Back in early January, not long after returning to Montana from holidays in Vermont, I received an interesting offer in the mail. It seemed like your typical piece of junk mail, but I skimmed through it as usual while I tossed the pieces into the recycling bin, just to make sure it wasn't something important. It was an offer to stay at a resort and do some skiing up at Big Mountain, and it said something about $79 for two people. I figured it was $79 per person per day, or something like that, and I kept looking for the text that would confirm this so I could toss the final page into the bin. However, I couldn't find it. The offer really was for 4 days, 3 nights of lodging, 2 lift tickets for Big Mountain (or other similar recreation choices), a gift basket with wine, local huckleberry preserves, etc., all for $79. This seemed like a pretty good offer, and the only sort of catch was that you had to listen to a timeshare presentation. E and I had never tried one of those timeshare presentation offers, so we figured it would be a good opportunity to see what they were all about. We hadn't really considered getting into a timeshare because they felt too limiting, but maybe the presentation would surprise us. From what I'd heard about other people's timeshare offer experiences, I was sure the salespeople would try their best to impress us and close the deal.
We left on Friday afternoon as soon as E was done with work, and headed north on highway 93. The place where we were staying was called Meadow Lake Resort, and it was located in the city of Columbia Falls, just outside Whitefish and about 15-20 minutes from the base of Big Mountain. During the week, a period of somewhat dry weather had ended with the arrival of a very moist Pacific system. I'd checked the Big Mountain website and it looked like they had picked up about a foot of new snow from the previous couple days of snowfall. The precipitation had temporarily shut off for a day, so that made for a pleasant drive that took about 3.5 hours. As we approached the Kalispell/Whitefish area, I saw lots of lights on the slopes of Big Mountain, and remembered that they actually had night skiing. We were excited by this revelation, since that would really expand our options for skiing with Ty. We checked into the Inn at Meadow Lake, and went to bed with plans to ski the next day.
The plan for Saturday was for E and I to ski together, and let Dylan and Ty stay at the Big Mountain Kids daycare area. Having the two free tickets seemed like a good opportunity for Mom and Dad to ski together without the boys for a day, especially since we had missed the chance during holidays in Vermont when E was sick on the Sugarbush $5.50 day. We had initially hoped to do a half day of daycare for Ty, combined with a half day of ski lessons, but even though he was finally three years old, he was still too young for everything but a one hour private lesson. Pulling Ty out of daycare for only an hour would have been tough on him, and I was also hoping he could get some interaction with other children during his lesson, so we decided to just ski with him ourselves later. Fortunately, Ty was immediately enthralled by the play area at Big Mountain Kids, which had an expansive assortment of cars for the children to ride, an area with couches to watch TV or videos, plus tons of other playthings. Mom and Dad immediately lost importance for Ty as he explored the play area, and Dylan was just going down for a nap. The Big Mountain kids area was a bit more relaxed on security than the childcare at Deer Valley (where you got a special fluorescent stamp on your had to prove you were a parent) but they seemed quite capable. With both boys happy, Mom and Dad were off to ski.
Although this was E's first time skiing Big Mountain, I had visited the resort before, during our 2003 ski trip on the way up to Fernie. That day had been socked in with freezing fog (supposedly a common feature for Big Mountain) which eventually turned to steady snowfall, so I never really got to see much of the mountain layout. This time, the weather was quite different. It was clear and cold, with a temperature of 8 degrees F at Meadow Lake Resort in the morning, which had risen to 14 degrees F by the time we got to the base of the mountain. With the bright sun, the temperature was still rising by the minute, and we knew it would be a comfortable day on the hill. The other difference in this trip was the snow surface at the base. On our previous trip we had arrived to a sprinkle of dust on a substantial crust at the base of the mountain, but this time there was plenty of powder snow even at the base. This was undoubtedly due to the new snow and recent cold temperatures. The base depths were around 120 inches at the summit, and 53 inches at the base, which I think are pretty respectable for Big Mountain. Although I couldn't remember too much about the base area from my previous trip (the dust on crust scared us right to the summit and back side of the mountain where we found good snow) I did recognize that we parked in the same lot as last time (the Cedar lot). This lot was right below the Birch lot (the topmost lot where they were charging $5 to park) and right next to the mountain's main lift, the Glacier Chaser high speed quad. Although everyone thinks of Montana as a place without much in the way of lift lines, they certainly happen sometimes, especially on a Saturday after some good snowfalls. There were a LOT of people in line for the Glacier Chaser, but fortunately it sucked people up pretty quickly and we only had to wait a few minutes.
