A clear night at Big Sky gives you an idea where the name came from. in the wilds of Montana this is about as far from a major city as you can get in America, and the stars are stunningly brighter as a result. the shot also shows you the unique peak that’s key to what makes this magnificent resort so different. Owain & Carmen Price checked it to for SnowAction in March.
There is nothing like this in America. They just don’t do lifts to the top of magnificent pointy mountains. Except for the Lone Peak Tram at Big Sky.
Locals like Freeride Team Coach Cooper Raasch are justifiably proud. When we rode up in the little 15 passenger paint-can-on-a-cable lift I said the terrain looked amazing, like nothing we had seen in America, even though we had just driven up from Jackson Hole.
“When my friends come up here from Jackson Hole for competitions I tell them hey, Corbet’s, that’s not even a real couloir. It’s a cleft in the rock. Now Big Couloir, that’s a couloir!’”
Big Couloir being the long line to the right of the lift top station in the aerial photo below, which gives you an idea of the dramatic nature of the terrain. We were not so lucky, it socked right in every time I rode it.
Which was maybe a good thing. Looking at the aerial photos for this feature I was trying to work out where we actually skied and remembered how steep it was. With 10m visibility you can’t see how far or how nasty it might be to fall, so I just concentrated on following Cooper and one of his team members, teenager Gracely Speth. Never mind skiing on the Freeride Team at arguably America’s wildest lift served mountain, she spends her summers competing in rodeo. Those Montana girls are tough.
You also have to concentrate on the rocks, it’s weird that way with pockets of snow interspersed with rock bands everywhere. No, it wasn’t a light season, it’s almost always like that they told me, so you have to deal with the steep and finding the sweet lines that do hold the snow.
From the top of The Peak you can basically ski 360°, apart from avoiding cliff outs, with an incredible array of options ranging from the mellowest 40° plus Liberty Bowl to maybe 60° or so in the Big Couloir and the neighbouring lines. Some require sign out with Ski Patrol, you need avi gear and a partner, preferably a partner who knows the way; if I hadn’t had Cooper and Gracely to follow it would have been all too easy to get stuck in a line that cliffed out.
It’s not a huge local community, and less of those who form the tram regulars, so not surprisingly they knew half the people on board. Topic of the day was how much cliff air was required to negotiate the different chute shots and couloirs.
I just hoped to get something steepish with the tram in the background given the poor weather, but even that proved pretty impossible, being one of those days when the only little breaks of better light happen just when you are not in the right spot.
So after a couple of laps we tried lower down, which is a whole other mountain, and a big one. Apart from endless cruisers there are some nice glades and plenty of natural features to hit.
Big Sky has traded on being The Biggest Skiing in America® for quite a while, with 5,809 acres, only to be pipped last winter when Park City absorbed The Canyons and hooked it up with a new gondola to create the new largest American resort. It hardly matters, you could spend weeks skiing around Big Sky’s endless lower trails, which incorporate the formerly separate Moonlight Basin area.
Take out The Peak and you would have a typical large, sprawling, designed-around-the-real-estate opportunities, purpose built resort. Everything works, there are great runs for beginners and intermediates, and plenty of ski in/ski out places to stay.
But since 1994 the tin can has been trundling happy punters up to Big Sky’s other world, the black and (mostly!) double black rated extreme alpine terrain up there. Some of the marked runs are nothing more than a ski width wide between rock outcrops most of the time. Even with 400”/10m average season snowfall there are rock bands galore, so commitment is key. And good skis – local indie brand Caravan Skis are made down the road in Bozeman, and Cooper and Merrily are both team riders, organised for me by brand founder Zeph Hallowell (see last issue or our website for our interview with Zeph).
If you can’t make it to the Peak for weather, or the queue gets a bit long, the good news is for next season the lifts you need to access the next lowest zones, and to ride to get to the tram, are being upgraded – the Challenger Double to a high speed triple chair and the Lone Peak Triple to a high speed quad lift. The Challenger lift gets you high enough to access a whole ridgeline of chute shots, while the Lone Peak lift accesses the whole lower bowl area below the Peak itself.
Logically the next thing to do would be upgrade the tram after speeding up access to it like this, so hopefully that will soon follow.
Meantime it is already hugely worth the small extra effort to get here. Fly direct to Bozeman, about an hour away, or enjoy the wild 4 hour, 180 mile/300km drive up from Jackson Hole like we did. Doing that you get to see the back side of the Tetons (where you could stop and ski Grand Targhee en route), a slice of West Yellowstone, and the beautiful upper Gallatin River Valley. It’s a famous trout stream, one of the three main headwaters of the mighty Missouri. You could send a message in a bottle here that would float all the way down to New Orleans! Montanans reckon they were robbed, it should be called the Missouri-Mississipi, and not the other way round, because their half is longer.
It’s a bit confusing navigating the numerous real estate development pockets to get to the centre of the mountain village. The economy has kicked up a gear and things are selling again after the post-GFC slump. For such an isolated part of the country the scale is surprising. A stylish themed town centre is growing down near the highway turnoff, with facilities like a cinema already in place, and everything laid out just like your typical Aussie urban sprawl new suburb, with roads and infrastructure all ready for the influx.
We bumped into some ski mates from Newcastle in the main aprés bar, who were staying with another mate who has been quietly building up a Big Sky property portfolio for years. He reckons they’re a good investment apart from the great skiing, after getting in post-GFC when our dollar was high. Check the Big Sky website for real estate details.
At the main base a choice of superb deluxe condos and hotels provide the easiest and best options for a typical short stay ski holiday. Our Village Center condo opened straight onto the slopes, being literally ski in the door.
There are plenty of cheaper options, and reasonable shopping facilities in the lower village for self-catering on a budget. A car is handy, but staying in the main centre properties a cowboy valet brings you and your bags up from the car park on arrival.
In one line, this is the big resort with the big difference, The Peak.
Big Sky info
getting to Big Sky: fly direct to Bozeman, 50 miles/1 hour, with United from LA & San Francisco, Delta from LA & Salt Lake City, American from Dallas, Frontier from Denver