The Big Mountain: Montana's Last Best Secret

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Back in the late Forties, when citizens of Whitefish, Mont., banded together to build a resort they hoped would someday rival Sun Valley, Idaho, there was a lively argument about what to call it.

Some thought it should be "Whitefish," after the town. Others preferred "Hellroaring," the name of their unusually active backcountry ski club, but local clergy said, "hell no!" Finally, they could only agree on what veteran skier (and popular school teacher) Lloyd "Mully" Muldown had called it in the Thirties, ever since he started shouldering skis and hiking upward: "that big mountain." Even today, management wonders whether they might sell more tickets with a more romantic moniker than The Big Mountain, but the name has stuck. Simply put, it's the best way to describe the place.

Imagine a huge, rolling massif rivaling the majesty of Vail, Colo. A mountain that's equipped with high-speed quads, magnificently varied terrain, a ringside vista of the spectacular Glacier National Park and enough snow that the trees frequently disappear inside a white cloak so thick they look like ghosts. Now picture yourself three days after a storm, flying down those same slopes, knee deep in uncut gossamer, out of sight or earshot of even one single skier.

Sound too good to be true? Not at one of America's least known and most under-appreciated destination ski resorts. Thanks largely to northwestern Montana's sometimes abysmal weather-which does, at least, create 300 annual inches of snow-The Big Mountain has never attracted enough crowds to make it the glitzy destination resort that its founders once hoped it would become. Despite a convenient jet airport and proximity to Glacier, providing easy access to an abundance of summertime-funded lodges, restaurants, bars and just about anything else a skiing family might also want, it still has not boomed. Why? Whitefish is isolated from major population centers, and many of its incoming flights connect through Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the nation's leading ski hubs. But many skiers don't choose to fly that extra hop. There are excellent reasons to do just that, but The Big Mountain has failed to get its message out. That looks to be changing. A new marketing push is underway. And judging from the growth of southern Montana's Big Sky, which has overcome similar isolation with aggressive marketing, this alone could make a huge difference.

As of now, word is just starting to leak out as visitors are seduced by both the mountain's contours and its honest, down-home character-something most resorts have long-since outgrown. What still remains is elbow room-acres of it. Annual skier days have averaged about 265,000 during the past few seasons. For comparison, the skier count at the similarly sized Steamboat, Colo., regularly tops a million. Clearly, there is room to grow in Montana.

The Big Mountain has long been one of my favorite resorts in the world. Every winter my family makes a pilgrimage there. Ironically, our 6-hour drive from Bozeman takes us longer than an East Coast skier spends flying into nearby Kalispell, Mont.

From the airport it's a quick 15-minute trip through pastures and pine forests to Whitefish, a simple clapboard town nestled into the eastern foothills of Glacier National Park, then another 15 minutes up a narrow, switchbacking road-where I once almost hit a moose-to the ski area. For visitors not staying at one of the slopeside lodges, a free slow-speed quad ferries skiers up from parking lots hidden in the trees to an expansive base area.

At first glimpse, the slopes above look neither huge nor imposing. At one end are two beginner lifts, and directly above the main lodge is an old-fashioned double chair serving mostly intermediate runs, which are lighted for night skiing five nights a week. But this is just the toe of a giant. To really grasp The Big Mountain's scale, you need to ride the Glacier Chaser, an 8-minute high-speed quad zooming 2,000 vertical feet to a 7,000oot summit. Here, against Glacier's spectacular backdrop, a much broader panorama unfolds.

In simple terms, the ski area flows up and down the ridges, cliffs and bowls of four huge drainages (soon to be expanded into a fifth) that radiate around the area's spectacular, glass-walled Summit House restaurant. No matter which direction you point your skis, you're in for a long, possibly scary descent.