The front side map for Big Mountain - click the map to open a full size version in a new window.
The ride up the Glacier Chaser was a chance for me to finally see the layout of Big Mountain up close and in person. Some of the most interesting sights were the snow ghosts created from the sparse trees in Ptarmigan Bowl near the summit. The snow ghosts (trees caked with snow) are a classic feature at Big Mountain, as well as several other regional ski mountains like Silver Star and Big White in British Columbia. At the summit, I got a few pictures of the views into Glacier National Park, something that wasn't possible on my previous ski trip. It was very sunny, but there was still a slight haze off in the mountains so the views weren't as clear as they might have been. A quick look around at the slopes revealed that the snow from the past couple days was mostly tracked up, but we could see only a couple of tracks heading down from the radio tower area above Hellroaring Basin. It would require a few minutes of hiking to get some fresh snow, but it seemed like a worthwhile way to start off the day. Once we got closer, we checked the snow and found that it was variably wind packed (E had even surmised this when she first saw it from a distance) so we decided it wasn't quite worth the hike and continued our traverse along the Hell Fire trail. I was somewhat keen on visiting Hellroaring Basin, as it was an area of Big Mountain that we'd totally skipped on our previous trip. So, E and I kept moving in that direction. As we approached the Sling Shot and Picture Chutes area, we could see a lot fewer tracks in the snow below us, so we eventually dropped in. The terrain at the top of that area is really quite steep, and we skied a sweet chute in there that unfortunately had a bit of ice in it below the new snow. Lower down we found some untouched powder shots in the trees, but all the terrain in the basin began to funnel together into the Glory Hole and Hell Fire trails rather quickly. I commented that it was like suddenly switching from skiing the trees at places like Sugarbush, where you typically find plenty of untracked powder, to skiing the glades at Jay Peak, where the snow is often packed out into hard bumps unless there had been a recent snowfall. It seems that Hellroaring Basin funnels so much terrain into one basic trail, that the traffic is just a bit too much to maintain a really soft snow surface. E totally agreed with my analogy, and it made me wonder what the lower section of Hellroaring Basin would be like when snowfall was sparse. We eyed a lot of untracked snow off to our left in the bottom of the basin, but my ski sense suggested the reason it was untracked was because the area was just too flat for powder skiing. So, we stuck to the groomed run, and as I'd find out on our next run, we'd made the right choice.
We found ourselves at the bottom of Chair 11, the Hellroaring Chair, and I noted that this was a place where you would not want to miss the bottom of the lift. The bottom of the lift was the last touch of civilization for quite a while, and it looked like it would be a big hike out from below. While riding the chair back up, we could see that there were very few tracks in the trees along the lift line trail (which is somewhat appropriately named Purgatory). The further we rode up the lift, the more it seemed like a run through those trees would yield a bunch of fresh powder. Once off the lift, we headed to the skier's right of the lift line, and found fairly tight trees intermixed with small open areas. Being about 100-200 feet out from the lift line, we had untracked snow all to ourselves. We gradually worked our way back toward the lift line during the run, and did encounter a handful of other tracks as we neared the trail. In the middle of the run, we crossed right over the Highway to Heaven trail, which seems to be your last chance to get out of Hellroaring Basin without heading all the way down to the Hellroaring Chair. Interestingly, Highway to Heaven was just a simple ski track traverse and wasn't groomed at all. I wouldn't have even thought it was a trail had I not looked at the map later in the day, but the beauty of such and inconspicuous little traverse is that it really didn't interrupt the ski lines we were hitting in the trees. In the last couple hundred feet of vertical, E found her lines closing in and headed for the lift line, while I continued on down through some slightly more open trees further away from the lift. While I did get a little more powder, I ended up in the streambed along the side of the Hell Fire trail, and had to contour above it for a bit before I found a stream crossing track that someone had created. Encountering the streambed, I realized that my previous suspicions about the nature of that terrain were correct; it was too flat for powder skiing and that was why there were no tracks in there.
