OK, here goes. Jay has been on my back to get this written. He put so much work into planning this trip that he wants me to put just as much work into writing it. I am also aiming to beat Jeremy's "6 month rule". I'll do my best. As you can see it was back in March when we took this trip, so the details are a little fuzzy for me.
It was my birthday, so Jay surprised me with a trip. He said I had to pack for skiing and swimming, and that we'd be leaving after work on Friday. But he wouldn't tell me where we were going. In the past, we have played this game where we blindfold the passenger and drive somewhere. The passenger has to then figure out where we are. Jay always gets it right. I have yet to figure it out. This time, while I was blindfolded, despite his many attempts to confuse me and do circles in parking lots, I could tell we were heading south and then east into the Big Hole. But after that, I was in a whole new world. Since it was about a two hour trip, he did let me take off the blindfold now and then, as long as we were not passing any signs indicating where we were. Eventually we reached our destination. Once we were in the parking lot and out of the car, I took my blindfold off. However I still couldn't tell where we were. It wasn't until we were checking in at the hotel that I finally saw a pamphlet indicating that it was the Fairmont Hot Springs.
This is a great hotel with 2 pools inside and 2 pools outside (and a water slide). Each area contains one huge pool of about 94 degrees and another "hot pool" with a temperature of about 106 degrees. These were the largest I had ever seen. The "hot pools" were not your usual hot tub size. Hey could each fit at least 50 people. The other great thing is that although these pools are open to the public during the day (closing around 8:00 I think), hotel guests have 24 hour access to the pools! We went swimming around 1:00 in the morning with no worries of crowds. Jay chose this place not only for the swimming, but also because it was only 23 miles from Discovery Basin where we would ski the next day. (Some locals apparently call it "Disco"; I think it is simply to shorten the name, not to indicate the atmosphere.) While we were standing in the hotel looking at a wall map of Discovery, a group of younger guys told us about a great out of bounds area with lots of powder and cornices. One of these guys had also mentioned Discovery had received 14 inches the day before (meaning Thursday). Things were looking good.
Saturday morning we drove over to Discovery Basin. It is a very easy, scenic drive. We drove through Anaconda to get to Discovery Basin. Along the way we encountered the legendary Anaconda smoke stack we had heard so much about. Here is a quick history lesson about Anaconda and Hamilton. It turns out that Marcus Daly (winter resident of New York City) was building mines in Anaconda looking for silver. Well, he found copper instead. Any other miners who had found copper around that time thought it was useless. However, Marcus Daly apparently had vision. He was aware of copper's potential in the burgeoning electrical industry. Thus Anaconda became a booming town, and Marcus Daly became even wealthier. But, he was running out of lumber for his business. Here is where Hamilton comes in. Daly came to this area, fell in love with it for the beauty and the potential logging, and built a saw mill here. It became a town named after his friend Hamilton. The Daly family would continue to summer here in Hamilton for the next century. His legend lives on in his Hamilton mansion and the HUGE smoke stack in Anaconda. You see this smoke stack for miles. It is 585 feet, the tallest free standing masonry structure in the world.
After passing through the city of Anaconda, we continued on the pleasant drive towards Discovery. Even the access road to Discovery is not your usual narrow uphill, windy mountain road. Discovery is a cute, small area with one lodge, 2 lifts and 2 rope tows or T bars on the front side and one lift on the back. While we were getting our tickets, I heard many conversations regarding the "backside" and how it was not open and may open later in the day. Then I read a warning posted about the backside. It explained that it was very steep and only for expert skiers who knew how to self arrest. I was a little worried, I don't know how to self arrest. Then I realized I had fallen at Tuck's once and managed to stop myself- it was probably the same thing here. But needless to say, we didn't need to worry about that yet since it wasn't even open. Apparently Jay had heard from many sources about this backside and it was one of his main reasons for choosing Discovery.
So for the time being we were restricted to the front side and went up the lift to the left of the lodge and looked for a basic groomer to warm up. We chose Sluice Box. (Many of the trail names were mining related, such as Claim jumper, which is not Clam jumper like I originally thought-coastal influence in me I guess) It was a bit firm. The woods under the lift and off to the sides of the trails looked great. However they were south facing and crusted from a day in the sun. We tried some on the first run but they weren't worth it. From then on we tried to find more shaded areas to ski. We took a few runs on this front side of the mountain. The runs were mostly intermediate groomed runs. I kept thinking this is great place for a
family. Although we still had no luck in the woods, we were having a blast exploring nonetheless. Soon we noticed a crowd gathering at the rope that led to the back side. We took one more run. When we reached the top again, the rope was down. It was time for a new adventure.
When we went past that rope area, there was a flat trail that headed both left and right. This flat trail was also lined with trees, so we couldn't see what we were getting ourselves into. It turns out that the mountain is horseshoe shaped with the backside being the inside of the horseshoe and this trail being the actual horseshoe. The front side lift drops you off in the middle of that horseshoe. As the slopes inside the horseshoe fan out to the sides, they become less steep. The "trail" that leads around the top also heads down the sides. They are the easiest way down and I think they are groomed as well. The chair lift back there takes you back up to the top basically following one side of the horseshoe.
Since we had no idea what to try, we just followed some guys. While most skiers continued to traverse along this trail, these guys cut off early. So we decided to follow them. There was no sense in trekking along this trail without a plan. Well, once we walked through the trees, it was like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "Aaahhh". The sight was awesome, a winter wonderland. The backside was a huge bowl with lots of powder. There were a few patches of rock and trees which seemed to divide the different "trails" back there. Some were labeled; although even if they were labeled it was still hard to figure out what we were on.
We thought we went down either Mother Lode or Haunted Forest first. It wasn't anything too insane (about 35 to 40 degrees), but it was a lot of fun. There was still powder although a little bit bumped up and chowdery. The runs back here were also long (relative to what we were used to at Lost Trail). So we headed up for more, and we hit runs like Spooky Hollow and Christmas Park which were a little more off to the skier's right. We saw them from the lift and thought they looked fun. All the trails were similar to the first one, although less steep (maybe 30 to 35 degrees). We had a lot of fun filming and making turns in all the snow. It actually had started to snow pretty hard at this point as well.
I think we then had to go to the bathrooms or something and found our way back to the other side. Once business was taken care of we were on a mission to find the stashes shown to us the previous night on the map. So we headed to the left of the horseshoe. As we rounded the corner we noticed a path off to the left. We knew we had to be careful because this was the ski area boundary, if we went too far we'd end up in Phillipsburg- not our intention. This flat path led to an open powdery meadow. We found some great powder and trees below. As we explored and headed back to the right as much as we could so as not to leave the ski area, we were searching for the cornices mentioned by the other guys. We didn't find any, but found some great open areas in the woods above us. We started planning our next route. The rest of the day was spent pretty much in these woods exploring and finding as much powder as possible. Some places were so light and deep that even Jay had trouble staying above it and sank a few times on his turns (laughing the whole time of course)!
Overall we had a blast. This is a great area, especially for families because it accommodates so many abilities. It is a relatively small area so I'm sure it has its disadvantages as well as advantages. The backside is a ton of fun; however you're a bit limited if it is not open for whatever reason.
So at the end of the day we headed back to Hamilton via a different route. So, not only did we get to swim and ski, but we also got to see a lot of western Montana which we hadn't seen yet. Thanks Jay for an awesome birthday!
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