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Big Sky, Montana: March 12-14, 2021

thetrailboss

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Big Sky Montana
Date
Mar 12, 2021
Snow Conditions
  1. Packed Powder
Resort: Big Sky, Montana

Dates: March 12-14, 2021

Conditions: Sun, temps warming into the 40's; Spring Conditions/Variable Conditions

Report: Ten years ago we moved to Salt Lake. Though we had several great areas in our backyard, I quickly looked to see where other areas were outside the Wasatch and was thrilled to see that we were relatively close to many other areas in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. In September 2011 we took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Jackson, Wyoming and was just blown away by those mountains.

At some point, probably on a late night of taking care of our new baby daughter, I Googled Big Sky and ran some numbers as to travel routes and times. From Salt Lake, it is a relatively easy 5.5 hour drive. Yet, it took me 10 years to finally get up there.

A few months ago I staked out this four day weekend as the trip. It was my daughter's parent/teacher conference weekend. As life goes, plans change. A work training was moved to that week and would end on Thursday afternoon cutting it to a three-day weekend. My daughter now has a "hot/cold" reaction to skiing and was more interested in staying home than skiing. My wife was not feeling like the drive or finding accommodations for the dog. So it ended up being a much-needed solo trip.

I drove up to Idaho Falls Thursday evening. As expected, the worst part of the drive was the first hour in which, due to traffic, I only made it about 20 miles. After that it was smooth sailing. I landed at my hotel in Idaho Falls right off of I-15. I'd been to this Fairfield Inn several times for work and it's a great location and a clean hotel. I fueled up, bought some few remaining necessities, and basically hit the bed early.

Honestly, I was too excited to sleep and was up at about 6am and on the road right after 7:15 am. The remaining drive was about 2:30 or so. From I-15, U.S. 20 heads north and east to West Yellowstone, where I banged a left onto U.S. 191 north into, and out of, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park before coming to Big Sky. The drive from West Yellowstone to Big Sky is about one hour. It is an easy and scenic drive but watch out for NPS Law Enforcement who were out everyday stopping folks (the speed limit drops from 70 to 55 inside the park limits). Traffic was relatively light. I opted to stay in West Yellowstone due to cost, convenience, amenities, and to scout out that town. To give you an idea of cost difference--I stayed at a Holiday Inn owned by Delaware North Companies (the major concessionaire for Yellowstone) and got a first-floor King Bed Room with in-room jacuzzi for $140 a night. A basic room at the new Marriott property on the Big Sky access road was $600 per night.

Route 20 is straight, fast, and scenic. About an hour north of Idaho Falls it goes from a divided highway to a two-lane highway with a speed limit of 65-70. The road leaves the flatlands of the Snake River plateau and climbed up to Island Park and eventually to the edge of Yellowstone. The Centennial Mountains quickly take up your windshield and mark the Idaho/Montana border in this area. But Lone Peak is much taller and more imposing.

I arrived at the day lot at Big Sky just shy of 9:50am. Great time. After booting up, hitting the restroom, and getting my bearings, I opted to hit Ramcharger first as there was a considerable line for Swift Current.

March 12, 2021: First Impressions, Lone Peak

A couple years ago we all heard about Ramcharger--the first 8-person bubble chair with heated seats in the U.S. if not North America. I can say it is legit. I used it a lot during my three days because it never had a line. As a single I was able to pretty much ski on. The longest wait was 2 minutes. It is comfortable, fast, and impressive. That said, it is a lot of capacity going only to Andesite Side without any access to the Lone Peak/Moonlight Basin side. I lost count of how many locals told me how they can't wait for Swift Current to be upgraded. It was set to be replaced in 2020 with a 6-person bubble, but that was pushed to 2021.

First run was down Hangman's which was wide, steep, and fast. The views were simply amazing. After that I headed over to Swift Current and skied over to Powderseeker. This lift, too, was also a favorite of mine due to comfort, speed, and lack of a line. I lapped Morningstar, Ski Time, and Never Sweat. After those runs I chose to stand in the Tram Line for Lone Peak thinking that Friday would be the least crowded day. The line was about 30-40 minutes long and I had a bluebird day with unrestricted visibility off the summit. I took in the views and took lots of pictures before heading down Liberty Bowl to the top of Dakota. It was a long and satisfying run with snow that was not powder but not frozen granular. It had been hit by the sun but had a little bit of crust. I was still excited.