Although there was a lot more powder to be skied in the trees around Purgatory, we decided that it would be best to continue our explorations of the mountain. Heading down into Hellroaring Basin sort of leaves one stranded on that side of the mountain, with the only way out being to ride the Hellroaring Chair back up. Even then, you are a long way from getting back to the summit for another run, which is probably why Hellroaring Basin doesn't get as much traffic as it might. The trip up the Hellroaring Chair dumped us relatively low on the mountain, among a variety of mostly beginner and intermediate trails above the village. There were several trails in this area that would be lit for night skiing, so we did some reconnaissance for Ty in anticipation of skiing with him in the evening and the next day. There seemed to be plenty of terrain that would suit his abilities.
The morning was moving on fairly quickly after the time we'd spend exploring Hellroaring Basin, so I decided we should head to the back (north) side of the mountain to continue our tour. The line at the Glacier Chaser was even bigger at this time of day, making for close to 10 minutes of waiting before we could load and return to the summit. I was very familiar with the back side of Big Mountain because on our previous trip, it held the only good snow and we'd spent our entire day there. The steepest trails on the back side of the ski area are right near the summit, and on my previous trip, the main runs had been scraped to hard pack so we stayed away from them for the most part. On this trip however, E and I traversed skier's left for a while and found ourselves atop Bighorn, which looked really good. I didn't realize it until I was near the bottom of the pitch and looked back up at E, that this terrain was actually really steep. The slope must be in the 40 degree range. While we started our run near one of the steep chutes at the center of Bighorn, near the bottom I noticed that the skier's left held a lot of untracked snow. We finished off there with some very sweet turns in the steep fluff. After that big pitch though, things are pretty tame on the skier's left of the back side, so tame in fact that if you go into the woods with any substantial depth of powder, you'll have to do a lot of walking through the flat areas. I recalled this from my previous trip, so E and I just ran out the vertical on the Gray Wolf trail to get to the Big Creek Express quad that brought us back to the summit.
On our return to the summit, I showed E some of the many places that we had enjoyed on the mountain's back side on our 2003 trip. It got me thinking about the Bigfoot T-Bar. It's a lift on the front side of the mountain, but it also provides access to some great "out of the way" terrain on the back side. It's really an obscure lift tucked away in a far upper corner of Big Mountain, and I'd almost forgotten about it until the other skiers on our chair started talking about it. I decided that E definitely needed to check it out. We followed Russ's Street to get there, and I had a hard time remembering the run because once again, I'd never seen much of it through the fog and snow on our previous trip. We still managed to find our way to the T-bar terrain, and there was a lot of it that was still untracked. The T-Bar services just a couple small trails, but there are a lot of nice trees in between them that make up the bulk of the terrain. One of things that had clouded my memory about the T-Bar was that it is actually a hybrid lift of platters and Ts. Even with the Ts on the lift, they were only letting people ride singly on this day. They said that if they load the lift up too heavily it puts more strain on it and they have more frequent repairs, so as we were told "We only let doubles ride on days that don't end in the letter Y".
