Elyse Saugstad. PHOTO: Ryan Turner
Elyse Saugstad. PHOTO: Ryan Turner

MontanaFest Destiny

Finding the true meaning of skiing at the small ski areas of Montana

All photos by Ryan Turner

For 50 years, Turner Mountain in Montana had the longest T-bar in America. It traveled 2,100 vertical feet and took 25 minutes to get to the top. In 2001, the volunteers that run the nonprofit ski area replaced it with a forest-green double chair. It's still the only lift on the mountain, and a Wookie in Carhartts bumps the chairs. A wooden sign on the first tower reads, "Life is Good."

After skiing crusty snow off the chair on a warm day last February, I find myself standing in the rain in the Turner parking lot, drinking Coors Lights and smoking cigars with alum from the Libby High Class of '78. The wet weather eventually forces everyone to head down the hill to Red Dog, the nearby watering hole. I hop in an oversized truck with a man named Frank, a big redheaded, bearded construction worker who learned to ski at Turner but now lives in Helena. As we approach a hairpin turn, Frank, with a cigar dangling from his mouth and a beer in his cup-holder, looks at me and says, "Watch this." Then he spins his steering wheel as hard as he can. We make a 350-degree rotation on the ice-covered road, laugh, then straighten out and drive to the bar.

Down-home and old school, most of Montana has a firm hold on authenticity. And Wookies.

My down-home Montana ski tour started from my hometown on an overnight Amtrak ride from Portland, Oregon's Union Station. From there, photographer Ryan Turner, Elyse Saugstad, and I skied seven different places across the western half of the state—mostly family owned, off-the-grid, community ski hills with lift tickets around $40, $1 tall-boys, sustained vertical pitches, double chairs, and an authenticity that most big ski resorts lost long ago. Snowfall in this region tops out around 300 inches annually, so the trip was less about finding epic snow than discovering blue-collar ski culture through the locals that ski there and the families that have figured out how to sustain the jerkwater ski areas they've owned for generations. Also, mustaches. There are a lot of mustaches.

Have award winning print ski journalism delivered right to your door. Subscribe today.

When the train pulls into our first stop at Libby, Montana, an old mill town with a high unemployment rate and an exaggerated asbestos problem, two volunteers from Turner pick us up at the dusty depot.

Cheap, freshly dead, and delicious!

The wooden sign to Turner on Highway 2 is sandwiched between two others: one to Yaak, Montana, and the other pointing toward the local landfill. The snowpack at Turner is thin, but the potential is clear. A busy day here means 150 people. Hit it after it's been snowing all week (it's only open on the weekends) and you'll have 2,100 feet of sustained fall line to yourself. (Or, literally have it to yourself by renting Turner out for the day for $2,300.)

For lunch, a volunteer named Tony serves beers and brisket he's been cooking on the grill all day outside his truck. His brother, big redheaded Frank, passes out cigars. A group of volunteers bust each other's balls and reminisce about the days of yore. Mostly about that damn T-bar: "The way up was just as hard as the way down!" And other improvements: "I've never seen frozen shit before!" "We got a lot more women up here once we got flushable toilets!" Not that I see any women.

“Hold my beer and watch this.” Elyse Saugstad drops in at Whitefish.

The next day at dawn, we climb back aboard the Amtrak for a two-hour ride to Whitefish. Somewhat cosmopolitan by Montana standards, Whitefish isn't exactly down-home, but for $79, mid-week visitors get slopeside lodging at the Hibernation House, a lift ticket, and breakfast. Plus, Whitefish Mountain Resort will dock 20 percent off the train ticket into town. Then there's the skiing.

On Whitefish's East Rim, I'm the first into NBC Chute. There's only three inches of new snow, but the slough has piled up enough at the choke for a face shot. I come out with speed, take air off a small boulder, then shut it down before I work through the snowghosts to the cat track. Later, we take the 10-minute bootpack up to Flower Point. We ski 500 feet through tight trees, with a foot of fresh snow, before it flattens out, then opens up to another 800 feet to the canyon floor. A snowmobiler pulls skiers up the road where we skate to the backside lift.

The next morning we drive the rental car 45 minutes toward Marias Pass along the Flathead River, which splits Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We skin across train tracks up 3,000 vertical feet to the top of a sub peak. In the distance, 9,376-foot-tall Mount Saint Nicholas looks like the Matterhorn. Saugstad digs in two deep turns from the summit for the camera. It's the one-year anniversary of the day she nearly lost her life in an avalanche that also killed three friends at Stevens Pass. As she makes her descent through some low-angle trees in 18 inches of fresh snow, she whoops it up like she just won the Freeride World Tour again.

