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Discovering the Basin

Discovering the Basin

Travel
By Andrew Slough
posted: 09/01/1999

A number of ski areas in the world are perfectly named. Sun Valley is one, Snowbird is another. There is Mammoth-the U.S. equivalent to Chamonix's Grands Montets. And then there is Discovery Basin, which merits discovery by skiers who covet terrain that plummets beneath their skis. Studying Terminator's radical pitch that funnels into a deep glade, I hear myself whisper, "God, this is steep!"

The area's trail map does little to inspire confidence. "CAUTION!" it warns of the area accessed by Limelight Lift. "The extreme terrain served by this lift is very steep, unpredictable and ungroomed. There are many obstacles, rocks, cliffs, old fallen trees and snags." If that isn't enough, the map then adds, "You must know how to self arrest!" Despite these prohibitions (or perhaps because of them), Discovery's north-facing bowl causes friends Robbie Hilliard and Russ Squire to chomp at the bit. Squire, who recently set the world 12-hour vertical record in Big Sky, Mont., can't wait, jumps in, explodes the first bump and disappears in a crystal cloud. A second later Hilliard attacks a line next to the trees. From above they resemble two grade schoolers banging out a furious, discordant melody on a white grand piano.

It would be a mistake to judge this Western Montana resort by its vital statistics alone. Discovery feels bigger, steeper, longer and better laid out than its 1,300-foot vertical drop and 380 acres serviced by just three doubles and one triple chair. In fact, about one third of the mountain caters to experts, while Discovery's south-facing frontside, which rises above the base lodge, offers wide, groomed intermediate runs, such as Claimjumper, Sapphire and Southern Cross. Beginners will love the gentle slopes of Red Lion and Gold Bug, and all skiers will appreciate the spaciousness of the place-and the lack of liftlines. Other than Anaconda, the historic smelter town that sits 20 miles down Highway 1, Discovery isn't especially close to anything. But families readily drive the 90 miles from Missoula, 82 from Helena or 50 from Butte to visit. The majority have young children and are drawn by the area's relatively cheap day ticket and challenging terrain.

Named after a mining strike in the high bowls that rise above the resort and financed by a group of Washington doctors, Discovery Basin opened in 1973. When Anaconda's copper smelter went belly-up in 1981, the local economy crumbled. Butte's open-pit copper mine closed two years later, and the resulting depression savaged skier numbers. A short time later, after being forced to close, the ski area was put up for auction. When Peter Pitcher, the present owner, flew his small Piper up from Santa Fe, N.M., to survey the region, his introduction to Discovery was less than inspiring.

"The ski area was pretty dismal," Pitcher remembers. "The lodge roof leaked badly, and there were problems with the main Green Chair compounded by a lack of maintenance on the Blue and Black lifts." But Pitcher, a former resident of Montana, fell in love with the region, and together with his wife, Beatriz, submitted the lone bid for Discovery in 1984. It was a risky venture for a couple with two young sons-especially at a time when the local depression was only deepening.

Pitcher recalls: "When the Anaconda smelter closed, someone put up a sign that read, 'Will the last person to leave town, turn out the lights?'" The son of Kingsbury "Pitch" Pitcher, who made a name for himself as an Aspen ski instructor and now owns Colorado's Wolf Creek Ski Area, Peter didn't leave. But in those first desperate years, he and his wife didn't earn any money either. To make matters worse, drought hammered the Northwest, resulting in less than 20,000 lift tickets sold at Discovery Basin in 1985.

The Pitchers, however, not only stuck it out-they managed to add 50 acres of trails and the Limelight chairlift in 1986. A second expansion in 1991 added 180 acres and another lift on the backsidee. With the 1996 introduction of a $22 lift ticket and improvements to the lifts, lodge and services, skier numbers climbed to 60,000 by 1999. Today, Discovery is a classic mom-and-pop resort, where Peter, Beatriz and their sons, Alesandro, Karl and Ciche, unload freight, sell tickets, man the cash register, flip burgers, bus tables and, when they find a spare moment, sneak away to ski and board the backside's incredible glades and chutes. The adjacent, century-old town of Anaconda offers an equally low-key step back in time. Once a major copper-smelting center, the town bears the brick, copper and Victorian architecture remnants of a 19th-century boom and bust. The world's largest smelter stack, which rises 585 feet over massive heaps of black slag, took 6.5 million bricks to build and can be seen from miles away. And in the historic district, the brick Daly Bank, Montana Hotel, City Hall and dozens of Victorian homes evoke the city's raucous, halcyon past.

A visit to Anaconda's Chamber of Commerce provides information on everything from the Jack Nicklaus Golf Course to local historic tours. But if you really want to learn about this town, you need to drop by its namesake bar, the Anaconda, located on Park Street close to the old historic district. On a typical Thursday night, the Anaconda is filled with a dozen locals belting back shooters with beer chasers. Many will tell you it's only a matter of time before the smelter reopens and Anaconda's downtown hotels, restaurants and bars roar back to life. If you take the fading smelter buildings and parent company ARCO's massive cleanup costs into account, it's clear there isn't much chance of that happening. But then, after three days at Discovery and Anaconda, even I begin to yearn for a return to the glory days, when the smelter stack blew gasses and the copper kings reigned.

The prospectors who discovered Western Montana's rich veins of copper used "strike" and "treasure" to describe their miraculous good fortune. Now, more than a century later, those words still describe Discovery Basin. u

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