Big Sky 3/17-21/2018 -- getting to know Moonlight Basin


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  1. #1

    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    Lower Hudson Valley

    Big Sky 3/17-21/2018 -- getting to know Moonlight Basin

    Adding to the long list of reports of others who went to Big Sky.

    As one of the few places that has a good base AND a non-stop string of new snow all season long, seems like everyone’s gone there!

    But the mountain is so vast there not any sign of crowds.

    I’ve been to Big Sky a few years back. I knew it’s huge. With “only” 5 days, I knew I won’t be able to ski everything I want to. So I need to be strategic and focus on enjoying whatever lines I choose to do. After all, it being March, I need to hunt down good snow and avoid the coral reefs formed in the sun facing side of the mountains. I ended up spending a good chunk of my time at Moonlight basin.

    Day 1, I arrived late from my drive from SLC. I decided to take the free mountain host tour to refresh my memory of the mountain, and also get a bit of hint on snow conditions.

    Turned out I was the only guest. So a private tour! The host was originally from the east. So she asked if I like trees. Yep!

    As we went around the mountain, she gave me very detailed and specific direction on how to get to each and every one of the tree runs, and how they compare to each other in terms of difficulty and condition in different part of the day.

    After the tour, I started working through that list. Clouds were moving in and lifting randomly. So I wasn’t in any hurry to ski the bowls in flat light anyway. Trees are more friendly in flat lights.

    It hadn’t snow for a few days. And the temperature had been warm. So some of the tree runs were just harden mogul fields. Fortunately, I had that information in hand. So I can choose to ski them, or not.

    Soon, the clock struck 4. As I lazily cruised towards the main base, I noticed the Ramcharger still had people on it. And upon closer look, it seems they were still letting people on. So I beeline to it and jumped on. Inquiring my chair mates, I found out they run that chair till 5 on March Saturdays!!! Nice! An extra hour of skiing! As I had a late start, that was handy.

    Day 2, Big Sky is so big it has to split its mountain tour into 2 parts. I continued on with part 2, to Moonlight basin. This time, one other guest join me.

    Again, I asked about the tree runs. And again, got detailed descriptions of each. Because Moonlight runs all face north, condition were far superior than many of the runs on the Big Sky side. I made a point of spending more time in that side of the resort (on my previous trip, the 2 were not yet integrated so I didn’t ski Moonlight at all)

    Day 3,
    4 inches!!!

    First, the hero snow on the groomers! No competition. Down one side laying down a fresh track. Back up for another run down the other side to lay down another track. Repeat on the next groomer...

    I was actually waiting for the fog to lift to go into the alpine zone. Plus, some of the upper mountain lift were still on hold for avi control. When around 10, the sun came out and the Powderseeker chair started spinning! That’s the chair that has heated seats!

    I know that chair well. I know many of the lines. So happy powder harvest for the next hour or so. Fast chair, no line, plenty of powder, and visibility too! What more can one ask?

    As the powder got skied out, I moved to the Challenger chair. On my last run off the PowderSeeker, I sampled the south facing side of the bowl. Not enough new snow to cover up the scratchy bumps beneath. So when I got off the Challenger chair, I know enough not to bother with the south facing side. The north facing side had nice deep powder.

    Ran into another guest I met in the hotel hot tub and decided to take a few runs together. She insisted on doing the south facing side. Well, it just proved my suspicion. Next run we were back to the north facing side and she’s much happier.

    Lunch, and back to Moonlight. Now that I had established my snow hunting authority, she’s going where I think there’s good snow. We dived into some of the trees I learned from previous day’s tour. Two very happy chicks in the woods! (ok, middle aged chicks, erhhh, hens?)

    Moonlight closes relatively early. Nor do we want to get stuck on the wrong side of the ridge. So it’s back to the Challenger chair for a couple of last runs.

    Day 4, 2 more inches. Shedhorn and Dakota were the section not covered in the tour. So I decided to check them out on my own. Not so smart. The 2” were just enough to obscure all the little rocks without providing sufficient cushion! My ski base hates me!!!

