Fall-line magazine

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO – AND MONTANA (Fall-Line magazine November 2007)

Alf Alderson hits the road and discovers great skiing in two of the Rockies’ least-known states

If someone has given you a Land Rover Discovery (thank you Land Rover USA…) to hammer around the Rockies for a few weeks, it clearly makes sense to put the thing through its paces. Which is how I came to have a concerned truck driver stop, wind down his window in the swirl of a howling February blizzard and ask me if I needed assistance.

Not an unreasonable question under the circumstances – I’d pulled over into a couple of feet of roadside snow at the top of 7072-ft Teton Pass to ‘play’ in my new 4WD and was probably looking stranded (or, more likely, stupid – perhaps the ‘assistance’ he was referring to was psychological…). Either way I declined the kind offer, spun around a few more times in my vehicle then bounced back on to US Highway 20 to continue my journey across the Continental Divide.

The blizzard was good news – it meant that the following day the skiing at Big Sky, which is where I was heading, should be epic. And so it was. The precipitous slopes of 11166-ft Lone Mountain, from the top of which every run is a black or double black, were plastered with powder and I was in good company when it came to finding the finest lines – volunteer ski patroller Todd Thesing knew all the best nooks and crannies.

Todd had recently moved to Big Sky from Denver with his partner Rachele to “improve the quality of our lives” amongst the more isolated mountains, rivers and forests of the Montana Rockies. I’d met them in the remote but surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Boise, Idaho the previous summer and jumped at the chance to ski with the couple in Montana’s biggest ski resort when I returned a few months later to explore the winter Rockies.

It’s easy to see why so many American skiers are drawn to Montana and Idaho. For well over a century writers, poets and travellers have waxed lyrical about the wide-open spaces of the American West, but they’re becoming increasingly hard to find these day unless you head north up the jagged spine of the Rockies to these two little known states.

Idaho boasts (quite regularly) of having the largest wilderness area of any US state other than Alaska whilst Montana, which is the size of Germany, has a population of around one million. This means that in complete contrast to overcrowded Europe, lift queues, traffic jams, CCTV cameras and sanctimonious government officials are thin on the ground (in the case of the latter two this is probably because they’ve been shot…).

Snow, on the other hand, is frequently thick on the ground. I only had a couple of days in Big Sky but it was enough to bring me back later in the season to enjoy terrain that varies from steep alpine couloirs to easy-peasy groomers with – stand by to be amazed – an average of two acres of space for each skier. This is great but it does mean you have to do a lot of shouting to keep in touch with your ski buddy two acres away…

Space is something there’s lots of in this region, and whilst I’ve only once ever had to worry about lift queues in several month of travelling around Montana and Idaho (it was at Sun Valley on a powder day since you ask) you can get even more room to yourself if you have either a) lots of money or b) lots of stamina. Here’s how:

Option a) is to go cat skiing – not that cheap at around $250 a day but money well spent if you catch it right, like I did at Brundage Mountain in Idaho, when with snowboarding chum Mark Neep from Argentiere we enjoyed a day of bluebird conditions in the flawless powder for which the region is known, along with magnificent views across remote, unpeopled mountains of which most people have never heard. And they have such colourful names too – The Seven Devils, perched above Hell’s Canyon (deeper than the Grand Canyon, incidentally); the Sawtooth Mountains above the River of No Return Wilderness Area; and the Wallowa Range in nearby Washington State to name but three. All the Aussies can manage is the plebeian ‘Snowy Mountains’…

It may be that like me you find such names so evocative that you simply have to explore them further, which brings us to option b) – backcountry skiing. My first experience of this was in the Smoky Mountains, north of the opulent marbled tiled, pile-carpeted ski lodges of glamorous Sun Valley where, with Brit expat James Gillespie I skinned up the quiet, forested slopes of 10,225-ft Bromaghin Peak to access big, sunny open bowls that brimmed with creamy, spring-like snow.

