Coming into this year’s ski season, I felt an unsettling feeling in my stomach.
The leaves were starting to turn, the weather was cooling off, and the first snow would be laid on the ground at any moment. There was just one problem – I didn’t have a ski pass yet.
After years of running through the carousel of the Mountain Collective Pass, Epic Pass, and Ikon Pass, this felt like uncharted waters!
After the initial panic subsided, and I calmed the inner voice being influenced by Vail and Alterra’s multi-million dollar marketing budget. Then, I realized this unusual position was a blessing in disguise!
For the first time in years, I was a skiing free agent. With no allegiances to a network of mountains, I was free to go ski wherever the deals, snow, or fate took me.
Which raised the very fun question…
Where should I ski, for my first trip of the year?
This trip would fall in late January, during that prime-time of crowd-avoidance after MLK day and before President’s Day.
I’d have Wednesday to Friday off work, and I had to be back to real life by Saturday. Aside from that, I had just a few other criteria:
- I might as well take advantage of my lack of mega-pass, and instead ski somewhere a little more off the beaten path.
- Ease of access from Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport would be preferred.
- Keeping things low cost would be even better.
That’s when it hit me.
Flashbacks of a road trip I’d taken to Glacier National Park several summers ago. Along the way, we stopped at a funky, trendy ski town just 30 minutes from the Big Mountain…
I double checked airline options. To my surprise, MSP to Kalispell comes in at a shockingly affordable $230 round trip price. (Nonstop, no less!)
I double checked hotel options. Again, to my surprise, the Hampton Inn Whitefish sports a nightly price cheaper than bar tabs I’ve paid to crash on my buddy’s couch. And they even run a free shuttle to and from the airport!
Transportation? Whitefish Mountain Resort runs the local SNOW bus, which provides free shuttle service all over town, straight up to the lifts.
And the cherry on top? Lift tickets at an advance rate of $58 a day. In a world where Vail’s $200 window rates are a real thing, this seemed almost too good to be true.
Yep, trip #1 of 2020 was in the books. To Whitefish we go!
Day 1: Travel Day (And killing an evening in downtown Whitefish)
My Wednesday flight landed uneventfully at 2:00 PM.
At baggage claim, I gave the Hampton Whitefish a call, at which time I realized I probably should have set up this shuttle ride a little less last-minute. No matter. 20 minutes later, the hotel’s friendly shuttle driver was there and ready, packing up my bags and giving me a local’s rundown of town.
Kalispell’s airport sits just 15 minutes south of Whitefish. Both Kalispell and Whitefish sit in a valley, enclosed by beautiful Montana mountain vistas to the east and west. The town and surrounding areas are flat, with a slight rural feel to them. To the North sits Whitefish Lake and most importantly for this skier, The Big Mountain – later rebranded to Whitefish Mountain Resort. (The local’s still prefer the O.G. moniker.)
As a destination skier used to the treacherous drives of Colorado’s I-70, Whistler’s snaking highway 99, or even Salt Lake City’s narrow canyons roads, I was surprised to find the drive from airport to hotel to be flat, short, and easy.
I unpacked my bags and again called on the shuttle service.
Exploring downtown Whitefish
By 4:00 PM, I found myself wandering the streets of downtown Whitefish.
The town was every bit as quaint and cool as I had remembered it from my Summer drive through years ago. Maybe even cooler with a thick layer of snow on the ground and the Big Mountain’s powder packed runs looming in the distance!
For a Wednesday, town was bustling.
News had recently broke that the building housing the The Great Northern Brewery, a longstanding staple of craft beer in downtown Whitefish, had been bought. What would become of the building was the subject of much gossip and rumor around town, and no two locals seemed to have the same story. One thing seemed certain though – the brewery, as the locals knew it, would never be the same. Whether it would continue to operate, or not, was the subject of much discussion during tonight’s organized event – Local’s Night at The Brewery, celebrating the end of an era.
Not being a local, I decided not to intrude. (The standing room only crowds, spilling onto the freezing cold outdoor patios, may have influenced my decision, too…)
As I continued walking Whitefish’s down-to-earth main street, I felt like I was visiting the smallest, sleepiest Montana take on the Las Vegas Strip.