Unlike most North American ski areas, a majority of The Big Mountain's runs face south (a boon in these chilly climes), and follow devious circuitry back to the base. But virtually every side of the mountain is skiable, including long cruisers to the north, from which a new high-speed quad returns you to the summit, as well as cliffy double-black diamonds surrounding the ungroomed East Rim and Haskill Slide. A new lift opened last year, easing retreat from west-facing Hellroaring Basin, a hideout for off-piste skiers and a maze of powder stashes. And even bigger expansion plans are in the works. But first, management says, more skiers are needed, probably an increase of about 15 percent.

In all, The Big Mountain boasts more than 3,500 acres of runs, but even that very braggable number scarcely conveys how huge, steep and empty the mountain feels, with virtually boundless terrain between its 67 official pistes. Every time I visit, I find some new out-of-the-way slope or hidden shot that I didn't even know existed before-and I know the place well.

Even if you stick to runs with names, there's something to satisfy all tastes. At one extreme are long wedge-able greens, such as Russ' Street, winding miles down from the summit. At the other are heart-stopping, cliff-like plummets, such as the top of Bighorn or the Picture Chutes in Hellroaring Basin. And right in the middle, closest to my own aging heart, are steep corduroyed cruisers that just beg to be ripped: The Big Ravine, Toni Matt or Moe-Mentum (renamed for Olympic medalist Tommy Moe, once the star of the local ski team).

As often as not, long sections are deserted, luring me to point my tips downward and see just how fast I can go. In this age of skiing's speed police, I'd probably go to jail anywhere else.

As good as its accommodations and après-ski scene have become, The Big Mountain will probably always be a "skier's mountain," a paradise for some, but not a place for poseurs. The only fur here grows on moose, mountain goats and grizzly bears. High fashion is a gray pile jacket and a North Face backpack. But that doesn't mean you can't have a hoot of a vacation, both on the slope and off. This is the place to ski hard-damn the weather-and to have a hellroaring Montana time afterward.

Indeed, thanks to a history of long, cold winters, people in Whitefish know what a good time means. Consider lunch. On a clear day, my favorite hangout is the Summit House, where you can knock back a microbrew and gradually crank your neck 360 degrees for an unspoiled view. Or, if the weather's bad (which can mean either subzero and snowing sideways or warm, foggy and raining), my wife and I will head to the Hellroaring Saloon for a hearty burger and good cheer garnished with Warren Miller videos. If we're feeling extravagant, we'll detour to the Moguls Bar & Grille for white tablecloths and haute cuisine beside picture windows overlooking the slopes. There's also a slopeside cafeteria with tables popular for brown-bagging, a coffee house and another sit-down restaurant at the Alpinglow Inn.

And that's just lunch. Once the daytime bullwheels stop turning, the day crowd pours down to the Hellroaring Saloon, where older-timers gather, or across a parking lot to the even rowdier Bierstube, a hangout for the up-and-coming hardcores.

Here, once a week, the ski patrol awards momentary possession of a casted and bandaged toy monkey called Frabert to the person who has accomplished the week's stupidest act. (The award is named after a derelict one of the patrolmen met in Billings, Mont.) Former Frabert winners include: an employee whose car plummeted from the upper parking lot to the lower one because he forgot to set the brake; a groomer who lost his snowcat's roof to a lift cable; and a loud-mouthed liftie, who, when asked "how are you?" launched into an anti-management tirade to the resort president's wife (whom he didn't recognize). Drinks are served briefly on the house, and first-timers are fitted for a free, coveted "Bierstube Ring." (You would miss a lot not to ask for one.)

Partly due to its robust summertime tourism, Whitefish boasts a healthy dining scene, including more than 30 restaurants, cafes and diners. You can find anything from family fare to Chinese, Cajun to first-class.

The Big Mountain's lodging supports its growing stature as a destination resort. There are two options: mountain accommodations and Whitefish accommodations, with the ambiance ranging from utilitarian at the Best Western to luxuriant at the Grouse Mountain Lodge. With 1,500 beds at the resort and even more in Whitefish, the bed base is surprisingly ample, including slopeside condos, rental houses and bed-and-breakfast inns.