    Dejected, I decided to head back to Moonlight. From Shedhorn, I could see clearly the Dictator’s chutes off Lone Peak. But with the cloud shrouding the peak, I didn’t feel comfortable going up and trying to find my way in the soup and then ski the double black steeps in zero vis.

    A lazy cruise into Madison lodge for lunch. I happened to share a table with a couple of instructors. As 1pm approaches, they got up for their afternoon lineup, but they heard there’s probably no students for afternoon lessons anyway.

    I tentatively ask what they do if there’s only 1 student sign up for class. (Some place will shorten the lesson, other places will add a small surcharge to turn it into private) Well in Moonlight, they simply run the full length at the same price, one on one.

    So a quick verbal assessment and a deal was struck that they’ll find their best instructor for me! With the explicit desire to go to the double black territory, flat light or not.

    The instructor, Norrell, ask if I have my heart set on Lone Peak. Well, I knew we were several chairs away from the tram. I’d prefer to work on techniques needed to tackle the terrain where I can see. Besides, there’s all the Headwater chutes right there staring at us. I was sure I’d get to exercise what I learned.

    The lesson went nicely. I “clicked” with the instructor. 2 1/2 hr of undivided attention can yield quite surprising benefits! We skied the Headwater as I expected. I got both technical pointers as well as a detailed enumeration of the different characteristics of every skiable lines.

    We ended the lesson with 1) the blessing of my instructor that I would NOT be in over my head if I choose to go up the Lone Peak tram and tackle the Dictator chutes on my own; 2) she’ll be free the next day if I want further lesson AND a guided tour off the top of Lone Peak.

    There’s still time for one more run on the Challenger chair to reinforce my new found confidence and practiced fluidity on the steep side.

    Day 5, final day of my MAX pass.

    I had to pack and check out. So it wasn't exactly first chair. Besides, there's no new snow so no big hurry. What was forecast to be clear sky in actuality had lots of cloud. I had been up the top of Lone Peak in my previous trip. It's confusing and signage is always sparse. With the peak in the cloud, it'll be slightly tricky to find the right chute. So I waited a bit, just lapping some of the north facing runs, both groomers and non-groomers. Snow was actually surprisingly good despite no new snow. Especially the Headwater chutes. The lack of skier traffic really helps in snow preservation.

    By mid-morning, the peak was still in and out of the clouds. I made my mind up I'd prefer the shepherding of an instructor for my foray to the top of Lone Peak. But there's still time to put in a few more runs before the afternoon lesson time.

    After texting Norrell to give her a heads up on my afternoon plan, I took a "touring" run on the 3 mile long round about blue Horseshoe which wraps around the edge of Moonlight. The view probably would be pretty amazing but the cloud got in the way. So it's just a relaxing cruise before my lesson.

    We worked on a few more tactical moves before a knee shaking traverse on the backside of Headwater (sun baked, refrozen), only because it's the most direct way from Madison base to the tram. (view of the "Pinnacle rock")

    Short wait on the tram. Once on top, there's nothing but cloud. Can barely see people 10 yard away. I stayed close to Norrell so I don't accidentally slip off the traverse into the more southerly Dictator chutes. Then, we emerged from the cloud at the top of Marx! Just in time to negotiate around the few rocks at the entrance.

    So the skiing was enjoyable and no stress. Snow was soft and plenty deep. Not a rock in sight. Linked turns all the way (with a stop or two to discuss routes and point out landmarks for future reference). It all ended too soon.

    Bottom of Marx continues onto the Shedhorn and Dakota area. The day before, I didn't have good time on the area. But that was in the morning. My mistake. In the afternoon, the snow had soften to lovely corn. The lesson turned more to playing in trees, plus practicing ski backwards on the empty groomers. Just watching and imitating. Was playful and fun.

    Lone Peak:


    BS is a huge place. I only scratched the surface in 5 days. Most likely will return next winter (as BS will be on IKON pass)

    Attached Images Attached Images
    Last edited by abc; Apr 15, 2018 at 10:46 AM.

