After several years of disappointing snowfall, this year just might be shaping up into the kind of winter wonderland we all expect Western Montana to deliver. According to Ray Nickless, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, mountain snowpack around the state was 100 to 300 percent above average earlier this week.

"I would say it's really excellent right now as far as snowpack in the mountains," Nickless told us Tuesday.

Remote sensing devices on Stuart Peak registered 26 inches on Tuesday, 200 percent of average for this time of year. Lolo Pass was at 22 inches, 125 percent above average. Saddle Mountain, the measuring station closest to Lookout Pass, registered 32 inches of snow on Tuesday, an encouraging 175 percent above the norm.

Science aside, we need only tilt our heads to see Jumbo and Sentinel transformed from their monotonous fall beige to a promising powdery white this week, and cross-country skiers, backcountry snowboarders and snowmobilers needed no empirical data to begin dusting off their boots and jackets, either. The parking lot at Lolo Pass was nearly full Saturday afternoon, and even though the grooming machines had yet to lay down tracks, plenty of two-track Nordic skiers carved their own ways through the powder.

Grant Helgeson strapped the skins on his alpines and made his way up Carlton Ridge last Wednesday. The head retail clerk at Missoula's Gull Skis told us the open glades were fantastic, but didn't fail to mention that skiing was looking good on the hills as well.

"Word on the street is you could ski your new skis at Lost Trail," he said. "Snow in the valley gets people stoked."

Still, Helgeson was skeptical about early ski sales, given last year's dismal snowfall, but he said business has been steady so far.

"We're catching the fever down here," said Kevin Grimes, manager of Bob Ward & Sons in Hamilton. "Everyone started seeing snow accumulation in the mountains and started getting pretty excited."

The fever might have started around 7 a.m. last Sunday in a small tavern in Montana's second coldest town. Inside Wisdom's Antler Bar, five or six locals chattered about the weather over cups of black coffee (50 cents, bottomless). As two visitors from Missoula waited for Larry, the town mechanic, to show up, hoping he could repair a belt thrown by deep snow on Hwy. 43, a snowplow headed west out of town.

"Looks like it's going to snow all week," proclaimed the bartender, who wouldn't take a tip for the java. "I think we'll have a good year this year."

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