Long overshadowed by more glamorous terrain elsewhere, the Bitterroots are finally attracting serious attention from hardcore mountaineers. Will the masses follow?

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Of course, the deeper options don't get targeted if nobody knows they're there, and it's likely that many aesthetic Bitterroot lines aren't just unskied, they're unnoticed. Most potential adventurers either don't have the endurance to penetrate far enough to scope the deep-in-there lines, or they lack the technical skills (or cajones) to safely negotiate the terrain.

"The Bitterroots are just really hard to access. It's not like you're just going up to a pass and going from there, because there's not even really any roads," says John Lehrman, a dedicated Bitterroot skier and entrepreneur.

But for the committed few willing to slog uphill for the better part of day, the payoff can be huge—thousands of vertical feet riding a blank canvas of untouched snow.

click to enlarge Paul Donaldson takes the path less traveled on Canyon Peak. - CHAD HARDER
  • Chad Harder
  • Paul Donaldson takes the path less traveled on Canyon Peak.

This "subcult of backcountry skiers," as Lehrman calls them, provides the clientele for his new business venture, the Downing Mountain Backcountry Snowsports Lodge. Positioned on private property halfway up the terrain-rich Downing Mountain, Lehrman's lodge stands out as an anomaly in a range otherwise devoid of backcountry accommodations. Operating out of the Grubstake Restaurant high above Hamilton, Lehrman provides customers with a steep ski-in, ski-out experience, epicurean meals and an outdoor hot tub with magnificent views. These amenities may attract less hardened winter travelers to the Bitterroots, encouraging them to comfortably explore the impressive 2,500-foot bowl rising directly above the lodge. But Lehrman's quick to point out that it's just a taste of the terrain available on the range's more secluded ridges and peaks.

"I've been to so many places in the Bitterroot and been like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe this is here!" he says. "It doesn't get better than this. It only gets longer. The Bitterroot is a world-class backcountry skiing destination."

Lost and found

Dan Hoffman has spent more than a decade jamming his fists into the chossy towers of the Bitterroot's hardest and most aesthetic walls, largely focusing his energy in the rock climbing showcase of Blodgett Canyon. He may work as a mild-mannered hydrologist in the horizontal world, but when things get vertical the 32-year-old Hoffman is widely known as "Deathwish Dan."

"A lot of climbers have nicknames, you know? Some stick, others don't. This one stuck," he says flatly.

It stuck for a reason: the lanky Hoffman moves like a spider over difficult rock, completing (with climbing partner Solon Linton) an unheard of link-up, climbing Blodgett's three most prominent buttresses—Flathead, Shoshone and Nez Perce—in less than a day. In 2007, he spent an entire summer putting up new routes on Nez Perce, giving him a unique and perhaps unparalleled perspective of the valley.

click to enlarge Ascending Lost Horse Canyon's "Mountaineer's Route" (5.10c). - CHAD HARDER
  • Chad Harder
  • Ascending Lost Horse Canyon's "Mountaineer's Route" (5.10c).

"We spent like seven or eight weekends up there, both days of every weekend, and over the course of the summer we saw other climbers maybe twice," Hoffman says. "Most summer weekends there's just two or three parties up there in Blodgett, and that's different than a lot of other areas, like Lost Horse."

For years, the Lost Horse Creek drainage remained a sleepy canyon with expansive but rarely-visited walls. It started gaining popularity about a decade ago as boulderers—gymnastic climbers interested in low-to-the-ground, dynamic moves—began testing themselves on the high-quality erratics scattered about the wide valley floor. Climbing contests sprung up, drawing a new crop of climbers to the valley, including many from the University of Montana's substantial wall- crawling community.

But a pair of events really caused the area to blow up in 2008. First, Joe Josephson's climbing guide, Lost Horse Canyon: A Climber's Guide to Montana's Best Climbing and Bouldering, comprehensively laid out the canyon's established routes and anchored the area on Montana's rock climbing map. Soon after, the Bitterroot National Forest proposed reopening a retired gravel pit at the base of some of the area's premier climbs, bringing front-page recognition to the burgeoning scene and effectively uniting the formerly loose-knit rock jocks in opposition to the quarry. Nevertheless, their lawsuit failed to stop the project.

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