I got largely untracked snow on Cardio Trio due to the fact that Dakota was dead due to a bearing failure. I cut over to Hippy Highway and found myself at the base of Shedhorn that held lots of soft snow and nice sunshine. I skied Upper Sunlight/Sunlight, Yellow Mule, Shedhorn Liftline, Chicken Head Bowl, and Lupine. The porta-potty at Shedhorn Grill made for a nice pitstop. The crowd was pretty big at the Shedhorn Grill, a yurt on the side of the mountain.

From here I was still eager to check out more terrain. Since it was now about 2:15pm, I figured that I would close out by checking out the other side of the resort. I skied Skittles down to Ramcharger (a long run) and then skied down Ponderosa to Southern Comfort. The lines were a tad long for me so I ducked into the former Spanish Peaks area and skied Hook 'Em Hoom and then Take-A-Bough down to the Lewis & Clark High Speed Bubble Quad. There was NOBODY on this side and, honestly, Spanish Peaks was more about homes and the club rather than skiing and ski terrain. The new Montage is coming along.

It was now after 3:15 or so and I wanted to hit Thunder Wolf before closing out. I rode Southern Comfort and then struggled to find the "right" way to get to Big Horn. I say struggled because it was very easy to get disoriented and end up on the wrong run heading the wrong way. I cut through the trees and then headed down Ponderosa to Big Horn. Wow--the lower part of Big Horn is nothing short of impressive. It had consistent pitch right down to the lift and plenty of room. Wow.

By now the crowds were winding down and Thunder Wolf was pretty quiet. I did a spin down Elk Park Ridge, which was skied off at this point in the day, but still fun. Last run was down Safari to the base. According to the app, I clocked in over 33 miles of skiing with not much of a break.

Stay tuned for pictures from the first day and the next day report.
 
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thetrailboss

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Pics from Day One:

First view from the road:

0FA23377-7C11-4DD1-A57C-610322A0883D.jpeg

The top of Ramcharger and a view of Lone Peak:

FDF03382-44F8-4E3E-9A45-EF930A94F839.jpeg

Selfie with Lone Peak:

BAED72F8-A321-437F-8931-27E3D3015E64.jpeg


Powder Seeker Area:
F7D53FEC-807E-4753-9B6D-157AD7A8A51E.jpeg
 

thetrailboss

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A side-shot of Liberty Bowl:

485BAB25-E371-4536-BFBB-302EFBBDC829.jpeg

Dakota Lift with Cardio Trio Underneath:
EC774341-B66C-49AA-BE03-3C8C0CF38CC2.jpeg

Dakota Lift with Cardio Trio:
AC6ADABC-142C-4334-B2E3-00DDAF3469C1.jpeg

You Were Warned....
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Shedhorn--Formerly Known As Ramcharger
747EFE93-D2C5-44BC-84B2-4C98A257DCF7.jpeg


F75EF34D-6D37-478C-BA7E-4DAE6F066694.jpeg

Shedhorn Grill
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19723E97-D2B4-4BC4-AEA1-EFC090B00B7A.jpeg
 

thetrailboss

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The New Montage at Spanish Peaks and Empty Slopes

05BCB810-1140-47C4-A76C-BA5303809641.jpeg

Southern Comfort with a Spring Break Crowd
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Bubbles and Empty Slopes at Spanish Peaks
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Bubble with Former Spanish Peaks Logo
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Big Horn
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The Base Area
D4EF562E-258F-40B8-8529-B728D4B9B20A.jpeg
 

jimk

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In a way, the solo visit allows you to really concentrate on exploring. I'm jealous of the tram skiing and scenery photos. I was there two years ago for four days. Lots of new snow and great conditions, but low viz and stormy. Tram was mostly closed and the few times it was open it had 1 hour+ waits, so I never got up there.
That yurt was super busy when I was there, seems like it would be a candidate for replacement with brick and mortar lodge.
 

thetrailboss

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In a way, the solo visit allows you to really concentrate on exploring. I'm jealous of the tram skiing and scenery photos. I was there two years ago for four days. Lots of new snow and great conditions, but low viz and stormy. Tram was mostly closed and the few times it was open it had 1 hour+ waits, so I never got up there.
That yurt was super busy when I was there, seems like it would be a candidate for replacement with brick and mortar lodge.
Yes, I covered a lot of ground. You probably had better skiing conditions than I did. I had mainly spring conditions and a lot of locals told me that snow was low.
 

thetrailboss

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Day 2: March 13, 2021 (Moonlight Basin Day)

While driving back to the Hotel, I thought about my strategy for the second day of my visit. I knew that Saturday would be the busiest day and multiple folks told me that it was the beginning of spring break. So I wanted to arrive early for parking and probably seek out the side of the area that would not be as crowded. From what I saw, most of the traffic was at the Mountain Village. There was a line at the Lone Peak Logo Store just to shop for Big Sky merch. So it was going to be busy. In looking at Big Sky, I had read about Moonlight Basin and had seen that there was a lot of terrain on that side. Before leaving for the day Friday, I took another drive over to the Madison Base Area to do some recon. This area is about 3 miles away from the Mountain Village and requires a windy drive through some of the developments. But I figured that this was a good option to avoid traffic and to get a different perspective.