Despite being easily accessed from Highway 21 this is wild country where some of the peaks still don’t have names, where grizzlies are the dudes in charge and where you don’t want to get into any ‘tight spots’.

Which made it rather unfortunate that James tore his knee ligaments on the second turn of his first run down one of those creamy bowls. As someone who recently had the very same mishap I can tell you that this is the kind of thing that brings a surge of dread to the pit of stomach as much as a searing pain to the affected limb – how the hell are you gonna make it home in time for tea now? Well, to cut a long story short you use a helicopter, but it really isn’t the best way to get in your last turns of the season.

What I found particularly interesting about this little mishap was the casual way in which James, his wife Ellen and his ski buddies treated it. To me this was a proper backcountry drama, to them it was just a day out that didn’t go quite right. But there again, as I discovered when I later found myself in the Yaak Valley on the borders of northern Montana and British Columbia, ‘wild backcountry’ is all relative hereabouts.

I’d arrived here with a friend with whom I’d recently skied at Schweitzer Mountain in the nearby Idaho Panhandle (a resort with modern amenities like an express six-seater chair on which I never saw more than four people, and equally thinly populated slopes despite a fall of boot deep powder the night before). We were pootling along in the Discovery on an increasingly snowbound back road until, with the snow now several feet deep on the road we surmised we were probably lost and turned around to retrace our tyre tracks. On the return run we missed a deer by inches as it leapt across the bonnet whilst we were driving and slip sliding down the road and eventually ended up in the settlement of Yaak with only a cupful of gas left in the tank.

Now, despite being on a marked road I can honestly say that had we run out of gas out here I’d have felt every bit as isolated as James did on Bromaghin Peak. The Yaak Valley is a huge area of dense, dark forest, much of it primary growth, and one of the few regions left in the Rockies where every species that was present at the end of the last ice age is still in residence, which means you are no longer top of the food chain – step aside for Messrs. Grizzly, Black Bear, Cougar, Wolf, Moose and Elk (the latter two won’t eat you but they could seriously spoil your day if they’re feeling mean).

However, the biggest danger seemed to be from the humans, as the sign on the door of Yaak’s ‘Dirty Shame Saloon’ intimated – ‘Firearms Must Be Handed In At The Bar’.
I felt embarrassment at my lack of a six-shooter, but tarnation! – the locals turned out to be darned friendly folk as and wryly informed us that it was a good thing we hadn’t run out of fuel as the road we were on wasn’t officially ‘open’ until June, when the last of the snow melts, so passing vehicles would be very few and far between. Not the kind of thing that’s likely to occur on a motoring trip in the French Alps…

But it’s the fact that Idaho and Montana are so unlike Europe that makes them so appealing. Take Missoula, a university town in northern Montana with two ski hills (Snowbowl and Marshall Mountain) where I managed to miss skiing the latter thanks to a stunning hangover. It was my own fault and only to be expected after drinking with the owners of the Big Sky Microbrewery, who informed me on being told that the bar was closing “No problem, we have a brewery” and invited me back there to sample the products. And what are the chances of meeting M. Kronenbourg or Herr Beck whilst skiing in the Alps?

And then there was Silver Mountain in northern Idaho, where I ascended to the slopes on the world’s longest single stage gondola, despite which you’ve probably never heard of the resort; Red Lodge in Montana, famed for it’s ski-joring and the Bear Creek Saloon which unlike Dick’s Tea Bar offers amongst its entertainments charity pig racing and a Velcro wall; Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, small, non-profit (what, a ski resort?!) and more challenging than is healthy; or Grand Targhee, officially in Wyoming but only reachable from Idaho and home to 500 annual inches of the fluffiest powder you could wish for beneath the shadow of a mountain called the Big Tit (oh, ok then, Grand Teton…).

The beardy, telemarking locals like to refer to Grand Targhee as ‘the other side’ on account of being on the ‘backside’ of the infinitely more famous and glitzy Jackson Hole, but to be honest you could call most of Montana and Idaho’s ski hills ‘the other side’ since they’re very much the other side of the US ski scene.

