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Bill Jennings: Impressive expansion looms for Lookout Pass

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 12, 2018, 6:30 a.m.

A skier flies down the slopes at Lookout Pass in late December, 2017. A proposed expansion would increase the resort's existing 538-acre permit area by 458 acres, for a total of 1,023 acres of terrain. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
A skier flies down the slopes at Lookout Pass in late December, 2017. A proposed expansion would increase the resort's existing 538-acre permit area by 458 acres, for a total of 1,023 acres of terrain. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

If there’s anything good about being a year older, it could be skiing at Lookout Pass for free on your birthday. It’s a benefit I rarely fail to claim. Last week on my special day, it was very cold up there. A stiff, gusting breeze stung like a swarm of bees. But the sun was bright, the sky was blue and vistas of the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains were unlimited.

One of my all-time favorite views is looking southwest from the slopes of Lookout into the St. Regis basin. It’s a classic alpine scene, framed by two mountain peaks that stand as a gateway to the basin. I paused mid-run to take it all in, looking forward to the imminent expansion of Lookout’s terrain.

This time next year, the view will include new runs on the peak standing to the right of the frame. This is Eagle Peak. Terrain being prepared on its north-facing slopes is phase one of a long-range plan that Lookout Pass co-founder Phil Edholm has been working on for nearly 20 years.

The Forest Service gave Edholm the final green light for development last spring. The project increases Lookout’s existing 538-acre permit area by 458 acres, for a total of 1,023 acres of terrain. Two chairlifts will access the 6,150-foot summit of Eagle Peak, a step up from the area’s current summit elevation of 5,650 feet. Lookout’s total vertical drop will increase from 1,150 feet to 1,650 feet, with 14 named runs and numerous glades off-piste.

“The expansion is almost going to double us in size,” said Matthew Sawyer, director of marketing and sales at Lookout. “Most likely chair one will be moved back there as the secondary chair. We’ll probably put in a triple but possibly even a quad in front of the mountain, and ideally another triple lift to the top of Eagle Peak.”

Summit elevations, total vertical and the number of lifts and acres matter when it comes to resort rankings. But skiing and riding potential is the true measure of value for those of us who will find ourselves on the slopes of Eagle Peak. Edholm understands that as well as anyone. He said he spent 260 hours hiking the slopes on the mountain, looking for the best fall line terrain.

“When I design ski trails, I’m trying to flesh out facets on a diamond,” Edholm said. “Initially you can take a topo map and get a general feel about where lifts and runs will go, but what you really need is ground truth. I’m always looking for an inspiring ski experience for every ability level that the terrain can give us.”

Sawyer said the plan is to have all 14 trails, a new access road and a new parking lot completed by the start of the 2018-19 season. To get there, you will take the current exit off 1-90, but instead of taking a right into the existing parking lot you will take a left and go down old highway 10 – the route over Lookout Pass before the interstate was built. If all goes according to plan, chairlifts will be running for the 2019-20 season.

Lookout’s existing terrain is slanted toward novice and intermediate skiers. Eagle Peak offers more intermediate and advanced terrain, with some expert drops. Edholm believes the new terrain could change the feel of the overall experience at Lookout.

“In general we’re going to see a lot of 20 to 30 percent slope,” he said. “Some areas will even have a higher degree of slope than that. We’ll have longer runs, and the higher top elevation puts us in an area where the snow quality will be even more superior than the great snow quality Lookout already enjoys, so I’m exited about that.”

As my birthdays seem to accumulate at an ever-faster rate, I hope – in vain – that the passage of time could decelerate a little bit. But Eagle Peak definitely gives me something to get excited about in the years ahead.


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