Mountain High 

The idea of thousands of pounds of snow rumbling down a slope toward me as I stand in my suddenly-not-quite-agile-enough ski gear is a thought to breed nightmares.

In the course of getting more information to fully round out a good, scary dream, I learned a few nasty tidbits about the nature of snow moving en masse. I learned, for example, that by far the most deadly type is the slab avalanche, which comes into being when a layer of strong snow—one source suggested I think of this as a “brick”—positioned atop a layer of weak snow—think “potato chips”—is cracked or disturbed. The potato chips can’t support the brick, and when the failure happens, you get a plate of snow riding down the hill on a pile of spuds.  

And in something of a cosmic joke on us, slab avalanches typically occur on terrain with a slope between 30 and 45 degrees, which just happens to be the exact slope human down-hillers find most pleasing for skiing, boarding and snowmobiling.

The West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation has their eyes on the snow, carefully tracking bricks and potato chips so you don’t have to. Of course, you should take an avalanche safety class to prepare yourself for time out in the winter backcountry, but it’s comforting to know you can visit for the latest advisories and information.

For example, at press time, an avalanche warning existed for the Bitterroot Mountains from the Hamilton area all the way up to Lookout Pass, and in the Rattlesnake Mountains as well. While the warning expired on the evening of Sun., Dec. 23, the conditions were expected to take a few days to settle down. On Sat., Dec. 22, at least two avalanches big enough to bury or injure people were reported in the hills to the north and east of Missoula.  

Of course, with their intensive grooming and marking of trails, not to mention that awesome use of the mountain howitzer, visitors to commercial ski areas have little to fear from runaway slush. We begin this week’s recreational round-up, which suffers from the event-depleting effects of that “most wonderful time of the year,” with an at-press-time look at area ski hills, where visions of hot cocoa with maybe a knock of bourbon in the lodge can trump avalanche fear any day.

Blacktail Mountain, which, I’ll have you know, celebrates 10 years operating their “upside-down mountain” this season, reports a 33-inch base, with one inch having fallen in the past 24 hours. They’ve got all lifts running and 90 percent of terrain is open. Call 844-0999. 

Further north, Whitefish Mountain Resort emits great bleating calls regarding their 54 inches of snow at the summit, which has allowed them to open 90 runs to guests. In addition, their night skiing season is fully underway, which is nice because that way it’s harder to see the great walls of snow lumbering down the slope behind you. Call 862-SNOW.

Missoula’s favorite alternative to skiing with Tom Maclay, Montana Snowbowl, is 100 percent open, with a 45-inch base at the summit and one inch of fresh snow in the past day. Call 549-9777.

Lookout Pass claims an unbelievable 84 inches of snow at the summit, with three lifts servicing 28 runs. They’re open every day through the holidays. Call (208) 744-1301.

We head eastward to learn that Discovery is 65 percent open, with a 20-32 inch base and 34 runs available, though most of their double black-diamond runs are holding out on us. Call 563-2184.

Bozeman’s Bridger Bowl boasts a 42-inch base, allowing them to service 70 trails with all seven lifts running. Call 587-2111. And heading south, there’s double trouble in the form of Moonlight Basin—44-inch base, with two in the past day—and Big Sky, whose 42-inch base and 20 operating lifts bring frozen tears of joy to many an eye. Call 993-MOON or (800) 548-4486, respectively.

Some of the week’s planned events: On Thu., Dec. 27, Snowbowl begins their Ski School Holiday Session, three days of programming for kids of all ages and abilities.

Those dedicated masters of trip-planning, the Rocky Mountaineers, of course, hope you’ll join them for a day of ski touring at Lolo Pass on Sun., Dec. 30. Exact routes will be determined by those of you who call Julie at 543-6508.

New Year’s Eve festivities abound, with nearly every ski hill offering fireworks, champagne, live music and varied expressions of bacchanalia, so take your pick, and once you’re done punishing your liver, give a little something back at the Montana Natural History Center. On Wed., Jan 2—that’s 2008—you can take part in their Visiting Naturalist Training at 4 PM at 120 Hickory St., which qualifies you to bring a taste of the outdoors the little ones trapped indoors during the school year. Call 327-0405. 

And in closing, let me say that it’s been my distinct and avalanche-free pleasure to serve as your recreational cruise director this year. May 2008 bring us all lots of pow pow, if that’s our thing, and none if it’s not. On behalf of me and mine, I wish you and yours a most recreational new year. Let me know how it goes.
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