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The Inside Line: Big Mountain, MT

Travel Rockies
posted: 10/29/2002

Elevation: 7,000 feet Vertical Drop: 2,500 feet Snowfall: 324 inches Getting There: Big Mountain is eight miles north of Whitefish in northwest Montana (a free shuttle runs from town to the resort); the nearest airport, 25 minutes by car, is Glacier International. Info: 800-858-3930, bigmtn.com

Beta: At 3,000 acres, they don't call it Big Mountain for nothing. This sprawling massif rewards creativity, with nearly every aspect open for exploration-you can ski in any direction off the cone-shaped summit. Beyond the 83 runs marked on the map, you'll find glades and bowls in abundance. Despite its size, however, the resort retains an unpretentious vibe that reflects the town of Whitefish, a funky old railroad and ranching community that's long been filled with outdoorsy types (skiers have plied Big Mountain's slopes since the 1930s, and Glacier National Park is 32 miles away). For now, the resort base area is merely functional, but its planned transformation into Glacier Village (10 years out) will bring new amenities and a rustic sophistication that some locals view as overdevelopment. What won't change: the distinctive snow ghosts that haunt the upper reaches of the mountain (actually fir trees bent leeward under thick coats of rime, courtesy of the resort's often wet and foggy climate).

Powder Day
Load onto Chair 2 at 9 a.m. sharp for a run on Mully's before lining up for the 9:30 opening of the summit-bound Glacier Chaser quad. From the top, head for the front side's south-facing slopes via Inspiration, dropping into gladed runs like Powder Trap, Langley, and the old Chair 4 lift line (it's not on the map; from Inspiration, look for an opening on the right just before Fault 2). After lunch go to the north side, where shade keeps the snow light. Jump into the steep trees between Black Bear and Bighorn. Finish your day on the east side; areas like East Rim, Don's Descent, and Evan's Heaven take longer to get to and serve up a few hundred less vertical feet, so they stay fresh longer.

3 Days Later
You'll be apt to find untracked stashes among the endless lines in the formerly backcountry terrain of

Hellroaring Basin, where grooming machines never venture. Also, unmarked runs like the cornice-rimmed Elephant's Graveyard on the east side (off Inspiration) draw limited traffic.

Spring Day
South-facing Big Face and Ptarmigan Bowl corn up perfectly and don't get too bumped out. When snow at the base turns to rice pudding, ride Chair 5 and lap the Face. For the classic end-of-day spring run to the bar, swoosh down the lightly gladed Good Medicine.

The Riding
With just one terrain park (on Silvertip) and no halfpipe, Big Mountain is more for freeriders than jibbers. Stick to the front side for the most continuous vertical and least traversing. If you venture into Hellroaring Basin, ride past the obvious traverse line midway down (it's a tedious roller-coaster ride) and down to Hellfire for the easier way out.

Proving Grounds
Marquee route: Haskill Slide, an avy-cleared path, will send you sliding down its 1,200 feet of 40- to 45-degree pitch if you don't edge authoritatively. To get there, look for a traverse that's not marked on skier's right off No Name.
Off-Broadway: N.B.C. (North Bowl Chute) has all the makings of a hairball descent-a jump-in entry, ski-length-wide narrows, precipitous pitch, and a big log in the middle that's not always snow covered. Take Russ's Street to the East Rim gate, stay high on the ridge, then look for the unmarked chute on the left just before East Rim.

Backcountry Access
The resort is so vast and unskied that you hardly need to go OB, but an open-boundary policy means you can head anywhere you want (at your own risk). Flower Point and Canyon Creek, reached by a short hike and traverse from the top of the T-bar, are popular targets. For a good intro to the off-piste, take a five-hour snowcat tour on 500 acres of rolling, gladed terrain around Flower Point. ($60-$180, depending on number of people; 406-862-2900.)

Drinking & Dancing
Chug one of 36 beers on tap, ride the mechanical bull, or hang your bra at the famously rowdy Stube, which has hosted partyers in various locations at the base since the 1950s. In Whitefish, start out at the tasting room of the Great Northern Brewing Company (406-863-1000). The cavernous-and unrelated to the brewery-Great Northern Bar & Grill (406-862-2816) has a dance floor, live bands, and pool tables; signs for defunct area businesses cover the walls, providing a quick recap of local history.

Fuel
Bulk up on huevos at Whitefish's Buffalo Café (406-862-2833). For lunch, order the gigantic nachos at the Hellroaring Saloon (406-862-6364) at the base. The gumbo and creole chicken and dumplings at the Tupelo Grille (406-862-6136) in Whitefish rank among the best eats in town.

Digs
The slopeside Kandahar Lodge ($169-$579; 877-862-1505) has overstuffed leather chairs and a cobblestone fireplace. In Whitefish, the Garden Wall Inn ($95- $145; 888-530-1700) has five cozy bedrooms furnished with 1920s-era antiques and serves huckleberry crepes for breakfast.

Must-Know
Whitefish is Tele Town, USA. Seven members of the U.S. Telemark Ski Team call it home, and Thursday night races at Big Mountain attract upwards of 100 speed-seeking free-heelers. Despite the caliber of competition, "it's a party with skiing as an afterthought," says World Cup champ Reid Sabin. The serious competition comes this March (20-24), when Big Mountain becomes the first U.S. resort to host the biannual telemark World Championships.

Essential Gear
On mornings when it's 10 degrees and the lifts are crusted in ice, patrollers and savvy locals cover their tushes with the Butt Flap ($20; 406-862-2683), a nylon-wrapped foam pad with waist belt. Otherwise, "it's a wet, cold ride up the Glacier Chaser," says flap maker Kerry Crittenden.

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