“The Best Danged All ‘Round Ski Resort in America”?

by Leigh Daboll

Whitefish, MT Let’s face it –
there’s a bold statement contained in the above long-winded title. Nevertheless,
after 30-odd years of skiing and visits to several score of North American
ski resorts, I can at least feel somewhat qualified in making it. And, quite
frankly, I can’t think of a more deserving ski mountain about which to make
such a proclamation. Possessing sheer scope and diversity of terrain, exceptional
lifts, quality snowfall, a homey and cohesive character to its resort center,
and excellent service and accommodations – Big Mountain pretty much has it


(photo Michael Javorka / Big Mountain Resort)
(photo Michael Javorka / Big Mountain Resort)

Back to reality now.  Northern Montana was not immune to the
scanty snowfall that played out in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies
throughout the winter of 2000-2001.  It’s a safe bet to say it’s a winter
most resort managers would rather forget.  However, our intrepid family of
four rabid skiers – dutiful partner Briar, daughter Jacqueline (15), and son
Jonathan (11) – were not to be deterred.  The fact that Dad (me) had purchased
non-refundable airline tickets over the Internet 2½ months prior was also
a contributing factor.  During the intervening time, no matter how much I
checked the weather forecasts in those fateful weeks leading up to our early
January arrival at Big Mountain, it didn’t snow – not much, anyhow.

Driving north from Missoula, where we had spent two prior action-packed
days at Montana Snowbowl, I surveyed the bleak and very brown rangeland of
Western Montana. Compounding my misery was the fact that our flight out of
Buffalo, New York had been very nearly canceled due to the blizzard-like conditions
pummeling the Northeast.  “I left behind three feet of snow, got diverted
through three plane changes and lost ten hours of flight time for this?,”
I thought to myself.  I was not psyched. 

As the miles rolled on and darkness fell, I thought back to
an evening the prior October at the Toronto Ski Show when I ran into Scott
Wilfling, who was working the Ski Whitefish/Big Mountain booth. I was immediately
struck by a couple of glaring differences between Scott’s spiel and the typical
PR sales pitches I had been sleepwalking through for most of the evening. 
One was Scott’s almost maniacal enthusiasm for Big Mountain’s offerings. 
Second was the overarching friendliness exuded by everyone associated with
the display.  Those two qualities perhaps best summarize what sets The Big
Mountain apart from your typical glossy destination resort.  I was soon planning
a winter sojourn there.

At the risk of overworking the “rad family” moniker, our troop
really does live to ski.  Generally speaking, give us a $40 motel room and
a fast food joint or two for rapid refueling before a 10:00 p.m. lights out,
and we’re happy so long as eight inches of new snow is waiting the next morning
at dawn.  However, I am also cognizant of the fact that not every family or
every skier is as single-mindedly dedicated to the on-slope experience as
are we.  Nor, in my opinion, is the other extreme – a skiing population looking
to simply shop and dine in the mountains – representative.  Rather, I suspect
that vast bulk of sliders want a well-rounded vacation, and it is to those
people I direct my opening comments.

Let me explain my reasoning.  While Big Mountain may not stand
number one in any particular category, it is not very far down the list in
virtually every category.  For example, while Big Mountain’s total
snowfall doesn’t equal the 500+ inches which fall annually at Alta or Grand
Targhee, its usual 330 inches of pristine fluff is more than adequate, particularly
when acres of untracked remain available for days after the last dump.  Jay
Peak and Steamboat garner a ton of publicity for their glades.  Big Mountain
possesses at least 1,500 skiable acres of pristine evergreen and hardwood
glades at your beck and call.  Whistler and Vail may have greater total skiable
acreage.  In my opinion, Big Mountain’s 4,000 or so acres offer virtually
unlimited opportunities for several seasons’ exploration, let alone for a
typical ski week.  Steeps?  Maybe it’s not Jackson Hole, but there are 500
acres in Hellroaring Basin that will scare the boots off all but the most
adrenaline- soaked extremists.  And what about long, interesting groomers? 
Big Mountain’s understated 80 or so runs are every bit the equal of more publicized
cruising capitals such as Keystone and Stratton –
enough to keep even the keenest family of piste-bashers entertained for a
full week.  Nightlife and après-ski?  No one will ever mistake Big Mountain
for Aspen or Killington, but
the small self-contained resort is still lots of fun, and the very cool ski
town of Whitefish lies only a short shuttle ride distant.  Lastly, I do not
underestimate the value of “value.”  By any standard, Big Mountain is one
of the best values in the ski industry today.  I could go on.

