Monday, February 17th - Big Mountain Resort - 6 inches new snow
In order to get up to Big Mountain at a decent hour, we left the house at around 5:00 A.M. The storm that had started up on Sunday was picking up, and as we headed north through the Bitterroot Valley, Weston had to navigate the explorer through some pretty intense snowfall. In the Missoula area, the snow began to come down even harder, and it looked like our drive was going to take longer than we'd expected. Despite the tough driving conditions, the snow helped build excitement for the skiing. Continuing north on 93, we entered the Mission Valley area, and surprisingly, the snow tapered off. This helped the pace of our driving, but we became a little worried about the snowfall at Big Mountain. Chris put in a call to the resort, but it was still too early for a real snow report. All they could tell him was that a little snow had fallen down low.
Meanwhile, Greg had spent the previous evening zooming across I-90 from Seattle towards Missoula. He'd eventually stopped at some point along the side of the road to sleep for the night in his car. He'd encountered the heavy snow as well, and thinking like a skier, he called our place in Hamilton early in the morning, to see if we wanted to go to Lost Trail again due to all the new snow. Unfortunately, he didn't quite take into account the time change into the Mountain time zone, and we'd already left. When we finally connected by telephone through the cars, it turned out that Greg was just a few minutes behind us, cruising up the Mission Valley. When we stopped to get some food/gas in the Ronan area, Greg went flying by us. We would eventually catch up with him in Whitefish.
Continuing on into the Flathead Valley, the sky remained only cloudy, but we got some great views of Flathead Lake and the surrounding mountains (the Mission Range to the east). We pulled out in a nice spot and got some pictures with our quiver of media equipment, and then it was on to Whitefish.
When we finally met up with Greg in Whitefish, he picked up a local snowboarder that needed a ride, and we headed up to the hill. During our travels, we had finally acquired a snow report for Big Mountain, and they said a mere 3 inches of new snow had fallen. We were pretty sure that the areas back south had picked up at least 2-3 times that amount, but Big Mountain was a new area, and we were conveniently close to Fernie to continue our drive. So, although we didn't think we were going to get a powder day, we knew that things can sometimes turn out FAR better than one expects. This time, the mountain would be very kind to us.
If you'd like to follow along by looking at a map of Big Mountain, just click on the icon below to open up their map page in a new window.
The snow at the base area looked pretty lame. It was simply a crusty mess with a dusting on top of it. Not having skied anything like that all season, it was downright depressing. Still, this was our plan, we were there, and we were going to ski. It was a bonus that we had one free ticket and the rest of us could get half-day rates with our season passes from other ski areas. REMEMBER: always bring your season's pass when you go on any ski trip, discounts like that happen all the time.
We jumped on the Glacier Chaser Quad and eventually disappeared into the fog. You could hear the sound of the skiers on the trail below, and it was not a happy sound. We hadn't really paid much attention to the map yet, but we just wanted to get to the top of the mountain in hopes that the 3 inches had fallen there. We had been lost in the fog for a while, and when we finally got off the lift we had no clue where we were on the mountain. We had to consult the map, and were surprised to find that we'd already traveled 2,088' right to the summit of Big Mountain (elevation 7,000'). It was hard to tell how much snow had fallen because of the grooming that had taken place, and the wind that had blown things around. It was amazingly crowded, especially for those of us that had just been skiing at Lost Trail. We headed down Moe Mentum, which was wall to wall skiers on ice, and as soon as possible, we headed down the backside via Marmot.
This was the first point at which things started to shape up. We dodged into some of the trees along side the trail and discovered that the three inches had definitely settled there. We wound our way on and off the trail and started to have a blast! The base below was firm, but you really only contacted it on the steeper slopes. We tried a few of the black pitches, but ended up having the most fun in the intermediately-pitched trees. We pulled out the cameras, switched on the head cam, and started to film. For the rest of the morning, we hung out in the general area around and under the Big Creek Express (the chair that services the backside of the mountain). The crowds were relatively small and the snow was the best we'd seen; there was no need to head anywhere else. Our group did manage to get split up as we explored the flatter terrain around the Caribou and Gray Wolf Trails. We followed a few tracks one of a snowboarder, but essentially the terrain was just too flat to move. It would actually take pretty firm conditions to keep moving in many of these woods; with any sort of powder you've got to shuffle along.