So on Saturday morning I was up early and on the road. Despite the early hour, the NPS officers were in full force doing speed enforcement and checking snowmobiles. Drive carefully.

The drive was no problem except that there was more traffic on the access road. All but two of the cars ahead of me turned off at Mountain Village. The other two, with Montana Plates, continued to Madison Base. I pulled in about 8:40am and was literally the fifth car in the dirt parking lot. The parking attendants had not even started setting up the parking lot. All the other cars were locals and their kids. So far the strategy had paid off.

The base area is minimal at best. A Sprung Structure serves as a daylodge/restaurant/pub/restrooms. There were three other structures (likely modular units) with wood clapboarding that served as the small store, ticket office, and ski school. For me it was perfect--there were no crowds and no distractions from the damn fine view of Lone Peak from this side.

From what I saw, this area is the base for multiweek local ski school programs. It makes sense because there is plenty of room and a nice dedicated learning area. I skied down to the main lift for this side--Six Shooter--a six-pack. At 8,457 feet long it is the longest chairlift in Montana. It was just after 9am when I made it down to find a line of people and a still lift. It was clear that something was wrong. I opted to hop on Derringer in the hopes of finding an alternative route out since Six Shooter was having "electrical issues". As I rode the fixed grip quad I realized that there was no other lift out of here. As I skied past the base area I saw the shuttle leave the parking lot. "Oh crap", I thought. Later in the day I also found out that it is very easy to overshoot the base area and end up at Six Shooter--about 250 vertical feet below the base area. The only real way to get back to the base area is by taking Cinnabar.

After another spin on Derringer, I saw that Six Shooter was spinning and got into line. On the ride up I talked with some locals who told me that the lift is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the skiing is great on this side; a curse because it has a lot of mechanical issues. Take note before your visit.

My initial game plan was to explore this side by skiing Six Shooter and Lone Tree as there was TONS of terrain to try. But I was spooked by the mechanical delay and after two quick spins down Merriwether I was anxious to move out of this area for the time being. Merriwether was a fine cruiser that offered lots of nice turns and rolls. It was groomed impeccably. At probably two miles long it offered incredible vistas and had many intersecting trails and glades. It also had enough variation and room to entertain one on multiple spins.

I decided to try Headwaters 2 to explore the expert terrain on this side before moving over to Lone Tree. The lift requires a short hike above Six Shooter and was empty. I soon found out why--almost all the terrain underneath it was closed and was more bare than had appeared from the distance. I knew that I could use the lift to get over to the famous Challenger Area and then drop down to the main part of Big Sky. Honestly, Challenger and Headwaters had the worst ski conditions on the mountain. There was a lot of exposed grass and rock in between giant bumps. It had been skied out or was icy. It reminded me of Castlerock on a bad day--technical skiing for sure but not at all fun. The traverse down to Moonlight was narrow and had thin cover--akin to the Cirque Traverse at Snowbird. One local told me that Challenger is quite exposed and often loses snow due to the wind.

After getting down Moonlight, I decided to ski the Fast Lane to the Mountain Village and to get up into the Bowl for some nice morning turns and to work the lines on the Turkey Traverse. Despite the long line at Swift Current, the singles line moved pretty quickly. I headed to Powderseeker and found once again no real lines to speak of. For the next couple of hours I worked the main runs and the Turkey Traverse. This area reminded me of Mineral Basin at Snowbird in that I could enjoy nicely groomed runs and play on different lines and aspects to find good snow. I was able to hit lines in the Bowl, Low Bench, Blackrock Gully, and the South Wall. The snow was chalky and edgeable. It was a real delight.

I decided to go and ski Ramcharger side and work some of the nice groomed cruisers as the off-trail options were hit or miss. In quick time I had hit Hangman's Ambush, and Silver Knife. Lunch involved me pulling off the trail and enjoying a homemade sandwich with a stunning view of Lone Peak.