At the top of the T-Bar, we noticed a knob of terrain up and to the left. It had a smattering of snow ghost trees, and a few nice tracks in the powder. It would take just a short hike, so we marked it for our next run. We then skied the trees around the T-Bar, which were only lightly tracked. The powder was strange in that there were a few inches of light snow on top, with a denser, spongy layer below. It wasn't really deep powder skiing, but the T-Bar terrain was a perfect match for the conditions. We weaved our way through some mellow tree lines in the Trapper's Trail area, and were all too soon back at the base of the T-Bar. On the next run we took the short hike up to the knob we'd seen. We were fortunate that a few others had blazed a trail, because it would have been post-hole city otherwise. The hike took only about 5 minutes to the area we'd chosen, and on the way we wrapped around the back of the knob and noticed some fantastic, steep, untracked lines that led down to the back side. I didn't know if that back side terrain had a name, but now that I've examined the map, I realize it's the topmost section of Stumptown. We mentally marked the area for a subsequent run, and hit our front side stash. The stash was fun; it had a couple of pleasant rolls of terrain through the snow ghosts. We then skied more of the Trapper's Trail trees and hit the T-Bar again. We'd been waiting to take a late lunch, since the crowds suggested the Summit House would be mobbed, but it meant E was starting to run low on energy. I had planned for this run down the back side to be our last before lunch, and thankfully she had some energy in reserve. The run down the steep upper face of Stumptown was awesome, with an excellent covering of north-facing powder. E was really excited by the lower sections of Stumptown. The tree spacing and remoteness made her describe it as a "magical land". I'm sure the 311 boys would agree with her, because it was definitely one of our favorite areas during our 2003 trip. I swear we went right by the same curved tree that Greg had jumped on back then.
By the time we returned to the Summit House to get lunch, it was closing in on 2:00 P.M., but there was still quite a crowd at the tables. We were lucky to find a table on the main floor, and had an enjoyable lunch. As we were leaving, tables were just starting to open up, so it had obviously been quite a busy day. We planned to wind down our day at this point, with the intention of skiing with Ty in the afternoon/evening, so we took a nice long cruiser down Toni Matt. I had liked the way the Toni Matt trail sliced an interesting groomed swath down through Ptarmigan Bowl, and it turned out to be a nice long run. We worked on technique a bit, varying turn size, speed, and weighting between our inside and outside skis. At the bottom, we explored the Village Chair area, the other beginner pod at Big Mountain that is partially lit at night. It looked like another great place for Ty to explore.
We picked up the boys at Big Mountain Kids, and were happy to see that they were still having a great time. Fortunately, Ty was excited to go skiing, so we skied right down to our car at the edge of the Cedar lot, and suited him up. We all skied down to the Outpost Day Lodge, where E took Dylan inside, and I hit the slopes with Ty. Our free day tickets continued to work into the night and Ty had obtained a free 3-day ticket at Big Mountain Kids, so it had been a really inexpensive day in terms of lift access. Big Mountain uses one of those systems where they scan the bar code on your ticket at every lift, so you really need to make sure you have the correct ticket for when and where you're skiing. Ty started out wanting to use the ski leash, but soon he realized that he could handle all the Village Lift trails easily without it, especially if he turned frequently. We did several runs on the Village Lift, enjoying the scene as the lights came on across the mountain. Ty had fun watching other children work on their turns on the Chipmunk and Beargrass trails below the lift, something he really doesn't get to see below the chairlifts at Lost Trail because most of them are over more difficult terrain. Ty got his first opportunity to ride a magic carpet lift (the "Big Easy") but we only did one run because it's not one of the lifts lit for night skiing and they were shutting it down. Actually, a magic carpet would be a nice option for Ty because he would be able to do laps entirely by himself (no need for adult lift loading assistance) but the Big Easy terrain was a little too mellow to offer him much of a challenge. There was a bit of contour in the Beargrass area terrain, so I brought Ty over to try a few "jumps". He liked that a lot, and the extra contour created a few steep pitches that let him work even more on speed control. The Huckleberry Patch trail looped around to the skiers left of the lift, and had some nice bobsled tracks at the edges and in the trees. Ty worked on a couple of these and seemed to enjoy it. Occasionally he would not have the speed to make it to the top of one of the many large bumps in the bobsled tracks, and I'd have to help push him over the top. It was certainly a nice introduction to some new terrain for Ty, and it was a good setup because there weren't any long flat areas to deal with, so the skiing was very continuous. After several runs, we popped into the lodge, met up with E and Dylan, and had some snacks. Then, E went out with Ty and did several more runs. Ty really got a great evening of turns out of the Village Lift area, and I think the variety in terrain was a pleasant change for him from what he was used to at Lost Trail.
