For the first time in years, the buzz started early. Ski hills opened on Thanksgiving. By December, there were freshies in the bowls as deep as a foot. Before New Year's, the usually nondescript trees off of Snowbowl's Lavelle lift resembled the snowghosts that make Whitefish Mountain Resort's summit famous (and spurred the name of Great Northern Brewing's Snow Ghost Winter Lager).
In January, champagne powder continued to flow. Lost Trail reported over 40 inches of new snow in 10 days; "the conditions are AMAZING," gushed the online update. Snowbowl's auxiliary parking lot overflowed at least once, prompting late-arriving shredders to park along the road hundreds of yards away from the base area. The snow was so good people witnessed two guys actually ski back to their car in the auxiliary lot from off-area, down a roadside slope that is normally dirt and rock.
As evidenced by the past week, the weather—and the ski season—hasn't let up in February. Locally, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) data shows that the current 116-inch snow depth on Stuart Peak, a mountain adjacent to Snowbowl, is greater right now than during the same week in any year since at least 2004, the last year for which corresponding data is available. Discovery Ski Area tallied 1,800 skiers last Saturday and expected just as many on Sunday and President's Day; owner Peter Pitcher says slightly warmer temperatures could've pushed the numbers over 2,000 each day and set a Discovery record. Whitefish recorded its second-busiest weekend of the year last week (first is always during the Christmas-New Year's break), and, even more promising, has strong projections into March.
"According to lodging reservations," says Whitefish Public Relations Manager Donnie Clap, "this week is going to be very, very busy—almost as busy as this past weekend, and that is definitely a different story than we've seen in years past."
Industry representatives are wary of pointing to one specific reason for this season's sick conditions—in part because, so far, snow pack data and sales have yet to break any records. But even the most superstitious onlookers recognize that after last year's resounding dud, this year—a celebrated "La Niña" year—has rejuvenated the state's ski industry.
"Right from the get-go we had a lot of snow, so that's always a good thing," says Doug Wales, marketing director of Bridger Bowl and a board member of the Montana Ski Area Association. "I think it's been that way through the entire Rockies...Certainly when you hear a La Niña year's in the forecast, it's always encouraging."
According to NOAA, La Niña refers to a weather pattern that occurs every two to five years and is marked by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific. The pattern can influence weather across most of the country, creating wetter conditions in the Pacific Northwest and dryer conditions across the southern United States. But in the Northern Rockies, La Niña can be a fickle thing.
"In the Rocky Mountains, it's really difficult to predict exactly what will happen, where jet streams split and where things go," says Wales. "Different areas of the state can have markedly different snowfalls at different times. I guess if there's any pattern at all, it's no pattern."
Regardless of whether it's La Nina or dumb luck, the result has been a strong year that started early and has the potential to last late into March. Already the season's sparked renewed interest and investments in the sport (see "Park rats"), as well as emboldened veteran powder hounds always looking for ways to test the state's terrain (see "Pushing the limits"). Above all, it's erased the sour taste of last year.
"The biggest difference for us from last year to this year is really that things started earlier," says Pitcher. "Last year we had to wait and wait for good snow, and this year we got it right away. It puts everyone in the right mindset."
That mindset deserves to be maintained. So, work on your sick-day speeches, save extra cash for another lift ticket, explore some of the late-season events (see "Your turn") and get out there. La Niña won't last forever.
The Backwoods Project brings action back to Marshall Mountain
Marshall Mountain shrugged off its defunct ski area status for a single weekend in late January. The chairlifts maintained their eight-year silence despite the season's already impressive snow depth, but the base area buzzed with activity as dozens of teenage skiers and snowboarders from Missoula threw ollies and tail-slides off 19 separate rail features. In park culture, such a scene would earn the distinguished title "sick."
Ride Montana was the first—and so far only—competitive event hosted by the Backwoods Project (BP) this season. BP President Gregg Janecky founded the nonprofit in late 2009 with the goals of establishing a permanent terrain park for Missoula jibbers and teaching local kids how to ride park. With the rapid dissolving of the BP's relationship with Snowbowl, which accommodated a modest setup of freestyle features last year, Janecky feels the Marshall event marked a major step forward for his initiative.
