Mountain High 

Every winter, more and more people trade the convenience of on-area lift-serviced skiing for the challenge and solitude offered by the backcountry. There are many reasons, like excellent snow, endless terrain options, and the lack of lift-riders heckling your less-than-Olympic style.

But along with the rewards of doing it yourself come challenges that can put unprepared backcountry travelers in serious danger quickly.

For instance, forested approach routes that seem obvious on sunny morning ascents easily blend into seemingly endless ridges when the whiteout (or darkness) rolls in. There’s frostbite and hypothermia, and the sweat generated by slogging uphill can quickly chill the core body temperature into an unsustainable zone during necessary rest stops.

The presence of other parties in the area forces everyone to stay alert—travel above others and risk burying them in a slide; travel below and risk getting buried.

But even if you know this and you’ve entered the backcountry fully stocked with appropriate winter travel and avalanche survival gear—as well as emergency overnight supplies and a familiarity with the area—you’re not out of the woods yet. An unspoken, help-your-neighbor ethic is part of the package, and for unlucky souls on cold days, that can mean the difference between 10 toes and nine. And if another party skiing nearby gets in trouble, all available skiers will help with the rescue—assuming they won’t endanger the rescue party in the process.

So even if you’ve gone to great lengths to assure that your party is prepared physically, emotionally and technically for off-piste situations, the presence of others inevitably moves the risk factor up. Couple this with the exhausting nature of remote, deep-snow travel and the act of pulling a cold, injured stranger toward civilization on some makeshift pine bough/snowboard sled in the dark becomes a chore well worth avoiding.

Backcountry skiers can begin their preventative maintenance schedule by logging on to the West Central Montana Avalanche Center’s backcountry snow report at: Weekly avalanche conditions for Missoula-area skiers will be posted all season beginning on Dec. 19, but don’t stop your out-of-bounds preparedness there.

Hone your backcountry safety skills by checking out the UM Outdoor Program’s “Transceiver Clinic” on Dec. 13. Experienced instructors will lead a gung-ho group to a nearby stash with enough snow to hide (and then find) their beepers, all for a scant $18. Lifesaving techniques and rapid rescue will fill the schedule from 9–3, so call 243-5172 to go move some snow—and bring your transceivers, probes and shovels if you’ve got them!

Tired of being told that you must “upgrade to the latest in cross-country ski technology” every year when your old wooden boards continue giving you long days of satisfactory schuss? Consider the Third Annual Continental Divide Ski Classic on Saturday, Dec. 13, at Chief Joseph Pass, a “classic only affair” that includes races of 10K and 20K for racers of all ages. Registration runs from 9–10:30 a.m., but get there early, as sign-in occurs at a new warming hut located half a mile from the trailhead (a skier feed will fill bellies and warm contestants there, post-race). Races start at 11 a.m., and snow conditions look to be both deep and well-groomed. Call Tony Neaves at 375-0852 if you Luddites have any questions, and don’t forget the woolen knickers!

The state of Montana has put together an Internet-based “Montana Animal Field Guide” that provides detailed information about the state’s wild critters habitat, migratory patterns and reproductive characteristics, along with maps, photos and animal calls. The joint venture between the Montana National Heritage Program, the Montana State Library and Fish, Wildlife and Parks can be found at: Just double-click on the “Animal Guide” link, or call Anastasia Burton at (406) 444-5357.

The Rocky Mountaineers will be skiing this weekend (surprise!) with a close-to-town cross-country adventure in the works (the location will be based on snow conditions). The intrepid Lois Crepeau (728-5321) will lead the pack, so give her a call to find out the details.

This issue of the Indy will probably go unread by in-the-know powderhounds until until late in the day on Thursday, as they’ll be taking advantage of Lost Trail’s opening day on Dec. 11. The notorious Powder Thursday shant disappoint, as LT claims to have more than 4 feet on its upper slopes.

Closer to town, Snowbowl is claiming to be “75 percent open!” (at full ticket price), although multiple skiers report thin and, uh, “firm” conditions as of press time. At least the road is in top shape—fully plowed and sanded. They’re loading skiers on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until the season begins in earnest. Discovery Basin has four lifts open, servicing 65 percent of its terrain, and will be open every day for the season beginning Dec. 12.

Whitefish’s Big Mountain will continue loading happy skiers for $25 through Dec. 19, and with more than 4 feet of POWPOW on their summit, this deal remains the best around.

Idaho’s Silver Mountain has received more than 90 inches of snow so far this year, and it’s settled neatly into a durable 3-foot base; Silver is servicing 90 percent of its terrain with six of seven chairs open. Closer to home, Lookout Pass is also open Friday–Sunday, and rumor has it that the newly-installed chair will be running in the next few weeks, opening up tremendous terrain and expanding the mountain’s options significantly.

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