Powder trip 

A pro skier's epic quest to carve the best ski run in Montana. If she can find it.

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Bear Paw Ski Bowl, Jan. 2

David Martin, the default general manager of Bear Paw on the Rocky Boy reservation in Havre, is a jovial local postmaster and head of the volunteer ski patrol. By the time I met him at the start of the long access road to the mountain, a blizzard raged. Martin was going to open the ski area just for me—if we could get there.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

A handful of other ski patrollers joined our convoy as we headed deeper into the hills. We eventually caught the plow, whose single blade barely cut a passable swath through the two feet of snow on the road. After a tense 19-mile controlled skid, our determined group slid into the parking lot.

"Bear Paw is Montana's best-kept secret. We don't want anyone stealing our powder," chuckled Martin, as one of the other patrollers emptied a pail of cat litter by the spinning tires of my car.

Martin waded through the snow to the bottom of the ski area's only chairlift. After surveying the situation, he refused to turn it on because he couldn't see the top. But I had to ski: The odds of making it back to Bear Paw were too low.

I zipped my collar against the tumultuous weather and started post-holing up the 900-foot mountain. An hour later, I made it to mid-station and declared it far enough, but when I tried to ski down, the snow was too heavy to make turns. I had to propel myself with my ski poles down my quickly filling boot prints.

Joining the others inside the warming hut, I marveled at the passion and persistence these skiers have for their sport at this modest, remote mountain. One stoked the woodstove. Another fixed a light. A third shoveled the roof. Bear Paw—like many of Montana's other ski areas, I would come to find out—exists through the love and dedication of its skiers.

Ski Discovery, Feb. 15

In February I made a simultaneously fantastic and fatiguing loop around western Montana, a blur of fog, fat skis and fall lines that started with Ski Discovery in Philipsburg.

Discovery's trail stats are deceiving. The brochure says it has 694 acres, but those are only the cut trails. If you count the entire skiable terrain on the front and back of Rumsey Mountain, there are about 2,400 acres.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

"When I came here in 1984, it was in bad shape," said Peter Pitcher, a transplanted Aspen-ite who acquired the mountain out of receivership in 1984. "We keep improving, opening new terrain."

I had high hopes that one run called Russell, the only triple black diamond I had ever seen, would be a strong candidate for The Best. I smiled as my skis cut through the choppy snow, feeling gravity's strong pull as I drove my knees and hips against the impressive pitch. It was steep enough to love and, like all passions, seemed to end too soon. I had to connect three trails to eke out a 2,000-vertical-foot run. I watched other skiers having a blast on the wide variety of runs. Even more awesome, I got to watch Dustin Schwarz, the assistant ski shop manager and a competitive mogul skier, huck off Pale Face, a 40-foot granite cliff. For big air lovers, this place had chops.

Montana Snowbowl, Blacktail Mountain, Feb. 16

Another powder day! That was the good news and the bad. The upper mountain at Missoula's Snowbowl, including the East Bowls and Angel Face, were closed due to avalanche danger, but I thought Grizzly, the broad, steep run down the middle of the lower mountain, had potential. Billy Kidd once described Grizzly as one of the most difficult ski runs in the United States. Bumps perennially cover this relentless plunge, but today, light snow had filled in the troughs, at least on the top half of the mountain.

Though we were on the lift within five minutes of opening, we were too late for first tracks. I watched as the two earliest risers cut perfect 8's through waist-deep powder. Snowbowl is well named, a huge bowl of snow that keeps the crowd happy with its untamed terrain.

Unfortunately, the snow got heavier with every foot I dropped, nearing the consistency of week-old stew near the bottom. I watched three uninformed snowboarders face-plant off Stupid Rock, so named for its flat landing; I took a run on gladed West Ridge for a taste of the closed terrain; and then I made a mad dash to Blacktail Mountain, 106 miles away.

"Where are you?" Steve Spencer's voice crackled on my cell phone. Spencer was one of the four partners who developed Blacktail, the ski area near Lakeside. "We've had a foot of powder!" he said.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

Thanks to the dumping snow and the distance up the mountain, it was almost 2 p.m. by the time I pulled into the parking lot at Blacktail, an inverted ski area with a day lodge on its summit. In the waning afternoon, I gained an appreciation of the mountain's well-designed fall line trails and broad glades. It's a comfortable place for making pleasurable turns. I had fun gliding through the loose trees and jumping off a small snowy boulder. But I had to keep searching for my jaw-dropping jewel.

Whitefish Mountain Resort, Feb. 17

Poised on the edge of Glacier National Park in the town of Whitefish, Whitefish Mountain is a full-service destination resort—the first I visited on my odyssey. The place has everything from night skiing to a day spa, with slope-side condos, an attractive village, a big menu of snow sports (dog-sledding included) and, best of all for me, high-speed lifts and lots of territory. I looked forward to seeing if any of the mountain's 3,000 skiable acres could get my heart pumping.

I hopped on the Big Mountain Express to the summit. Snow piled onto my parka on the short seven-minute ride. More powder!

I slipped past the resort's eerie snow ghosts and dropped into Schmidt's Chute and Elephant's Graveyard, two of the resort's most precious black diamonds. I skied the nose of East Rim and finally tested my nerve on Bighorn, rumored to be the steepest run on Big Mountain. It was steep. I felt the snow slough under my skis with my first two turns, but had to grin as I rode my mini-avalanche to the bottom of the pitch, snow spraying over my knees and hips with each aggressive pole plant.

There was a drawback: The fog was so thick I could barely see my ski tips. Big Mountain is beloved; skiers flock here for the spectacular scenery and for trails like Bighorn. But I knew I had to keep schussing.

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