Wednesday, February 25th, 2004 - Big Sky, Montana
If you'd like to use a map to orient yourself while reading the report, click on the images below to open high resolution trail maps of Big Sky in a new window.
For our first day at Big Sky, we had sun and moderate temperatures in the 20s and 30s. There didn't seem to be any rush to get on the slopes due to conditions (no new snow in a while), so we had breakfast at the café at the main base. Greg guessed that he looked like one of the employees, because he got a substantial discount on his food.
Even though there hadn't been any new snow in about a week, we were still excited to check out Big Sky's legendary terrain. While we waited for Chris (who had gotten a bit of a slow start) we took a run off the main quad chair (Swift Current Express). I don't recall any really exciting terrain, but we had a chance to warm up on some groomed surfaces of intermediate pitch. At the bottom, we met up with Chris. Our next goal was to get to the tram. I didn't know what the weather would bring in the next few days, and I wanted to make sure we could get at least one chance to visit the summit.
It actually takes at least three lifts to get to the summit at Big Sky from the base, so for variety, we all rode "Gondola One" which essentially parallels the quad we'd just ridden. At the top of the Gondola, we had to traverse over to the Lone Peak Triple, which then got us to the base of the Lone Peak Tram. The Lone Peak Tram is the famous one that most people have heard about. It's small, circular, and holds 15 passengers. It's so low capacity though, that even the small crowd that had collected made for about a 3-car wait. I'm not sure how the lineup usually is at the tram, but it's certainly not a chair you can easily lap. There are only a few routes that actually get you from the summit back down to the base of the tram, and the major ones are the famous Big and Little Couloirs. The Big Couloir requires a beacon, a shovel, and a partner (like all the toughest terrain at Big Sky) and the Little Couloir isn't even on the map. I've heard it's the tougher of the two, is rarely open, and that there was a death there a few years back. Anyway, your average skier isn't going to be taking either of these to lap the tram. The only other practical way back to the tram base that I could see was an area called "The Gullies". It was steep, but not terrain that evoked the "beacon, shovel, and partner" rules. At the time, I didn't know that the Gullies could get us back to the tram base, but after waiting in line for so long, I don't think any of us were in any rush to get back there anyway.
Once on, the tram ride was a bit less impressive than I'd thought it was going to be. Maybe I'd heard so much about it that I'd built it up too much, but the rocks below the lift didn't come across as sheer cliffs. Aside from the Lone Peak tram being way up at the summit, I think the tram ride at Squaw might have more dramatic vistas at times. Not to discourage anyone, the Lone Peak Tram ride is still really cool and shouldn't be missed if you're at Big Sky.
At the summit, we hiked up a bit to take in the views from the Peak. The views were great, but it was windy and cold so we didn't linger too long. For the run down, we didn't really know where to go, so we headed to the left along a traverse, and went down where we saw a double black diamond sign. I think the run was called "Marx", but I know for sure that the pitch was steep, and the snow was crap. This was the first time that the whole southern exposure thing hit me at Big Sky. Here we were up around 11,000 feet, but the snow had still been baked and refrozen into a horrible crusty mess. The slope was probably in the range of 35 degrees, and it would have been a dream to ski if we'd had even a flat, chalky surface. But, with no new snow, southern exposure, and lots of traffic, all we were skiing was a really steep collection of hard moguls. I will say one thing though, the pitch stayed steep and the run went on for a LONG time. Hitting this stuff just after the right dump would be a dream.
Further down the slope, we did pull out the cameras and get some shots, but without powder they were nothing too special (although the craggy Montana peaks in the background were pretty nice). We eventually ran into a traverse, and decided to just keep going across it and down to the trails below. We mixed our way about in the trails off the Shedhorn double chair, sticking to the area of Larkspur for the most part. Fortunately, we found a few stashes of powder among the trees where the snow was sheltered from the sun. Down at this elevation, the snow on the trails that were in direct sun had turned to corn, and the skiing was actually pretty sweet. We played along a high bank on the edge of Larkspur and had some fun in the soft snow.
Jay catches some air in a powder pocket to the skier's right of Larkspur in the Shedhorn area.
Dave catches some air off one a sunny bank on Larkspur.
Catching Dave's jump from Jay's angle
We then rode the Shedhorn chair, and decided to work our way back to the base for lunch. We encountered more of the same sun-baked snow in most places, but we did manage to stumble upon one nice stash of powder. It was probably only 50-100 feet of vertical, but somehow it had avoided both the sun, and other skiers. Based on the snow we'd seen so far, this small patch of softness prompted us to pull out every video and still camera we had in our arsenal to at least get a few images on good snow. I remember dropping in and totally missing my line because the snow was so much softer than what my legs were used to. It was short, but I think everyone knew we'd found our best powder of the trip so far.
