Montana Snowbowl: Hardcore Hospitality

Missoula, MT – Spokane International Airport
seemed a long time ago. Located very nearly on the border between the Mountain
and Pacific zones, it was a whole time zone away. Grinding up the long,
switchbacking gravel access road to the resort in the gathering darkness in
our trusty rental Subie Outback, I thought back a month or so prior to my,
shall we say, intriguing initial telephone conversation with Brad Morris.

n

 “Are you the resort manager of Montana Snowbowl?”  I asked.

There was silence on the other hand for what
seemed to be an eternity.  Finally, in a very slow drawl, Brad answered. 
“Well…I guess you could say that I’m sort of… the jack of all trades around
the place.  I can pretty much answer…well….anything ya need ta ask me.”

I continued.  “So, shall we roll into the slopeside
Gelandesprung Lodge at about 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and join in the
party?”.

“Keys for your room’ll be hangin’ in the big
kitchen with your name on ‘em,” Brad answered.  “Ah heck, ya might as well
use two rooms so you and the kids won’t be crampin’ each other.  We’ll see
you over in the lounge that night.”

Granted, the access road is long, winding and
maybe even scary in really bad weather.  The mountains ringing the resort
itself are steep son-of-a-guns.  There’s no – and I mean none – Aspenite glitz
in and around the base facilities and accommodations.  Grooming on the limited
supply of green runs can sometimes appear like an afterthought.

But it’s sort of unfair to make the comparison
in the first place, for Montana Snowbowl is not at all about any of the above. 
Snowbowl is all about skiing the way it used to be.  A place where
– really and truly – you feel like part of a special, extended family reunion. 
In and around the slopes, in the cafeteria, the liftlines, you name it – Snowbowl
is all about your new “family” egging you on to enjoy the mountain with gusto. 
To push your limits in respect to what you think you can ski, and how much
of the resort you will eventually explore.  And, yes, that sentiment really
does apply to one’s whole entourage – particularly any kids you might have
in tow.  The ski school, rental shop, and cafeteria all run on similar principles
of friendliness, service and quality.  For lack of a better phrase, Hard
Core Hospitality
represents, on every level, the Snowbowl we fell in love
with.


My partner, Briar, and kids, Jacqueline, 15 and Johnson, 11 looked
up in unison from the lonesome parking area at the steep comical peaks surrounding
the well-kept, rustic base area. “Looks pretty vertical from here,” said Briar. 
She had obviously done her reading on this challenging gem of a resort.  The
jet-lagged family trudged wearily up the outside staircase to the second-floor
Gelandesprung Lodge.  It had been a very long time since our 7:00 a.m. weather-delayed
flight had departed Buffalo, New York that morning.  By my calculations, it
was approaching 2:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time as we found the aforementioned
keys and flopped onto the beds in the two adjoining rooms.  Brad had kindly
left me a note asking that we meet him in the adjoining lounge for orientation
and some New Year’s refreshments.

The Gelandesprung Lodge is set up with a shared
bath/kitchen hostel on one floor and private family-style rooms on the other. 
I had half expected, given Brads warning that “it isn’t real fancy,” the place
could have been a real hole-in-the-wall. Well, compared to the usual motel
accommodations we generally frequent, this place was the Taj Mahal.  On a
more serious note, unless you are accustomed to true four- or five-star facilities,
the Gelandesprung Lodge is way, way more than adequate to sleep off the day’s
exertions, and an incredible bargain to boot.  But more on that later.

Making our way to the attached lounge, we happened
by a few employees lingering about the kitchen area.  Being New Year’s Eve,
they were, as expected, taking in the evening’s festivities.  What was unexpected
was that we literally dragged into the group, like family.  I quickly asked
about Brad’s whereabouts. Knowing grins spread across the collective faces
of the group.  “Brad and his wife are over in Last Run Inn tending bar and
making wood-fired pizzas for the staff.”

Sauntering into the bar, which despite it being
New Years’ Eve appeared to contain only locals, staff, and a few other equally
intrepid tourists, we were once again greeted as long-lost family members. 
And I’m not making this up.  While Montana is generally known for its hospitality,
this place elevated that quality to a new standard.