"Marshall has this awesome history of supporting kids in town," Janecky says. "Every time we run an event we hear stories about the cheap lift tickets catered to kids who probably wouldn't normally be able to afford skiing, and that's very much in the Backwoods Project's interest."
Janecky's prime motivation in founding the BP was to offer local kids an accessible, progression-oriented facility for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Missoula currently has no terrain park available; athletes like Kadin Mulla, a 16-year-old Hellgate High School student who helps coach kids though the BP, regularly make the long trip to areas like Lost Trail and Great Divide to practice. Mulla says he and his friends even hit urban rails in Missoula and build jumps in backyards—anything to make up for the drought of nearby freestyle opportunities.
"The movement in Missoula is pretty stagnant," says former World Cup snowboard competitor and 2010 Olympic invitee Sarris McComb, who serves on the BP board and runs the youth nonprofit Montucky Snowboard Team. "People are coming together and forming stuff that's really pushing it, but at the same time it's not something that's going to create a pro. It's not every weekend, it's not every day. If the 'Bowl had a park open to the public every day that was sufficient, more people would go up there. But right now everyone's going to Lost Trail and Great Divide and Big Mountain and Big Sky to get their park in, which is super frustrating."
The BP's budding partnership with longtime Marshall Mountain owner Bruce Doering began shortly after Snowbowl expressed a reluctance to invest in a BP terrain park down the line. Janecky had relocated a rail jam event to the mountain last year when Caras Park proved too small a venue, and his project quickly found Marshall a much easier fit. The deal with Snowbowl necessitated hauling a few rails up the mountain before the first snowfall, but the access to Marshall's base area allows the BP crew to hike park features in from the lot.
"It actually got us closer to our mission of making it accessible to kids, because now the kids don't have to pay the $35 lift ticket," Janecky says. "They pay the $10 to ride, and if our fundraising reaches $3,000 before an event, it's free for the kids to ride at it."
And this year's incredible stash of powder has helped make skiing and snowboarding more high-profile at a time when the BP is struggling for popular and financial support. Mulla strongly believes that if kids his age and younger get exposed to park through Janecky's efforts, "it'll totally take off."
"If there's snow, kids are going to ski for sure," Mulla says.
With the promise of a more stable base of operations at Marshall, the BP's concerns have shifted slightly. Their short-term worries still center around adequate funding—Janecky says a recent donation from a local construction company could help them scrape together another event this season, though they're still $2,000 short. The long-term is a different story.
"I think the toughest part is getting people to come out of the woodwork, people with experience such as myself," McComb says. "I have trouble finding a coach [for the Montucky Snowboard Team]. If I get over 30 kids I'm going to be in trouble, because there's some coaches in town but I'm looking for people with my experience so they can help my kids get to the X Games, to the Olympics."
Despite missing his goal of hosting one park event a month this season, Janecky sees a future for the BP at Marshall. He admits there is some "chairlift talk" among project members about the potential of reopening Marshall entirely, but says the shuttered operation has far too many inherent challenges for that talk to turn to action anytime soon. For now he's content watching BP's park converts shred and ride, an affirmation of his nonprofit's goals.
"This year, I've seen kids walk in who have never ridden a rail before," Janecky says. "In the case of one kid, he went from having never ridden a rail to hitting the rails with the big guys. He only did the beginner division in our [January] contest, but he walked away with it. He won, having not hit a rail before."
For more information on the Backwoods Project, visit www.thebackwoodsproject.org.
Pushing the limits
Increased winter fun also means increased danger
When Don Gisselbeck and his buddy headed into the Bitterroot Mountains on Oct. 24, 2009, the weather forecast predicted only an inch of fresh powder. The pair expected a quiet hike up East Trapper Peak and a meandering ski down.
"We're relaxed, not thinking of avalanches," Gisselbeck recalls.
Gisselbeck, a 55-year-old ski technician at Missoula's Trail Head and avid outdoorsman, admits he should have known better. He's ascended slopes all over western Montana and knows the rules governing how to handle oneself in the backcountry; foremost among them is keeping an eye out for avalanche-warning signs. However, as he and his friend encountered another duo making its way up the mountain, Gisselbeck says they remained oblivious as the wind picked up and the snow deepened.
