Montana: Skiing the Last Best Place

CHRONICLING THE 18 SKI HILLS from Big Sky to Whitefish and every one in between is as much an ode to Montana as to the sport of skiing for photographer Craig Hergert. This is a book that captures part of mountain culture that is changing rapidly and he recognized an opportunity to record it. He loaded up his truck with ski gear, photography equipment and writer-friend Brian Hurlbut to document the culture of skiing, on the slopes and off. In the book, Hergert writes: “I simply wanted to go out to capture and enjoy the purity, character and feeling of each area with as little intrusion as possible, shooting what was available at the time, taking nothing but the moment.”

An excerpt from one chapter in this comprehensive book for die-hard winter lovers:

Whitefish Mountain Resort — formerly called Big Mountain — is Montana’s second-biggest resort and one of the premier skiing destinations in the Northern Rockies. With a scenic location adjacent to Glacier National Park and expansive views overlooking Whitefish and Flathead Lakes, combined with the charm of a vibrant mountain town, this ski area is on the short list of favorite winter places for many Montanans.

Although there had been skiing in the Hellroaring Creek area for many years, skiing at the Big Mountain officially started in 1947 with one T-Bar lift. By 1949 the new ski area was able to host the U.S. Alpine National Championships, helping to put it on the national skiing map. The next major expansion took place in 1960 — a chairlift to the mountain’s 6,817-foot summit — and by the end of the 1980s the Big Mountain was in full swing as a major destination resort. In fact, it’s one of the only ski areas still accessible by train — the historic Whitefish Depot is a major stop for Amtrak on the Empire Builder line that runs between Seattle and Minneapolis.

The Big Mountain name was officially changed to Whitefish Mountain Resort in 2007, to reflect the name of the town that encompasses the ski area and summer activities. Technically, the geographic name of the ski area’s physical mountain is Big Mountain, but the new name was designed to associate it more with the town and community of Whitefish — which is one of the best ski towns in the state. Some people also confused Big Mountain with Big Sky. No matter what you call it, Whitefish — the shortened name is preferred — has much to like when the snow flies.

By acreage, Whitefish is the second largest ski area in the state next to Big Sky Resort. The skiing here is spread out over 3,000 acres, and there are 11 chairlifts and three surface lifts. A run from the summit to the base area is 2,353 vertical feet, and there are two terrain parks off of the Tenderfoot chair. In 2007, a beautiful new base lodge was constructed below the existing Village, making this the main point of entry to the resort.

Beginners and intermediates have much to choose from at Whitefish. The Base Lodge and Easy Rider chairs offer excellent beginners-only terrain, while the runs get more difficult as you move up further on the mountain — both Tenderfoot and Chair 2 offer fun intermediate trails and a ride to the top on the Summit Express accesses black and double black runs that end in a long road back to the base area. Whitefish also offers night skiing on its lower lifts, one of only two mountains in the state to do so.

Most advanced skiers head to the backside of Whitefish for the steepest terrain. The Hellroaring area offers cliffs, chutes and tight tree skiing. Chair 7 on the north side also accesses some great black diamond runs and a few blues, a great place to do laps on a powder day because a high-speed quad will take you right back up to the summit. Intrepid skiers with backcountry knowledge can also hike to the top of Hellroaring Peak and then enter back into the ski area.

Whitefish has many unique features, particularly the “snow ghosts” — pine trees that have been effected by the wind, snow and fog and get encased in a layer of rime. These turn into beautiful, contorted ghost-like figures, making tree skiing at Whitefish one of the coolest experiences in the state. Speaking of fog, it’s a bone of contention here. The ski area is known for periods of heavy fog that sets in, decreasing visibility to the point where you can only see a few chairs ahead on the lifts. Those who call this their home mountain say you just have to get used to it — admittedly, it’s hard — and those who experience it on a visit can get downright frustrated. The bonus is that when the sun does shine, the summit of Whitefish produces one of the finest views in the country — all the way into Canada and views of several mountain ranges in every direction.

Even stranger is a large statue of Jesus that adorns the slopes halfway up the mountain. Erected by the Knights of Columbus in 1954, many people want it removed — it’s on public, Forest Service land — but it still stands today, the only place in Montana where you can get a picture with Jesus with your skis on.

Although the skiing can be top-notch, the best part of Whitefish is the overall atmosphere. It’s a mountain that truly embraces and relishes in its history as the oldest ski resort in Montana. Lively slopeside bars — the Bierstube and the Hellroaring Saloon are probably the two best in the state — display old photos and equipment from the mountain’s pioneers. The Frabert award, a tradition still going strong since it started in the 1960s, is given by the ski patrol to the Clod of the Week — an employee or visitor who commits the biggest goof-up. To find out who won the award, just be at the ‘Stube by 5:30 each Wednesday. Don’t worry, there’s free beer if you do, so grab a mug and join the party. It’s the Whitefish way, and everything is better if you just accept it.

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