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Bitterroot, Mont.: Ski Heaven

At the far end of this deep north-south valley lie acres of fresh powder and miles of sun-drenched Montana wilderness.

Bitterroot Valley in winter
Photo caption
Snowy peaks line the Bitterroot Valley around Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

Skiers in Montana hold a core belief—unscientific but adhered to with religious conviction—that a special snow vortex hovers over Lost Trail Powder Mountain ski area. The lore is that Lost Trail gets the best, earliest, most consistent snow, often mysteriously, because everything else around it might be bone-dry.Residents of the Bitterroot Valley in southwestern Montana attribute this good fortune to a local microclimate, the same one that gives the area’s orchardists outstanding apples. Well, maybe so. But to skiers who worship the place, a magical vortex seems much more in keeping with the ethereal snow here.

If you think world-class cham–pagne powder always translates to expensive skiing, high-speed quad lifts, oysters on ice at lunch, and an active après-ski scene, think again. What it translates to in basic, straightforward fashion is simply what it is: a lot of snow on a mountain serviced by five low-tech chairs and several rope tows. There is no condomania here, only a secluded stretch of Highway 93 that leads over Lost Trail Pass to Idaho in one direction and up valley toward Missoula in the other. The nearest town is Darby, population 785, elevation 3,888 feet. The family that operates Lost Trail is so casual about this gem that three days a week they don’t even operate the lifts.

Scarce skiers, dependable snow—it’s cause for celebration. "Thirty-six inches over the last three days!" my friends and I whoop and holler. We are surprised, because it hasn’t snowed anywhere near us this week, and we’ve driven in from two directions. Big parts of the mountain have been closed since Sunday afternoon, so we know we are in for some deep, untracked heaven.

The next nice surprise is the lift ticket price: $29. I repeat: $29. That’s less than at most other Montana hills and less than half the lift prices at the big Colorado resorts. We are feeling so smug we can hardly buckle our boots.

It’s not long before we start hurting.

That’s because my friends—women fleeing their jobs and families for the day—are all telemark skiers, using skis with special bindings that grip the boots only at the toe. While other skiers and snowboarders around us are floating effortlessly on the powder, we swoop down the slopes by performing deep knee bends like endless prostrations to the Mountain God.

My friend Betsy has talked me into renting a pair of ridiculously fat and shapely skis. It takes me about five minutes to fall deeply in love with them. Or maybe it is a mix of the skis, the soft, yielding snow, and the sun-drenched views of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness stretching out in front of us. Lost Trail offers spectacular perspective on the valley, which runs north-south for 96 miles between the Sapphire and Bitterroot ranges.

All day the mood is jubilance. We ski one slope again and again, each time picking out a fresh, trackless line.

The region has always done everything well, from growing straight timber at the turn of the 20th century to fostering the recreation and log-construction industries of today. Just a mile from our silken slopes at the lower end of the valley begins Chief Joseph Pass, where 40 miles of excellent groomed and ungroomed cross-country ski trails weave through U.S. Forest Service land at 7,264 feet.

Among the few people in line at the chairlift are old friends from Missoula, themselves agog at their good fortune. We all spend the morning following Caroline, who once climbed the Northwest Buttress of Denali. She wants to find a gladed, isolated run that she vaguely remember from an earlier trip, and she hits it on the first attempt. It has just the right steepness, and there isn’t a track on it. The snow brushes our thighs (our thighs!) as we lace between towering fir trees into a gully that will sweep us back to the chairlift. We ski the slope again and again, each time picking out a fresh line. The mood all day is jubilance, interspersed with groans of exhaustion.

For lunch, we head into the "lodge," a bit of a misnomer for the modest clapboard building serving chili and french fries. A busload of eighth graders from nearby Salmon, Idaho, swarms around us. Local schoolchildren ski here for almost nothing. Like Montana itself, Lost Trail is dogmatically democratic. Many skiers here wear Carhartt’s or camouflage and they’re proud of it. And if you’re a weekday skier, chances are you’ll be treated to some spanking-fresh snow: the slopes get a three-day respite Monday through Wednesday, reopening on Thursday.

Near the lockers I catch up with Scott Grasser, whose family has owned Lost Trail since 1967. He is wearing overalls and carrying a walkie-talkie. "These have been big-dump days," he says. "We’ve had a record amount of snow this year."

"Funny about this storm," he adds. "This is the only place it was snowing. Six miles down the road, there’s nothing."

Photography by Rick & Susie Graetz

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.