I peered into the windows of the The Great Northern Bar and Grill (not to be confused with the brewery!) where the warm glow of the wooden interior sucked in hordes of apres skiers and locals alike. (As did the sidewalk sign’s promises of $1 PBRs, I’m sure…) I passed the up-scale dining options of Tupelo and Abruzzo, each with well-dressed waiters plating delicious looking Cajun and Italian dishes in front of their guests. I passed Mama Blanca’s & Remington’s, a strange dive-bar/casino/mexican combination. And I passed plenty of sleepy gift shops lining the streets on each side, their owners looking bored from the winter’s lull in the action. (Whitefish, I was told, is infinitely busier during summer’s national parks tourist season.) At one point, I even took a turn and stumbled onto a small, yet crowded sushi bar.
Eventually, I found myself at Spotted Bear Spirits, the town’s newest distillery. There, I sucked down one delicious agave cocktail, and then another. Both were served up by the friendly bartender, a 20-something snowboarder who raved about the mountain town and did his best to convince me to move to Whitefish permanently.
With margaritas in my belly, Mama Blanca’s suddenly sounded like the perfect nightcap. Inside, groups huddle around pool tables, loners played video poker, and I grabbed a smothered burrito that I hoped would fuel me onto a fantastic day of skiing tomorrow.
Day 2: An intro to Whitefish’s white stuff (and frost!)
I woke up to a vacationing skier’s Christmas morning. Fresh snow! 4 inches overnight, apparently.
I loaded up on the Hampton Inn’s complimentary breakfast and coordinated the hotel to SNOW bus shuttle connection. By 9:00 AM, I was at the Whitefish base lodge, my 2-day pass in hand.
A layer of Whitefish’s notorious fog had already socked in the upper-half of the mountain. Not all that familiar with the terrain, I decided to start my day lower on the mountain.
I rode Swift Creek Express, or “Chair 2” as the locals call it, (the locals, apparently, believe in neither the resort’s new name nor the lift names…) halfway to the summit.
There, I lapped the gentle blues, enjoying the soft, easy turns of 4 inches of new snow.
With the wonderful conditions, I immediately found myself struck with FOMO, and I decided I better take Big Mountain Express to the summit. (Ahem… sorry locals, Chair 1…)
As I ascended into the clouds, visibility got worse and worse. But hey, this is the Whitefish fog I’d heard so much about!
At the top, I quickly forgot my vision troubles as soon as I felt the snow beneath my feet. I also kicked myself for spending so much time lapping Chair 2, when conditions were clearly better at the summit.
No matter, one run down Toni Matt – the long, blue cruiser with over 2,000 continuous feet of vertical – and I was in skiing heaven.
“This,” I thought as my skis floated through another silent turn of pillow soft snow, “is exactly what I’d traveled across the country for.”
I continued lapping the mountain’s front side through lunch.
Due to the bright white fog, I avoided the open bowls and instead stuck to the main trails like Toni Matt and Inspiration. Eventually, I veered off into the frontside blacks of Little Bavaria and Powder Bowl, where I was reminded of the glorious powder conditions. (Not to mention, my rustiness in skiing those conditions…)
With snow this nice, I decided eating was for the birds, and skied right through lunch and into another highlight of the trip – my one o’clock group ski lesson.
An advanced ski lesson at Whitefish
To start, the ski school coordinator spent some time interviewing me about my ability level. As it turns out, his efforts might not have mattered much, since I ended up being the only adult skier on the entire mountain who’d booked a lesson that afternoon.
In other words? Jackpot!
My group lesson was going to be a private. With a PSIA-Level III instructor no less…
With this being my first ever advanced ski lesson, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As it turned out, my instructor, and the lesson, were awesome.
He immediately picked up on some bad habits of mine, and we spent half an hour progressing through some tweaks to my pole plants, balance, and turning techniques. He continued throwing ideas at me, and within an hour, we had a total breakthrough.
With a minor change to my foot pressure, I was skiing stronger and more confidently than I had ever skied in my life. I was pumped!
By the end of our lesson, the fog had rolled in heavy. Soon, frost was completely frozen to my goggles, a phenomenon the Whitefish locals even have a special name for. They call it “the rime” and as I quickly learned, “the rime” can render your goggles completely useless.
With my lesson over and an hour left in the day, I lifted my goggles off my face and began skiing with my eyes nearly shut. Tears ran down my cheeks and my face burned from the cold, but I didn’t care. I was fueled by the excitement of applying my recent technique breakthrough.
I headed back to Chair 2 to tackle Mully’s Moguls. These are blue bumps that had actually given me some trouble earlier in the day, and with the lesson fresh in my mind, I skied the bumps easier and more smoothly than I’ve ever skied any moguls in my life.
Safe to say, I was totally sold on the power of a good instructor!