When Ty and E started skiing, it began to snow. It was extremely fine and light, but it got us even more psyched for the next day's turns. We finished up skiing at around 6:00 P.M., and after we convinced the lift operator that we wouldn't be going skiing with Dylan (we had no front or backpack with us anyway) we were allowed to ride up the lift with him to get back to the car. Unlike Lost Trail, Big Mountain's policy does not allow you to ski with children in packs, so that caused the attendant to question letting Dylan on the lift in Erica's arms. In the worst case, we would have just driven the car down to the Outpost Lodge, but the lift operator was gracious enough to let us avoid that. Now that we were at the end of the day, my Avocet Vertech indicated that it had seen 13 runs for 12,620 feet of vertical, which is pretty typical for when we are exploring. At 2,000 vertical feet a pop, a typical skier riding the high speed Glacier Chaser could do a ton of vertical in a day at Big Mountain if they wanted.
We grabbed some pizza takeout in Whitefish at Truby's Wood Fired Pizza (a place we'd enjoyed on a previous trip) and brought it back to Meadow Lake. While I was picking up the pizza, I think I saw Bode Miller miss a gate on one of his slalom runs, which unfortunately meant no Olympic medals for him this time around. We watched more Olympics back at the room, and I got to see Apolo Anton Ohno have a great night of short track speed skating by winning the gold in the 500 m and totally pulling out the bronze for his team in the short track relay. Ty and I also enjoyed a trip to the hot tub near our room, which was somewhat underutilized. I bet most people go to the full-blown recreation center a couple of buildings away, but it meant we had the local hot tub to ourselves. It continued to snow lightly while we were in the hot tub, and Ty and I enjoyed the weather and had some good conversation.
The next morning E and I had our timeshare presentation at 9:30 A.M., so we first went into Columbia Falls to grab a little breakfast, and then returned to the hotel. The weather had changed dramatically from our previous morning of 8 degrees F and clear, to 37 degrees F and spitting snow and rain. Meadow Lake had scheduled a baby sitter for us, and she came to the room to look after the boys while we went to learn about the resort. Meadow Lake was apparently started at some point back in the 1970s as a small cabin or lodge, and the owner, Ron Holiday has been gradually building it up over the years. Now there are hundreds of condominium units of various sizes, single family homes, the inn, a golf course, recreation center, etc., etc. We really went in without much intention of buying into a timeshare, but instead wanting to learn more details about the whole timeshare concept in general. Going in, the thought of having to commit to a week's stay every year was what turned me off the most. As it turns out though, most modern timeshares aren't like that. They're based on points. You get a certain number of points each year with your investment, and you can split them up any way you want. You can even carry them over from year to year. With your typical allotment of points, you can stay at really nice five-star places for shorter amounts of time, or more moderate places for longer periods of time. One thing that pleasantly surprised me was that you could use your points in single-day increments, or whatever multi-day increments you wanted. This would have worked for us, because even if we didn't take a week's vacation every year, we could easily use up our seven days at Meadow Lake with a couple of trips up to Big Mountain, and our usual couple of trips up to Glacier National Park. So, for basically $480 a year (plus your investment in the real estate, which would hopefully appreciate), you would have seven nights of lodging in the Whitefish area at nice places with multiple bedrooms, full kitchens, etc. What really sold us on Meadow Lake specifically was that simply by being an owner, you got unlimited access to their private day lodge on Big Mountain. So, while most of the features at Meadow Lake would probably be found at other timeshares, the private day lodge at Big Mountain was the perk that made the purchase worth it for us. If we were planning to stay in Montana long term, we probably would have taken the offer. But since we aren't planning on staying in Montana permanently, the perk of the day lodge would for the most part be lost. At the time of our presentation and tour (the 2 and 3-bedroom units we saw were very nice) we hadn't yet seen the private day lodge to make up our minds, but we would get a chance to visit it in the afternoon when we returned to Big Mountain.
