The snow at Lookout Pass Recreation Area wasn't much to write home about last Friday. Pine sprouts, half-buried bushes and the odd rock made skiing more a practice in dodging detritus than an art of carving fast turns.
Yet chairlift operators could hardly load skiers and snowboarders fast enough. Hundreds arrived for the area's second-earliest season opener in recent history. Eighteen inches might not be much, but no one could complain about hitting the slopes before Thanksgiving—especially not for a $27.50 discounted lift pass.
"It's just great to be skiing this early," says Steve Dennis, who moved to Coeur D'Alene from the Sacramento area in September. "With global warming, it feels like the season starts later and later."
Dennis joined scores of others from Missoula, Coeur D'Alene and Spokane riding the eight runs Lookout managed to open for the weekend. A handful of Snowbowl regulars cruised down groomers close on the heels of a pack of Lookout ski instructors, who, for lack of lessons, reveled in an early start to winter.
"We opened Nov. 12 about two or three years ago," says instructor Dave O'Hearn of Alberton. "But last year we didn't open until December 13. That's a full month later."
Instructor Terry Godbout attributes the usually later start dates to global warming. He remembers bygone days when Lookout would open in mid-October—and with significantly better coverage. That was more than a decade ago. These days, Godbout doesn't hold out hope for skiing before Thanksgiving weekend. And one early season isn't likely to change that.
"I heard every time the owner at 49 Degrees North [Ski Resort] north of Spokane puts in a new lift, he's setting the base areas higher," Godbout says. "So as the snow line retreats up the mountain over the years, people can still get on the lift."
So far, no other opening days have been announced in the Missoula area. Lost Trail Powder Mountain's latest online update puts total season snowfall at 16 inches with no planned start date. Discovery's Oct. 31 web post lists a depressing 0 inches. And don't let the dusting above town fool you—Montana Snowbowl is running its snow guns, but no opening date has been set.