centennial Range, Hellroaring owner Tim Bennett operates yet another way. Operating within a Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area, Bennett doesn’t have logging roads to access his permit area, so every year he hauls in his two wall tents via mules, one day before hunting season. For Bennett, the extra work of horse packing is well worth the effort.
“We’re a little less focused toward catering, and more focused on backcountry skiing,” he says. “It’s mighty cold here, and we get lots of snow—by midwinter the yurt is entirely buried, and that means up to the eaves.”
The hut—technically two wall tents that combine to provide 1,000 feet of comfortable indoor space—uses passive solar and two wood stoves to heat the six bunks and full kitchen. It’s located 3.5 miles from the nearest trailhead.
Lehrman—running his business on private land out of the already existing Grubstake—doesn’t have those kinds of permitting issues. But if he wants to guide on the adjacent Bitterroot National Forest, he’s still required to get a guiding license. That process is underway and won’t be completed until next year at the earliest.
Dave Campbell, district ranger for the Bitterroot National Forest, says Lehrman’s plan is likely to be consistent with the current forest plan and worthy of consideration. He notes that this is the first “winter use” guide permit application that he’s seen in his 18 years working with the forest.
“We don’t have a formal position on his arrangement with the private landowner; we only have a position that the national forest is a great place to recreate,” Campbell says. “If John’s got an innovative idea that’s consistent with the forest management plan, great. And if this helps him do that, that’s great, too.”
A Sliding Scale
Lehrman cut his off-area ski teeth in the Bitterroot while getting his wildlife biology degree at the University of Montana in the early 1990s. He eyed the Downing Mountain line from his farmhouse on the valley floor and, intrigued by its potential, asked Grubstake owner Richard Kingdon about the skiing. Kingdon—a backcountry skier himself—encouraged him to go explore it,
and they immediately struck up a friendship that eventually allowed Lehrman access to the coveted key that opens the lower mountain’s gate.
For years, Lehrman worked as a winter caretaker at the empty Grubstake, a perfect chance for him to explore the bowl and the terrain that, once on top, goes on, and on, and on.
“We skied the safe side for a couple years as we got to know the mountain, but soon worked our way over to more challenging terrain,” he explains.
“Challenging” is a relative term, but it’s worth noting when it comes from Lehrman. He’s a committed Bitterroot explorer who chronicles his adventures with pictures, videos and route descriptions on his website, www.backcountryfocus.com. What began as an online diary evolved into an important site for skiers and climbers seeking detailed information on previously undocumented routes, both up and down the mountains.
That expertise helps when it comes to the terrain on Downing Mountain. Anyone heading up the hill above the lodge needs to be prepared for the variable conditions and genuine risks associated with deep-in-there winter recreation. That means not only going prepared with the proper equipment and knowledge, but also a solid set of skiing skills and environmental awareness.
“I want [clients] to drop in when it’s safe, and ski the edge when it’s not,” Lehrman says. “It’s always a question: What’s the safety plan, what’s the deal? Well you know, technically, you’re on your own. That’s a big, vast national forest out there. You just booked the lodge from me.”
For clients to arrive prepared, Lehrman—a season pass holder at Lost Trail/Powder Mountain—suggests skiing developed ski hills before having to make the decisions critical to enjoying a safe backcountry ski experience.
“I think people will spend most of their time not in the bowl, but on the sides,” he says. “There’s tons of acreage if you’re a good powder skier who likes trees. We farm that, and then move our way out into the bowl, skiing it with our hearts in our throats and praying it doesn’t kill us.”
Does that mean he’s opening his business on a prayer?
“Well…yes, basically,” he says. “The backcountry is dangerous. It’s no joke. You can question the whole reason why we do it in the first place, but in the end that’s cliché. We do it because we love it.”
Hellroaring’s Bennett is intimately familiar with how skiers, blinded by their quest for longer, steeper powder runs, can find themselves literally in over their heads.
“This is very active avalanche terrain,” he says, noting that a tragic accident two years ago claimed the life of one of his clients.
The incident was immortalized in the movie A Dozen More Turns, directed by first-time filmmaker Amber Seyler. The compelling but solemn film is widely available online and uses footage from a camera buried in the slide and not recovered until melt-out.
While Bennett feels the film is “a very good avalanche awareness tool,” he also says it’s “not very correct” in it’s representation of his business.
Now, Bennett requires skiers to come in parties of four or more, and first-time visitors are required to approach the hut with one of his guides.
“Every group has to be able to self-evac[uate],” he says. “When there’s four [people], three can facilitate the rescue.”
As the movie bluntly depicts, rescues from this remote basin can be extraordinarily difficult, sometimes taking a couple days.
Lehrman is also acutely aware of safety issues, having witnessed a few “minor” and one major slide over the years on Downing Mountain.
Still, with all the skiing he does—80 total days last year, 55 in the backcountry—he can’t always find a partner and will regularly head into the backcountry solo. Nearly two decades working at a remote outfitting camp in northern Ontario has prepared the wilderness first responder for being, well, prepared.
“I wear a helmet, an Avalung and I carry a JetBoil,” he says. “I’m always trying to figure out if today’s the day I’ll have to spend the night out there.”
As his passion morphs into a business, Lehrman is shifting concerns for his own safety to that of his clients. (He currently carries a stretcher in his car.) It’s a natural progression considering his lodge’s showcase run looks like death from the valley.
“That was my original sentiment, too,” he says about the treacherous-looking line. “Why would I want to go skiing on a big avalanche path? Well, good ski slopes avalanche. We make rules, but you just get on any [backcountry skier] forum and you’ll see that rules don’t always apply. This is a big slide path, and that is a concern of mine. Mario even says someone’s gonna die up here. But all that stuff on the [bowl’s upper] left is, by and large, safe. I’ve never seen it slide, and I’ve probably done a thousand runs.”
