From 11,150 feet (3,399 m) down to the treeline there are 1,200 acres (485 ha) of steep, exposed slopes that offer a huge variety of expert challenges. There is no way down for anyone other than advanced and expert skiers, apart from the tram. With its capacity limited to just 15 people every four minutes, the summit and all routes down invariably feel deserted, adding to the thrill. All of this advanced terrain is marked either black diamond, or double black diamond; much of it consists of chutes and gullies.
Natural hazards are unmarked, although general warnings about the terrain and the obstacles you might encounter are displayed at the tops of lifts. The slopes are too severe for any grooming to take place on the upper mountain. Combined with advanced trails lower down the mountain, this area accounts for over half the resort's terrain, with 21 percent of the trails rated expert and 37 percent advanced.
The total vertical drop back down to the village at 7,500 feet (2,286 m) is 4,350 feet (1,326 m). The latter half of this is mostly intermediate terrain, marked with blue squares, interspersed with advanced glade trails. Obstacles are marked and grooming takes place on many but not necessarily all trails, depending on snow conditions; notice boards list the slopes that are groomed. The aim is to provide some well-groomed trails but to avoid spoiling natural snow conditions for skiers who enjoy skiing pristine trails. This works particularly well at Big Sky thanks to frequent snowfall and few skiers.
The layout of the resort, dictated by the steep upper slopes of Lone Mountain, effectively segregates skiers according to their skills. Beginners enjoy a slow skiing zone served by a magic carpet and a chair right out of the base area. There's no question of intermediates skiing the upper mountain and they are unlikely to come across any nasty surprises lower down. Both intermediates and beginners can access all the relevant terrain without circuitous lift journeys, while advanced and expert skiers can head for the upper mountain and remain there for the day. For families and mixed groups this could prove disruptive, though with the best lunch options located back at base, meeting up again isn't hard.
If there is a serious criticism about the skiing on offer, it's that strong intermediates and advanced but not adventurous skiers may find the gap between the lower and upper mountain too big.
The lift system includes four high-speed quads and one gondola. Terrain of every aspect is covered, including steep, north-facing ground from the Challenger lift. Lifts run from 9:00 am till 4:00 pm and with the capacity to carry 23,000 people per hour, the system is still a long way from becoming overloaded. Even on the slower lifts, lines are scarce although there is sometimes a wait at the tram.
There are plans to build a new high speed lift to access the north-facing terrain on the other side of the ridge from the A-Z chutes has been built. This is rolling terrain, protected from the sun, which is currently used for snowcat skiing. A new high speed lift has replaced the fixed grip triple chair Southern Comfort and it offers even greater access to wide, long runs that are perfectly pitched for begginers.
Of the total terrain, 17 percent is specifically for novices. Given the size of the resort, that amounts to more acreage than many U.S. resorts with a higher proportion of easy trails.
Complete beginners start by riding the magic carpet in the base area, then the Explorer chair that serves two main beginner trails. The next step is to ride the Gondola and take Mr. K down for a long, wide-open ride. You can then progress to trails under the Southern Comfort lift on the south side of Andesite.
The obvious start to any day is to head for Andesite mountain on the Ramcharger lift to gain access to two long cruisers, Big Horn and Elk Park Ridge. This is the longest intermediate trail, wide open and groomed, which runs all the way down the east ridge of Andesite. It varies in pitch and is a perfect carving slope.
On the front of Andesite are plenty of trails-Ambush, Tippy's Tumble, Hangman's, and Silver Knife-as well as glade skiing, with trails cut among the trees. A popular trip is to the top of Lone Mountain to enjoy the view over three states, Yellowstone National Park and, on clear days, the Tetons of Jackson Hole fame. Riding the tram down gets you back to intermediate terrain on Upper Morning Star.
The rest of Big Sky's expert terrain is in the trees on Andesite and on Challenger. For a long bump trail, head toward Mad Wolf from the top of Andesite; the best powder is usually in the Bavarian Forest at the bottom of Liberty Bowl, or in the north-facing Rice Bowl off Swift Current.
