Montana ski experience enhanced with a snow cat, yurt
Backcountry adventure offers amazing powder
Skiing or snowboarding at established ski resorts can get, well, boring. Over time, you’ll find the same runs, lots of people waiting for the ski lifts, packed snow conditions and crowded parking.
That’s why there’s a demand for alternative expeditions, which can offer fresh, untouched powder in the backcountry.
One of these nearby opportunities is in Montana, near Whitefish, where you need a snowmobile and a snow cat to get there, and your destination is a spacious yurt high in the mountains.
Throw in tasty, custom-prepared meals and you’ve got a great getaway and a ski trip to remember. There is even a good chance that you will not see another person except your own party.
This wonderful winter expedition for seasoned skiers/boarders is made possible with the cooperation of two local companies: Winter Wonderland Sports, which provides snowmobiles, and Valhalla Adventures, which handles many of the other details.
Trips depart regularly from Olney, a small town west of Whitefish, Mont., where snowmobiles line up to take riders up high into the mountains.
It is nearly dark while riding a snowmobile climbing up the trail. But it’s not too dark to see the steep drop-off on the side of the trail. The white stripes of Whitefish ski resort can be seen on the distant mountain to the east.
Remembering the drop-off, everyone’s attention comes back to the darkening path to the front. With headlights on, the snowmobiles line up single-file and slowly climb up the narrow trail.
The plan is to reach a remote yurt 18 miles into the high mountains before it gets dark and staying there overnight. A final steep grade with extra acceleration from the snowmobile and a sharp turn provides a view of a glowing large domed yurt, elevation 5817 feet, which will be our base of operations for the next 24 hours. The stars are coming out, more than you probably have ever seen, and the town of Whitefish can be made out as flickering colored lights far below.
Stepping through the front door of the yurt, opens up into a huge space with six bunk beds along half the curved wall and couches along another side with an inviting glowing wood stove near the door. There are throw rugs carpeting the floor and a table sitting in the middle. One of the guides asks how you like your steak. This location may be remote but overnight here is not going to be rough.
The likable guides love snow and winter sports. They volunteer on ski patrol at Whitefish Mountain. They test above the ski slopes for possible avalanches and set the explosives to reduce the risk. They have been skiing almost their entire life.
They’ve also worked hard to develop this little bit of paradise for the intermediate and expert skiers and snow boarders like themselves. They have worked out a winter special use permit with the Stillwater State Forest to set up the yurt and use 35 square miles of prime ski terrain.
You get the feeling that although clients are important they use this spot as their “man cave” when business is slow. It’s like the men who rent or own places to escape to in Garage Town down in suburbia. So, if you love to ski and are pretty good at it here are the guys to hang out with. This is by no means a men’s club. There were three women in our party and they all had a great time skiing and snowshoeing.
After dinner and a sound sleep (the guides faithfully got up to feed the fire that kept the place warm all night) and after a hearty breakfast we left for a full day of winter sports. The snowmobiles were left behind and the double track snow cat was used to take us yet to the higher and steeper slopes.
The understanding was to climb by cat up to a flat staging area on Stickler Ridge which is part of the Whitefish Range of Mountains and ski down slopes through trackless, waist-deep powder to the trail far below.
The snow cat will pick up the skiers and climb up the slope again. The entire ski party could run the slopes until they are exhausted. If there are some clients not wanting or capable of skiing, one guide will take them on a snowshoe or a cross country ski trail.
Finally near mid-afternoon the snow cat takes us all down to the yurt. We mount, start the snowmobile engines and make our way down and back to town.
The Polaris snowmobiles run like they are tuned as expensive clocks. They start easily and run smoothly with good acceleration. There is a good reason they have excellent performance, Ron Caldbeck is a certified mechanic as well as the owner/outfitter of the snowmobile rental shop. He has joined up with Fred Dietrich from Valhalla Adventures to get clients up into the mountains.
Dietrich has been running this company since 2004, and the yurt and snow cat are his dream. He has skied the backcountry for years and dreamed about being able to access backcountry skiable terrain. Getting a commercial back country ski permit was not easy but he was persistent and passionate.
Now that we’re back down, we realize it has been an extraordinary 24 hours. Really, a trip like this could be on any good skier’s bucket list.
IF YOU GO: This trip is available Dec. 15-April 15. For more details check out Winter Wonderland Sports at www.winterwonderlandsports.com or call (406)257-2627. To get information about Valhalla Adventures or snow cat expeditions in the Whitefish area, visit www.explorewhitefish.com and click ‘Backcountry Snow Cat’ or call (406) 250-8092. To get details about travel in Glacier Country, visit www.glaciermt.com or call (406) 532-3213.