And personally that suits me just fine – I’m happy to pay a visit to the other side any time.

The main reason that Montana and Idaho were opened up in the 19th century was for their rich gold and silver deposits (for instance Silver Valley in northern Idaho was the world’s richest mining area in the 1880s). But once the precious metals had been worked out the settlements that developed around the mines were often abandoned to become ghost towns.

The best preserved is Bannack in SE Montana, which can be visited year-round. Gold was discovered here in 1862; two years later the isolated sagebrush hills had been transformed into the territorial capital with over 3000 residents; forty years on and everyone was gone. Nowadays you’ll find a scene straight from a western movie, with entire streets of clapboard stores, miner’s homes, church, town hall and all the rest. What’s more, Bannack is within easy reach of Maverick Mountain Ski Area (www.skimaverick.com) a small, uncrowded single lift ski hill that’s worth a visit.

Idaho and Montana have always attracted loners, from skiers looking for fresh tracks to backcountry survivalists, but none have been quite such determined hermits as Earl Parrott, who lived in a remote cabin in the River of No Return Wilderness Area in the early 1900s and went for over twenty years without a single visit by another person.

He made an annual round trip of 140 miles to the nearest settlement to trade gold dust for supplies, made his own shoes with tyre tread soles and carried a Colt .45 with him everywhere so he could shoot himself if he fell and broke his leg. His most pithy comment on hermit life? -  “The more I see of people, the more I like my dog”.

This is just a selection of the bigger resorts – there are plenty of tiny little ski hills that you’ll also pass by on a road trip. Pretty much all the ski hills in both states are open between late November and early April.

Sun Valley www.sunvalley.com
North America’s oldest ski resort has been the haunt of Hollywood stars since 1936 and still is, so you never know just who you might see on the slopes. The main peak, 9150-ft Bald Mountain, offers a healthy 3,400 ft of vert and good, constant pitches on all faces which will challenge intermediates, for whom the resort is best suited.

Like it says on the tin Sun Valley is very sunny and snow conditions are not always great. It’s also expensive ($74 a day) but if you like luxury mountain lodges, people watching and coming home with a tan you’ll love it here.

Schweitzer Mountain www.schweitzer.com
Situated above the shimmering blue waters of Lake Pend Oreille and with empty slopes, great lift access, magnificent Selkirk mountain scenery and frequent powder conditions, Schweitzer is a gem of Idaho’s far north and lift tickets are good value at around £25 a day.

The resort’s two large bowls have skiing to suit every ability and although the slopeside accommodation and village are quite acceptable it’s better to base yourself in Sandpoint, a 20-minute drive away and one of the Rockies’ coolest towns.

Silver Mountain www.silvermt.com
Hop on the three-mile/3400-ft gondola that takes you to the peaks above the unlovely former mining town of Kellogg and the scenery soon improves dramatically, with a view that encompasses three states (Idaho, Montana and Washington) and fine glade and tree skiing as well as some great backcountry, accessible from the top of 6200-ft Wardner Peak.

Crowds are rarely an issue, lift tickets are top value at $44 a day and it’s close enough to Schweitzer to make an easy two-centre holiday.

Brundage Mountain www.brundage.com and Tamarack Resort www.tamarack.com
Brundage is renowned for having some of the lightest powder in Idaho and almost empty terrain suited to all levels of skier. Lift passes go for a mere $44 a day. Its satellite village of McCall is one of the most attractive small towns in the state, and it’s also well situated for visiting Tamarack, the newest ski resort in the USA, which again has skiing for all standards with some especially good backcountry and glades, along with snow of equal fluffiness to Brundage and similar ticket rates at $45 a day (midweek). Fly into nearby Boise and make a two-centre holiday of these two quintessentially Rocky Mountain resorts.