James gets ready for a fluffy landing at the bottom of our powder stash.
For lunch, Greg managed once again to get his magical employee discount, but the rest of us weren't quite as lucky. Actually, the food was OK for the price, but not quite as good as we'd get at Moonlight Basin the next day. My goal for the afternoon was to track down some more powder. The small patch we'd found revealed that powder snow still existed, but we'd have to find a place without sun exposure. Despite having a lot of terrain, most of what Big Sky has to offer faces south. I scanned the trail map, and found that there was at least one area of north-facing terrain off of Andesite Mountain, one of Big Sky's smaller peaks.
We headed up the Ramcharger Quad, and as I inspected the map further, it seemed that the Southern Comfort triple would get us into the best position for exploring some of Andesite's north-facing terrain. Working our way down one of the four green circle trails in the Southern Comfort area, we found that the area was absolutely deserted, and in the trees between the trails, there was actually plenty of untracked powder. Unfortunately, as the green circle designation would suggest, the terrain was incredibly flat. One could just barely keep moving in the 6 inches of powder in the trees, aside from the occasional small rollover that provided a few moments of speed. Actually, it was still nice to find a little soft snow, and we were intrigued about what we'd find on the north-facing terrain. A trip up the Southern Comfort lift found us near the top of Andesite (8,800'), ready to explore.
Since we had been dropped off a little above the top of the Ramcharger lift, I figured we'd be able to find some less-traveled terrain, stuff that hadn't been hit by the hordes that come off the high speed Ramcharger. As we looked to our north, we could see a substantial area of untracked powder on the slope below (somewhere near "Upper Africa"), but unfortunately, it was roped off for some reason. This was probably why it remained untracked, but since we could tell it wasn't due to avalanche hazard (the slope was too shallow, and there were open trails below it anyway) we decided it was too good an opportunity to turn down. So we slipped off behind some trees, and parked ourselves atop a beautiful field of powder. Unquestionably, it was time to get out the camcorders, so Greg graciously offered to head down first and set up. He even left the best lines for those that were going to ski for the camera. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but the skiing was great, albeit somewhat short. With good light and good snow though, we'd certainly added some great shots to our collection.
Soon, the untracked powder ran out as we merged into "open" terrain, and we decided to dive into the woods to our left. These north-facing woods were much thicker than the south facing stuff we'd encountered before. I'm guessing this kept a lot of people out, and it also let hardly any light in. The result was powder skiing in the trees! The run broke up into three levels, separated by traversing green trails like Pacifier. We all did the first two levels, and since it was getting on towards the end of the day, Greg, Dave and Chris then decided to head back to the base. James and I couldn't get enough, so we decided to ski the third and final segment down to the Moose Tracks Snowshoe Trail. We found great snow, and with just the two of us, we worked shooting camcorders back and forth and got a lot of footage. The trip back to the base required a bit of skating, but it had been worth it for the good snow.
James and I then decided to call it a day as well, so we headed back up the Ramcharger to make a run to the condo. I guess we met up with Dave, Chris, and Greg at some point on our run back to the condo, because Chris took the pictures below, and Greg is on one of them. We took a blue run called Silver Knife, and worked our way through the woods along the Poma lift to end our run. So, despite Big Sky's overabundance of sun-baked, south-facing terrain, we'd managed to get some pretty good skiing on soft snow.
Jay heads off a powdery log in the woods to the skier's right of the Bear Back Poma.
Greg catches his own log in the Bear Back Poma area.
Since we'd gone out to eat the previous night, we decided to have dinner at the condo that evening. James and I took on the responsibility of finding a grocery store, and getting our hands on some simple food. I have to say that the grocery shopping options seem pretty limited in the Big Sky area. In fact, we could only find one market on the mountain road. This was of course after we went all the way down to the main road (U.S. route 191) and searched around, which didn't lead to much more than the discovery of an out of the way bar. We found that once you got away from the mountain road, civilization seemed to disappear pretty quickly. That's Montana. Although the grocery store we found wasn't quite a mega market, it was much more substantial than your typical mountain convenience store, and we got plenty for dinner and stocked up for breakfasts. That night we cooked up some pizza and generally laid low. I can't recall if some of the guys went out, but I wanted to get to bed early and be ready for our next day at Moonlight Basin. We had an appointment with their marketing director first thing in the morning, and I didn't want to be late.
(Skiing at Moonlight Basin)
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