Experts can head straight to the top to ski the gullies as a warm up, then try the 1,450 feet (441 m) Big Couloir straight down the cliff-like face of Lone Peak. To gain access you must check in with ski patrol, have an avalanche transceiver, and a partner. Other limited-access areas include the A-Z chutes, Bonecrusher, and new terrain called Elvis and Graceland from the top of Challenger. Although the rest of the double black diamond offerings may not be as seriously exposed, they all deserve their rating. No skier in this league is likely to be disappointed.
Out of bounds lines may not be crossed-it's private property-and there's no heli-skiing available, but Montana Backcountry Adventures (www.skimba.com) offers cat-skiing near Moonlight Basin Ranch on the north side of the mountain. The Ski School offers guide services for all the Big Sky terrain including the most extreme routes.
Big Sky has a halfpipe, and two terrain parks. Swiftcurrent is the place to learn and finetune your freestyle skills. The more advanced Ambush Meadows has 16 features for boarders and freestyle skiers.
The most popular choice for a sitdown lunch is Whiskey Jack's in the main base village. Guests will a laid back sports bar feel with western accents and the restaurant's distinctive large model airplanes gracing the ceilings. Specialities include desert southwest fare and chili. The Carabiner Lounge's comfy chairs and wild game burgers are also just a short walk from the base of the Ramcharger and Swift Current lifts.
On mountain, the crowned jewel of Big Sky's mountain restaurants is the new Everett's 8,800. Located at 8,800' and named in honor of Big Sky founder Everett Kircher, Everett's 8,800 is a chic take on the typical log-home style eatery. Eclectic light fixtures and exposed metal highlight stirring views of Lone Peak, visible through floor-to-celing picture windows. A large deck with outdoor fireplace is also popular on sunny day. The elk chili makes for a great starter, but the one dish not to skip is the Kaseschnitte grilled cheese sandwich - grilled French bread green apple, tomato melted gruyere and asiago cheeses topped with a fried egg and served with french fries (ham optional, but highly suggested by the author).
Another on mountain eatery not to skip is the Black Kettle Soup Co., located under the Lone Peak Triple. With just a handful of seats, limited menu and no waitress service, the Black Kettle Soup Co. is not easily confused with Everett's 8,800', but sittind directly under Lone Peak, the view is truly spectacular. The Black Kettle Soup Co. is the type of cozy small hut that dots the Alps, but is sadly so rarely seen in North America. Also be sure to grab a burrito (especially at breakfast) at their sister restaurant, the Black Kettle Burrito Co.
On sunny days, the deck beside the Shedhorn Grill on the backside of the mountain is a great choice. Or for a quick recharge, try Uncle Dan's Cookies at the base of the Six-Shooter and the Lone Peak Tram.
The Mountain Village is the center of the resort, made up of the 10-story Summit and the seven-story Shoshone buildings. A pedestrian plaza connects the Mountain Village buildings and the Mountain Mall, and exits near the base area at the foot of several major lifts.
The Mall contains most of the resort's shopping and eating outlets, meaning you never need brave the weather other than to ski. This is useful on stormy days but can leave the impression that you've spent a week underground, other than when skiing. Part of the US$400 million earmarked for resort development will go specifically to tackle the pedestrian area at some time in the future.
Big Sky Resort
P.O. Box 16000
11 Lone Mountain Trail
Big Sky, MT 59716
Phone: + 1 800-548-4486
E-mail: [email protected]
Other bars in the Mountain Village include the Alpine Lounge, Moose River Hummer, Jack Creek Saloon, and Carabiner. Twenty-one is the minimum age for drinking alcohol but children can accompany parents in bars before 10:00 pm. Many popular drinking places are also restaurants, such as Dante's Inferno. The hotel dining rooms offer some of the best eating-try Southwestern cuisine from the Peaks Dining Room in the Summit Hotel, or wild game in the Huntley Dining Room.