Eventually, we started heading into the steeper terrain to the right of the Blue Trail "Goat Haunt". This area consisted of a variety of slopes with tree skiing, beyond all the trails, yet still inside the boundary. Our first run in there was fun, but even with a fairly substantial traverse, we quickly found ourselves returning to the trail. We took another shot and traversed even farther into the woods, but it still came out as a short run. The next attempt at getting more of this terrain was to take the trail called "Russ's Street" (the icy trail that we had hit first thing) which would bring us across the top of the backside. Hopefully we could find a way to drop off higher into the great trees we had discovered. This strategy worked a little better, but we were still hitting tracked terrain, and we could see that there was more untracked terrain up and to skier's right.
I had noticed that there was a small upper mountain T-Bar (Big Foot T-Bar) that we'd yet to visit, and Weston pointed out that it might be just what we needed to get to the top of our desired terrain. We could see a small knob on the North Side map, but it was labeled "Snowcat Skiing Area". We were naturally worried that the terrain would be off limits, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. We headed along "Russ's Street" once again, then worked our way through some woods to the T-Bar. The terrain serviced by the T-Bar was actually interesting in its own right. It was a large area of moderately-pitched trees, without a lot of traffic. The T-Bar itself was interesting, it actually had mostly platter attachments on the cable, with few T-Bar attachments as well. When an attachment came your way, you could go with a friend if it was a T-Bar, otherwise you just went solo on a platter. It just had the feeling of a funky lift in the middle of nowhere, and we were hoping it would be our ticket to some great terrain. As an added bonus, it had begun to snow like crazy, and the conditions were improving with every minute. Our spirits were high with the discovery of this neat lift, and the bounty falling from the sky.
At the top of the T-Bar, we immediately checked to see if we were allowed to ski the back side. We saw an orange rope, but it just blocked off a square that contained some equipment. Other than that, it appeared that the backside was fair game. We had no idea if the lines back there were going to be any good, but at least the potential existed. Just off the back of the lift, to the skier's left of the Lode Eye Ridge trail, we ducked into the trees. What we found was as good, or better, than we could have hoped. There were a variety of tight tree lines that were quite steep, somewhere between 30-40 degrees. We quickly spread out, set up the cameras, and began to ski. Even though the slopes were some of the steepest we'd encountered, the snow was also the best we'd seen all day. These steep, north-facing slopes had not seen any sun, and they were relatively high elevation. The other great bonus about the area was that it seemed to be off the radar for everyone else; we were the only ones skiing it and therefore we had totally untracked snow. After the steep upper slopes, we gradually merged into the lower slopes that we'd encountered before. However, with our new starting point, it gave us good access to terrain that other people couldn't get to by just traversing in.
We'd had such a good time, that there was no question our next trip would be right back to the same place. This time, we set up the head cam on James, and he followed me around through the powder and trees. The snowfall had intensified and freshened things up again, so everywhere we went it was powder madness. During our run, James and I discovered a great gully, a natural halfpipe that was loaded with little jumps and terrain features. We weren't sure how we found it, but we knew we wanted to hit it again.
It was well into the afternoon at this point, and although it was dumping snow, we decided it would be a good time for a quick food break. The Summit House tuned out to be a great option, and it was right on our route back to the T-Bar. We enjoyed some good food (even if the prices were more like a regular ski area than Lost Trail) and a break from the storm.
After lunch, there wasn't much time left in the day, probably enough time for one more run off the backside in our favorite terrain. Since our first shot with James wearing the head cam encountered technical difficulties, we wanted to repeat the run (if we could remember where we went). By this point, the new snow had accumulated to about 3 inches, on top of last night's 3 inches. It really felt like a powder day, and it was hard to imagine after the dust on crust we'd seen at the base. Fortunately, James and I managed to repeat our plan and hit the steeps and eventually the gully we wanted to. Unfortunately, the attempts at repeating the helicopters from the first run didn't go as well, but we got some good crashes anyway.