  2. #2
    That was an excellent trip description. Much appreciated. I too visited BS this year for the first time but for only two days. Like you only scratched the surface.

    Sent from my iPhone using AlpineZone

  3. #3

    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    Lower Hudson Valley
    This is actually my 2nd visit to Big Sky!

    But that place is so big I've still only scratched the surface even after TWO visits!

    My previous visit was some 5-6 years ago, I stayed about 5-6 days also. That time, I spent all my time in Big Sky itself as Moonlight Basin was a separate area back then. Within Big Sky, I spent a lot of my time on the challenger chair and the predecessor of Powderseeker chair. As those were the north facing runs with the best snow (it was similar time of the season).

    I also went to the top of Lone Peak on that trip too, and came down on Liberty Bowl. I wasn't too thrilled with that aspect off the top. It was just one gigantic bump field that stretches on and on forever (600' vert?). So this time I aimed for the Dictators instead.

    On my to-do list for next visit, is the North Snowfield off the peak! (that one takes a lot more commitment: beacon, sign-up for a 15 minute designated time window AND BE THERE when the time comes.

    Big Sky is super-UN-crowded. But compare to Big Sky, Moonlight is even LESS crowded! Basically, lift lines are extremely rare. You often have the runs all to yourself. Powder lasts hours even on the groomer, and can linger for a day or two in the trees after a storm. I felt I really got spoiled rotten by what Moonlight has to offer.

    The place is just unreal!
    Last edited by abc; Apr 9, 2018 at 10:28 PM.

  4. #4
    Good read. Always been interested in the Moonlight side. One of these days!
    2019/2020 season

    Berkshire East [12/20, 1/7, 1/10, 1/22, 1/24]
    Bretton Woods [1/3, 1/30]
    Cannon [2/19]
    Gunstock [1/2]
    Mad River Glen [1/29, 2/11]
    Magic [3/1, 3/8]
    Mount Snow [11/14, 11/21, 12/2]
    Pico [2/23]
    Smugglers Notch [2/12]
    Wachusett [12/16]

  5. #5
    Nice TR, thanks.
    Moonlight reminds me more of New England than typical trails out West.

    This year when we went, Liberty Bowl was mostly all fresh powder and was an absolute blast. If it gets all mogul'd up though, I could see it being a pain in the ass.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    Lower Hudson Valley
    The trouble with "typical western terrain" is... it's wide open!

    Absolute joy to ski when the sun is out, which is usually often enough.

    But when it's snowing, or the cloud came in, it's extremely disorienting. Last year, I skied rendezvous (Jackson Hole) in the middle of a storm. The snow was great, but I didn't enjoy it at all. Nor did most others I came across on my way down, from the look of it. Everyone was falling over frequently because the lack of reference on what's up and what's down. (I seem to be affected by poor visibility days more and more these days )

    Lower down in elevation, trees provides reference in a snowy/cloudy/flat-light day. That's what Moonlight is good for. And there's still enough challenging terrain too.
    Last edited by abc; Apr 18, 2018 at 11:25 AM.

  7. #7
    Can’t believe 20” in past week with 123” base up top and 86” base at bottom and last weekend of operation! Bet a good number of locals are going to be going through withdrawals. Lol.

    Sent from my iPhone using AlpineZone

  8. #8
    Nice report.

    I have 2 weeks/12 days at Big Sky and am just starting to get to know the mountain. Probably going for week 3 next winter.
    form is a 4 letter word

  9. #9

    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    Lower Hudson Valley
    Quote Originally Posted by crank View Post
    I have 2 weeks/12 days at Big Sky and am just starting to get to know the mountain. Probably going for week 3 next winter.
    I’m in exact same history.

    Next year I’m definitely going for my week 3.
    Last edited by abc; Apr 21, 2018 at 11:22 AM.

  10. #10
    This is great info, I'm planing a solo trip to Big Sky later in March.

    Where did you stay?
    Did you bring skis or rent?


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