My first time on the North Summit Snowfield, the run that epitomizes the Biggest Skiing in America
With 5,800 skiable acres, Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin make up The Biggest Skiing in America. But a big claim like that is about more than just stats. It's about expanse and variety. It's about elbow room and attitude. It's about an entire experience.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the North Summit Snowfield - the expert run off of 11,166-foot Lone Peak that requires a joint Biggest Skiing in America lift ticket, signing out with Ski Patrol, and some sizeable cojones to descend. It's the kind of big, gnarly skiing you only find in the backcountry or cat skiing - but accessible by the Lone Peak Tram.
Just last week, my friend Katie and I were North Summit virgins. We both have hundreds of Big Sky ski days under our belts, but when you're exploring as much terrain as Big Sky offers, there's always something left to discover.
For us that was the North Summit, so we enlisted the help of Moonlight ski patroller Pete Owens and North Summit vets Lyndsey Owens and Chad Jones. Newbies are encouraged to bring a guide for their first trips down to reduce the possibility of taking a wrong turn off the side of a cliff, and we had recruited the best.
It was a bluebird day, the snow was smooth and wind-buffed, and we braced ourselves for a heart-pounding descent. As longtime local Meg O'Leary describes it, the North Summit Snowfield is like an extreme version of a run on Marx, then First Gully, then Lenin, all in succession. Meg famously guided now avy-certified Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake down the snowfield last winter. I yelled to Katie as we made the steep traverse to our entry point - If Jess and Justin could do it, so could we!
And we did - following Pete to make powdery turns down the sheer face before sidestepping and traversing to more of the wide-open steep and deep. And while maybe we didn't rip it like a hardcore ski pro, or even like Jessica Biel, this terrain was straight out of a Warren Miller movie: for our turns on the North Summit Snowfield, we all felt like ski celebrities.
This, I thought, is the Biggest Skiing in America.
Katie Grice and Pete Owens pause during a traverse on the North Summit Snowfield
Chad Jones and Lyndsey Owens make turns down a narrow chute on the North Summit
Greer descends smooth, wind-buffed powder.
North-facing snow stays soft for Lyndsey Owens
At the helm calling the shots on when to open terrain over the past 30 years is Bob Dixon. Who better to talk to about snow and what makes Big Sky the Biggest Skiing in America? We took a minute to sit down with him; here is what he had to say about snow and what he likes best.
What do you think about this year, is the snow going to be good?
NOAA is calling for EL Nino, which is not good for the Northwest. Big Sky Resort sits on the cusp of the Northern and Southern weather patterns. An active Atlantic hurricane season has shown a more active La Nina, where an active Pacific hurricane season a more active El Nino. Mother Nature is cyclical. A dry summer means that precipitation needs to come sometime and winter will bring some snow. I don't really want an early season, however here the winds keep the skiing good.
Are there any patterns you have seen for winter conditions on Lone Mountain?
The end of November to December is the worst for avalanches. There are deep slabs and lots of instabilities in the snowpack. Then the Christmas crowds come and help the snowpack with skiing it in (compaction). Around January 6th the buses are leaving and a storm rolls in for the locals. January is good and March picks up more and April is great for snowfall. The coldest of the cold snaps come in November and early December. The coldest day ever was in 1988 and it was 62 below.
What is your favorite run on the mountain?
It's all about the right day. Consistently 1st Gulley, especially when the upper pockets are open. It has a consistent fall line and I enjoy the hoots and hollers from the chair when I do it right.
What is it about Big Sky Resort that you love the most?
Lone Mountain. No such thing as a bad snow year. That mountain gives you good skiing somewhere. The ski culture has changed, the mountain hasn't.
What does the Biggest Skiing in America mean to you?
The ski experience. That mountain offers so much different terrain. Southern Comfort for world class beginner terrain, to the Tram with great vertical descents, to the Couloir for the ultimate adrenaline rush. There is no waiting in line. The ski experience is more available, with so many acres per skier, this is what it is all about. We have the best ski experience, anywhere.
What has been the best snow year ever at Big Sky?
Consistent snow years add up great snow totals. But it's the epic days that I remember that outshine all those numbers. In 1986 we received 200" in two weeks. In 1994 we had a storm cycle that delivered 150" in a week and a half. I couldn't make a turn down little tree. That was an epic storm cycle.
2011-12 Snow reporters Elizabeth and Carrie Lee discuss new snow depth on a powder day.
It's a common misconception that Big Sky's Snow Reporter job is the plushest in town - picturing a hung over twenty-something rolling out of bed at 5 am, checking a yardstick in his backyard, calling the snow phone with the report, and then calling it a day would make anyone envious for that kind of easy, low-responsibility job. But getting out the conditions report for 4,050 skiable acres is a long and involved process - one that starts at 4pm the evening before and doesn't end until well into the next day. And the Snow Reporters? Late night at the Black Bear or no, they've got to be up at 4am and ready to put in a full 8 hour day.
4:00pm: The morning snow report begins the night before with Big Sky's Ski Patrol crew. As the mountain is closing, Ski Patrol calls the Snow Reporter desk and leaves a message with the day's high and low temps, the wind conditions, and the snowfall. This information is used in the weather section of Big Sky's following day report.
4:00pm - 8:00am: The grooming crew takes to the slopes to begin the long task of grooming and shaping the slopes. As they work throughout the night, groomers also the keep tabs on the weather and snowfall.
