Two weeks ago, just before I left for Japan, ten inches of new snow fell at Big Mountain. I’d committed the night before to go tour Blacktail with the Spirit Bear and company, yet the texts rolled in. Suggestions to go shoot with Craig, who I’d wanted to shoot with for a couple weeks. I did the considering. Thought about it. And then a part of me that’s trying to hold my planning commitments spoke up. I thanked him, politely declined, and walked the couple blocks to meet the crew headed south. Away from the new forecast. Away from the assured pow, and lift access.
The backseat of the Rav4 was stuffed with Jen, Katie, and Rebecca, while Ben drove. Unplowed tracks of trucks and other vehicles grew steadily deeper as we wound up the curves of the road climbing out of Lakeside. Summer tired spun and slid on the corners, and we did discuss harnessing up the four of us skinning passengers to pull the car like a sled dog team.
It didn’t come to that. We pulled into the top lot to find a whole pile of cars in six to ten inches of new snow. Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol was out doing training, which meant that only a few people were out actually skiing. Six to eight inches of new snow covered the road past the gate as we booted up to the lodge, met up with Mike and Katie, and dropped in on our first run beneath the lifts that hadn’t started spinning for the season.
Ski areas and ski resorts both have lifts, a lodge or two, a ski school. The skiing might be similar, but the focus is different: resorts are about expansion and growth, whereas areas like Blacktail are concerned with maintaining the ski experience for their customers. There’s room for both in the skiing universe, but the soul of skiing, in its pure, ecstatic form, rests in the ski area. It is there that an average family can afford to go skiing. It is at places like Blacktail that the chairs and the pace are slow enough, the prices low enough, for skiing to still be the main event, not just a piece of the whole money-making puzzle.
I’m biased, of course. My grandparents, during my sixth grade year, put Blacktail season passes under the family Christmas tree. Skiing had been a few weekends per year kind of thing, with an annual family ski trip (lucky kids we were), but the pass meant that we could go up whenever. It was a second beginning to my ski life. Every weekend was now fair game. Blacktail was the perfect place; small enough to cut kids loose to go ski, a lodge at the top for lunch, plenty of intermediate terrain with a few scary cliffs to aspire to. Friendly faces that we’d see every week in ski lessons or at the bottom, bumping chairs.
Three seasons went by at Blacktail, all founded on that simple, brilliant idea of the ski pass under the Christmas tree. While I passed through the seven-circled, adolescent-change gauntlet of middle school, the hill stayed much the same. The jumps seemed smaller as my ideas got bigger, my skiing faster. Blacktail began to feel provincial and small. I frequently looked north across the valley at the inviting steeps, fast lifts, and resort vertical of Big Mountain. My dad seemed to sense that my skiing was headed in a new direction, and to support that, he suggested that I try out the Freestyle Team up north. My ninth grade year saw a Big Mountain season pass in my jacket pocket, which would continue through high school and college. I hardly looked back.
Yet as I dropped in behind Ben just over a week ago, blasting down the familiar terrain through fluffy, boottop pow, much of what had once been came rushing back. I could remember the straight ski rentals I’d once skied down the same liftline. How the off-camber glade constantly felt like longer lefts, short rights. The joys of thousands of my life’s powder turns were instigated by the acres rushing by under my skis—that’s a powerful current to ride again.
And in a way, the sense of community was there too: we ran into our friends Jason and Lindsay at the bottom. All nine of us made the transition, then went fairly flying back up the skin track towards the top of the Thunderhead lift. Then we did it again. And again. We saw Brian Kennedy and his wife. Then, we moved over to the Crystal chair for a few laps. The sun was out. Stoke was high. I skied through memories as deep as the snow left swirling behind us, glittering in the low-hanging, afternoon sun.
Blacktail, as a place and terrain, had been fairly bland when I left it before. The few visits since were focused on skiing with specific people. But through the lens of one day of touring, it had regained much of the soul, the excitement that it had once held for me. My most recent post covered how moving away from solely lift-accessed skiing has changed my mindset towards the early season. This sense of rediscovery at Blacktail is the other side of that coin, and it’s a powerful argument: adding the uphill to the mix means other variables aren’t as important. In the new light of going uphill, the terrain I’d once discounted for being bland was suddenly worthwhile again. Ski touring opens doors to gnarlier terrain, but it also reinvented the flats for me.
Thanks to Ben, Jen, Katie, Rebecca, Mike, Katie, Jason, Lindsay, and Brian for being part of that wonderful day. And for those wondering, I’ve got a Japan update coming in hot.