Off-grid ski lodge reclaims mined-out Montana mountains
High-mountain hospitality seekers aren’t likely to stumble onto Altoona Ridge Lodge.
It’s off the grid in mountains riddled with old mining claims. No billboards advertise the three compact chalets for dining, bunking and sauna, plus a yurt, all perched on a hillside at 7,600 feet. No sign points in its direction off State Route 1 north of Philipsburg, Mont.
Winter access is 5 miles by ski, snowshoe or snowmobile – your own machine or Denison von Maur will attach a sled to his and shuttle you in. Summer visitors need a pickup or SUV.
Von Maur looked 10 years for a place to build a backwoods retreat he’d been contemplating from his experience working in a range of places from Vail ski slopes to New York delis.
A miner’s inholding with a millionaire’s view in the Deer Lodge-Beaverhead National Forest ended the search five years ago.
Short construction seasons required two years to make the place ready for summer visitors, who trek ridges and fish mountain lakes. Winter visitors can safely ski tour or snowshoe to the same attractions or don avalanche gear to shred the steep and deep in nearby bowls.
“June is too wet, so I close down and go mountain biking,” von Maur said.
Montanans are more likely to embrace a newcomer who’s enhancing the natural landscape rather than destroying it or locking up access to where people hunt, fish, ski and snowmobile.
Von Maur spruced up a mining claim area and put out the welcome mat.
“We built a place for family groups and hardcore skiers alike,” he said.
From the Lupine Chalet’s kitchen, dining area, lounge and huge deck, guests look westward over several ranges of mountains including the John Longs, Sapphires, the Rattlesnake Wilderness and Trapper Peak in the Bitterroots.
From higher on the ridges, where skiers and hikers trek, the view extends to the Mission Mountains and Scapegoat Wilderness and south to Discovery Basin ski area.
Last week, the Altoona guests split into two groups of different abilities.
The touring group broke trail along old mining roads to ridges, craggy outcroppings and down to snow-capped Altoona Lakes.
“I don’t know why they’re called Altoona, but I know there are 10 towns in the United States with that name,” von Maur said.
While the touring group soaked up sunshine and ate snacks on the frozen lake, they could look up, hear the hoots and see their friends – three free-heelers and a snowboarder – carving trails down the steep glades above.
They all reunited at the lodge that evening to recount the day. Tourers had crossed the fresh beds of a cow and calf moose plus the track of a lone wolf.
The downhillers had dug three snow pits to test for avalanche conditions during the course of their day exploring terrain. Sheer tests convinced them to avoid one aspect, but they found no shortage of stable slopes for leaving their marks.
Lodge co-host James Pyke is a good hand to have at Altoona Ridge. He works at Snow Bowl ski area and teaches classes in wilderness first responder and avalanche safety. But after a day of skiing, his job was to fire up the sauna in the Wild Rose Chalet while guests retreated to the Bear Den Chalet sleeping quarters to change and hang ski skins and wet clothing on drying racks by the wood stove.
“I devoted many hours to debating the layout for the best use of space and came up with the three buildings all connected by walkways,” von Maur said.
“And every group has a pair of lovers or a snorer. That’s why we have the yurt,” he said, pointing nearby to the cozy, propane-heated shelter above the chalets.
Summer visitors enjoy flush toilets and hot showers in the Wild Rose, including the Vertigo Stall, where one can bathe 15 feet above the ground looking out a 5-foot window at sunset over several mountain ranges.
Winter visitors enjoy an outhouse and a bucket of cold water – and they routinely love the simple pleasure.
After a hard day of skiing, the contrast of hot and cold – including a steaming roll in the snow outside the sauna – is a remarkably civilized way to refresh and conquer winter cold.
Scandinavians figured that out many centuries ago.
Most of the guests at Altoona Lodge are self-guided. “Some of them are very capable in the backcountry and they do the cooking and navigating on their own,” von Maur said. “After I show them around, I disappear.
“Others hire my services to bring them up, host them and fix the meals.”
Backed by his European heritage, von Maur is fluent in English and French and says he knows enough of several other languages to get by – and get into trouble.
If hired to take over the well-equipped kitchen, he specializes in hearty, imaginative meals, with interactive dinners that encourage participation.
He might encourage guests to cook strips of meat at the dinner table on large flat rocks heated to 450 degrees.
He relishes sharing a taste of Switzerland in which guests smother their dinner with raclette cheese melted in individual trays over candles. As the cheese melts, each person arranges his plate with combinations of red potatoes, salad, dried meats, olives and other goodies such as cornichons and pickled pearl onions.
It’s a fondue in reverse: Smother food with cheese; melt more; repeat.
Von Maur indoctrinates guests in the Swiss traditions as they feast: “Look directly into the eyes of the person you’re toasting, or expect seven years of bad sex,” he explained.
Last week’s Altoona group toasted often with Chardonnay – and with unfailing eye contact.
Altoona online: Get details on winter, spring, summer and fall prices and options at altoonaridgelodge.com