Day 3: Whitefish’s legendary fog becomes even more legendary
Day three started with another bit of good news: 3-7 more inches forecast throughout the day. With just one asterisk – Whitefish’s legendary fog wasn’t going anywhere.
At the base of the mountain, I looked up to yet another socked in summit. I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t ever going to get to see the world famous Glacier National Park views that The Big Mountain is famous for. In fact, on this day, I’d be lucky if I could even see the trail signs!
I started the day again warming up the blues under Swift Creek Express. Although warming up isn’t exactly the most accurate description; that 3-7 inches of snow hadn’t yet arrived, and instead, this lift line was treated to nothing more than ice-cold, freezing rain.
If my goggles were tested yesterday, then the waterproofing of my jacket and pants would be tested today…
Not surprisingly, the freezing rain didn’t make for great snow conditions underneath Swift Creek Express. So, against my better vision (pun intended…) I headed for the summit.
One run down Toni Matt, and I immediately realized today’s fog was even worse than yesterday’s. Front side cruising was most definitely out.
That’s when I remembered a tip picked up by yesterday’s ski instructor…
“Chair 11 always has the best snow,” he’d told me.
I decided to put his theory to the test, and was greeted by not just the best snow on the mountain, but the best visibility too. As an added bonus, what was coming down as rain on the frontside was snow on the backside.
I spent the next several hours lapping the beautifully variable conditions found on this lift’s trio of black runs – Outside Road, North Fork, and Hidden Meadow.
To my relief, yesterday’s light-bulb ski lesson had stuck. I was still feeling great and having a blast applying my newfound technique.
I continued to lap these blacks. Occasionally, I’d get curious and head to the Big Creek Express lift next door; however, the fog there was much thicker, and I always found myself skiing right back to Chair 11 at the next opportunity.
By 2:00, even Chair 11 wasn’t immune to the thick fog. With no possibility what-so-ever of seeing, I decided I better head back down, for my own safety.
The only problem? Actually getting back down.
Lost in a terrifying whiteout.
Stupidly, I didn’t even consider downloading the chair as an option. Instead, I made the horrible mistake of trying to ski down Toni Matt, in a complete whiteout.
After a few turns, I realized even the orange lollipops meant to mark the trail in case of fog, were completely gone. To make matters worse, I’d seemingly missed my turn for Toni Matt, and I found myself staring at a wall of white, unable to tell which way was up or down.
From the little I could see, immediately in front of me was a roped off section. To my right, a collection of trees. Whether they were one of Whitefish’s legendary tree runs or a descent into somewhere out of bounds, I had no idea.
Completely unfamiliar with this part of the mountain and skiing alone, I was getting scared, and I didn’t want to end up in a total mess. So, for the first time in my life, I gave ski patrol a call.
Through my horrible trail descriptions, ski patrol was somehow able to gather my most likely location, and advised I ski the trees. “But just in case,” the patroller added, “what are you wearing?”
Great, I thought. He’s getting ready to identify my body…
Long story short, I skied the trees, which housed the best snow I’d found all trip, and made it down the mountain alive. (I later pieced together that this was probably the Good Medicine run.)
I felt pretty silly for getting so lost, but I did leave with this badge of honor. Whitefish local Fred Frost, who’s skied the mountain 6 days a week for the past 26 years (and is known for racking up over 4 million vertical feet per season) later said the day’s fog was the worst he’d ever seen in the past 26 years.
Apparently, I’d gotten a trial by fire in Whitefish’s worst elements!
I finished the day lapping Chair 2. By 3:00, even those low runs were socked in by the fog, and I decided to call it a trip.
One last stroll through downtown Whitefish
I grabbed the ski bus, showered up in the hotel, and closed the night the way the trip began – wandering the streets of downtown Whitefish.
This time, I’d grab a flight at the Great Northern Brewery, where I sat next to a group of employees who, it seemed, might not have stopped celebrating since Wednesday’s Local’s Night.
From there, I decided I better give the Italian restaurant Abruzzo a chance, since it seemed by this point, every local in town had recommended it.
And the food didn’t disappoint; I ordered a delicious Snowbird cocktail with not one, but two pasta entree! (Hey, I’d been skiing a lot!)
Final Thoughts on My First Trip to Whitefish
For my first ski trip of the season, Whitefish had definitely rolled out the foggy, element soaked carpet for me. But as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I got a true taste of everything Whitefish has to offer – a bustling ski town, a totally underrated mountain, and weather that’s just wild enough to keep the hordes of sunshine-seeking crowds away.
The Big Mountain had welcomed me like I was one of its own, and in return, I promised this trip to Whitefish wouldn’t be my last.
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