4:55am: Groomers measure overnight snowfall and base depth at the scientific Lobo station. This location has been used for 35 years and provides an accurate mid-mountain snowfall total. The upper mountain is too dangerous to measure this early considering avalanche control work yet to be done.
5:00am: Groomers call or radio the Snow Reporter with the overnight snowfall totals, base, and any relevant weather information. The Snow Reporter then faxes the overnight totals, terrain openings, weather, and other resort info across the country and updates bigskyresort.com for the early risers. Numerous other websites, from Snocountry to Travel Montana, are updated with this early information, and then thousands of other sites scrape the information while we all sleep. This is all done before 6 a.m. but usually closer to 5:30a.m.
5:15am: The Snow Reporter updates the snow phone with the collected information. This is the early phone update and it will be updated several more times throughout the morning and day.
5:45am: Groomers drop off a report of their groomed runs at the base area for the reporter to pick up and add to our report and grooming map.
8:00am: Patrol calls in with snow conditions from the top of lone peak and the snow reporter makes any necessary updates to the snow report and snow phone.
8:00am - 12:00pm: As the Snow Safety team and Patrol gather for their safety and control runs they will call or radio the reporter with any snowfall updates. Many times Big Sky will receive several inches of snow between the time of the original report and when the chairlifts start turning. When it's snowing hard, the patrol and reporter will remain in contact with updates throughout the morning, especially when reports come in like knee deep, thigh deep, or waist deep off the south face, when perhaps only 4-6 inches fell mid-mountain.
In between all of these steps, the Snow Reporters are calling radio stations and local businesses, faxing and emailing out reports, creating and distributing grooming maps, and updating the report on multiple different platforms and outlets. We'll spare you the gory details, but when it comes down to it, snow reporting is a complex position that involves many elements beyond the actual snow phone. It's a process that requires constant communication between the mountain operations teams and the crew inside spreading the messages.
We often joke that it truly is impossible to accurately measure snow when it comes to a mountain that is the biggest in America and faces every direction on the map, and the snow reporters always try to report a range of snowfall that gives a sense of snow all over the mounatin. But no matter what the report says, with 400 inches of snow a year and such a variety of terrain, you're sure to find great conditions - any day at Big Sky.
In the winter, Big Sky's Huntley Dining Room is known for one mean breakfast buffet. But come summer (read: wedding season), the Huntley Dining Room takes on a whole new role - chafing dishes full of scrambled eggs and bacon are replaced with ivory linens and breathtaking floral centerpieces. And the occasional hay bale.
Think elegant and civilized meets rugged wild west. Last week I met with a bride-to-be whose wedding will be just that. While her life and career may have taken her to the big city, her Montana roots remain as strong as the reins on the Quarter Horses at her parents nearby ranch. This bride's upcoming wedding will be a weekend-long event, kicking off with a western-themed bar-b-que for over 300 people in the Huntley Dining Room. There will be s'mores around the fire, a wagon filled with penny candy, red and white checkered tablecloths, BBQ pulled pork, and, a mechanical bull. After a few rounds on a bucking bronco and several trips to the dance floor, guests will kick off their boots in either the four-star Summit Hotel or the luxurious Village Center - both within a short walking distance of the reception .
Other brides lean towards the more traditional, focusing on the grandeur of the outdoor beauty at Big Sky. Just a week after one bride's western bar-b-que, another will celebrate outdoors in the Lone Peak Pavilion as the sun sets behind the towering mountain. Guests will sip on fine wine, munch on mini bison steaks served on Montana grain crostini, and sway their hips to a local Bluegrass band.
But no matter which end of the spectrum a wedding leans towards, there's no divorcing it from Big Sky's sense of place and culture. Like the GeoTraveler, making sure to experience the local culture wherever she roams, a wedding at Big Sky is for the GeoBride, finding elegance and beauty in what is distinctly Montana.
- Margo Humphries, Big Sky Resort Wedding Sales Manager
Ullr, the rippin' skier of Norse Mythology and modern-day ski bum god of snow.
Skiers come from all sorts of religious backgrounds, ranging from the devout to the atheist. But no matter their spiritual beliefs, come ski season, many skiers find themselves praying. Praying for snow.
Some just cross their fingers, others may kneel by their bedside in formal prayer. Some even take it to the extreme, burning old skis in sacrifice to the ski god, Ullr.
Ullr, commonly known to 21st century ski bums as the god of snow, is a figure in Norse Mythology whose tradition lives on in modern ski culture. While historically he was never said to have any connection to the weather, he was known as a rippin' skier diety, often depicted on skis while holding his bow. "He is such a good archer and ski-runner that no one can rival him," states the 13th century Prose Edda.
Now, modern skiers look to Ullr to bring on the pow, and across the country you can find Pray for Snow parties, organized snow dances, frozen t-shirt contests, and rounds of shotskis filled with Ullr peppermint cinnamon schnapps helping ring in the ski season. Not quite your grandmothers Sunday services, but just as steeped in tradition and ritual.
Here in Big Sky, Ullr is often invoked and called upon, and last year he delivered with a heaping dose of La Nina. This season, after a week of praying over thanksgiving dinners and leftovers, we got our first real powder day this last weekend. With a taste of the good stuff, I'm starting to feel that religious pull again as we wait for the next big storm, and I, for one, will be including Ullr in my prayers all winter long.
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