Ice crystals peppered my face as I peered down the steep. Wind gusts lifted plumes of snow off the mountainside that lingered in front of me like smoke. I stood at 11,166 feet, strapped to my snowboard atop Lone Peak at Montana’s Big Sky Resort. Below me lay a double-black pitch more than a quarter-mile long.
I turned and edged gingerly across the southward slope. The sun had softened the snowpack underneath, and my board sliced through it. I slid to a stop and savored the vista of ice-frosted ridges and summits in the distance. I had waited a year for this trip: five days of exploring the 5,800 acres of powder-dusted bluffs, glades of pines and curvaceous bowls at what many consider America’s largest ski mountain.
Joining me were Sterling Ruffin, a prep school classmate able to carom down the sheerest runs with ease, and Pete Kowalcheck, a college friend who, although new to skiing, complements his developing skills with blind courage.
That January afternoon we paused together scoping out the best route down. As Sterling and I examined a trail map, Pete began his descent. Seconds later we heard a yell and saw Pete lose a ski and skid out of control.
“Watch him, watch him,” Sterling said as he started after Pete and I followed.
“I think I’m going to win the medal for biggest wipe-out,” Pete said as we approached.
With everyone vertical again, we carved through a swath of snow as thick as whipped cream. Maybe it was the sunshine, the thin Rocky Mountain air, or the altitude, but I found it difficult to shake my smile as we skied the packed powder.
It was only a moment afterward that we experienced how quickly a skier’s bliss can turn to catastrophe as we saw Pete’s limp body flip through the air and come to rest face-down in the snow.
The mountains of Big Sky formed 60 million years ago. Rising above them all is Lone Peak, a geologic marvel known as a Christmas tree laccolith for its pyramidal shape. A gem in the Northern Rockies, the mountain gets more than 400 inches of snow a year, and winter temperatures average in the 20s. All of which makes Big Sky, 45 miles outside Bozeman, an ideally situated ski destination.
The resort was founded in 1973 by NBC newsman Chet Huntley, who arranged early investments by Chrysler, Continental Oil and Northwest Airlines. A Montana native, Huntley did not ski, but he was known to go horseback riding in the surrounding wildflower meadows. For years, the resort remained relatively unknown except among the most devoted skiers, who came for Big Sky’s signature powder, an especially light and wispy snow that locals call “Cold Smoke.”
But the resort seems poised for a transformation. A $25 million condominium complex, completed in 2007, added luxury ski-in, ski-out suites and an open-air Jacuzzi with views of the peak. A new chairlift that opened in the winter of 2008 made territory on the south face of the mountain more accessible to skiers looking for deep pockets of windblown powder. Then, in fall 2013, Big Sky officially merged with its neighboring competitor, Moonlight Basin. For years the two shared the same mountain but operated independently on opposite sides of the peak. The merger put Big Sky into a different league: Its immense proportions alone — the mountain’s skiable area is more than double of the acreage of Rock Creek Park — makes it one of the largest ski resorts in the world.
With 290 named runs and more than two dozen lifts, its current motto, “the biggest skiing in America,” certainly holds true. But the resort may not be able to claim the superlative for long. This fall, the behemoth Vail Resorts corporation announced plans to revamp its newest acquisition, Park City in Utah, by linking it with the nearby Canyons ski area with a gondola system to combine the two locations into a single 7,300-acre resort that would become the largest in the nation. (Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb, at 8,171 acres, is still the largest on the continent.)
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Big Sky has the potential to join the ranks of Vail and Aspen, in Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho — chic ski locales where the streets are lined with jewelry shops and fur boutiques. One barometer of the Bozeman area’s escalating wealth is the gleaming Audi dealership, plopped next to a Loaf’N Jug gas and convenience store and across the road from the dimly lit Jackpot casino and bar.
Other indicators are apparent as soon as you step off the plane at the rustic Bozeman airport (it has stone fireplaces), where a Sotheby’s realty sign beckons above the oversize luggage pick-up. (A cool $18 million will buy you a 16,000-square-foot chalet in Big Sky, if you’re interested.)
For now, though, the town of Bozeman, seat of the Gallatin River valley and home of the Montana State University Bobcats, retains its rural charm and Western roots. The valley was home to Blackfoot, Crow and Shoshone Indians when Lewis and Clark passed through in the early 1800s, naming the tributaries of the Missouri river headwaters in honor of Albert Gallatin, the U.S. Treasury secretary who helped plan their expedition.
