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Ski Resort Life

Traveler: Simpler Times Again


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Once upon a time, in a beautiful kingdom with hills and mountains covered in snow, noblemen and commoners, enraptured by the new sport of skiing, began building ski areas across the vast realm. Rope tows and lifts and base lodges and parking lots were constructed, and people came to ski. Armies of uniformed ski instructors trained them in the basics of turning and stopping. Skiing was an invigorating and affordable winter pleasure. Soon, ski areas numbered in the hundreds and skiers in the millions, and the people were happy. But then, the building stopped.

Meanwhile, big, expensive resorts got bigger and costlier. Like the friendly neighborhood hardware stores when Wal-Mart comes to town, small ski areas couldn’t compete against the giants, and hundreds closed. A fairy-tale ending it was not.

But last winter, a ray of hope for little guys popped over the horizon of northwestern Montana: Blacktail Mountain, the first new ski facility in any national forest since Beaver Creek’s 1980 debut. Located on the west side of the Flathead Valley, Blacktail was conceived as a low-key locals’ alternative to The Big Mountain, which sits at the valley’s northern end. At $2.7 million¿about the cost of a high-speed quad¿Blacktail’s start-up costs were rock-bottom. A government-built road and power line serving a radar installation on the same mountain were already in place. And, instead of pricey contractors, four partners¿a surveyor, an engineer, a builder, and a veteran ski-resort executive¿planned and built the area with virtually no fanfare.

I heard about Blacktail during a trip to Montana in the summer of ’98, and I drove up the unpaved 13-mile access road to look around. I liked what I saw¿a mix of wide slopes and corridor-slim trails; nice views; and Steve Spencer, Blacktail’s manager, racing around in his pickup truck, checking construction sites. When I returned a few months later to ski, I felt I’d headed back in time to a place the 10th Mountain generation created: a ski area without high-speed lifts, snowmaking, excessive real-estate development, or other modern-day frills.

Blacktail has no frills, but it offers few thrills, either. Rather, it’s a place to ski in the regular old sense of the word, with both boards on the snow. There are no cliffs to jump, no chutes to drill. In this laid-back corner of Montana, “freeskiing” means a gratis lift ticket. Though not free, the lift ticket is just $24.

For that money, you get an upside-down ski area¿the “base area” is at the top of the mountain¿and three second-hand chairlifts, each named to reflect the areas from which they were purchased. The Olympic triple chair is from Calgary, site of the 1988 Winter Games. The Thunderhead double was called that at Steamboat, but Blacktail modified it, and the letters on the metalwork now read derhead. The other double, Crystal, is named after its original home ski area in Washington.

Blacktail’s trail count is modest, too. It’s only got 24. Vail has more lifts than that. The bulk of the area’s trails are split into two main pods, served by the Thunderhead and Crystal chairs. The original plan called for the two chairlifts’ loading areas to be side by side, but when a stand of old-growth trees was identified, the bottom stations were moved far apart. That means skiing from one pod to the other must be done from the mountain’s upper half.

Following some Blacktail regulars, I started on the Crystal side, where my first run presented a lovely panorama of thickly wooded, rounded hills and misty valleys. Next, I cruised Clearcut, three old logging sites strung together to form a blue-square run of uncommon width. On the steeper Thunderhead side, the stair-stepped and narrow Badrock actually brought¿however briefly¿a knot to my gut. All told, I had a good time at Blacktail. It hadn’t snowed for two or three days, and I still managed to lay first traccks along trail edges and on spots on the wider runs that no one had gotten to earlier.

Blacktail is not remarkable for its skiing. It’s sweet and inviting, rather than intense and challenging. It’s remarkable because it is the country’s only year-old ski area¿friendly, really inexpensive, and uncrowded, offering the kind of casual and low-cost skiing that people keep saying has been lost. Though it’ll always be a locals’ hill, Blacktail makes a good escape from, and mixes nicely with, costlier Big Mountain.