OLNEY — Friday didn’t look epic.
In fact, Friday could barely be seen in the mist clotting the base of the Stillwater State Forest. U.S. Highway 93 was bare and wet. Temperature at the Great Northern Powder Guides headquarters: 38 degrees.
What a difference 2,000 vertical feet make.
“These are the days you live for,” Justin Micklish of Portland, Oregon, said after a morning’s cat-skiing on Stryker Ridge. “It’s like surfing on snow. At a resort, even if it’s a fresh-powder morning, an hour later all the runs are tracked up. This is something I’ll tell my grandkids about someday.”
Micklish and three friends had come out to try Montana’s only snowcat-serviced backcountry ski operation. A lack of blue sky couldn’t offset a dozen pristine shots through trees and bowls. At 7,000 feet elevation, the temperature hit a skiing-perfect 21 degrees.
Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, farmer Mark Hethering has been coming to Montana to ski since he was 13 and his father bought a condo below Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort. This time, he brought half a dozen friends along for a Great Northern day.
“We’ve been coming here for six years,” said Hethering. “We finally got smart and scheduled the snowcat trip for the first day of the week. Then our legs aren’t tired and we aren’t partied out before we get the best snow.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort above Hethering’s condo offers about 1,400 vertical feet of groomed skiing and chairlifts. Great Northern boasts more than 2,000 feet of ups and downs. The snowcat typically arrives within minutes of the fastest skiers, and hauls them to a new run in a heated cab with hot cocoa, loud tunes and comfortable seats. Along with the 14 clients, three professional guides make sure everyone stays safe.
The ridge slope has lots of room to carve and play, but no one would mistake it for a “groomer” run at a commercial hill. Anyone who blows a turn here flounders in bottomless powder. Great Northern guide Emily Downing reminds the clients to buddy up, and keep that buddy in sight at all times.
“A little sage advice, guys,” Downing says as the group lines up for their first run. “Do not look at the trees. Look around the trees. That’s where you’re going to end up. Set up where you want to go in your head, and that’s where your body will go.”
Matt Kelley came up from Houston to visit family in Whitefish and caught a solo seat in the Great Northern snowcat while his nieces and nephews were at school. He’d enjoyed heli-skiing in British Columbia, but that provided four to six runs in a day. One trip he took got cut short because of a weather system moving through that grounded the helicopter for a while. Last Friday, he made 11 runs averaging a thousand vertical feet a drop. The snowcat hauled him almost 50 miles up and down the ridges, and only touched about a tenth of the terrain Great Northern has to offer.
The snowcats’ remarkable climbing ability allows Great Northern to use “snow roads” unrelated to the network of logging roads zig-zagging across the ridges. The routes only exist as winter passages, without any clearing or bulldozing of downed trees or boulders. They’ve named one route Spam, “because we really don’t know what’s in it.”
“If I leave this road alone for a week, I can’t even tell where it is,” Great Northern co-owner Tarn Sandelin said as he plowed a rolling carpet of snow through the trees. “Even when we have two snowcats running, you’ll rarely ever see other skiers. We bounce around a lot. There are very few times you’ll even see another track.”
Sandelin calls the skid trail to Stryker Ridge “the Luge” because it looks as steep and crazy as those ice troughs Olympic sledders ride. Only Sandelin drives his custom snowcat straight up.
“It saves three and a half minutes, and every minute helps,” the Great Northern Powder Guides co-owner explains as he ascends what would be a double-black-diamond descent into a full body cast over at Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort. The 14 backcountry skiers behind him will give thanks. Every minute outside the snowcat gets spent in untracked snow 11 feet deep.
A day’s cat-skiing between Dec. 21 and March 13 costs $420 a person, or a private group rate of $4,150. While that’s a lot more than Whitefish Mountain’s $79 daily pass, it’s comparable to a full-day guided flyfishing float or snowmobile rental.
Just as the shoemaker has no shoes, the Sandelins almost never get to ski the slopes their clients savor. Both father and son typically log seven-day weeks driving during the December-March backcountry season. Tarn got married last summer, but has put off his honeymoon to work the backcountry. When the season’s over, he and his new bride will head for Hawaii.