Seeing that things were warming up, and that it was getting later in the afternoon, I decided to go big once more hoping that the sun had softened the upper reaches of Lone Peak. I headed over to Swift Current--which stopped for about ten minutes--before going to Powderseeker and then getting in the Tram Line. At this point it was past 2pm and I knew that I would be getting one of the last Trams to the top. I talked to a local in the line for a while and he told me a lot of tales and gave me some great intel on what to ski.

I stepped off the Tram at 3:20pm and knew that this was probably my last run as I had to get back to Moonlight Basin and my car. My intent was to try Marx, but as I skied across the Yeti Traverse a commotion got my attention. What I saw was a herd of mountain goats--about 10 of them--sunning themselves on the exposed rocks of the mountain side. Amazing! After a couple pics, I continued on to a sweet line and decided to do it. I ended up skiing Lenin down to the top of Shedhorn. The snow was not quite soft but was skiable. I was surprised that it had not softened much more. The lower part was just getting soft and the Duck Walk was pretty much corn. I skied around Lone Peak to the top of Swift Current and then down BRT Road to Iron Horse 4 which took me to the top of Lazy Jack. I missed a turn and ended up going down Elk Horn all the way to Six Shooter, which was about to close for the day. I skied Cinnabar--double checking the signs at each intersection and pulled into the Madison Base area at about 4pm.

Another incredible day with 34 miles of skiing on the northern side of the area. I was tired but eager to ski more the following day. I loaded up, stopped at a gas station off of 191 to get some Moonlight Basin stickers, and headed back to West Yellowstone knowing that the next morning, "spring ahead" would seem pretty early.
 

thetrailboss

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Day 2 Pics:

Madison Base Area and its View:

C87B7389-F2A6-47AF-A064-B94571B7DD10.jpeg

Someone Braving the Headwaters/Stillwaters Chutes:
A9B44B64-1A5E-4F15-981F-04CE5B9193DE.jpeg

Meriwether:
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Six Shooter:
4967F8FB-6900-4404-979A-2AB8FC685049.jpeg

Headwaters 2:
7F24B348-C830-428D-B9CF-0903E588AD5D.jpeg

Challenger:
BC6020EB-ABDF-4B50-AA43-2043CB88C3A1.jpeg

Explorer 2:
0B60CA69-2B75-49F9-BFD2-BDF6BEC17F74.jpeg


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In the "Bowl"
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The "Bowl"
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jaytrem

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Great report, really enjoy all the details. Thanks for posting!
 

thetrailboss

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Day 3: March 14, 2021 (Fast and Furious)

Before I knew it, I was on my last day of the trip. March 14th sticks in my mind because March 14, 2020 was the last lift served day for that season. I was visiting family and skiing Burke when literally overnight almost every ski area abruptly closed. Burke was one of the first. While today was my last day at Big Sky, I hoped that my season would continue unlike 2020. So far it has, but it was close.

I say close because, perhaps because of skiing and driving, or perhaps because of "spring ahead", I did not feel completely on my game at first. In the walk between my car and Swift Current I fell three times on ice. Fortunately I only had a couple minor bruises and no major injuries. It certainly was a wake-up call for me and confirmed the need to "take it easy" on this last day. That was my plan after all and why I had pushed it the previous two days.

I figured that the time change would leave many folks eager to sleep in and have a later start. I was right. I managed to get a good parking spot in the main day lot. The line for Swift Current at opening bell was manageable. My plan was to cruise around on the groomers because I was tired and the snow would not soften until an hour later than the day before. Plus, I had a hard stop time to begin my drive home so that I got back at a reasonable hour. Yet I was still able to crank out another 34+ miles of skiing between 9 and 2pm.

My primary target first thing was Powderseeker. The bowl was basking in the early morning sun and the main runs were groomed to perfection. My Monster 88's ripped through the cord with ease--hero conditions. It was evident that the groomers had been on them in the early morning because the grooming was like chilled butter under the skis--nice and easy to cut through and fun. I lapped Powderseeker yo-yoing between the 2-3 groomed routes down and enjoying the relative quiet atmosphere. The lifty lost count of how many times I passed him. It was great. But my instinct proved correct because when I ventured off the cord I found sun damaged snow that was not close to soft. That said, I could see that the Bowl was still chalky goodness because it did not get sun and I made note.