Personally, I tend to formulate my initial impression of a quality
ski resort by observing a few key things.  Things like discovering a plethora
of backcountry enthusiasts catching early chairs to the peak.   Recognizing
a minimal number of “pants in the boot” tourists milling around the base area
sucking back frappuccino lattes at 10:30 a.m.  I just expect that if the staff
and management exuded a robust enthusiasm for the resort, the hill must be
doing something right.  In all seriousness, though, I my favorite ski resorts
don’t function as Disneyland North.  I want them to remain ski resorts.  I
want to be around people who visit them to enjoy the unvarnished outdoors,
not to simply look at it through the window of some fancy slopeside café while
griping about the lousy, snowy weather.  I want good lifts, not because it’s
trendy and I’m inpatient, but because they have the capability of delivering
me to the untracked goods more quickly.  So folks, if you want a real mountain
vacation to remember, this really is the place.

Big Mountain lies 8 miles north of Whitefish, Montana (photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
Big Mountain lies 8 miles north of Whitefish, Montana
(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

Lying some eight miles north of Whitefish and roughly twenty-three
miles north of Kalispell and its international airport, Big Mountain is surprisingly
accessible despite its location in one of the most remote (and beautiful)
places in the continental United States.  Situated entirely within the Flathead
National Forest, Big Mountain looks eastward to Glacier National Park.  Back
in 1947, Whitefish community leaders sold shares and volunteered their labor
to put up the first t-bar.  Unusually, the Big Mountain wasn’t actually formally
named for sometime thereafter.  Legend has it that those same locals simply
referred to it as “the big mountain,” Hellroaring Basin being deemed inappropriate.
 Whatever the reason, the name has stuck, prosaic marketing difficulties notwithstanding.

As with nearly all great resorts, a distinct historical aura
permeates Big Mountain, with many of its runs named after pioneering members
of the local and U.S. ski community.  For example, “Toni Matt,” perhaps the
area’s signature groomer, is named after the only skier ever to schuss the
headwall at Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine, and a fixture at the Mountain
thereafter.  Many of the other runs are similarly named for pioneering locals
who had a hand in developing the resort.

By the mid-70s, the Mountain attained full destination status. 
Situated hard by the Canadian border, early efforts concentrated on luring
Canadian skiers with many at-par discounts.  However, the slumping Canadian
dollar since the ‘90s forced management to embrace a vision of becoming a
truly international destination resort.   I’m happy to report – judging by
the sheer number of British accents heard during my time there – that they
are succeeding very well.

on any trail map image to open a full-size image in a new browser window

Main Exposure
Main Exposure

North Face
North Face

Hellroaring Basin
Hellroaring Basin

Big Mountain is, in a few words, … ahem … really
freakin’ big. There are over 3,000 developed acres on the Mountain at present,
with the opportunity to easily access virtually unlimited backcountry terrain
beyond that.  About 1,000 further acres are scheduled to be included in the
lift-serviced network during the next two years.  Within those areas are enough
interesting nooks and crannies to entertain even the most devoted sliding
family for days.

The best way to describe Big Mountain is to first picture a
gigantic, conical, balding massif towering over the surrounding valley.  The
main skiable face has, somewhat surprisingly, a southwestern exposure. Then
picture hacking a couple of long, rounded slashes out of the East and West
sides of the massif with a gigantic ice cream scoop.  The west scoop forms
Hellroaring Basin.  North Bowl constitutes the other giant scoop.  Both bowls
trend back toward the front face at their extremities, although there is no
base access out of the bottom of Hellroaring Basin.  Big Mountain offers true
360-degree skiing.  The north side, while offering less total vertical than
the main south face, by no means plays second fiddle, offering up a great
diversity of “pick and choose” terrain, as well as copious glade skiing.

Most important, the north face is the focal point for most of
the proposed new lifts.  An area formerly serviced only by snowcat will soon
be served by at least one high-speed lift.  Planned to be located to the extreme
east of the north face, this chair will offer an extensive mix of glade skiing
and cut trails, topping out in an area formerly known as Flower Point.  Frankly,
this is much to the chagrin of the sometimes-vocal backcountry community.

Much of the ski-in/ski-out accommodation is serviced by a smaller
southeast-facing sub Peak located at the far western end of the resort.  This
area functions as ski school central, and as well offers the bulk of the area’s
night-skiing trails.