My family's favorite is the ski-in/ski-out Kandahar Lodge, built by Buck and Mary Pat Love with all the style and atmosphere of a classic Austrian chalet. It's small enough that the owners quickly learn your name, but also spacious enough so you don't feel crowded. The lodge welcomes skiers with its high-beamed sitting room, historic Big Mountain photos, a crackling fire and one of Montana's most intimate bars.

By some standards, The Big Mountain's biggest weakness is nightlife. But that's just for bored dilettantes who want disco and look-at-me parties. Citizens of Whitefish-a logging, mining and railroad town-know how to survive its blizzardy, 16-hour nights. The scene on the sidewalks of its picturesque, false-fronted downtown streets is lively. Visitors shouldn't leave without bar-hopping and window shopping the art galleries, gift shops and bookstores, which number far beyond what a town of 4,500 would normally support.

But this is Montana after all: Until the practice was shut down by the health department (which couldn't accept sanctioned vermin in an eating establishment), the Palace Bar used to host weekly mouse races, with a special "shooter" chair for anyone not drinking fast enough. Several bars host legal small-stakes poker games, and there are also casinos with video gambling. And virtually every night insiders can find a free drink somewhere in town, including at the Great Northern Brewing Company, which doesn't sell beer, but gives brewery tours and pours free samples.

To me, the biggest surprise about The Big Mountain is that it isn't more crowded. Given its down-home charms, combined with easy access both via Amtrak trains and the airport, it should be mobbed. But, so far, most visitors come from Seattle, the Midwest and Canada. Indeed, many a Calgary skier will forgo Banff to drive six hours here, which adds to the resort's north-of-the-border rowdiness and cheer. But recent plummets in the Canadian dollar have hurt Whitefish's economy, leaving the slopes emptier than normal.

My own family has never been disappointed at The Big Mountain. Last winter was no exception. As we have come to expect, we pulled into Whitefish in a blizzard so severe we couldn't see the highway center line. I drove 10 mph, terrified of a crash.

Finally, the clouds parted and the slopes were covered with a dozen inches of powder. I hit the lifts early with my son Ben. The only dilemma was where to ski first. We headed south, diving thigh-deep through powder glades hidden between the snow ghosts. We detoured through towering conifers to Haskill Slide, a run so steep I'd be terrified to ski it in anything but deep snow. While I picked my way down, my friend Patrick Shanahan (a world-class speed skier from Bozeman) scared me witless by jumping cliffs and luring Ben to follow him. And Mont.) Former Frabert winners include: an employee whose car plummeted from the upper parking lot to the lower one because he forgot to set the brake; a groomer who lost his snowcat's roof to a lift cable; and a loud-mouthed liftie, who, when asked "how are you?" launched into an anti-management tirade to the resort president's wife (whom he didn't recognize). Drinks are served briefly on the house, and first-timers are fitted for a free, coveted "Bierstube Ring." (You would miss a lot not to ask for one.)

Partly due to its robust summertime tourism, Whitefish boasts a healthy dining scene, including more than 30 restaurants, cafes and diners. You can find anything from family fare to Chinese, Cajun to first-class.

The Big Mountain's lodging supports its growing stature as a destination resort. There are two options: mountain accommodations and Whitefish accommodations, with the ambiance ranging from utilitarian at the Best Western to luxuriant at the Grouse Mountain Lodge. With 1,500 beds at the resort and even more in Whitefish, the bed base is surprisingly ample, including slopeside condos, rental houses and bed-and-breakfast inns.

My family's favorite is the ski-in/ski-out Kandahar Lodge, built by Buck and Mary Pat Love with all the style and atmosphere of a classic Austrian chalet. It's small enough that the owners quickly learn your name, but also spacious enough so you don't feel crowded. The lodge welcomes skiers with its high-beamed sitting room, historic Big Mountain photos, a crackling fire and one of Montana's most intimate bars.

By some standards, The Big Mountain's biggest weakness is nightlife. But that's just for bored dilettantes who want disco and look-at-me parties. Citizens of Whitefish-a logging, mining and railroad town-know how to survive its blizzardy, 16-hour nights. The scene on the sidewalks of its picturesque, false-fronted downtown streets is lively. Visitors shouldn't leave without bar-hopping and window shopping the art galleries, gift shops and bookstores, which number far beyond what a town of 4,500 would normally support.