After a quick lunch of sandwiches back at our room in the Meadow Lake Inn, we headed back to Big Mountain for some afternoon skiing. Since Ty had done so well the previous evening, both E and I wanted to go skiing with him together and encourage his continued progress. We decided to let Dylan spend a bit more time at Big Mountain Kids, and since he was just going down for a nap anyway, it worked out well. We'd actually seen the building that housed the Montana Vacation Club day lodge on our previous day, and with a little further description of the location during our Meadow Lake presentation, we found it easily. It sits right in the Big Mountain Village, a few building down from the Big Mountain Kids area, and right below the Easy Rider and Tenderfoot lifts where we wanted to ski with Ty. We brought our equipment into the lodge, and signed in with the attendant using our guest pass. Just inside, there's a room for everyone to store their skis, and local members who ski at Big Mountain all the time simply leave their gear there permanently. It's like having a ski locker on the mountain, with the added bonus of the day lodge facility. The back of the facility contains numerous couches, a few televisions, a large fireplace area, restrooms, a kitchen area with refrigerators for storing lunches, and a bunch of dining tables to use for lunch. This type of lodge seems especially great if you have young children, since you can easily find you own nook of couches out of the way for diaper changes, naps, quiet time, or whatever. There's also a nice assortment of toys around to keep the little ones happy between runs. After we took a quick look around, I went out to park the car. When I returned to get my ski clothes on, E and Ty headed out to grab some lift tickets.
Since we would both be skiing with Ty for the entire afternoon, E purchased lower mountain lift tickets. They were reasonably priced at $28 for the day, and they still let us use everything except the Glacier Chaser and the other upper mountain lifts. We started out with a trip up the Tenderfoot lift, which gave us a bird's eye view of the action in the terrain park below. We saw some pretty great jumps along with some painful looking falls, and Ty commented that he might like to go on jumps like those, but not until he was "bigger". In the village area, there had been a few inches of snow overnight, but at the low elevation of Big Mountain's base (~4,450') it was getting a bit mushy in the afternoon sun. We got off the lift and headed to the right. Ty initially had us pull out the leash, but he actually just wanted it so that we could pull him across the flats. He seemed primed and ready for going without the leash once we'd made our way to the real slopes, so we just let him go. I was initially guiding him toward the flatter sections of terrain, but he was confident he could tackle the steeper intermediate pitch along the edge of the half pipe. He had no problems on what was probably the steepest pitch he'd ever skied on his own, so we were confident he could go without the leash all day. We worked our way back down below the Tenderfoot lift and headed up again. During the lift rides, we could clearly see the huge plumes of smoke that came from the Plum Creek Timber Company's facility in Columbia Falls. The facility was practically next door to the Meadow Lake grounds, so we had a good idea of our lodging location with respect to Big Mountain.
For a little variety, we headed in the direction of the Home Again trail, which ended up (after a bit of navigational trouble) bringing us all the way down through some of the various housing complexes to the Village Chair and the Outpost Lodge. While not very challenging, I think Ty enjoyed this run because of the way it went right along the sides of houses, and under and over bridges. Well, at least Dad enjoyed that part ;). We were now back at the lowest point of the resort, in the area in which Ty had done all his runs the previous evening. We did a couple of fun runs in the Village area, but soon brought Ty back up above the village for a little more challenge. Fortunately, even though Big Mountain doesn't have night skiing on Sundays, the lower lifts run until 4:30 P.M., giving you a little extra time. We skied in the Tenderfoot area until closing, and as we were finishing our last run, Ty decided he want to work a little bit on skiing switch. However, whenever he spun around on the flat terrain, he would come to a stop. It was really interesting to me that he would even think of the concept of skiing backwards at this age, but he probably sees it on so many ski movies that to him, it's just a natural part of skiing. It could also be that he simply thought of the concept himself and he's curious about what it would be like. Personally I find skiing switch a fun challenge, but I think it's more difficult than it might be because all skis aren't necessarily engineered to initiate turns very well in reverse. Overall for the day, I think Ty logged around 2,300 feet of vertical throughout the several runs, although I forgot to record the exact number.
After our final run, we returned to the Montana Vacation Club lodge where our bags were stored. E went off to pick up Dylan, and since he had napped for much of the afternoon, we were only charged for an hour of care (Big Mountain Kids does hourly care for $12 and hour). We were pleasantly surprised, and it made the afternoon even more economical. While E was off getting Dylan, Ty and I set ourselves up in one of the lodge's couch nooks, and Ty played with some of the toys while we changed and I packed up the gear. It was quite a pleasant experience compared to the end of the day melee you sometimes get in the normal ski lodge.