"That's the first clue," Gisselbeck says. "We're just marching along, paying no attention. I'm actually breaking trail for a good shot of this. I'm feeling strong. These young ones aren't really passing me."
Gisselbeck stopped at an apron beneath Trapper's cliffs to take in the view and put on his ski boots, while the other three kept hiking toward the peak. He didn't rest long—"got to prove that I wasn't worn out"—but just as he started back up, he heard a yell.
"And I see three people and a dog tumbling right toward me," he says.
The avalanche carried the others roughly 60 feet down the mountain and knocked Gisselbeck sideways. Unable to control his limbs, he bounced down the slope in a sea of white.
"I was going where that snow was going," he says.
Gisselbeck tumbled roughly 300 feet into a rocky, snow-covered field. He was partially buried, his left wrist broken and a nasty gash on his right elbow. Despite being severely shaken, Gisselbeck extracted himself from the pile without assistance.
"I just stood up and hyperventilated for 10 minutes," he says.
The others also made it out. Today, nearly a year and a half after surviving the avalanche, Gisselbeck remains acutely aware of the group's luck. It's been especially tough to forget this season as reports of snow-related fatalities, injuries and close calls dot local headlines.
In mid-February, a 22-year-old snowboarder was buried and died in an avalanche in an unmarked area of the Bridger Mountains outside Bozeman. Just a week earlier, also in the Bridger Range near Frazier Lake, a backcountry skier was partially buried in an avalanche. After digging himself out, the skier escaped with frostbite and a fractured femur. Closer to home, two separate slides on Dec. 28 caught a pair of Missoula men outside Snowbowl's boundary. One man suffered a laceration to the head. Both survived.
Steve Karkanen of West Central Montana Avalanche Center says because backcountry adventurers, armed with new tools, are going farther into the wilderness than ever before incidents like these are on the rise.
"Even this year, we're noticing more people who are leaving the ski area boundaries," Karkanen says. "The development of the AT, or the alpine touring gear, now is so prevalent in the ski community."
Karkanen warns that with advancing technology comes increased responsibility. It falls upon adventurers to heed warning signs like fresh precipitation, recent avalanche activity, unstable terrain, wind and rapid temperature changes.
"Those are the big red flags anyway," Karkanen says. "If you see one or two of those, any of those indicators of avalanche activity should overrule any signs that the snow is safe."
Avalanches aren't the only hazard facing local powder hounds. The season's prolific snowfall has also created dangerous tree wells near tree root systems. It's a booby trap of sorts for snowboarders and skiers who become immobilized in pockets of deep snow and suffocate.
Recreationists got a wakeup call about tree well hazards this season as two men, German exchange student Niclas Waeschle and Kalispell resident Scott Allen Meyer, died in separate tree well incidents at Whitefish Mountain Resort within two weeks of each other.
This season's tragedies place Whitefish Mountain at the top of the list among ski resorts nationally for tree well fatalities, says Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute and ski patrol at Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington. Baugher specializes in tracking non-avalanche-related snow immersion deaths.
The same conditions that make Whitefish a prime skiing destination—piles of unconsolidated fresh powder—also set the stage for tree well accidents.
"It's a good news/bad news situation," says Baugher.
Since 1978, six people have died in tree wells at Whitefish. Prior to this winter, however, it had been more than 10 years since the last such accident at the resort.
Tree well deaths in Whitefish and nationally—Colorado's Steamboat Springs ranks second in fatalities among U.S. ski resorts, with five people dying there since 1978—are preventable, Baugher says. Skiing with an attentive partner who is capable of digging someone out makes the difference between life and death.
"It's all about educating the skier," Baugher says. "It's easy to avoid."
Education is one thing. Taking lessons to heart is another. Gisselbeck won't likely forget backcountry rules again.
"All of the warning signs were there," he says. "If we had stopped at any point when we were hiking along and talked about it, we would have noticed."
Get in on winter's last weeks with these events
Saturday, Feb. 26
Sing "Get Along Little Doggies" during the Wild West Sled Dog Stage Race, a four-day professional sled dog race in West Yellowstone, which starts Sat., Feb. 26, and continues through Thu., March 1. Go to westyellowstonesleddograces.com for the low down or call 406-646-4988.
