Getting to know Whitefish, Montana

Whitefish is classic skiing Americana

He wore a faded San Francisco 49ers jacket from the glory days of the franchise, and had long, curly brown hair. His pubescent kid trailed him by about ten yards as they walked along the mountain road toward their car. I had my thumb out looking for a ride down the mountain—and less than a minute later he walked by with his skis on his shoulder and asked if I needed a lift. We threw our skis into the bed of his off-white ’84 Dodge Ram, piled high with the debris one accumulates while living and skiing in the Montana mountains. In addition to the mighty hood ornament of the truck’s namesake animal, I noticed some Sharpie on the breast of his jacket. He explained it was an autograph from Eddie DeBartolo—the legendary former owner of the football team, who has a house in the area.

In the car, he lit up a cigar, then put in a CD from a local band. They recently made it big; he knew the lead singer, a former heroin addict, he told me, from AA. Our 49ers man, he was a coke head, but it all started with the booze. Some people just can’t drink like normal people, he said. His kid, a polite and easy-going 8th grader, sat in-between us on the truck’s bench. He was visiting his old man from Plains, or some such flat and boring place you’ll tend to find in other parts of this state. (The kid lamented the fact that cops now busted folks who jumped from the bridge into the local river.) Anyway, the kid wanted to live with his dad now, who resided right here in Whitefish, just ten minutes down the road from Whitefish Mountain Resort. It was easy to see why.

If you’ve been coming to Whitefish, near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, for a long time (and I have, as I’ve been visiting my brother there for 12 years), it’s easy to notice what’s changed: The name Big Mountain Resort, the rowdy springtime furniture races, the AlpenGlow, and the ski school locker room with the 50-cent PBR dispenser, are all history. But the qualities that have stayed the same—its location, weather, skiing, charming Central Avenue, and characters like the aforementioned—continue to define this special place.

For visibility, give thanks for the abundance of tree skiing here, and to stay warm, keep skiing fast.

Whitefish is two and a half hours from St. Regis, where I-90, the nearest freeway, passes through. Flights to nearby Kalispell are pricey. The Amtrak stops here, but while a ride on the rail might make for a nice story, our nation’s train operates as inefficiently as it probably did since the 1970 Rail Act initiated the service. (Once, while traveling from Whitefish to Portland, the train arrived half a day late, then the 11-hour ride turned into a 24-hour marathon. While stopped, Amtrak tried to placate its passengers by passing out buckets of KFC. A description of the ensuing smells would not be fit for publication.)

What I’m getting at is that this place is hard to get to. And once you’re here, the skiing isn’t for the feint of heart (say, for a Californian, for example). A thick fog can make you feel like you’re lost in a murky dream, and the cold can make you want things you never thought you would—like insulated pants and those electronic boot warmers—and things I know I’ll never have, like a beard, and general heartiness. For visibility, give thanks for the abundance of tree skiing here, and to stay warm, keep skiing fast.

Whitefish is one of the few original ski towns left in North America, with local businesses, lights, and wreaths lining Central Avenue. Every time I ask for the check at the Great Northern, I wonder if they have undercharged me. A microbrew there is still just $3, and on Tuesday, a 16-ounce can of Kokanee is just $2. Then there’s the Bulldog, where you can order something called a Big Fucking Pitcher, and ’80s Playboy pin-ups cover the walls of the men’s and women’s bathrooms, respectively.

As of January 6, it has snowed 151 inches at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The depth of snow at the summit is six feet. One night in late December, I walked from downtown, across the viaduct above the rail-yard, back to my brother’s house. It was cold, and snowing so hard the town turned white, with a Christmas light tinge. I knew the following day would be one of those few special winter occasions that you look back on with a smile come spring.

Arriving at the hill while it was still dark, I lapped Chair 4 twice, jetting through the soft snow in-between pines, until the rest of the mountain opened. Connie’s, a steep face through the trees that dumps skiers into the Hellroaring Basin, was skiing particularly well that day. As was East Rim to Haskel’s, whose flat landings below a series of big boulders were soft enough to hit without much reservation. After a bell-to-bell day of skiing soft powder, few places in this world are better for running into old friends over beers than the dim, always crowded Bierstube. So that’s where I went, until it was time to find a ride down the mountain.

The other night my brother sent a text of his backyard. Snow had swallowed his barbecue, which also had three feet of snow on top of it. It was dumping again in Whitefish.

Details, Details
Where to stay: At the Hibernation house, a short walk to the lifts, it costs $84 per person, per night, for a lift ticket, breakfast, lodging, and hot-tub access.
What’s New: This season Whitefish installed the Flower Point Chair, which allows easier access to sustained, steep tree skiing on the back side.
By the numbers: Day ticket: $71; Average snowfall: 300 inches; Vertical: 2,353 feet; Terrain: 3,000 acres.