Finding meaning on the rails in Montana.

When we bottom out, we cruise through thick lodgepole pines to the train tracks where we let a freight pass. That night, after eating elk burritos, we celebrate at the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish, which hosts live music, has $1 High Life's on Mondays, and a 76-year-old knee-pad wearing pingpong player named Curtis who will kick your ass and make you chase the ball because he's too old to bend over to pick it up.

We drive along Flathead Lake the next day, past Blacktail Mountain, and onto Missoula, about a three-hour drive. The landscape is golden-brown, the skies metal gray. Twenty minutes out of town, at the end of a dirt road, we end up at Snowbowl. Still hungover, we go straight to the bar, the Last Run Inn, where they make wood-fired pizzas and a legendary bloody mary. While we take care of that headache, Garland Davis, the raconteur who's run the bar for 30 years, spins yarns while a 6-year-old tries to catch a ring on a string on the hook next to the fireplace. In the far corner, a bunch of white-hairs with mustaches take a break from skiing.

Snowbowl has two lifts that access 2,600 vertical feet inbounds, as well as several lift-accessed backcountry options. It's not huge and the snowfall is average (about 300 inches annually), but I can't imagine a richer ski community.

Don’t forget to make friends with the bartenders at the Bierstube by asking for your free ring.

Below a permanently closed cliff area near Far East, lichen-covered snags twist away from the cliffs. While Turner and Saugstad wait for good light, the bartender skis by in insulated jeans. Coming down, the trees are perfectly spaced. There's only a few inches of fresh snow, but it's soft enough to ski fast between the pines. After last chair on Grizzly, from which you can turn around and see Missoula at the valley floor, we head back to the bar. Bill Jenni, a local legend who grew up skiing at Snowbowl, tells us about the Snowbowl Cup Gelande Championships taking place that weekend. During the event, skiers take a hard dogleg left at 50 mph before sending it, on alpine bindings, upward of 200 feet. As we head for the car, the lights come on for the community race league. The Last Run Inn will be open, and rowdy, until 11.

The Lucky Lil's in Hamilton, Montana, in the Bitterroot Mountains, serves free beers, cheeseburgers, and Cheetos as long as you're flipping cards on the video poker screen in front of you. Forty miles up the road and off the grid, Lost Trail Ski Area straddles the Montana/Idaho border. Siblings Scott and Judy Grasser are co-owners of the 75-year-old ski hill. Their dad, Bill, purchased Lost Trail in the 1967.

Montana charm in Philipsburg.

We're here for Powder Thursday, so named because that's the first day of the week the ski area is open. At the top of the lift, a rope tow pulls skiers up a cat track. To one side of the plateau is steep backcountry access (which you can get to with a single $5 lift bump). To the other direction, rock outcroppings create steep chutes, pillows, and cliffs that lead back to the chairlift. We lap it until it's time to drive east.

Saugstad loves a good mustache ride at Bridger Bowl.

One hundred miles northeast lies Discovery Ski Area, and, like the Grassers, 31-year-old Ciche Pitcher has taken over the family operation. Pitcher's father and grandfather bought Discovery, known locally as "Disco," in 1984. The nearby town of Philipsburg might be the most charming hamlet in Montana. A single flashing red light is the only piece of traffic control in town. A candy store and a new brewery attract folks driving on nearby I-90. Disco feels a lot like Lost Trail. The parking lot is full of school busses and the lodge is packed with kids learning to ski, having the best damn time of their lives. The runs here off the backside are long and steep, and full of rocks and snags. Since the lift shacks don't have power, they have wood stoves inside to keep lifties warm. It works, too, because they're friendly when you come down for another lap.

When we step out of Bozeman's Co-op just after dawn, our hands full of coffee and bacon, it's nuking. Nearby Bridger Bowl is a community-operated 501(c)(3) nonprofit with big, nuanced lines and 350 inches of annual snowfall. The snow report called for five inches in 24 hours, but that came on top of 22 that fell earlier in the week, and the snow continued to throb throughout the day.

Coming through a burn on the Ridge, I slash a turn on a fin before exiting into a choke where loads of snow had piled it up over my head. Later, after a 45-minute hike, we are the first to ski Hidden Gully, a tight chute that opens up into an untouched apron. As I come out of the choke, I pick up speed, then dig into my turn and inhale a wave of snow. After 1,200 miles on the Montana road, my mustache is finally caked in a thick coat of icy white.


This story originally published in the November 2013 (43.3) issue of POWDER. Subscribe to the magazine for $15 a year today.