Howl 'til the doggies come home for the sixth annual Moonlight Basin Howlin' At the Moon Snowshoe Shuffle. Bring your snowshoes and your dogs to raise funds for the Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter. Registration at 5:30 p.m., and snowshoeing begins at 6 p.m. followed by a chili feed and live music at the Madison Village Base Area. $20/free for children under 15. Call (406) 995-7716 for more info.
Let your favorite pony pull you along during the Big Hole Valley Winterfest/Ski Joring competition in Wisdom, a two-day contest where horses, skiers and riders join forces to navigate a 900-foot course, including several 3.5-foot jumps. Hoof it to bigholevalley.com/WinterFest.html for the rundown.
Don't chortle too hard or you might slip on an icy patch during the Snow Joke Marathon, featuring one 13.1-mile lap around Seeley Lake on plowed roads. Registration is on race-day only from 8:45 to 10:30 a.m. Get the punch line at cheetahherders.com.
Saturday, March 5
Show off your XX-treme chromosomes for the Girls on Shred event organized by Edge of the World girls' department. Free to participate (you need a day ticket or season pass) and prizes offered at the end of the day. Call 721-7774 for details.
Put your stretch pants to the test during the Yellowstone Rendezvous Race, offering six different cross-country ski races on the Rendezvous Ski Trails in West Yellowstone. Check rendezvousrace.com for the scoop.
Dress up like Sideshow Bob when Bridger Bowl hosts its 30th annual Pinhead Classic, a costume contest that raises funds for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center and begins with registration at 8:45 a.m. $30. Visit pinheadclassic.com.
Save room for plenty of barley soda when Lost Trail hosts Face Plant with the Trail, a relay race for four-person teams that includes skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or skin skiing, plus plenty of Face Plant beer from Bayern Brewery, starting at 10 a.m. E-mail email@example.com for cost and to register, and visit losttrail.com.
Sunday, March 6
Glide away the week on your cross country skis during the Big Sky Nordic Ski Festival, a weeklong fete that features a number of races, clinics and events like a "Glide & Gorge Ski or Snowshoe," all at Big Sky's Lone Mountain Ranch. Costs vary from $99 for all events to $10 per event. Visit lmranch.com/theranch/bigskynordicskifest for details.
Saturday, March 12
Buck it up and get pulled around on your skis by a horse and its rider during the National Finals Ski Joring Races in Red Lodge, a two-day competition where skiers navigate a course filled with around 20 slalom gates and four jumps. Prices to enter vary from $25 to $125. Visit redlodge.com/ski-joring/ for race details.
Saturday, March 26
Tell summer to bugger off during Lost Trail Powder Mountain's Summer Sucks Skiesta Splash Down, a ski/snowboarding competition that's open to shredders of all ages and styles. Catch the drift at ltpark.com.
Sunday, March 27
Don't get stuck during Snowbowl's North Dakota Downhill, a "slide and glide" contest for skiers and snowboarders. Get down at montanasnowbowl.com.
Friday, April 1
Join the competition or just bear witness to the region's skiers, snowboarders and tele skiers as they hit up Moonlight Basin's Headwaters—"the steepest in-bound terrain"—during the Headwaters Spring Runoff 2011, which kicks off with ski movies and a pasta feed the first day, followed by the competition the second day, all at the Moonlight Basin Ski area near Big Sky. Carve up details at moonlightbasin.com.
Saturday, April 2
Let the wind whisk you away on your skis during the Montana Snowkite Rodeo, a freestyle and racing competition at Jackson Hot Springs (located just south of Wisdom). Participants use a kite to help them glide across snow. Catch more info at montanakitesports.com.
Saturday, April 9
Don't forget your landing gear when Showdown Montana hosts the Great Falls Ski Club Mannequin Jumping contest, where mannequins are launched off of ski jumps for your viewing pleasure, starting at 4:30 p.m. Call 236-5522 for info.
For more winter events, check out Mountain High every week. To submit your own event, e-mail Calendar Overlord at firstname.lastname@example.org