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Moonlight Basin Mont.

Moonlight Basin Mont.

Travel
By Chris Solomon
posted: 03/23/2005

Maybe the driver took a wrong turn.

I'm supposed to be sizing up Moonlight Basin, Mont., the first destination ski resort to open in the U.S. in 20 years. But on my first day, the lift tower dangles a charm bracelet of vacant chairs. Empty, too, are the well-buffed slopes below. Then a headwall appears, a crashing fist that fills my goggles with an apron of green and blue, knuckled with rocks and striped with the kind of worry-your-mother chutes in which tomorrow's ski stars might cut their teeth-and, often, their scalps and knees. But the headwall is empty, too.

"People do this once or maybe twice in a day," says Andrew Babcock, my guide, nodding at the daunting terrain. "You can only pound so much Red Bull and ibuprofen."

Say hello to Moonlight Basin, a ski resort with big plans, and the generator of quite a bit of ski-industry buzz. After all, at the rate at which ski resorts open, finding a new mountain is like discovering a planet at the galaxy's edge. This alone makes it worth a trip.

But Moonlight actually began its path to resorthood 12 years ago, when three partners bought 40 square miles on Lone Peak, home to Big Sky Resort. Not so unusual-except one thing: Most U.S. ski resorts begin as lift companies and later morph into real-estate concerns. Moonlight did the opposite. They put about half the land under conservation protection and began to develop the property closest to Big Sky-slopeside condos and homes priced more than $2 million. Then in 1994, Big Sky bought the Iron Horse lift on Moonlight's property. The former got more terrain. The latter got the right to tout "ski-in/ski-out" in its brochures.

By late 2002, though, Big Sky and Moonlight couldn't agree on adding lifts on Moonlight's terrain. So Moonlight's owners decided to strike out on their own. And that's how, last season, with four chairlifts, 1,250 acres of lift-served terrain and its own ski pass (not valid at Big Sky except on the Iron Horse lift, which locals call "Switzerland"), a new resort was born.

My first morning, I board Moonlight's Six-Shooter six-pack and plunge into fresh snow on Snakebite, Runaway and Elkhorn. But after several turns, the tilt simply drains from each of them. And these are the better runs from the Six-Shooter; my hard-skiing guide (who'll show anybody around, gratis) never even bothers submitting me to the uninspiring cruisers serviced by the other chairs.

Yet, incongruously, Moonlight also lays claim to the Headwaters, some of the most frighteningly, deliciously steep terrain you'll find within a ski-area boundary on the continent. As we ride the lift, guide Babcock ticks off the names of the dozen or so chutes that line its face, including a few couloirs that end, he notes, with "mandatory terminal airs." Separating each gully are cheese-grater ridges of sharpened andesite. Headwaters skiers who don't stay upright tumble like snowmelt into Stillwater Bowl below.

But until Moonlight installs a lift to the ridge, planned for next season, chutes like Cold Spring and Firehole are reachable only by punishing 20-minute hikes. Still, the area has grown its own dedicated "ridge hippies." Marc Parent, another guide, points to a line and asks if I'm game. "Three Forks is our 'porn' chute, our Corbet's Couloir," he says.

An hour's hike later, my heart doing the conga and my lungs shriveling, we're atop the white sluice of Three Forks. From the ridge's 10,250-foot summit, the gully tips 50 degrees before dropping 1,700 vertical feet. But the snow is funky today, making the descent doubly dicey. To ski it, however ungracefully, is enough. To ski it well is a triumph.

But a very different Moonlight of the future isn't hard to see, if you're willing to squint. Parent points to a ridge dividing the current terrain from untapped Colorado Bowl. The Lone Tree quad to that ridge, ready for this season's opening, will unleash another 1,000 acres of mostly lift-served expert terrain. The long-termm plan envisions 12 lifts across 3,500 acres over 15 years, plus hotels, restaurants and rental shops-all of which the resort lacks. The most dramatic proposal, though, is for a chair to the summit of Lone Peak, like Big Sky's famous tram, which would jolt Moonlight's 2,070-foot vertical rise-less the 1,780 feet of hike-to-to 4,162.

All agree it's rocky along this road, owing chiefly to the souring of relations between the resorts. Last February, Big Sky sued Moonlight, accusing Moonlight's ski patrol of lobbing avalanche devices onto Big Sky's terrain, and asking that their 1994 agreement be severed.

Sadly, the tension is palpable. On my second day I gain the Headwaters ridge, heaving, only to see a Big Sky chairlift disgorging skiers nearby. I envy the fresh legs of a skier beyond the boundary rope. He looks longingly at the steep turns I'm about to make. "Tear down this wall!" he yells, in his best Reagan-in-Berlin. But it appears this cold war won't thaw anytime soon.

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