Mountain High 

Montana, a land of frontier wildness, and a place where everybody and her dog claims the title of the best-kept secret…While claims like that are tough to prove empirically, you have only to land at the Maverick Mountain Ski Area parking lot to know that the beaten path took an off-ramp somewhere else.

Last Saturday, the parking lot was what they call bustling—packed with 40 rig tops.

Tucked away in the rolling and rugged Pioneer Mountains east of the Big Hole Valley, the place emits the feel of a land that time forgot. Maybe that’s because the Big Hole consistently delivers some of the coldest temperatures in the country, or maybe it’s because unless you wear a cowboy hat and are handy with a rope, work is hard to find. Either way, “undeveloped” is an understatement for the Big Hole.

And quaint is the only way to describe Maverick Mountain. Its lift is rustic, but has a clip to it, pulling skiers up the 2,000 vertical feet to the summit in a span that won’t leave you drowsy. The lodge is a small wooden affair housing all necessities, including the one-room bar complete with impromptu poker games. And the staff exudes the friendly Montana charm that can only be produced by fourth-generation ranching families.

This ski bum went searching for Maverick for the bragging rights of riding an area that Missoula has forgotten, as well as to escape the crowds and the scene that comprise Missoula’s ski community. When I got there I found a truly exceptional mountain.

With the small crowd that Maverick attracts, you would be pressed to find a tracked slope at the end of a powder run, especially if you take advantage of the various tree runs. Unfortunately, a crusty day on Saturday didn’t allow for any such frolics in the forest, but the tree spacing on those runs seemed spectacular. Which leads back to that Montana friendliness. If you don’t like the ski conditions, contact Maverick within a half hour of ticket purchase, turn in your ticket and receive a free pass to use on another day. That kind of accommodation is unheard of in these days of cutthroat corporate ski areas.

But the crust on Saturday was soft and the groomers were perfect, allowing for high-speed double-black runs and adventures in the small but substantial terrain park.

One episode that illustrated the rustic, renegade maverick spirit happened mid-day in the lift line, which is near non-existent. A young man sipping a PBR took his turn at getting on the lift. As he maneuvered onto the landing to catch the chair, intoxication got the best of him, prompting the liftie to catch him, pull him back on his feet, and send him up the chair beer in hand. Only in rural Montana.

When you’re done riding, check out nearby Elkhorn Hot Springs, a little deeper in the Pioneers and at the end of the road in wintertime. A popular snowmobiler haunt, the spring has a lodge and cabins. Be ready for drunk rednecks, complete with pool-wide arguments over whether rap or country should be blared from nearby truck speakers.

For more information on Maverick Mountain, call 834-3454.

Now time for some recreation events.

Whether you’ve been training or not, the first half-marathon of the season is near. The Snow Joke Half-Marathon in Seeley Lake kicks off at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28. The course is comprised of one lap around Seeley Lake on plowed roads. Be ready for some ice during those 13.1 miles. Call the Cheetah Herder’s Athletic Club at 677-2661 for more information. If you’re looking for something a bit shorter this weekend to gear up for the big race, head to Butte for the Frigid Digger Run to take part in either a three- or seven-mile race on the 21st. Call 723-4694 for more info.

Attention ice climbers, novice and expert alike: The New Rocky Mountaineers want to take you up some of the frozen stuff on Saturday, Feb. 21. The destination will be either Mission Falls or the Swan Slabs, depending on conditions and group interest. Participants should have boots and crampons. Some other necessary equipment may be shared or borrowed. For more information call Gerald Olbu at 549-4769.

The Rocky Mountaineers will be competing for your attention this week, as well, touting a long but gentle ski tour up Blind Canyon in the Seeley Lake area. The group promises better scenery the further one goes. If you’re interested, call Bret Doucett at 728-6461.

Time for a snow pack update. Talk has been circulating that because of a slump in precipitation during January, snow pack has fallen below average. I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true.

Reports released around the first of the month indicate that snow packs west of the Continental Divide are 100 percent of average, and 136 percent of last year. Assuming normal precipitation until spring, stream flows are forecast to average between 97 and 109 percent. Mountain High sees angry rivers in your future.

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