That evening, we all had dinner in the North Fork Grille at Meadow Lake. I ordered the rack of elk special, which was really good. The boys were well behaved, and Ty had what was probably his best restaurant dining experience in a long time. He flirted with the waitresses, colored with crayons, and ate really well. Hopefully he's moving past the stage of requiring constant attention and stimulation during restaurant trips. We had a really good time at dinner, and then headed over to the recreation center for some swimming. The recreation center had a nice indoor pool (they do have an outdoor pool as well, but it was closed for the season), a hot tub, billiards, ping pong, and even an enclosed play area for infants and toddlers. Compared to the housing units we'd visited on our tour, the recreational facilities did feel a bit outdated, by they're supposedly getting a huge renovation this year. When we got home and put Dylan to bed, Mom and Ty headed back out to the local hot tub for a little more soaking. In later discussion, E and I found that we had both really enjoyed the one on one hot tub sessions with Ty, as he talked with each of us quite a bit. Ty woke up in the middle of the night, and since I was up as well, I took him for a drive in the car to get him back to sleep. We drove around the Meadow Lake complex, first in heavy sleet, and then in heavy snow as it changed over. It was fun navigating our way through the maze of wintry roads and giving ourselves at tour of the area.
In the morning, the snow had turned to rain, with little accumulation at the Meadow Lake Inn (elevation 3,110'). We headed home through Whitefish and got to stop in at Baker Street Bistro for bagels (it had been closed on a previous attempt). The drive home was quick, and the weather gradually cleared as we headed south. I found it interesting to compare the weather differences between the Hamilton and the Whitefish areas. Although Whitefish (elevation 3,050') is actually slightly lower in elevation than Hamilton (elevation 3,560'), it seems that Whitefish gets a lot more snow. I think that part of this is due to the locations of the major mountain ranges. When the typical Pacific storms approach Hamilton from the west, the Bitterroot Mountains block much of the moisture, and little if any falls in the Bitterroot Valley. In contrast, the big mountains (like those in Glacier National Park) in the Whitefish area are to the east of town, and Whitefish seems to get more abundant precipitation as the storms slam into the mountains. The difference is really easy to see as you cross from the west side of Glacier National Park (lush vegetation like the Pacific Northwest) to the east side (relatively arid Front Range type of climate). From numerous trips around the state, the northwest corner of Montana has always been my favorite, mostly because of the wetter climate. The Bitterroot Valley is actually pretty lush by Montana standards, and is a great location, but the Whitefish would probably be my choice of places to live in Montana if things were based purely on climate.
It's also interesting to contrast the skiing at Big Mountain to that of Lost Trail, and I really noticed a difference on Sunday when the temperatures began to warm up. The elevation differences between the two ski areas are huge. The summit of Big Mountain (6,813') is below the elevation of Lost Trail's main base! Because of this, Lost Trail's snow is typically a lot drier, and from two trips to Big Mountain so far, the comparison holds. The main face of Big Mountain also faces south, which can add to the deterioration of snow quality on that side. Another obvious difference that surfaced was the lower elevation to which snow falls at Big Mountain compared to the Bitterroot Valley, speaking again to relative mountain/valley locations and down sloping affects. There was substantial snow (settled snow depth of 53 inches in the village) all the way to the base area of Big Mountain at elevation 4,450'. A ski area would never be able to survive on natural snow alone at that elevation in the Bitterroot. The proposed Bitterroot Resort below Lolo Peak, which bottoms out at around 3,700', will definitely need snowmaking (as planned) for the lower elevations. The lower elevation trails that they've cut there have been white for most of the past winter since they face north, but I wonder how thin that covering of natural snow is, even in this year that has been pretty good for snow.
It was great to get up to Big Mountain, especially since it was the first time that E and Ty had a chance to ski there. Ty made huge strides in his skiing, tackling blue terrain on his own with no problems, and it was really fun (and relaxing) for the three of us to ski around and let Ty go wherever he wanted. The promotional special put out by Meadow Lake also made it especially economical.