I approached the pizza oven, where a lean, lanky
outdoorsman appeared completely engrossed in determining how much longer the
pie had on the slab before it was finished.  I hazarded a guess that this
might be the elusive Brad.  Some perfunctory introductions later, I was quickly
shunted off to meet his effusive wife, Linda, and it quickly became apparent
that Linda did most of the talking for the pair.

Snowbowl's terrain rises steeply above a compact base area. (photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

Snowbowl’s terrain rises steeply above a compact base area. (photo
courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

If you're looking for steeps, you'll find them in the East Bowls. (photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

If you’re looking for steeps, you’ll find them in the East Bowls. (photo
courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

(click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window)

(click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new browser window)

Not all of Snowbowl's terrain is as tough as its reputation. (photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

Not all of Snowbowl’s terrain is as tough as its reputation. (photo
courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

(photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

(photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

(photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

(photo courtesy Montana Snowbowl)

As I spoke with Linda about the resort over pizza
and microbrews, I was  startled to discover that Brad was a retired Ear,  Nose
& Throat surgeon who had become involved with the resort originally and
solely through his love of skiing.  Several years earlier, while Brad was
operating his surgical practice in the nearby town of Missoula, he fell for
Snowbowl’s charms.  The resort had fallen upon hard times, and Brad had organized
a group of 20 or so local investors to purchase the resort from creditors. 
The ski business being as it was, it didn’t take long before most of the investors
dropped out to seek alternative endeavors offering even modest positive returns
on their investments.  Soon, only Brad remained.  A few years ago, he finally
retired to operate the resort on a full-time basis and, thankfully, hasn’t
looked back with regret yet.

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During the Morris tenure, the resort has exhibited steady if not
spectacular growth and enhancement.  Two years earlier, the Gelandesprung
Lodge was constructed, providing the first slopeside lodging on the mountain. 
The ski school, rental operations and food services have been bolstered, and
the hill now markets itself as a regional, if not yet a national, destination
center.  Missoula, with its 50,000 or so permanent residents and substantial
university population, constitutes the main source of day visitors.  However,
longer-stay guests arrive on a regular basis from Washington, Montana, Idaho
and Wyoming.

After a few more microbrews at the Inn and a
scintillating game of Jenga with some lift-ops and junior patrollers (also
serving duty as long lost family), it was time to hit the sheets in preparation
for what we fully expected would be a rugged day on the legendary steeps of
Snowbowl.  We awoke to a couple of inches of heavy freshies over a chunky
base.  Skiing would be challenging today.  As we had spent about twenty-four
hours absent sleep the day prior, we were still shaking out some brew-enhanced
cobwebs that early New Year’s morn.  I glanced out of our window at the ticket
office next door, and wondered when the New Year’s crowds were set to arrive. 
I would later discover that crowds don’t happen at Snowbowl.  On a busy day,
the resort counts about 400 paying guests.  Coupled with about 1,200 acres
of developed terrain, one could be excused for thinking that you are skiing
at a private resort.  Whether it’s the remote locale, or maybe Snowbowl’s
formidable reputation among local experts for its tough terrain, one factor
definitely not contributing to the lack of crowds is the outstandingly high
overall quality of the ski experience.

Snowbowl’s main base area is surrounded by an
intimidating amphitheater of steep ridge-lined peaks tracing west through
east in a big semicircle.  The majority of the terrain therefore faces somewhat
south, but skiable faces exist at every compass point within the circumference. 
The sparse chair layout notwithstanding, the lifts are in practice more than
serviceable.  The western half of the resort is serviced mainly by the Grizzly
Double, which rises 2,000 vertical feet nearly to the midpoint of the rim
of the semicircle.  From the top terminal of this chair, the trails drop west,
or north over the back of the ridge to the other workhorse lift, the LaVelle
Creek Double, which rises 1,000 vertical feet to the true ridge summit of
Big Sky Mountain at 7,560 feet.  From this point, the entire circumference,
including much of the eastern-most expert terrain, is accessible. The northern
face of the LaVelle Creek area constitutes much of Snowbowl’s beginner and
intermediate terrain, including such runs as Hot Fudge, Grandstand and High
Park.  Relatively unique among “tough”major resorts, beginners stay up high.

