Whitefish – almost a big player

The drive from Schweitzer, Idaho to Whitefish, Montana was indeed a good haul. Some 200 miles or so. It took me longer than expected, as they all do, but it was another frequently picturesque drive so no complaints here. I arrived in Kalispell, some 30 miles south of the mountain and big enough to get all the big box stores, as it was just starting to get dark. I took advantage of the city’s size to make a stop at Costco, then hunkered down for the night in the parking lot of a machine shop (deep into the rural area so wasn’t so it was actually a nice enough place to stop), hoping they would be able to address my out of balance furnace fan in the morning. When light broke it turned out they couldn’t, so I made the final run up to the mountain to get there in time for opening. It is worth noting that the town of Whitefish, several miles south of the resort, is definitely one of the cutest towns I’ve seen on this trip, and I’ve seen some quaint looking tourist towns. They’ve done a phenomenal job of keeping an old timey look, even though it is bigger than most “old” towns, and there is clearly money being found as the place was near pristine, with a fair bit of newer construction around.

I arrived to find a very similar mountain village layout to Schweitzer; a bowl with housing and condos lining much of it. In very general terms the overall layout of the mountain was the same too, but with an extra bowl off the left backside and nearly as constant and open a front face. The devil is in the details they say, and that holds true in geography as well, as Whitefish had alot of valleys and facets, making for a very different experience.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. SInce the orientation tours start till 10:30 I took a warmup run through the easier left flank (skier’s right) of the hill, then took the high speed quad that takes you right to the top, for a run down the left back bowl, Hellroaring Basin. I’ve learned that if I’m going to do any runs before tours, it is best to make them black terrain since mountain hosts are not allowed to do anything but blues and sometimes the odd easy black, and with so little time to explore a mountain this big (3000 acres) I can’t afford to double up. That plus, miracle of miracles, there was fresh snow overnight, a good 15cm/6″ I’d say, so I wanted to get some of it in lest it get skied out. Boy was it nice to feel fresh snow again, event if I did frequently get to harder spots peaking through.

Tour time arrived and I went out with our guide and a couple from Seattle, who got hear via a hefty 9 hour drive. I discovered from them that while I had never heard of Whitefish before (previously called Big Mountain) it is fairly well known in the Seattle area and quite a few people make the drive out for the odd weekend. As a result of weekenders coming out for an early start to the President’s Day long weekend (other than Christmas break generally the busiest weekend of the year for ski resorts) and presumably a good turnout of locals excited about new snow, there were actually quite a few people out here for a Friday, but certainly not enough that I ever had to wait in a real line. Just enough to keep the place feeling animated. One fairly quick but efficient tour later I had a handle on the layout of the place, a good thing since the clouds were coming down and quickly starting to obscure the upper mountain.

While the tour did give a general grasp on the layout of the place, as I mentioned before Whitefish has alot going on geographically. Like other hills with alot of facets it makes it harder to find your way around but usually makes the place feel bigger since every time you turn you seem to be in a whole differnt ski area, and Whitefish is an exceptionally good example of this. To the point that I actually wished I had a couple more hours to explore the place, as I didn’t feel I fully did it justice. There were a few faces and valleys I hadn’t got through at all.

Terrain selection at Whitefish is very good. A decent selection of double blacks and nice singles complement a good helping of blues and greens. There is actually a bit of a separation of terrain here, with two areas that are clearly for beginners, a good swath of primarily blue, and then plenty of black on the upper mountain and in the bowls, with a ribbon or 2 of blue running through each. I don’t know if the idea of terrain separation is a good one or not. On the one hand people who are still fairly new to the sport or otherwise timid are often happy to know they are not going to accidentally end up on a harder run than they wanted. On the other hand people frequently say they like to be able to ski together (ie. share a chair up) but run near parallel runs where some can take it easy and some can give ‘er. Ultimately I think Whitefish’s organization does well here, since the greens are almost fully separated, which are generally the timid ones, and there is a mix of blue and black for the seasoned ski family to enjoy.

Whitefish seems to get into almost-alpine. There are a couple faces that are naturally sparse on trees to give a somewhat alpine feel, but at 6800’ the tree line does go right to the peak. The trees are good in a few areas, and on this day the snow in the trees was excellent, deep and soft with no hint of the hardpack underneath. However the majority of the trees are a too tight for my liking, closer to the natural density we get in Whistler. One area of trees in the back bowl I couldn’t get to as, again just like Schweitzer, a short T-bar on the far end of a ridge was closed. I didn’t have the time to hike it here though.

One thing that really sunk in at this stop was beards seem to be in style (on men only, thankfully). I don’t know if it is a trend exclusive to the skiing crowd, but it seems about half the male staff I’ve come across on this trip are bearded, and alot of local/hardcore skiers share the look. Perhaps as a result I’ve got alot of “cool beard man” in response to my decidedly full facial coiffure, a look which is practical on cold days but not long for this world, as it is to b e lopped off any day now, along with the hair, as the goal of a $2000 fundraiser for a cancer charity.

To close out the too-short day, I ran out to the lower base lodge, which is distinct from the village where I started out the day. While both base areas have plenty of parking and basic facilities, it seems the base lodge is setup more for the day skier whereas the village is more of the destination visitor stop, with more restaurant and pub services. While it appears that the base lodge is probably the original base, the lodge itself looks brand new, whereas the village has some rustic (in a good way) elements.

A short lift took me back up to the village where I was parked. Although Whitefish has free overnight RV parking, the allure of the warmer valley called out to my battery eating furnace, and I made my way back down the hill, passing some decidedly upscale looking properties on the way, most of them on generous patches of land. Space does indeed seem to be a standard in Montana. But as winter scenery always provides a sharp contrast of dark trees to white snow, amidst all the high end properties were a number of tiny residences that looked like they should have been condemned years ago, some packed fairly close together, others also on big patches of land. I drove past the same pattern for quite a while, ending up well south of Kalispell on the edge of cell reception in ranch and forestry land where no-one would hear my generator. It was quite dark by the time I found a near perfect spot just off the quiet highway but tucked away behind trees for some privacy. Besides the question of cold, I was also anxious to make a bit of time this afternoon as tomorrow I had my longest drive yet: another 300 miles (from my stopping point) to Big Sky, my first in a string of major resorts that will take me almost all the way through to the end of the trip (with only Oregon offering up some more regional class stops). Things are about to get interesting in a whole ‘nother way.

Whitefish is definitely poised to be a big player, with a big mountain offering very good terrain, a great average snowfall, a basic selection of destination visitor accommodation and services, and the very attractive tourist town of Whitefish below, which also happens to be on a passenger rail line, providing an opportunity for a fantastic all around tourist experience. Does it snap at Whistler’s heals? Not quite. While certainly a recommended option for the destination visitor, it doesn’t quite offer the terrain selection Whistler does, mostly due to the missing alpine experience, and if you’re looking for a big swanky village, this is not your place. But it does offer an experience decidedly different to Whistler which may be just the thing for you if you like a more quaint, old school ski area without the small terrain and old lifts.

Whitefish village and town

Looking down from between chair 1 and 2 at the mountain village in the foreground and the town of Whitefish in the background, left of the lake.

On Ed's Run (I think) with the core of the tourist village right in view this time. Click to view.

The lower base area, with the very new looking but not very creatively named Base Lodge.

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