The “Mario” he speaks of is Mario Locatelli, aka “The Mountain Goat of the Bitterroot.” The ubiquitous 75-year-old explorer has clambered up every ridge, valley and prominent summit in the entire Bitterroot Range, by foot or by ski, much of it chronicled in his recently released book, The Mountain Goat Chronicles. Other than perhaps Lehrman, Locatelli’s skied Downing Mountain as much as anyone.
“I’ve had some awesome times up there the last 30 years, sometimes three times a week,” says the Mountain Goat from his nearby home on Mountain Goat Road, beneath Goat Peak. “That little mountain is some of the best skiing in the whole Bitterroot Valley. It’s even better than sex ’cause it lasts longer!”
Locatelli’s enthusiasm goes beyond just getting his own yayas. He’s also excited for other Bitterrooters to gain easier winter access to his beloved mountains. Good ski lines in the Bitterroot require notoriously long and arduous approaches—a fact Bozeman’s backcountry community often uses to razz their Missoula-area comrades—and this keeps less-dedicated skiers lapping at more mundane roadside stashes, like Lolo Pass.
But with a lodge perched directly adjacent to the technical and bountiful acreage the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness provides, Lehrman hopes to change that.
“The Bitterroots are really hard to access, which is too bad because they really are world-class ski terrain,” he says. “Runs can’t get better, they can only get longer.”
Even so, difficult approaches have prevented the range from becoming a destination backcountry winter recreation destination, like Teton Pass in Wyoming, or Roger’s Pass in British Columbia. But they also have filtered the fully committed from the wannabes, creating a robust community of hardcore skiers fully dedicated to exploring the region.
“If access is really the only issue, then the subcult of backcountry skiers that you’ll be touring with are the one’s who say, ‘Fifteen hours? Yeah, sounds like a fun day. Eleven hours? Sounds like a full day. Eight hours? Just a winter day. Five hours? A quick shot in the mountains, but let’s pound out 5,000 feet of vert.’”
This kind of go-get-‘em attitude means that there will be fewer and fewer lines to yourself, notes Locatelli, who worries that more skiers means more skied-out snow.
“It’s not quite as much fun if you have too many people up there,” he says.
Lehrman thinks he can achieve a balance—capitalizing on backcountry skiing’s growing popularity while avoiding any crowding because of the difficulty of Downing Mountain’s runs. Danger can be avoided, he says, with skill.
“I’m looking for people who want to ski at an advanced level,” he says, “from the comforts of a lodge.”
Babylon’s falling, let’s go skiing!
While the remote nature of these operations isolates them from much of the business world, they’re not immune to the same economic downturn that’s challenging entrepreneurs everywhere. Still, they remain optimistic about the future of their niche operations.
“We’ve definitely not booked up as fast as last year, and we haven’t had anyone interested in catering options,” says Yurtski’s Sievers, 30. “But we’re not a big-ticket item, like going to Vail with a family of four. We’re cheaper than a lift ticket, and the skiing’s way better.”
While ski resorts like Vail do provide amenities unavailable at remote backcountry lodges, these Montana upstarts offer their share of non-skiing related pleasures, too. Like a hot tub and internet service at the Downing Lodge.
“I don’t want to promote that as much as the skiing,” says Lehrman, “but it’s here.”
Clearly, for most clients interested in a
backcountry experience, frills fall secondary to what truly matters: ski terrain and snow quality. And when you have this kind of rare, in-demand product, Sievers notes, attracting clients is not a problem.
“Return clients make up 70 percent of our business, maybe more,” says Sievers. “And it’s a good thing, because without people coming back Yurtski wouldn’t exist.”
And although Valhalla’s Dietrich relies on higher-end clients, he isn’t getting his gaiters in a bunch about the recession either.
“I’m sure the crisis will affect my business, but some people find a way to play, no matter what,” he says.
Dietrich feels confident enough that he’s looking for ways to expand. With more than 500 inches of powder falling on his terrain last season, he’s now thinking the sky’s the limit—literally. Last month he applied for a permit to include heli-skiing, a plan that drew concerns from citizens and Glacier National Park about how persistent chopper laps could affect threatened species.
Defenders of Wildlife has also weighed in, noting that the Whitefish Range is one of the few locations in the Lower 48 that still supports “resident, breeding populations of lynx, wolverines and grizzly bears.” Critters need quiet winters for survival, says the group, noting that the area “may be the single most important basin for carnivores in the Rocky Mountains.”
Dietrich insists that the chopper operations won’t begin, at the earliest, until next year, and says he will instead continue to run one-day, overnight and full-moon gourmet dinner cruises from his snowcat.
Yurtski is also eyeing future options, seeing great potential for a system of yurts that could link a route across the Swan Crest. Sievers recognizes the plan presents extreme challenges, but he’s willing to dream.
“Every time you get on that ridge and look toward the north, toward the wilderness boundary, you just have to go, ‘Yeah, it’d be awesome to have that kind of opportunity out there,’” he says. “That would be a self-service situation, though, and you wouldn’t be bringing a keg with you. I may be pipe-dreaming, but the possibilities are endless, and we’re willing to learn what works best.”
Lehrman also sees a world of potential, even before he’s opened his new operation for business.
“This is the first business I’ve started,” he says, “and I want to test the market and give people options. But in the end, if it’s a really fun winter, and it costs me $2,000 to do this and learn all I’ve learned? Boom! I don’t have to go to the university! I’m getting my degree here. What more could I want?”