Taking it back at Blacktail

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.

Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

For the snow obsessed in my life, the approach of winter offers yet another opportunity to delve into irrational speculation that’s only as deep as the snow we’d prefer to be shredding. Thus, the most predicable thing about the winter is the way that we lead up to it online: winter forecasts start circulating in August, followed by reposts of Farmer’s Almanac quotations and snow maps in September. Then the first winter storm heads for the west coast, and multiple snow news sources write stories about some obscene NOAA point forecast from some high  point (13,000 ft on Rainier) on one of the Cascade volcanoes. This happened at least twice this year, and I’d find it acceptable only if the person who writes these silly things braves the crevasse hazard and red flags of  124″ of new loading over three days to actually go up there and ski it.

October brings that first snow in the hills and the inevitable, undeniable truth of the ocean temperatures: we’re headed for another El Niño winter here in North America. And since this is the second winter in a row of potential Global Weirding in Montana, there’s been an accompanying conversation that I’ve heard in bars, casual chats, and early season skin tracks. It goes like this:

“Wow, El Niño again. Last winter was terrible man, except that one day. It was dry at the hill for, like, a month. Let’s hope this one is somehow better for us in our corner of the world.” I recently heard a skin track addendum: “Gotta get it now [in November] while it’s still good.”

In response, I’d like to offer a series of evidence-based rebuttals from a day of touring this past March 22. For context: things were sunny and pretty dang thin at the ski areas in northwest Montana. The bottom five hundred feet of Griz chair at Snowbowl was completely snow free under the lift. It was spring slush and people were probably playing golf. An early forecast had even called for rain.

Evidence-based rebuttal number one: don’t conclude that a winter is bad based on lift-accessed conditions.

It’s 2015, people. Backcountry skiing and boarding has blossomed into the full, geeky flower of possibility, while lift lines and gargantuan parking lots solidly show the current state of  your favorite in-bounds powder stash. If you’re looking to find good snow without tracks on it, I’d recommend channeling whatever energy was going into complaining about weather phenomenons into walking uphill.

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Fortunately, my friends are on the same page. That day in March, Dave, Gary, Brad and I loaded into the Black Diamond Mortgage alpine bus and rallied for Jewel Basin. It was downright cruchy while we put skins on and rallied up the road in the morning shadows. Suncrust beckoned. And:

Evidenced-based rebuttal number two: it’s not the snow that terrible; it’s the attitude of the people you’re skiing it with.

Brad, Gary, and Dave are terrific in this respect. It’s a decently long approach just to get into Camp Misery, and we had no idea of the conditions we might find up high. March in a more normal year might mean layer on layers of storm snow in the same places we were walking through. Instead, a thin skim of new snow covered the crunchy sun crust, evidence that it hadn’t been quite stormy up there.

Once on the ridge top, it got windy. My ski crampons were a nice addition, as the crust was relatively slippery and rolled away downhill to the west. Props to the rest of the guys for going without.

Walking the finish to the top of Mt. Aeneas, I wondered a bit about how the skiing would go. Sandwiches appeared, jokes were exchanged, and we decided to give the East face a whirl, hoping that the wind on the ridge had seen fit to match the crust with some dust to scuff around in.

Just before he dropped in, Dave wasn’t unhappy. Which brings me to my third evidence-based rebuttal: you don’t know until you get out there.

A few inches of cream filled in the face. Buttery, soft, glorious stuff. Skiing  that wasn’t perhaps the stuff of legends, but was seriously worthy. We wouldn’t have known it was there had we not gone. We certainly wouldn’t have found it. And after a series of very complimentary things said about the quality of the snow, and the sunshine beaming down, we went back up for more.

Self-righteous aphorisms about earning turns pop up enough in ski writing, even though they’ve been worn more threadbare than a rock-eaten pair of skins. Everyone has their reasons for being out there. Personally, I keep coming back to the same thing: it’s easy to complain about the winter from a chairlift seat. But if you don’t like what’s under your skis, or if Global Weirding has served up another barely recognizable weather pattern, then go explore. Follow weather, seek out aspects, use elevation to your advantage. There’s almost always good skiing to be had if you want to work for it.

After our second lap, we dropped down the chute just below the summit of Aeneas.It was not quite as nice as the east face had been.

Which is the evidence base for my fourth conclusion: skiers are happier when they learn to love hard snow. Don’t get me wrong: pow is great. Soft snow is wonderful. And it’s made all the sweeter by enjoying the hell out of wind scour, sastrugi, icy mank, sludge, suncups, moguls, chicken heads, and runnels. Diversity keeps ski skill up, keeps the challenge hard, and makes the good days feel even more amazing. The winter I worked as a cat skiing guide, skiing powder got a little blasé due to too much repetition. You don’t want that in your life. Dig out the hop turns and find the crunchy stuff to keep it lively. We certainly did in that chute.

It was the nice bit of doodling down the flats back to Picnic Lakes. Gary made some silky tele turns in front of me.

Then, we bumped back up to the ridge to find springtime. Sun had softened the crust we’d skied in the morning, leaving a nice bit of surface corn for the enjoying in Crown Bowl.

Our exit down the road took a while, and eventually we walked a bit, but the day had been ours. It hadn’t rained. We’d found fun skiing and good snow towards the end of a “terrible winter.” And as we wander forth in the coming months, having no idea what this El Niño will bring, I keep thinking back to these good times as a touchstone and motivation to keep getting out, skinning a little further, and reaping the rewards.