Weston had hung out at the Summit House to rest his knee that was bothering him, and when we arrived back at the summit, he filled us in on his plan for our run back to the main base. The plan was to head back to the T-Bar, take it up to give us some vertical, then ski down through the trees in the area of Evan's Heaven etc. It was too late though, and the T-Bar had shut down for the day, limiting our options. Therefore, we simply took Russ's Street to the bottom, while ducking in the trees in a few areas. Actually, it didn't matter much that we'd missed the terrain because the conditions on this side of the mountain were nothing compared to the North Side. It didn't seem like much new snow had fallen during the day, and the sun seemed to have baked the snow into a mess. We did stop for some nice pictures with Whitefish and Flathead Lake in the background however. By the time we reached the base, conditions were essentially the dust on crust that we'd found there in the morning. It was hard to imagine that this was the same mountain on which we'd just skied gorgeous powder a couple thousand feet above. It just goes to show how much elevation and aspect can change conditions.
The Web Movie of our Big Mountain Trip
One of the things we do here at J&E Productions is make movies, and we've made one from some of the video footage that we shot during the day described above. All you need to do is make sure you've got the latest version of QuickTime, and you'll be able to watch the video. If you've got a fast internet connection, you can click on the movie and, a new window will open. After a few minutes of downloading, during which time you will only see the QuickTime symbol in the new window, the movie should open and you can play it with the QuickTime plugin associated with your browser. If you have a slower internet connection (such as a modem) it may take a couple of hours to download, and I recommend right clicking on the movie below and saving it to your hard drive. This method is also recommended for anyone that would like to save the movie for future viewing. If you need to download the latest version of the QuickTime player, you can do it by clicking on the QuickTime symbol to the left of the movie.
The movie is 2 min. 5 sec. in length, and its size is 18,209 kB.
If you move your mouse over the movie image, you can
get a preview of a few still shots from the movie.
If you enjoyed the movie, you may want to check out others at our web movie page.
After essentially closing down the mountain, we headed on our way to Fernie. Even though Fernie is in British Columbia, it's a relatively short drive from Big Mountain. We weren't exactly sure how long the drive over the border would take, but I guessed it would be about two hours at the most. Mapquest had a crazy estimate of something like 5 hours, I can only imagine they are thinking that the border crossing poses a larger delay for some people. We were hoping that that delay wasn't some sort of foreshadowing for our trip. We decided to forego dinner in an effort to get to our Fernie lodging, but fortunately I had packed up some leftover pizza and other goodies in a paper bag as we left early in the morning. It was a total last minute thought, but boy was cold pizza a meal fit for a king after a hard day of skiing. James and I thought of keeping it all to ourselves in the back seat, but we were nice and shared our bounty.
Heading north from Whitefish on Route 93, one travels through a broad valley with the Whitefish Range to the east, and some of the Salish Mountains visible off in the distance to the west. Some areas held snow on the ground as we passed by the Stillwater State Forest, but soon we came out into a broader, open landscape with fields. Due to the time of day, everything was cast in a magnificent orange glow, and I could only think, "Amber waves of grain". It wasn't exactly harvest time of course, but with no snow and the amazing light it was quite a picture. The mountains weren't exempt from this orange glow, and as we stopped near the town of Eureka to gas up before the border, we got some amazing shots of orange alpenglow on the east side of the Whitefish Range.
