Whitefish MT, March 20 - 22, 2023 - Perfect Spring Skiing


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A couple of months ago, my wife and daughter and I decided to ski Montana and/or Fernie and Castle over spring break. We picked the region for its low-hassle factor, with an abundance of quality skiing in resorts with comparatively-affordable lift tickets, low skier density, free parking not far from the lodges and lifts, tolerance of brown bagging, reputations for good vibes, etc. (Big Sky obviously excluded.) Additionally, we decided to try our best to play everything by ear in order to chase the most favorable conditions and forecasts. Finally, being sick of the high fares, unpredictable performance, and inconvenient schedules of the airlines, and being tired of car rentals with lousy tires, we decided to drive our Outback with snow tires.

We left on the morning of March 18. There had not been recent snow in the region and the forecasts did not yet suggest snow was likely. However, full sun and warm days and cold nights were predicted at Whitefish for Monday to Wednesday, and the snow report made it clear that a good melt-freeze cycle had started on Big Mountain’s south-facing front side, so we headed for Whitefish.

The drive out took about 20 hours, rather than the predicted 18, because even though it was sunny and in the teens, I-94 was closed across ND due to persistent ice and wind. Instead, we took I-29 north to Grand Forks. The median, shoulders, and ditches of I-29 were littered with abandoned toppled semis and passenger vehicles, some of which had clearly been rolled.

At Grand Forks we turned west again on U.S. 2 which we took all the way to Whitefish. U.S. 2 crosses some beautiful and desolate countryside, particularly across the high plains of northern Montana.




The route is also interesting because it follows the old Great Northern rail line (currently BNSF’s Northern Transcon and Amtrak’s Empire Builder) from St. Paul to Seattle. The rail line was in sight along most of our route.


In fact, while exploring the town of Whitefish, we found this tag by Black Daze, an artist that has painted a number of legitimate murals around our corner of Minneapolis.


After sleeping in Wolf Point, MT we made it to Whitefish by mid afternoon on Sunday the 19th.



For the next three days, we explored and skied Whitefish Mountain Resort in abundant sunshine. We quickly learned to ski chairs 5, 7, and 11 in the mornings. Chairs 7 and 11 face mostly North. Chair 5 faces mostly East but is high on the mountain where temps were staying cool.



Most of the terrain off of all three of these chairs offered decent winter snow conditions to the extent it was very much worth skiing the steep terrain off all three lifts and in some of the trees off of chairs 11 and 7.





By 11:30 or so, the front side softened up nicely and we were in corn snow heaven during the afternoons of all three days. At about 3pm each day the snow got a little wet, but not sticky, mostly on the most sun-exposed pitches on the lowest 3rd of the mountain. Each day it was very much worth our time to ski till the lifts closed. As you can see from the pictures, crowding was not an issue. The vibe on the hill was low-key, laid-back, and very friendly. I’d love to come back and explore Whitefish again sometime earlier in the winter. I think it is an underrated mountain, and I wonder if, at least for those comfortable skiing somewhat tighter trees, it might track out at a somewhat leisurely pace on a powder day.








On Thursday March 23 we decided to head south to Lost Trail and Discovery to chase the predicted snow rather than sticking with our tentative plan to head up to Fernie and Castle where it had also clearly warmed up, but colder, cloudier weather without snow was in the forecast. Before we left Whitefish for the 3.5 hour drive to Darby, MT, we hiked the Lion Trail on the outskirts of town.




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I'd be very suspicious of Whitefish in late March. Mid-winter it's quite reliable for snow conditions despite the heavy south exposure due to chronic fog off the nearby lakes. But in spring cloudiness would be a detriment, resulting in a lot of partially frozen variable snow.

But flyover was driving and had a favorable clear weather prediction. This is even more necessary at Montana Snowbowl, also heavily south facing, much of which is advanced and ungroomed.

In this time frame Liz and I were dealing with COVID and Monday/Tuesday were overcast and intermittently snowy. Wednesday and Thursday were the only sunny days without new snow in SW Montana that week.

The season remains below average in western Canada and US areas near the border as of March 31: Whistler 77%, Fernie 84%, Castle 94%, Whitefish 72%. Even Bridger and Big Sky are at 94-95% though they got lots of snow over the past 10 days. Move farther south and the snow picks up dramatically: Targhee is at 133%, Jackson 121% and Sun Valley 144%. Similar in the PNW: Oregon is at 118-119% but Washington is below average.
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It's been a weird year. Three different extended frigid periods, usually it's 1 to 2. Then, forecasted storm after storm that did not in fact materialize to bring us snow, but it lasted due to the temperatures. Extremely foggy January and February, with quite a blue sky March, which we all felt we deserved after the prior two months. Crowds fell off quite a bit in March as well, at least from the second week onwards. It felt like April in terms of crowds by the third week. Which was probably just as well because there were an inordinate and embarrassing number of lift problems this season. Chair 1 and 4 are now called Gambler 1 and 2.
Historically Whitefish is the area in North America most favored by La Nina in my stats. I've now collected 2022-23 data from about 80 areas so far and Whitefish is the lowest percent of normal at 65%. Flyover's report is very impressive in that context. I'd be expecting a lot of bare spots and isothermic not corn snow on the front side in late March with snowfall that low. I'd guess Whitefish was saved by the
Extremely foggy January and February.
Part of that 65% at Whitefish was a measly 5 inches in April though. Bridger and Targhee got over 5 feet in April, and in the other direction Louise and Sunshine got over 3 feet to improve an otherwise lackluster season.
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I'd be expecting a lot of bare spots and isothermic not corn snow on the front side in late March with snowfall that low.
Nope. No bare spots at all and, as you can see from our pictures, the snow was good. I think cold, clear nights really helped as well. Nighttime and early morning temperatures in town were high teens to low 20s while we were there. I'd been monitoring the weather and Whitefish's snow report (which appears to be more on the warts-and-all end of the spectrum, rather than the marketing-hype end of the spectrum) for sometime before we settled on Whitefish, so I knew they had decent coverage and had a good melt-freeze cycle going for a while before we arrived.
With all the accessible data out there it is possible to track optimal weather (clear but with overnight freezing) for a corn cycle, and chase it as one does for powder. That's what I did for Mt. Bachelor in April 2021.