It was a coincidence that I rode up on one of my runs with a man and his son from Boston who I had met the day before. Since we knew each other, and had rapport, we traded notes on where the good skiing was. He was thinking of doing the Tram but I told him to wait until much later and suggested that the Bowl was a better bet. Besides, there were no real lines. He thanked me and told me that Stillwater Bowl still had nice lines in it. That reminded me that I had missed skiing that side of Moonlight Basin and needed to get over there at some point on this trip. I thanked him and decided I needed to get over there before it got much later. I skied down BRT Road over to Iron Horse 4.

As I rode up Iron Horse 4 I looked at my pictures and listened to my music on my headset. After I put my phone in my pocket, or so I thought, I noticed that the signal started to break up and then completely end. Weird I thought. I reached in for my phone to restart the 'Dead song I was listening to. No phone. Unbeknownst to me my phone had escaped from my pocket and fell off the chair and onto Iron Maiden below me--a bump run. I did not see it under me or on the liftline, but took note of what tower I was near.

I quickly skied off at the top and was met with yells from folks behind me telling me of my rookie mistake and telling me where it was. I skied down Iron Maiden--looking right under the liftline. No dice. I hoped that one of the few skiers I saw on the run had turned it in to the liftie. When I got to the bottom he did not have it. So I rode up again with my eyes glued to the snow below me as I rode up. Sure enough I spotted it--it had landed vertically into the snow. The force from the impact pushed it below the snow level so that one would not easily see it. I made note and found myself skiing quickly back down hoping that a passing skier or rider had not covered it in their wake. About 30 minutes after it fell I had my phone--in one piece and undamaged. A real testiment to the 511 case and the protective glass I had applied. It was no worse for wear.

Now it was back to business--or was it? The cold and GPS tracking for the Big Sky App had sucked the battery down to 13%. I plugged in my portable battery and it did not charge. Crap. What to do? I decided that the best option was to detour to Madison Base to warm it up and buy a new cord if needed. I made sure to let the liftie know that I found my phone. "You're very lucky!" He said. I agreed.

Despite knowing that it was easy to miss the turn to Madison Base area, I did just that in my haste to get to the lodge. Instead, I was at Six Shooter. Pay careful attention to where you are and know that ONLY Cinnabar gets you to the Base. My mistake this time was due to getting disoriented at the top of Iron Horse 4.

My mistake just meant one more run off of Six Shooter before a break. First world problems. Turns out that the cord shorted because of snow/water in the phone's charging port. An $8 cord from the Madison Base store fixed the problem and gave me an excuse to look once more for a cool Moonlight Basin souvenir. A nice shirt fit the bill. Like the other employees, Nate in the store was nice to talk with and really helpful.

With a new cord and my phone charging, I was back out on the trails and hit Lone Tree 4. I followed the advice I had been given and made the short hike uphill to access the highest gravity traverse into Stillwater Bowl. I opted for a line right under Three Forks and enjoyed chalky goodness right down to the Stillwater Traverse. I ducked into a nice tree line and popped out right at the base of Lone Tree 4.

Instead of another spin in the bowl, I realized that I needed to keep moving as it was now past noon. I had wanted to scope out Horseshoe, the northernmost trail at Moonlight, so as to scan out this side of the mountain. It was worth it--while Meriwether was fun Horseshoe was spectacular. The long run had few people on it and was nicely groomed. It reminded me a bit of Lollapalooza at Sunday River's Jordan Bowl. And, like other parts of Big Sky, the options that branched off of this run, both on and off the map. were endless.

My last goal for the day was to get back to Thunder Wolf once more. So I worked my way back to Ramcharger and skied Big Horn and then Elk Park Ridge, which was just starting to soften. I skied down Silver Knife to the base, got a couple last minute items, rode up one of the Magic Carpets and glided down to the parking area. Once again the app said I had covered over 34 miles and with only one short break. Absolutely amazing day and trip!
 

jaytrem

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I've been there. First day of the season one year, I slipped on the ice and popped out my shoulder a bit. My skis also managed to clock me in the head. Was popping out a lot back then, so not a big deal. Never the less, rough start to the season. Also fell down the stairs at Holiday Valley, hadn't even put my ski boots on yet.
 

thetrailboss

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I've been there. First day of the season one year, I slipped on the ice and popped out my shoulder a bit. My skis also managed to clock me in the head. Was popping out a lot back then, so not a big deal. Never the less, rough start to the season. Also fell down the stairs at Holiday Valley, hadn't even put my ski boots on yet.
That’s why I felt lucky. My helmet also helped. I do think I hit my head pretty good and I might have been a bit dazed!
 
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