As we quickly found out, the mountain’s original
management hadn’t a clue how to lay out a fall line ski run.  Nearly all of
the runs at Snowbowl exhibit quirky double and triple fall lines throughout
most of their lengths.  In particular, the runs under the Grizzly Chair are
uniquely tilted and thus can form rather interestingly shaped moguls along
their length.  No boring groomer runs are to be found here.  While some skiers
may gnash their teeth skiing those lines, I believe they instill character
in a resort.

The early season snow conditions were somewhat
sketchy, and the near-eastern “crud over sludge” made for some tough sledding
in spots, particularly for the still-rusty kids.  The fact that by midmorning
we had embarked down several black runs including signature Grizzly Chute
– a 40-degree shot which would be marked double-black at most any other resort
– played not an insignificant role.  Perhaps some off-piste lessons were to
be the order of the day.  I meandered over to the base lodge and spoke with
Linda about enrolling the kids in a group lesson to help shake off the off-season
rust, this being the first truly tough ski day of the season.

Linda quickly beckoned two of her top ski school instructors, and
the kids embarked upon a morning-long lesson.  I spoke at some length with
one of the instructors, Gary Flatow, a retired former professional who now
assists in running the ski school and, as well, operates a ski shop in Missoula. 
It was glaringly obvious that Gary really loves this mountain and people who
frequent it.  The kids were in capable hands.

Some three hours later, I did manage to catch
up with the “class” at the top of the LaVelle Chair.  Both kids were bouncing
along the powdery moguls like pros- an unbelievable improvement since earlier
that morning.  Gary was adamant that the small classes and quiet on-slope
environment made for rewarding teaching.  I frankly must agree.  Places like
Snowbowl probably don’t get their fair share of rave ski school reviews that
some of the big resorts receive simply as a function of feedback volume. 
I have no hesitation in recommending Snowbowl as one of the preeminent places
to learn in North America.

This may seem somewhat surprising, given its
terrain and reputation.  However, I am a firm believer that the overall resort
environment rather than the terrain ultimately makes for a fulfilling ski
school experience. If you ever wanted to learn the slide -and I mean really
learn – this may be the place to do it.  The fact that what essentially amounted
to a private lesson cost the same or less than a big group lesson at any big-time
resort only added to my sense of satisfaction with the overall resort experience. 
There is no reason why all ski schools cannot function on this level. I guess
it’s just easier when “family” gets together to ski.

As I keep alluding to, Snowbowl has a foreboding
reputation as an experts-only resort.  While not entirely accurate, it can
be. With 2,600 uninterrupted vertical feet of skiable hill (the second greatest
in Montana), Snowbowl is definitely in the big leagues when it comes to challenge
and diversity of terrain.  They don’t do all that much grooming at Snowbowl. 
Frankly, they don’t have to.  Why consolidate the base when there isn’t enough
traffic to chew it up?  Also, much of the terrain is gladed and many of the
runs do not lend themselves to efficient groomer operation.  The prevailing
philosophy is to leave much of the terrain in as natural a state as possible. 
I began to think of Snowbowl as a sort of “Mad River Glen” on steroids.

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Embarking from the top of the LaVelle Chair after
the lesson ended, the family traversed east down the North Dakota-Paradise
Downhill, a three-mile blue-square ridgeline jaunt funneling back to the base. 
I noted that much of the gladed terrain spilling westward off of this run
was eminently steep but skiable.  I made a mental note to come back later.  
A few runs later, the day ended on a positive note with clouds rolling in
and a light dusting of snow beginning to fall.

We retired in the interior of the Inn.  What
crowds there were had almost entirely disappeared, leaving little more than
staff, owners, and ourselves.  We were later to discover that the entire floor
of the Gelandesprung Lodge was to be ours that evening.  That was just fine
by us.