We crossed the border at the small station of Roosville, and our entry into Canada was essentially instantaneous. We still had daylight, and it allowed us to watch the transformation of the terrain as we approached Fernie. Although we weren't gaining any significant altitude (we were still in the range of 3,000' or so as we'd been since Whitefish) suddenly snow began to appear on the sides of the road. The mountains began to skyrocket above us and become lost in the clouds. We were entering the mighty Canadian Rockies. I really want to drive this road again at some point to get another picture of the scenery, but all I know is that we were driving along through some really amazing geography. Avalanche chutes spilled down to the left side of the road, signs warned not to stop in many areas, and all the while a wall of white clouds loomed ahead. We had no idea about the snowfall at Fernie in the last day or so, but suddenly it began to snow around us, and we had entered what can only be described as "The Fernie Zone" (technically, the area is referred to as the Elk Valley, or the East Kootenays).
NOTE: Thanks to the folks from SkiVT-L, I was turned on to a great website "The Unofficial Fernie Alpine Resort Page" which provides extensive information about the resort, as well as frequent updates on conditions. Due to the great amount of information found on this page, I've used it to provide links that give alternative reports on the days we visited, as well a useful links that will give you information about specific trails and regions of the mountain. Thanks very much to those that make the unofficial Fernie Page possible, it's a great site.
The piles of snow along the road continued to grow larger, yet still we gained hardly any altitude. When we finally got to the access road to the resort, it was a mere couple hundred vertical up to the village where we found our lodging. The Fernie Village now has a vast array of lodging, the roads wind through a maze of condos of all sorts. I don't know how many hundreds (maybe thousands) of beds there are, but I've been told that almost all of them have appeared in the last five years. When we finally solved the maze to our condo, it was hard to find a parking place because there was so much snow! It looked as though there were two feet of fresh snow just down at our condo, and it was still dumping! It's hard to imagine how psyched we were as we contemplated what awaited us.
Fernie had been having a pretty lame season, and since Super Bowl weekend when freezing levels rose very high, conditions had been VERY HARD. The two feet of new snow put a stop to that, but it also meant that every snow-starved local would be out tracking up the place. When we arrived at the condo, our friend Ben filled us in on the recent snow situation. He and his girlfriend Katie had come to Fernie a few days earlier and stayed in town. Now that our condo was available, they were staying with us, and they had the place all warmed up and ready to go (except for the hot tub, which had just been filled and was still getting up to temperature.
Snow had started the previous night, and then it continued to snow all day. The official report was 37 cm (15 inches) new snow in the last 24 hrs and 54 cm (21 inches) in the last 48. As a bonus for us (the folks that would be skiing tomorrow) only two chairs had been open due to a combination of avalanche hazard and power troubles. Ben and Katie had skied and said the snow was a bit wet, but it seemed to be getting lighter now. I heard that all the new snow had taken out a power source to some of the lifts. It was still snowing nicely outside as well, so as we settled into our home for the next few days, the energy level was high. The links at the beginning of this paragraph will give you the unofficial Fernie reports of what was going on at the start of the snowstorm before we arrived.
Since we didn't have any food yet at the condo, we decided to head down into town for dinner. The lodging and other shops surrounding the resort are part of "Fernie Alpine Village". The actual City of Fernie is about 3 miles away down the hill. There's surprisingly little difference in elevation between the Alpine Village/base area (3,500') and the city (3,310'). I was amazed that they even had a snowpack at these elevations, but the microclimate of Fernie must make it possible. The average annual snowfall IN THE CITY, is a surprising 140 inches (360 cm). For comparison, the ski hill reports an average annual snowfall of approximately 374 inches (950 cm), although I don't know what elevation they use to measure for the statistics. Fernie seems to be a nice small city (population ~5,000). It was founded on mining, and came into being in 1898 when the railroad came through the area. Surprisingly, 50% of Fernie's population is still tied to mining (mostly coal it seems), but the city is also supported by more tourism now like many old mining areas.
Even though Ben and Katie had only been here for a couple of days, they seemed to already have good knowledge of things available in town like bars and restaurants. Their initial plan was to take us to a great Italian place that they'd visited, but finding that there was an hour wait, we all went to another spot. I think it was called "The Eatery", but none of us were sure. They had a nice mix of cuisine, I opted for a very enjoyable steak or "Rancher" Quesadilla. By the time dinner was over it was getting pretty late, and I think we were all psyched to get an early start in the morning.
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