But this is Montana after all: Until the practice was shut down by the health department (which couldn't accept sanctioned vermin in an eating establishment), the Palace Bar used to host weekly mouse races, with a special "shooter" chair for anyone not drinking fast enough. Several bars host legal small-stakes poker games, and there are also casinos with video gambling. And virtually every night insiders can find a free drink somewhere in town, including at the Great Northern Brewing Company, which doesn't sell beer, but gives brewery tours and pours free samples.

To me, the biggest surprise about The Big Mountain is that it isn't more crowded. Given its down-home charms, combined with easy access both via Amtrak trains and the airport, it should be mobbed. But, so far, most visitors come from Seattle, the Midwest and Canada. Indeed, many a Calgary skier will forgo Banff to drive six hours here, which adds to the resort's north-of-the-border rowdiness and cheer. But recent plummets in the Canadian dollar have hurt Whitefish's economy, leaving the slopes emptier than normal.

My own family has never been disappointed at The Big Mountain. Last winter was no exception. As we have come to expect, we pulled into Whitefish in a blizzard so severe we couldn't see the highway center line. I drove 10 mph, terrified of a crash.

Finally, the clouds parted and the slopes were covered with a dozen inches of powder. I hit the lifts early with my son Ben. The only dilemma was where to ski first. We headed south, diving thigh-deep through powder glades hidden between the snow ghosts. We detoured through towering conifers to Haskill Slide, a run so steep I'd be terrified to ski it in anything but deep snow. While I picked my way down, my friend Patrick Shanahan (a world-class speed skier from Bozeman) scared me witless by jumping cliffs and luring Ben to follow him. And still we weren't down. It was at least a mile-long descent back to the lifts.

Only once did anyone ski past us, and we spent the rest of the day poaching uncut snow, something virtually impossible at any other resort of The Big Mountain's stature. We weren't afraid to stop for a long, luxurious lunch because we knew that wonderful powder stashes would keep amusing us for days. That's what I love about The Big Mountain. Its name isn't a boast: There's enough room so no one feels rushed to ski any run before it's trampled. And who knows? With an awkward name like The Big Mountain, it may stay untrampled for seasons to come.

Almanac: The Big Mountain, Mont.

Getting There The Big Mountain is just 19 miles from Kalispell/Glacier National Park airport, which is served by Delta, Northwest and Horizon airlines. Seattle-based skiers often commute via Amtrak. Although some lodges have shuttles, a rental car is handy.

When To Go Whitefish skiing generally runs from Thanksgiving to early April. For the lightest powder, visit in late December or January. For warmer weather, come in March. The snow ghosts are most spectacular in February.

Lodging By resort standards, winter lodging in Whitefish is remarkably affordable. At the high end ($125/night and up) is the slopeside Kandahar Lodge, which exudes the homey feel of an alpine chalet, including an intimate restaurant and bar (800-862-6094). Another favorite is the log-beamed Grouse Mountain Lodge ($70 to $130/night), located just out of town, next to cross-country ski trails at the Whitefish Lake Golf Course (800-321-8822). If you're on a budget, try the Chalet Motel ($42/night), at (800) 462-3266. For Central Reservations, call (800) 858-5439.

Dining For rustic elegance, check out Whitefish Lake Restaurant. Another local pick is the Tupelo Grill, dishing out spicy Cajun meals. Truby's serves up wood-fired pizzas, and both the Dire Wolf and the Great Northern Bar and Grill have unbeatable prices on hearty burgers.

Other Attractions Locals love cross-country skiing-both on nearby trails and in Glacier National Park. You can also take guided snowmobile tours, ride a Clydesdale-drawn sleigh to a sing-along dinner complete with cowboy poetry, or slide down the mountain's tubing hill. Snowcat skiing can also be arranged.