Day Two proved to be a repeat of the first, albeit with even fewer
crowds, if that were possible.  The family truly felt like we were skiing
a private resort.  Despite a paucity of high-speed lifts, it was essentially
a case of ski-up/sit down for the entire day.  About mid morning, we ventured
into the steep woods of East Bowl, where we promptly ran into Brad, who was
skiing with his daughter and son-in-law.  “Too bad the conditions warn’t better,”
he drawled.   Frankly, despite the crusty, funky conditions, I was having
the time of my life.  Two runs later, after Brad parted for (presumably) management
duties, Briar and I elected to traverse over to some of the signature unmarked
terrain.  Traversing east along the ridge to a stash known as Far East Glades,
we were rewarded with approximately 1,500 vertical feet of extremely steep
conifer glades- and nary a soul around for the length of the run.  Banking
edges off bark, the run exited into a steep, natural half-pipe, and eventually,
back to the Grizzly Double.

Day’s end arrived all too quickly.  For our last
run, we elected to follow the advice of certain sage locals, and traversed
back under the sentinel cliffs along the crest of the North Dakota Downhill. 
Here is found a beautiful area known simply as The Meadows, which offers several
lightly gladed and beautifully secluded lines.  The Meadows is accessed only
through a rocky, narrow slot, which tends to weed out unprepared tourists
from exploration.  Our lack of trepidation was rewarded with nearly 2,000
vertical feet of almost fresh.  As the trees progressively tightened and the
slope steepened near the bottom, my rhythm, rather than slowing, picked up
until I was literally flying between the trunks.  Definitely the best run
in the season so far.

We packed up our belongings and bid a very remorseful
farewell to the Morris couple before embarking on the three-hour drive to
Big Mountain. I remarked to the family (and by this, I mean our newfound Montana
in-laws) how their place had impressed the hell out of me.  I remarked how
the Gelandesprung Lodge would be a heck of the place to spend a group vacation. 
Approximately forty souls can rent to the whole Lodge for about $520 per night-
a frankly unbelievable deal given the quality of the accommodation.   I often
ski tour with a group of friends, and wholeheartedly recommend this option
to anybody considering a group ski/snowboard vacation.

As with every resort, expansion plans loom large
in Snowbowl’s future. Over lunch our last day, I spoke with marketing manager
Gia Randono, who advised me there is a plethora of developable acreage within
the present permit.  She indicated that plans are afoot to run a lift over
the west ridge into an existing, adjacent trail network formerly operated
as Snow Valley Resort.  This would add about 500 acres of largely intermediate
terrain which management feels is lacking at present.  As well, there is a
real possibility of lift servicing the 7,925-foot Point 6 Peak directly north
of the existing resort.  This would increase the overall vertical of the resort
to nearly 3,000 feet, and nearly double the acreage of the lift serviced terrain. 
Suffice it to say that most of this latter expansion terrain would be of the
black diamond variety.  I also suspect that it would be much to the chagrin
of the local backcountry community, which regularly travel to and fro between
the peaks at present.

For now, approval for any expansion will be contingent upon improvements
first being made to the access road.  For at least a few more years, Snowbowl
will remain yours to share with your knowledgeable hard-charging locals and
some very lucky, and very intelligent, vacationing families.  Get there while
you can.

I left Snowbowl suspecting that Brad and Linda
don’t really care whether or not Snowbowl ever hits big-time destination resort
status.  And that’s just fine with me. It was heartwarming to discover that
true mom-and-pop skiing operations exist which give up nothing to the big-time
resorts in terms of terrain, fundamental skier services, and overall fun –
places where the bottom line means less than one’s love of the mountains,
where skiing hard and kicking back with friends means more than glamorous
“resort infrastructure enhancements.”  And, hey, don’t we all enjoy getting
back to visit family on a regular basis?

As we parted, Linda’s final words hung with me
on the long drive to Whitefish. 

“I suppose Brad and I could move to a big city
and make a lot of money.”  “The problem with that is, you’d have to do something
really silly, like not skiing every day of the season with friends.”

My sentiments exactly.

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