Ski Big Sky Extremes: Peaks thrust high above the timberline and drop sharply. It's skiing's ultimate thrill

November 17, 1996|By Peter Shelton

The tram car rose, like an elevator with windows, above the cliffs of Lone Mountain, centerpiece of Montana's Big Sky

Resort. Most of the shattered rock and snow below was unskiable. A boulder falling from the top terminal would bounce two or three times, no more -- then a long silence -- before snuffing into the basin snowfields 1,400 feet below.

The cable slowed, and the 15-passenger car docked at a summit station blasted from vertical rock. Two skiers worked their way down the Big Couloir, the only snake of uninterrupted snow through the north-side cliffs. They looked like ants sliding down a frozen hallway between rock walls. Couloir is French for "hallway" or "corridor."

No lift like this has ever been built in my home state of Colorado. All major ski areas there are on public land. For practical and political reasons, timberline has been the ceiling for new lifts, while up above, summit pyramids stand inaccessible, aloof, out of bounds. This Big Sky tram is unique in the American West. It's reminiscent of the Alps, where ski lifts, including trams, some of them big enough to hold 120 people, go boldly to the top, way up above the tree line to the highest, least-tamed skiing there is.

In one sweeping, Austrian-engineered stroke last year, Big Sky opened the most Euro-like skiing experience in the United States. By "Euro," I mean the peak experience. You step off the tram at 11,150 feet. Twenty steps and 16 vertical feet higher is the summit proper -- Lone Peak -- a wind-blown snow cone with room for a dozen people and views in every direction.

The Yellowstone Plateau bulges the skyline to the south; the point of the Grand Teton is there on clear days. You could practically spit on the Tobacco Root Mountains to the west. Or you can cast your gaze east down Gallatin Canyon, where "A River Runs Through It" was filmed.

At the base of the lifts, like miniatures on a model-train set, are the clustered buildings of the Mountain Village: a compact commercial core, one high-rise hotel and about 1,500 condo units set among the pines. The Montana sky is indeed big; it is huge, especially from the peak, where you feel as if you have been thrust up on the tip of the world.

By "Euro," I also mean ungroomed, unapologetic, even dangerous terrain -- not just the radical test piece of the Big Couloir, which requires checking-in with the ski patrol and carrying avalanche rescue gear -- but miles of unbounded, soul-freeing slopes on the south and east sides. There are no trees, no trails per se, just snow and rock and place names like Hanging Wall, the Wave, Bone Crusher and Dictator Chutes. In a twist on the rules of cool at other, less precipitous ski areas, many of Big Sky's hottest skiers wear helmets.

By "Euro," I mean having the temerity to put the tram up in the first place. Big Sky owners could do it because Lone Mountain and thousands of acres at its base are privately owned, a remnant of 19th-century railroad grants that checkerboard southwestern Montana. No permission to build was required. And they could do it because of Big Sky's general manager, a quick, boyish, 38-year-old Michigan native named John Kircher, who pilots the corporate jet and lives in an 800-square-foot cabin six miles down the valley. He lives to ski and he skis every day, very fast.

He knew the resort didn't need to go to the summit to be successful. An isolated, purpose-built, family-oriented destination with a reputation for ego-soothing, intermediate runs, Big Sky had grown modestly but steadily for nine years running. Kircher suspected that with the extreme weather and terrain up there, the tram might not pay for itself for a long time.

It wasn't, strictly speaking, a practical move. But he just couldn't shake the power of the peak, a white triangle above a dark pine carpet. It dominates every photograph of the condo village, the lake, the golf course. Lone Mountain already symbolized Big Sky. Why not deliver people, including himself, right to the point of its cone?

It didn't hurt that, because he did it, Big Sky can now claim the "most total vertical feet" in American skiing, eclipsing Jackson Hole's 4,139 by 41 feet. There is a trick to the math. Jackson's vertical is all one piece, top-to-bottom; ski it without stopping if you can. To experience Big Sky's total vertical, you have to ski from the peak to the village -- a substantial 3,650 vertical feet -- then ride up onto adjacent Andesite Mountain and ski to its lowest point. Call it "continuous skiable vertical" vs. "total vertical feet."

Austrian roots

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