Notice to anyone considering the most epic skiing trip of all time: look no further than northwest Montana. I was fortunate enough to join a crew put together by Untrackedguides.com (http://www.untrackedguides.com ) with the task of checking out Great Northern Powder Guides (GNPG for short- http://www.greatnorthernpowderguides.com ) snowcat skiing operation in Whitefish, Montana on February 21 and 22. We received a serving of two days offering excellent stability, snow and terrain, and our crew of 8 riders and our awesome guides helped us capitalize on a very rare opportunity.
Epic Planks (http://www.epicplanks.com ) co-owner and top sheet artist James Barber and I made our way out to Spokane, Washington a few days early and headed up to Sandpoint, Idaho for a couple days to prepare. If your were heading immediately to the Whitefish area it would make the most sense to fly into Kalispell, Montana, or just take the Amtrak directly to downtown Whitefish. However, discount mid-february flights and the opportunity to take a road trip to Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, Idaho tipped the scales in Spokane's favor. We caught the end of a storm cycle on our first day at Schweitzer (a storm cycle that was also blasting the range at GNPG) and got blue sky the following day to start the trip off on the right foot. After two successful days at Schweitzer, we made the short 3 hour drive to Whitefish and found reasonable accommodations- given that we showed up during one of the busiest weekends of the year with no reservations. The following day, Sunday Feb. 20, we picked up another member of the crew, Regan Teat of http://www.reganwideopen.com , at the Amtrak station early in the morning, then headed up to Big Mountain. Presidents weekend served up some moderate lift lines, but we quickly found a slackcountry 10 minute hike that fed us fresh tracks for our last resort day- eagerly anticipating the looming cat skiing insanity that would commence the following morning.
Sunday night we were able to complete the family, meeting up with several other riders, our filmer Tim Engel, and our photographer Lisa Gover of http://www.lisadawnphotography.com . We were all checked into some unbelievably nice rooms at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake (http://www.lodgeatwhitefishlake.com ), which featured some enormous rooms, comfortable beds, and a giant hot tub. To top it off, GNPG sends a shuttle directly to The Lodge so that you simply wake up in the morning, grab your gear, and jump on the bus.
The shuttle takes about 20 minutes to get to the GNPG base of operations. Once there, the GNPG crew will load your stuff onto the cat, and it's into the office for introductions and training. GNPG owners Will MacDonald and Jay Sandelin were both there to greet us and walk us through the morning and afternoon plan. We also were able to meet the rest of the staff, including Tarn the cat driver, Evan our guide (alongside Will), and Dane our Snowmobile tow-in driver. Everybody there was friendly and down to business, we didn't waste much time in the office. After introductions and waivers, we dealt with beacons and training, and then it was into the cats and on the way to the first zone.
The new snowcat has a comfortable cabin that holds 14 passengers and two guides, and it moves very fast. We traveled a pretty significant distance into the range and climbed some steep vertical at what seemed like nearly 20mph. It took us less than a half hour to leave the base and arrive at our first skiing site. As I mentioned earlier, 48 hours prior to our first morning at GNPG, the end of a storm cycle had just moved on. Even though it had deposited over a foot of snow, conditions seemed stable and Will suggested as much on the way up. Impressively, while we were still gearing up, throwing on our skis, and making our way to the first site with guide Evan, Will had already gotten to the line we would be skiing, dug a pit and found the snow to be stable to 26 compressions. Needless to say, we were pretty excited to hear the news and get our first turns in on cat served terrain. Over half the terrain we skied on during our two days had yet to be skied this year. I've never had such a luxury, and neither had most of the Untrackedguides.com group I was with. To get that opportunity on a day with excellent stability and good visibility was gift from the powder gods.
Our first run was down a 38ish degree slope, with a wide open area up top and nicely spaced trees on the run out below. One by one we all got comfortable and made some nice turns down to the cat waiting for us at the bottom. Once down, we were able to get a visual on a large outcropping Tim had scouted with the guides the day before. The only accurate way to describe the crown jewel of the feature was plateau to 45 footer to huge stump 25 feet into the runout. Our pretty large egos from the morning quickly retreated and there were no early takers on the big line. We scouted some smaller lines to the sides with 20 foot drops with less exposure and headed back up top.
Five of us ended up riding down to our smaller lines, and with Evans guidance we sent it without any incident, though yard sale was a more common theme than stomp. Left at the top were Whitefish local Eric, alongside Evan and Will, all looking out over the big drop. After a couple minutes of deliberation, we got word Eric was tossing his carcass, and toss it he did, riding away from one of the biggest cliffs I've seen with no problems. To top it off, Evan and Will sent it moments later and aligned their bomb holes perfectly- three 45 foot drops and no one even scared the stump.
Fueled up after that zone, we spent the rest of the day sessioning what I would call a natural terrain park. Pillows and stumps-turned-jumps were everywhere, and you could have spent a season jibbing this area if you had the chance. We found a nice natural booter that got backflipped by Evan and Sevened by Danny Arnold, our youngest member and Epic Planks team rider. In the middle of all this we were served some of the best lunches I've ever had the luxury of eating. My only advice is guard your brownie if you decide to save it for the end of the day. Brownies that excellent lead good people to make tough decisions, I'll leave it at that. Eventually the light started to fade and we jumped back into the cat and returned to the base.
After a good nights sleep, we showed back up on Tuesday morning to about 3 inches at the GNPG office. Hopeful that there might be a bit more at the summit, we quickly loaded up the cats and headed up to a more remote zone that hadn't been visited this season. A lead snowcat, known as the winch cat, paved the way and created the road for the first time this year. Word over the radios was that the snow was coming over the top of the cat's windshield. Sometimes, you get your hopes of deep snow up and only discover disappointing stability, depth, or quality. This was not one of those times. Exiting the cat, we measured 16" of fresh snow on top of the previous storm layer. Will quickly dug a pit and gave us the good news: while there clearly was significantly more danger than the previous day, he still wasn't finding instability and we had the green light as long as we avoided open faces. The rest of the day was a blur and included some 40 degree slopes and a run that consisted of nothing but faceshots on a more gentle pitch.
If anybody is reading this and isn't sure about the value that you get out of cat skiing, you can ask me anything anytime, just message me on here. It's tough to even put a price on the experience we were offered on these two days. We didn't deal with any crowds, we got only untracked runs, and had spectacular food and company on the rides up. Most importantly, we had tremendous guides that let us think about skiing not about logistics or exit routes.
Thanks have to go out first and foremost to Great Northern Powder Guides. Will, Jay, and the rest of the staff there provided me with one of the greatest two days of my life and I am grateful for that. Their professionalism and attention to detail, combined with the comfort level and focus on safety, created one of the most confidence inspiring skiing atmospheres I have been around. I hope this was just the start of an annual visit to GNPG and the northwest Montana area. Will, Jay, Evan, Tarn, Dane: Thank You!
Thanks also to Untrackedguides.com for putting the trip together and assembling an awesome crew of skiers to share the experience. Thanks to everybody on the trip, Lisa Gover for shooting stills and Tim Engel for filming. Danny Arnold for showing us all how to nut up with an injury and toss a seven on a natural kicker you've never hit before with a landing you can't see. Epic Planks for sponsoring such an awesome rider. Eric for sending the big cliff and setting the tone for the two days. Garth for spending the first day with us. Regan Teat at reganwideopen.com for shredding and documenting it. Teo for being Swedish and having an epic beard. James for tolerating my music and driving.
Until next year!
Photos courtesy Lisa Gover and Regan Teat