Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Big Sky, MT: 02/27 - 03/02/2013

Looking up the Lone Peak Tram at Big Sky, Montana.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.

We upped the ante for this year’s “guys’ ski trip” and headed to Montana for 3 days of skiing at Big Sky and a day at Bridger Bowl. Although I used to ski out West regularly, it’s been 10 years since my last trip. As much as I love Eastern skiing, that’s a long time for an avid skier to go cold turkey on the terrain and snow conditions that can only be found in the West.

After narrowly avoiding travel delays from last Wednesday’s winter weather, we touched down in Bozeman early, just before noon. An hour later five of us (out of nine) were riding the Powder Park lift out of Bridger Bowl’s base area for a bonus half-day of skiing – it’s that easy to get to Bridger from the airport.

Bridger Bowl - just 30 minutes from the Bozeman airport. Highly recommended.

The view from our cabin. Who doesn't love the sound of avalanche control guns in the morning?

Howard on our first run at Big Sky, snow coming down hard

Big Sky, our ultimate destination, lies about an hour south of Bozeman, so we were able to do the drive down from Bridger Bowl in daylight, which was a good thing since it allowed us our first and only view of Lone Peak for the next 48 hours.

Awesome tree shots off the Swiftcurrent lift - Howard (red) and Greg (tan)

Paul in the Swiftcurrent trees

Wounded Knee - they call it a glade, I call it a trail. Either way one of my favorites.

Howard skiing Congo, another fun trail/glade

I love waking up in the morning to the sound of avalanche control guns echoing off the mountains. It had already snowed something like 18 or 20 inches in the previous four or five days, and flakes started coming down again around 8am on Thursday, our first day at Big Sky. If it’s not going to be bluebird, I’m more than happy to ski in the snow.

Waiting for the tram, Big Sky day 1

Socked-in visibility at the top

Greg below the cloud deck, halfway down Liberty Bowl

We’ve got a pretty diverse group of nine: banker, lawyer, commodities trader, skier trapped in an accountant’s body (me), and ability levels that range from low-intermediate (no names here) on up. Most are skiers but two are snowboarders. I’m the only full-time telemarker, three others are occasional free-heelers. After a couple of warm-up runs down from mid-mountain, our group started to split up and a half dozen of us decided it was time for a tour of the glades.

Howard skiing powder bumps under the Challenger lift

Highway, one of the less steep runs off Challenger

The Challenger trees never disappoint

Steep line far to skier's right off Challenger

More Challenger steeps

It didn’t take long to figure out that what is marked on the trail map as a “glade” is really a trail with some standing trees. The real goods lie in the off-the-map trees, which seemed to be skiable just about everywhere. Boot-to-knee-deep lines were as easy to find as just pointing your skis to the left or right. With snow coming down hard for a good part of the morning, (4 to 6 inches by noon?), I asked a lift attendant if today counted as a powder day. With a grin on his face that seemed to say “silly New Yorkers” he shook his head and said “not unless we get another six or eight.”

Marx (r), Lenin and the Dictator Chutes (l)

Dakota Territory - It was all Howard's idea to ski the avalanche terrain

One skier getting ready drop in next to the Vuarnet Cliffs, two already in.

After lunch, the snow slowed enough that we decided to make a run off the summit tram. Rising nearly 1500 vertical feet to the 11,166 summit of Lone Peak, the tram provides access to an amazing array of steep double-black diamond runs (more on the tram and summit terrain later). But with pea soup visibility, the only viable route down for us was the single-black Liberty Bowl, where endless powder fluff solidified my resolve to return to the summit when (hopefully) visibility improved.

Waiting for the tram. The Gullies are the lines down the big face on the left of the peak

Two skiers in Big Couloir

Gullies close-up

Summit close-up

The next day, Friday, most of our group headed to the Challenger lift, a double chair that gives access to some of Big Sky’s steepest terrain. I found my personal “pucker limit” far to skier’s right – an area marked as the Cache Trees on Big Sky’s trail map – where I backed off a line that was so steep that I thought it might slide. Besides some great steeps, we found excellent tree skiing in the Challenger (St. Alphonse) trees, trees that the lift attendant told us “never disappoint.”

