I notice a theme as I walk up to Gate 93, at the far end of the B concourse at Denver International Airport. Today two flights are boarding at the same time. One is heading to Whitefish, Mont., the other to Aspen. The two passengers in front of me also boarding for Whitefish are wearing, in order, a K’s Trailer Parts down vest over a plaid shirt, and an Abrahamson Rodeo Co. ranch coat. The folks at the gate next to us, heading to Aspen, seem either to be in Arc’teryx performance wear or earth-toned high fashion.
That sets the tone for my spring trip to Whitefish with my two kids to visit their grandparents, my in-laws. After fighting the crowds at DIA, you can feel the collective stress dissipating upon de-boarding into the ridiculously quiet Glacier International Airport. Following that cue, the 19-mile drive from Glacier up to the resort crushes Utah’s big-marketing play of the 35-mile cruise from the Salt Lake airport’s tarmac to Park City’s slopes.
Before the drive, I chat at the Dollar rental-car counter with a woman who’s here, along with her Chanel sunglasses and matching tote, from Manhattan visiting her two adult daughters. “New York is so over,” she says in a New York accent thicker than Lincoln Tunnel traffic. “There are more opportunities here. My daughters wouldn’t think of moving back East.” Nor would a lot of other new locals. The town of Whitefish is red-hot as a second-home destination, retiree haven, and urban-flight landing spot in which to raise a family.
“We need to get to the mountain at 9 a.m. sharp,” my father-in-law, John Morris, tells me our first night there. He’s 81, a lifelong skier, and has his morning routine down. He votes to take two cars in case the grandkids aren’t on his program. We meet up at the base of Big Mountain Express (Chair 1, the main way up the hill) and do laps down the cruiser Inspiration (skier’s left) and elegantly pitched Toni Matt (skier’s right). It’s foggy. The kids complain at first but soon forget about it. Grandpa is the tortoise to the kids’ hare, more often than not beating them back to the lift. On the way up to the summit, the kids keep asking for my phone to take photos of the famed snowghosts (trees encased with rime, which can weigh one ton each). I’m convinced that one of them is going to drop it overboard. To my surprise, neither does.
Like many “skier’s mountains,” which is often code for a great regional resort not quite yet on the national map, Whitefish is populated by serious skiers. And there seems to be an abundance of older male expert skiers here. From the lifts, the mountain can look like a Viagra commercial, with super-fit, gray-haired guys hard-charging the slopes everywhere you look. And there sure is a lot to hard-charge. Whitefish may not have the Hollywood-ready cliffs of Squaw or Jackson, but there is a plenty of legit terrain. Ski here awhile, and you’re bound to get good. Looking to work it? Head to Big Horn, Black Bear, or just about anywhere you point ’em in the glorious Hellroaring Basin.
My kids (daughter 12, son 10) still enjoy opening trail maps and checking off black-diamond runs they’ve completed. When Grandpa hits the Summit House for a coffee, we pick our way through the expert glades of Good Medicine and the trees skier’s right of North Bowl Face.
The official stats have Whitefish’s roomy 3,000 acres comprising about 40 percent advanced terrain (single black) and six percent expert (double black), though the more I get to know the hill, the more I think the expert terrain is graded on a Montana curve, and the percentage should be higher. In some ways, the place skis like a bite-size Whistler, both in variety of terrain and, yes, weather.
We’re skiing here before the much-needed $1.2 million renovation to the Summit House, the mountaintop day lodge, which will open to rave reviews for the 2015–16 season. Improvements will include the addition of a roomy mezzanine dining level and a full interior and exterior redesign. Whitefish has always had the hill (and the town), but starting in 2007—with a new base lodge, upgrades to Chair 1 and Chair 2, and a major regrading of the dicey access road up to the mountain—the resort has been working hard at becoming a national destination.
After lunch, skiing up to the base of Big Mountain Express, I spy a group of three skiers in odd black outfits. As I get closer, I realize they’re all happily wearing garbage-bag ponchos, the kind I haven’t seen since I was a kid spring skiing in soggy western New York. “When there’s weather like this, we raid the garbage bags at home. Come leaf season, we restock ’em,” says Lynn Torfason, who says she first visited Whitefish on a ski train from the University of Calgary about 20 years ago. She’s been coming here ever since, and she and her husband eventually bought a vacation home. For the record, she recommends using garbage bags without the yellow tie strings. “They just get in the way,” she says.
There is no denying that Whitefish’s famous fog enshrouds the mountain, on and off, well, let’s call it just about every day. It’s become a point of pride for the locals, who bristle at spoiled (many would say “soft”) Colorado and Utah skiers and their cushy bluebird days. Clearly, real skiers can rip without seeing their damn boots. “You get used to the fog. It helps your skiing.” Grandpa says. “Hell, fog doesn’t bother me. I’d rather have fog than crowds.”
>> At the resort, the Café Kandahar delivers fine dining as good as any within sight of a ski run. Downtown, head to the corner of Central and 1st Street and hit the Tupelo Grille. We’re partial to the Montana pork rib eye, complete with bacon-jalapeño blue cornbread pudding. For slightly higher energy, go a block to Casey’s and pick from the exposed-brick bar, dining area, and poker room. To start your day right, follow the locals to the Buffalo Café. Load up with Big Don’s breakfast pie.
>> The mountain excels at classic ski bars: Hellroaring Saloon, Ed & Mully’s, the Bierstube. And the selection is just as good downtown: Bulldog, Great Northern. Park and discover. For a different type of adult buzz, head to the downtown Whitefish Coffee House.
>> Local weather patterns often deliver evening snow. Night skiing, anyone? And the on-slope Mountain Jesus statue is the hill’s kitsch photo opportunity.