Located on the warm side of the Continental divide, Big Mountain
is not nearly as frigid as its remote, northerly location might have you believe. 
The mountain tops out at a relatively low summit elevation of 7,000 feet. 
Coupled with a base elevation of 4,500 feet, Big Mountain’s 2,500 feet of
total vertical drop are not overwhelming.  This may seem modest in comparison
to rival Big Sky’s 4,350 vertical feet, but once you ski Big Mountain, you’ll
realize that it’s simply not so.  The front face is largely served by the
Glacier Chaser high-speed quad, which offers a potentially thigh- numbing
2,000-plus vertical feet of lift.  The Big Creek Express, another high-speed
quad affording more than 1,200 vertical feet of rise, similarly serves the
south face.  Together, these two chairs alone can access well over 2,500 acres
of terrain.  Hellroaring Basin is serviced by its own 1,300 vertical foot
double chair, offering a further 500 or so acres of mainly advanced to high
expert glades, chutes, and couloirs.  Given the lack of lift lines and the
mountain’s 13,800 per hour total lift capacity, 40,000 vertical foot days
are well within reach if you so desire.

Lest one think that the relatively low elevation would be tough
on snow quantity, rest assured that Big Mountain excels in both categories. 
The resort is blessed with a remarkably consistent 330+ inches of annual snowfall. 
Moreover, the snow arrives early, is continuously refreshed by small but frequent
dumps, and tends to stick around late. I was somewhat surprised to discover
that Big Mountain, on average, has offered up the earliest average “100 percent
open date” of any resort in the continental U.S. over the past ten years.
Even during last year’s substandard conditions, we were able to ski an honest
75 percent of the terrain. This is due to a combination of factors, one being
a fortuitous location within the prevailing early season weather patterns. 
Second, unlike its major competitors to the South – which can be veritable
talus gardens to ski during sketchy early season conditions – Big Mountain
offers up baby-smooth terrain over the majority of its acreage with nary a
jagged rock band in sight to mar your ski bases.

(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

A comfortable yet understated village atmosphere lies at the base of Big Mountain (photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
A comfortable yet understated village atmosphere lies
at the base of Big Mountain (photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

In practical terms, anyone contemplating an early season or
Christmas ski vacation would do well to put Big Mountain near the top of his
or her list.  Nothing is more frustrating than booking an expensive holiday
only to be greeted with a total four or five artificial runs.  It is possible
to fully enjoy oneself at Big Mountain under conditions that would make skiing
a somewhat nerve-wracking experience at a lesser hill.

As I alluded to earlier, the fact that Big Mountain is downright
affordable – especially in comparison to those aforementioned glitzy mountains
– makes visiting during the high season a little easier on the pocketbook. 
As we ground our way up the well-maintained (and long) access road from the
valley floor, there was scant evidence that “affordable” meant “substandard.” 
The resort has become a minor beehive of construction activity in recent years,
much of it quite upscale.  Briar turned to me as we rounded the last bend
and, as the resort proper opened up before our eyes remarked, “They should
name this place Big MONEY Mountain.”  Perhaps it was just culture shock, as
we had just come from visiting the decidedly more low-key Montana Snowbowl
No Aspenite, however, would feel out of place in the emerging village.  The
architecture is dominated by the elegant Kandalar and Kintla Lodges, both
of which hug the left bank of the access road on the way into the central
commercial area that forms an elongated horseshoe, out of which lifts radiate
in three separate directions.  In all, it is a compact and well-designed facility,
mixing just the right proportions of down-home western soul and skier chic. 
And remember, the hopping ski town of Whitefish, with its ample bars, restaurants
and shopping facilities, is but a short eight miles distant.

Budget travelers that we are, the Hibernation House’s well-appointed
rooms were more than adequate for our needs.  The lodge offers up spacious
family rooms that, somewhat uniquely, offer a layout consisting of a double
bed and two bunk beds, thus allowing a typical family of four to sleep one
kid to a bed.  Big Mountain’s accommodations are geared almost entirely to
the needs of the ski trade, possessing wonderful in-room gear storage cubbyholes,
a thoughtful touch to say the least.  Hibernation House also includes a hearty
breakfast in its modest price.

I gazed out through our back window while unpacking, and noticed
snowflakes beginning to softly drift downward through the moonlight.  Maybe
tomorrow wouldn’t be so bad after all.  Sure enough, we awoke to four inches
at the base and eight at the summit.  The day was looking up.  After wolfing
down our excellent breakfast, I made my way to the administration offices
to speak with communications director Brian Schott.  Like many others working
at the resort, Brian is a transplanted Montanan.  I swear there must be rule
that all Montana citizens and landed immigrants must pass a “friendliness
test.”  Quite honestly, I can’t say enough about the in-your-face hospitality
in evidence for the next four days, and Brian was no exception.  Positively
effusive in his praise for the resort’s offerings, he regaled me with the
by-now common story of how he came to live in this beautiful area – came,
saw, stayed.