Looking down from the top of the tram

Close-up of the tram base from the summit

Greg (skiing, in red) heading towards Marx

Marx to the right, Gullies to the left

Later in the day we explored the Dakota Territory (far looker’s left on the trail map) and I found a steep double-black line (the Vuarnet Cliffs) that offered redemption from the earlier “Cache Trees incident,” though not without some hesitation before I dropped in from the cornice. Just as I was about to jump in, my cell phone rang. Talk about breaking your concentration! Happy to stall, I picked up. It was Greg with 3 or 4 other guys from our group, who had skied around and were watching from below: “C’mon dude, jump!” Hey, what are friends for? Of course once I finally made my move the skiing was just fine.

Lone Peak and the summit bowl

Crossing over to Dictator Chutes from Lenin

Looking back up Dictator Chute

Gullies 2 (between the bumps) and 1 (to the left), both awesome

Finally, on Saturday the summit was clear. Flat light was discouraging early in the morning, but by 10am the sun was breaking through the clouds. Not quite bluebird conditions, but certainly the best visibility so far. Greg and I headed for the tram, and while we waited in line (the tram takes only 15 skiers per cycle – we had a nearly 30 minute wait) the sun came out strong. Greg skied the first run (Marx) with me, but when he headed down for lunch I decided to stay high and ski the tram all day. I got in four tram laps of some of the most exciting double-black terrain that I’ve skied in a decade: Marx, Lenin, the Dictator Chutes (D1), 1st and 2nd Gullies, and Cron’s. Photos don’t do justice to the steepness of the summit terrain, nor to the excellent snow conditions. To me, this is the type of terrain that defines big Western skiing, terrain I had almost forgotten that I crave.

Missed a 5th tram lap on Saturday by less than a minute

No trip report from Big Sky can be complete without at least mentioning Big Couloir, described as “The classic hardcore run at Big Sky, you’ll need to bring your avalanche gear and sign out with ski patrol to hit this slope, which reaches over 50 degrees at its steepest point. The secret is to make it past the no-fall zone to the Dog’s Leg, where you wait for your ski partner to drop in. But the most bloodcurdling part isn’t even the terrain – it’s the eyes that are watching you from the tram as it passes above, and the pressure to perform can be more frightening than anything (” Luckily, my avalanche gear was at home, so I didn’t need to worry about whether I’d have the nerves for the entrance, a cornice drop directly into the super steep. Maybe I’ll find out next time. Hopefully that won’t be another 10 years.

More photos on Facebook, Album 1 and Album 2.


  1. Sounds like a nice trip. I've been there in the summer (actually September) and I hiked to the summit, but I wondered what some of those chutes would look like in winter. Moving to that area, with its combination of skiing and fly fishing has been discussed in our household a lot recently.

  2. Nice report and pics!

    Big Sky is VERY high up on my list for my first trip out west. Tie between there and Utah right now. Those pics of Big Sky really speak to me!

    How were the lines for that tram mid-week? You wrote 30 minutes on a Saturday? That boggles my mind. The tram at Jay can be 30 minutes on a Saturday. Must be obscenely low traffic at Big Sky to only have to wait 30 minutes on a Saturday to access that type of terrain.

    How much terrain required avi gear? Anything in addition to the Big Couloir?

    1. The tram line on Thurs, when we skied Liberty in poor vis, was about 15 minutes. On Sat, the tram line got successively shorter: 30, 25, 20 then 15 min. At one point the tram stopped running for about 10 minutes, but other than that it dumps a load of 15 skiers at the summit every 5 or 6 minutes.

      Nothing I skied required avi gear. Besides BC, I beleive avi gear is recommended for the A-Z chutes, but I don't beleive they actively police that. For BC you have to sign out with patrol, in that regard it is similar to the slides at Whiteface. Lokl, on the NY Ski Blog forum, can probably give a more complete answer to the avi gear question.

  3. Hey Jeff!
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Big Sky to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!

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