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Turner Mountain, Feb. 18
Turner, a volunteer-run ski area in Libby, was recovering from a wedding the day before. Anyone can rent the mountain for $2,500.
"You picked a good day," declared Jeff Zwang, a prospective law student whose father, Bruce, was president of Turner's board of directors. "Lots of fresh snow."
"How was the wedding?" I asked, imagining skiers flowing down the broad slope above the lodge in tuxedos and gowns.
"Forty Canadians, mostly beginners," he replied. "They only skied on the groomers."
Zwang took me to Gidley's Glade. About halfway down, a grouse flushed in front of my ski tips, then another and another. I giggled with delight and started looking for their heads poking above the powder in hopes of making more fly. With over 2,000 vertical feet, champagne powder, nicely spaced trees and entertaining grouse, could Gidley's be the one? Maybe, but I still had seven more ski areas to go.
Great Divide, Feb. 19
A sizeable family-run area in Marysville, near Helena, Great Divide impressed me with its glades of old-growth Douglas fir. We hopped on the Mount Belmont lift (the original name of the ski area) and headed to Wild West where I hoped to find my nirvana among several hundred acres of expert-rated glades. Wild West wasn't all that wild, but it was lovely carving through the firs and six inches of new snow. As I slalomed down Whoop It Up, I could see why families love this place. The terrain is not intimidating and there are endless ways to carve through the trees.
After lunch, I headed to the Big Open. The result of a clear cut—locals harvested lumber here rather than ski turns—the Big Open proved to be an expansive, sapling-speckled trail with an equally big view and decent powder, even late in the day. While I enjoyed the mountain immensely for its welcoming atmosphere and uncrowded slopes, the parks were more adrenaline- inducing than the trails. Gidley's at Turner remained at the top of my list.
Maverick Mountain, Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Feb. 20
The last day of this road trip was another double-header: Maverick in Polaris and Lost Trail in Conner. Maverick was memorable for its base lodge décor: a wall-to-ceiling mish-mash of carpet remnants with circa 1960s folding theater seats for chairs. I warmed up on Enchanted Forest, a treed trail transformed by the four inches of fresh fluff into a magical woodland ride. I cleared the trees and continued to float down The Belly to the lodge. So far, Maverick was more the wise mare than the bucking bronco of Montana ski areas. I headed to Widow Maker—a wide steep slope named for broken tree branches, not because the trail could kill you. It got my attention, but not enough.
At Lost Trail I found another glade-lover's playground. Monica Thomas, a local ski patroller and a helluva strong skier, took me to Sacjac Woods, a newer cut on the north side of the mountain. After perching for a moment on a pinnacle with a nice view of Saddle Mountain, we made tracks down an old burn area. Not many skiers venture this far from the mainstream part of the mountain. The snow was untracked and feather-light: yes! But my heart wasn't pounding.
Then Thomas showed me her private powder stash, code named Oreo, and we matched arcs through thigh-deep snow before dropping off a perfect rock pillow. Lost Trail was yet another Montana ski area with freshies at 2:30 p.m.! The decision was getting tougher. Gidley's had been darn good, but Thomas's secret slope was also superlative.
Bridger Bowl, March 29
Montana's mountains are notorious for their late-season snowstorms. Mother Nature made good, dumping 24 inches on Bridger Bowl just before my arrival. Bridger's 2,000 steep, rugged acres proved a free-ride playground. But its culture felt clique-y, reminiscent of Alta, Utah. The fact that I wasn't local was immediately apparent by my girlie Spyder garb and rocker-less low-fat skis, which got dismissive looks in the lift line. After I made a few turns the glances were more approving.
I spent the morning on the south side of the mountain dropping into Slushman's Ravine and Mundy's Bowl. There were so many tantalizing lines I had a hard time choosing. After lunch I found the first trail in Montana to truly test my nerve: Hidden Gully, a narrow, 45-degree chute on the north side of the ski area. After traversing the knife-edge to the top of it, I gathered myself before jumping in, survival instincts on full alert.
"Hop. Side-slip. Don't lean in!" my brain yelled as I leaped off the ledgy entrance into the gully. "Hop. Slide a little more. Phew!"
When I reached the Apron below the gully, my pulse slowed to normal. Now we're talkin'! Hidden Gully was my new Montana high, but I kept my emotions in check. Like an Olympic figure skating judge, I had to reserve a window of opportunity for the remaining contestants.
Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Ski Resort, March 30 and 31
Greg Pack, general manager of Moonlight Basin in the town of Big Sky, met me at the base of the mountain. "It's open, but we gotta go now. It could close any moment," Pack said, referring to the weather-sensitive tram to the top of Lone Mountain. Moonlight Basin shares its summit with Big Sky, allowing skiers to buy a combined ticket to both resorts for "The Biggest Skiing in America," as the promos put it.
When I exited the tram for the North Summit Snowfield, our destination, I could hardly see in the whipping wind and near whiteout conditions. I followed Pack's orange jacket, consumed by the moment. I couldn't see the terrain, but I could feel it. My skis sliced easily through the windblown snow down a seriously steep headwall. We paused to pick a line through a rock band then ripped down Rips into Old Faithful, gaining visibility among the trees. From there we descended to Grizzly Meadows, an oddly named gully bounded by tall timber, which finally spit us onto Trembler, a gonzo groomer. When we regrouped after 4,140 vertical feet of gravity-induced gladness, Pack's radio crackled, "North Summit is now closed."
It didn't matter. I had found it, the best ski run in Montana!
Big Sky might have matched it the next day—it's been one of my favorite places to ski since I first tried it in the early 1980s. But the tram was closed. I'd have to wait for another chance to test myself on the dramatic terrain at the summit; to check out the wicked line that threads through the rocks of Big Couloir; to bomb down The Gullies, the steep chutes under the tram; and to make an encore run down Liberty Bowl, with its luscious corn snow.
For today, I could only take a bite of the bigness: I leaped off the small cornice into Rice Bowl and found a few steep hits around Big Rock Tongue while the wind whipped the clouds over Lone Mountain.
Red Lodge Mountain, April 2
Foiled again. The weather rudely put an end to any thoughts I had of letting my schuss loose at Red Lodge, in the same-named town. I headed to the Cole Creek lift where many of the area's signature steeps, including Hellroaring, Sluice Box and True Grit, spread like elongated fingers up one side of a heavily treed bowl. A gust of wind threatened to blow me off the chairlift, however, so I decided to sample Big Bear Gulch, a skinny double black diamond, protected by tall firs. The snow was just corning up as I negotiated a gully that felt like a natural half-pipe. By the time I reached the bottom the Cole Creek lift was also closed. I would have to wait for another time to raise hell on Hellroaring or slice turns on Sluice. And that, I finally realized, was the best thing about skiing in Montana—there's so much tantalizing terrain, I could do my test again every winter. I'd come up with a different "best" each time.