Enjoying Winter Wonderlands with Friends
The backside of Discovery lives up to its reputation for steep terrain. I head to the Limelight lift, which accesses expert-only black and double-black diamond-rated runs. I find plenty of snow leftover from the last storm, kept fresh in the steep, north-facing glades. When I’ve had enough, I cruise back down a groomed, corduroy run to the base area and then start the 90-mile drive to Missoula, where I’ll explore Montana Snowbowl.
There, I meet up with R. Scott Duncan. He runs the ski school and has skied here since the ‘70s. Though the area recently expanded by 1,100 acres, Duncan says it’s never lost its character. “The basic spirit of Snowbowl has always stayed the same — we’re not a ‘bling’ mountain. It’s a skier’s area, and you can still get a beer for a couple bucks.”
From Missoula, I drive north on Highway 93 for 120 miles to Blacktail Mountain, crossing through the Flathead Reservation and along the shore of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River in the lower 48 states.
Nestled nearly 4,000 feet above Flathead Lake, Blacktail Mountain is different in one obvious way: you park at the top. “You can roll up, park out front, throw on your skis and cruise,” says Arin Lever, a Montana resident for the past 19 years. “You don’t feel the need to get your $200 worth; it’s just as much about having hot chocolate and nachos with your friends and family.”
Full of nachos supreme, I head out, fueled for the drive to Turner Mountain, just shy of the Canadian border along Highway 2. Some 22 miles up an old logging road, Turner is blessed with loyal locals who formed a nonprofit in 2001 to purchase a chairlift to replace the aging T-bar. By 2005, they had raised enough to build a two-story lodge with a grill and a ski shop. Turner retains four employees; the rest is handled by volunteers.
“That’s a really good model for us,” says Bruce Zwang, president of the nonprofit’s board. “It helps us keep lift ticket prices down.” On the slopes, a group of Turner volunteers tag along with me for a few runs. For them, having a role in the ski area’s success makes each run that much better.
At every stop on my road trip, I see proof that the community that comes with the sport is important, and to my mind, independent ski areas are the best stewards of that community.