Brian has worked hard in recent years to reposition Big Mountain
from a regional destination center to a true international resort, the results
of which are now just coming to fruition.  For years, Big Mountain depended
on the local and regional tourist trade, and concentrated to a large extent
on luring Canadian visitors, but a soaring American dollar began to crimp
that revenue stream during the mid-90s.  Big Mountain therefore began to look
south and east for new visitors, and eastern North America and Britain became
the primary marketing targets.  You can now come for a week to Big Mountain
from Britain for less than you can visit Stowe. 

As I’ve indicated, that marketing theory appears to be working. 
Most of the guests at the Hibernation House were sporting British accents. 
I spent some time during our first morning conversing with an interesting
middle-aged British gentleman – a truck driver by trade – who had been skiing
steadily for the past twelve days.  Those, I must add, were twelve 12-hour
days of day/ night skiing (night skiing is included in the cost of your multi-day
ticket), skiing only the groomed runs, with no discernible reduction in his
enthusiasm for hitting the slopes that morning. Big Mountain is also somewhat
unique in offering a completely free learner’s chair, the Village Lift, servicing
its own separate area of school slopes.  Brian explained that the resort feels
it very important to offer this type of perk to help hook the next generation
of skiers.  In my view, this program sets the gold standard for young families.

Snow Ghosts in their sentinel watch over Big Mountain (photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
Snow Ghosts in their sentinel watch over Big Mountain
(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

Brian sent us on our way to do some exploring, indicating that
he would meet up with us after lunch at the Summit House Lodge.  After a quick
trip up the Glacier Chaser Chair, we emerged on the peak to a glorious bluebird
day.  The famous “Big Mountain Fog” was nowhere in evidence.  If Big Mountain
has a drawback, it’s the downright stinky weather that at times can invade
the resort.  Records indicate that approximately one out of every four days
during the ski season claims reduced visibility.  As you might expect, however,
the unintended benefit of the cloudy and sometimes foggy conditions is that
excellent snow preservation. As an added aesthetic benefit, the fog and rime
freezes fast to the trees, creating the famous phantasmagorical twisted shapes
known as “Snow Ghosts.” While experts and advanced skiers simply head into
the gladed trails during such days, they can admittedly be off-putting for
some novices.

Not on this day, however, as we stepped off the chair to a brilliant
panorama of peaks. To the northeast rose the imposing summits of Glacier National
Park, brilliantly lit white with snow and sun.  The view from the summit on
a clear day really is worth the price of admission.  Mountains recede into
the distance in all directions.  Closer at hand, the vast expanse of Big Mountain
itself spreads in all directions. The only decision is which area to attack
first, but the kids made our decision for us.  They were off like shots down
Inspiration, another of the signature groomers on the hill.  Big Mountain
groomers are far from typical, boring cruiser runs.  Most of them are long,
winding and varied in pitch – enough to keep even most experts happy on a
warmup run.  Intermediate families will absolutely fall in love with those

On the return trip up the chair, we elected to do some more
serious exploring.  Heading northeast off the chair, we dropped along the
rim of North Bowl and down Moose, a superb black diamond natural snow trail. 
Brian was right.  Snow conditions were, amazingly, superb.  Moose turned out
to be a fortuitous choice, with enough hits, dips and natural ledges to make
it the family’s unanimous choice for most interesting trail we had skied in
a long time.

(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

As we met up with Brian after lunch, I left Briar and the kids
to do some exploring on their own while Brian and I headed out to conquer
some of the resort’s double black terrain.  Traversing along Inspiration,
we dropped into a series of unmarked glades that Brian indicated were named
Elephant’s Graveyard.  Anyone in search of good steeps needs to look no further
than the rim of North Bowl.  Sweet.  We returned again to the rim, this time
leaping down another signature run, Haskill Slide.  Although this area is
one of the steepest, most rock-infested runs of the Mountain, I was amazed
at the level of coverage.  Only one yard sale later, I was asking for more

Brian next showed me the resort’s new gladed area serviced by
their new t-bar installed specifically for that terrain.  I noted that the
snow was particularly deep and that the trees were perfectly spaced for intermediate
to advanced skiers.  We had some other plans, however, as I had been bragging
how easy western glades were to ski in comparison to the tight eastern hardwood
glade skiing of which I generally partake.  Brian was now on a mission to
prove me wrong.  We dropped over the ridge at the top of the t-bar through
an uncleared area of dense evergreen glades and headed for the Big Creek Express
below.  What ensued was a veritable roller coaster ride over fallen logs and
low branches. Sweeter still.