Kicking Butt For real thrills, cruise down Moe-Mentum, then cut through the trees to double-diamond Haskill Slide, where you really, really don't want to fall. Also check out the East Rim for a maze of cliffs, chutes and glades.

Kicking Back Check out two great liftside bars: Hellroaring and the Bierstube. Also bar-hop the saloons lining Central Avenue, including Casey's, the Bulldog Saloon and the Great Northern Bar and Grill.

Don't Miss The Big Mountain attaches gondola cabins to its Glacier Chaser quad on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, zooming diners to the Summit House. Tables overlook the sparkling lights of the Flathead Valley. If the moon is out, you can even see Glacier National Park.

Details Starting at a summit of 7,000 feet, the Big Mountain has 67 named runs (plus many that are wisely not marked), spread over 3,500 acres with a vertical drop of 2,500 feet. There are 10 lifts, including two quads. Contact (800) 858-4157 or www.bigmtn.com/resort. And still we weren't down. It was at least a mile-long descent back to the lifts.

Only once did anyone ski past us, and we spent the rest of the day poaching uncut snow, something virtually impossible at any other resort of The Big Mountain's stature. We weren't afraid to stop for a long, luxurious lunch because we knew that wonderful powder stashes would keep amusing us for days. That's what I love about The Big Mountain. Its name isn't a boast: There's enough room so no one feels rushed to ski any run before it's trampled. And who knows? With an awkward name like The Big Mountain, it may stay untrampled for seasons to come.

>Almanac: The Big Mountain, Mont.

Getting There The Big Mountain is just 19 miles from Kalispell/Glacier National Park airport, which is served by Delta, Northwest and Horizon airlines. Seattle-based skiers often commute via Amtrak. Although some lodges have shuttles, a rental car is handy.

When To Go Whitefish skiing generally runs from Thanksgiving to early April. For the lightest powder, visit in late December or January. For warmer weather, come in March. The snow ghosts are most spectacular in February.

Lodging By resort standards, winter lodging in Whitefish is remarkably affordable. At the high end ($125/night and up) is the slopeside Kandahar Lodge, which exudes the homey feel of an alpine chalet, including an intimate restaurant and bar (800-862-6094). Another favorite is the log-beamed Grouse Mountain Lodge ($70 to $130/night), located just out of town, next to cross-country ski trails at the Whitefish Lake Golf Course (800-321-8822). If you're on a budget, try the Chalet Motel ($42/night), at (800) 462-3266. For Central Reservations, call (800) 858-5439.

Dining For rustic elegance, check out Whitefish Lake Restaurant. Another local pick is the Tupelo Grill, dishing out spicy Cajun meals. Truby's serves up wood-fired pizzas, and both the Dire Wolf and the Great Northern Bar and Grill have unbeatable prices on hearty burgers.

Other Attractions Locals love cross-country skiing-both on nearby trails and in Glacier National Park. You can also take guided snowmobile tours, ride a Clydesdale-drawn sleigh to a sing-along dinner complete with cowboy poetry, or slide down the mountain's tubing hill. Snowcat skiing can also be arranged.

Kicking Butt For real thrills, cruise down Moe-Mentum, then cut through the trees to double-diamond Haskill Slide, where you really, really don't want to fall. Also check out the East Rim for a maze of cliffs, chutes and glades.

Kicking Back Check out two great liftside bars: Hellroaring and the Bierstube. Also bar-hop the saloons lining Central Avenue, including Casey's, the Bulldog Saloon and the Great Northern Bar and Grill.

Don't Miss The Big Mountain attaches gondola cabins to its Glacier Chaser quad on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, zooming diners to the Summit House. Tables overlook the sparkling lights of the Flathead Valley. If the moon is out, you can even see Glacier National Park.

Details Starting at a summit of 7,000 feet, the Big Mountain has 67 named runs (plus many that are wisely not marked), spread over 3,500 acres with a vertical drop of 2,500 feet. There are 10 lifts, including two quads. Contact (800) 858-4157 or www.bigmtn.com/resort.

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