Bogus Basin www.bogusbasin.com
On second thoughts make it a three-centre holiday with a day or two at Bogus Basin in the hills above Boise. The resort is ‘non profit’ so tickets cost only $42 a day and that allows you to ski up to 10pm. Bogus has a very respectable 2600 acres of terrain with something to suit all levels, and when you’ve finished head down the hill to Boise, one of the most attractive state capitals in the USA, with a great selection of bars, restaurants, and venues – when I was there James Brown had just played. Hot damn, I missed the Godfather!

Grand Targhee www.grandtarghee.com
Grand Targhee is in Wyoming but since you can only reach it from Idaho it kind of forced its way into this listing – as well it should with its massive powder-dry dumps on the peaks beneath the truly spectacular Grand Tetons.

In theory Targhee is best for intermediates but if you want to search out tougher expert powder runs you’ll also find plenty to go at, plus a cat skiing operation, and if you’re looking to put those fat powder skis though their paces for just $57 a day, this is the place to head for.

Big Sky www.bigskyresort.com and Moonlight Basin www.moonlightbasin.com
Big Sky has a lot to boast about – some of the steepest in-bounds skiing in North America, skiable snow as early as October and with the recent link into Moonlight Basin the two resorts now make up the biggest ski area in the USA, whilst the 4350-ft of vertical from the top of Lone Mountain is also amongst the biggest in the country.

The $69 a day lift ticket gives you access to uncrowded slopes with average snowfall of 400 inches and terrain to suit every level of skier, and there’s also easy access to nearby Yellowstone National Park.

Big Mountain www.bigmtn.com
Mmm – the guys who named Montana’s most northerly resort clearly didn’t waste too much time over its name. But it’s the skiing and the views that count here, with 3000 acres of terrain on the edge of Glacier National Park and some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes in the Rockies. This is another great hill for intermediates looking to push themselves although advanced skiers will find plenty enough steeps and trees and it’s good value with day tickets for less than £30.

Fog can be a problem, but if so head down the mountain to nearby Whitefish, one of the hippest ski towns in North America. Take a pair of telemark skis and a false beard if you want to really fit in…

Red Lodge www.redlodgemountain.com
Situated on the spectacular eastern edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Red Lodge’s $44 a day lift ticket gives you access to generous falls of dusty Montana powder, uncrowded terrain, challenging skiing (although with enough options for intermediates and beginners too), and a friendly, downhome feel to the town, which was once the haunt of the Sundance Kid and Calamity Jane – check out the classic Pollard Hotel where Buffalo Bill used to stay.

Bridger Bowl www.bridgerbowl.com
Bridger is a bit of a legend in American skiing – the likes of Doug Coombs cut their teeth at Bridger and students from the cool and outdoorsy nearby city of Boseman enrol at the university as much to ski here as to study.

Lift tickets are a miserly $41 a day and give you access to a great mix of skiing, despite the hill’s hardcore reputation. Lovely cruisers undulate through open glades, the lower half of the mountain is ideal for novices, and if you really want to test yourself, sign in with ski patrol, hike up to The Ridge and discover why the locals are so hot.

Snowbowl www.montanasnowbowl.com
Snowbowl is the larger of Missoula’s two ski hills, and it makes a great stop off on a classic road trip between Big Sky and Big Mountain, whilst Missoula itself is one of the most vibrant mountain towns in the USA. The skiing here is mainly for intermediate and advanced riders, with a respectable 2,500 feet of vertical and some very good tree skiing, all for a mere $35.

To get the best skiing you need to organise an independent road trip. Fly into Spokane via Chicago or Seattle, or you can drive up from Salt Lake City – either route will cost you around £450. Try www.ebookers.com for good deals.

Vehicle rental is usually pretty good value in the US, but you’ll need a 4WD – expect to pay around £250 a week.

Good value multi-day ski and accommodation packages can be found on all the resorts’ websites.

The official tourism websites for the area are www.visitidaho.org and www.travel.state.mt.us whilst the most detailed guidebooks are The Rough Guide to Skiing & Boarding in North America and The Rough Guide to the Rocky Mountains (both £14.99).