Several runs later found Brian having to depart for (presumably)
less pleasurable business duties, at which point I reunited with the family. 
The balance of the day passed far too swiftly.  Stomachs rumbling, we elected
to head into the main area to catch some food and entertainment.  We entered
The ‘Stube, a Big Mountain institution, complete with an honest-to-God mechanical
bull seemingly held over from the late 80’s.  Not that it matters in this
place, where how well you can ride competes with how well you can ski on any
given day.  What matters was that, unlike the women in attendance, the beer
was cheap, and the burgers were big.

The next morning our guide greeted us for the day, Scott Woefling,
this time on his Telemark gear.  Again, I temporarily left the family to do
their own exploring while Scott and I trekked uphill to the newest area of
the mountain, Flower Point.  Flower Point is set to be the upper terminus
of the resort’s newest high-speed chair.  Scheduled to open in 2002, it will
service a mix of several hundred acres of mainly advanced gladed terrain and
cut runs.  I can tell you that the area is absolutely pristine.  As it constitutes
the point of embarkment for much of the backcountry long used only by the
rabid locals, some predicable bitching has been heard.  Scott indicated that
Big Mountain is home to a large contingent of backcountry enthusiasts, as
it more or less constitutes the last civilized outpost into the vast wilderness
of surrounding Glacier National Park   In this case, there is simply so much
accessible backcountry that the tourists’ gain will not result in much loss
to those locals.

Scott and I then skied over to the rim of Hellroaring Basin
and noted several sets of tracks beyond the “closed” signs.  We briefly contemplated
hiking into the area and making a few runs, but neither of us were equipped
with shovels or transceivers and, given the sketchy conditions, neither wished
to end up underneath a yard of avalanche debris.  Hellroaring Basin would
have to wait for a future visit.

At lunch, I spoke to Scott at some length about Big Mountain’s
reputation regarding its foul weather.  That morning had been exceedingly
foggy, and it had been tough sledding on the groomed runs.  Hence, everyone
in our family had disappeared into the glades.  Scott was adamant that the
trade-off of sunny days in return for terrific snow conditions was well worth
it.  “Anyway,” he snorted,  “it turns you into a better skier.”

(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)
(photo Brian Schott / Big Mountain Resort)

Exploring on our own for the next two days, we had the time
of our lives.  Big Mountain is one of those rare resorts where, once you’ve
fully explored an area, another vast region continuously opens up.  By week’s
end, I was converted.  The combination of exposures and surface features meant
that every day was a powder day somewhere on the Mountain.  It is, frankly,
amazing to yard sale and almost lose a ski down a deep tree well (right under
the lift, of course) in a year when there is supposedly no snow.

On the morning of our last day, I spoke at some length with
communications coordinator Cecily Bell, who once again reinforced my perception
that all Montanans attend the same hospitality training seminar.  We discussed
Big Mountain’s basic business philosophy.  “Big Mountain is very much a community-based
endeavor,” Cecily indicated.  “For example, we supply free shuttle transportation
for our resort personnel to and from Whitefish, as many of those people cannot
afford adequate transportation to access the resort in bad weather conditions.” 

She continued. “We work at managing growth in a way that will
not detract from the excellent infrastructure we have developed at the resort. 
While we want growth, we don’t want growth at the expense of destroying the
extended family atmosphere we already have.”

Sling Shot, in Hellroaring Basin (photo Big Mountain Resort)
Sling Shot, in Hellroaring Basin (photo Big Mountain

With 4,000 acres and the mountain’s total annual visits hovering
around the 300,000-per-year mark, there is obviously room to grow.  Big Mountain
has embarked upon an ambitious plan to modernize and expand the base facilities,
lodging and further enhance the on-mountain experience.  Thankfully, it intends
to remain first and foremost a resort where the ski and snowboard experience
remains unsullied by glitz, glamour and attitude.  In any event, I don’t think
those qualities would integrate easily into the local culture.  It’s just
too darned nice.  

As we left at dusk, headed west to Schweitzer, Idaho and to
continue our great Pacific Northwest road trip, the words of both of my kids
pretty much summed up my feelings. 

“Hey Dad?”

“Yep,” I answered.

“Best danged SKIING resort I’ve visited yet.”

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