Much of the land around Bozeman is as wild as ever: Blue Ribbon trout streams abound, as do bighorn sheep and moose, which are known to block traffic. For years, the area’s farmers have grown the “high-country barley” that’s purportedly the key to the MillerCoors beer recipe.
It was exactly that elevation that brought Sterling, Pete and me to Big Sky. (My wife, also a skier, joined us for the trip, but had to skip the slopes since she was eight months pregnant. She spent most days getting deservedly pampered at the resort’s sumptuous spa.) Many ski Web sites rank mountains according to what is known as vertical drop, or the distance from the altitude at the peak of the mountain to the altitude at the base, a measurement that indicates how steep its slopes are. At Big Sky, the vertical drop is 4,350 feet, about a football field short of a mile, and the pitch of some runs exceeds 50 degrees.
The terrain and conditions did not disappoint. During our five days on the mountain, we cut first tracks on freshly groomed “corduroy,” glided through tufts of flawless “pow” and “shredded” the needle between tree trunks in the slopeside glades. The mountain got about eight inches of snow during our stay, and on blue-sky days the afternoon temperatures hovered in the 40s.
We found the resort so vast and so varied that there were runs for all skill levels. Our group delighted in seeking out nooks and crannies devoid of other skiers, and Big Sky’s size made it easy. On several occasions the three of us were the only skiers on the slope. Lift lines were almost nonexistent — a welcome contrast to the more popular Colorado resorts, where you can spend what feels like most of your day waiting for a ride up the mountain. Several of the Big Sky lifts, though, moved upward at a glacial pace.
On our most active days in Big Sky, our group covered 25 to 30 miles in six hours; our elevation changes totaled a thigh-roasting 40,000 feet, according to the Ski Tracks app. To rest our weary weary muscles, we downed crisp pints of Montucky Cold Snacks lager and Moose Drool brown ale and refueled with a plate of nachos as tall as Lone Peak at Whiskey Jack’s saloon, where a Weissenborn slide guitarist performed funky covers of songs by Daft Punk, the Pixies and Nirvana. Pete also learned that if you ask nicely, the waitresses will hand out bags of ice from behind the bar.
On one of our days at Big Sky, we decided to take the resort’s tram up-mountain to try out some of the more challenging runs near the peak. What we discovered was a south-facing double-black run called Lenin. Toward the end of the run, Pete skidded over a pile of snow-obscured rocks. When he landed hard, I was certain we’d have to go find the Ski Patrol. Although the impact had tweaked his knee, fortunately, his fall was cushioned by fresh snow.
For the rest of our time in Big Sky, however, all that we bruised were our egos after countless small tumbles experimenting on jumps and tricky wooded runs. We all got a taste of the snow eventually. Back home, I rocked a mean goggle tan and some chapped lips. I also nursed pangs of envy a few days later when I checked the mountain’s snow conditions online: A foot of Cold Smoke powder had just fallen atop Lone Peak.
Big Sky Resort
50 Big Sky Resort Rd., Big Sky
Rooms from $285 a night at the resort’s Huntley Lodge; price includes complimentary breakfast, WiFi, overnight parking and access to a heated outdoor pool and a hot tub that seats 22. For après-ski beers and bison quesadillas, hit up Whiskey Jack’s at the mountain base. The Andiamo Italian Grille specializes in Mediterranean fare and is also home to Pizza Works, a takeout place which serves wood-fired personal-size pies.
Full-day lift tickets are $103; ski rentals from $42 a day.
Big Sky Resort sits about 45 miles south of Bozeman, a college town that exudes Western charm. Skiers who want a day off should check out the Museum of the Rockies , home to the largest collection of Tyrannosaurus rex fossils in the world, as well as other dinosaur bones excavated from Montana and neighboring states. Or take a guided snowmobile tour of nearby Yellowstone National Park to see Old Faithful and, possibly, a bison as big as a Prius.
You’ll find the best meal in town at Montana Ale Works , housed in an old Northern Pacific depot. Ask for a table in the restaurant’s converted rail car and sip on a curated collection of brews from around the state. Start with the bison potstickers, of course. Foodies should order the sous vide pork chop, cooked to tender perfection, as a main course. But don’t rule out the burgers, known for their signature house-ground Wagyu beef. (Especially the Smoke Stack, with its crispy onion strings and homemade barbecue sauce.)
If you want to kick back, head down the road to the Rocking R Bar , a popular nightspot for sports fans. But if you have energy to spare after a day on the slopes, opt for the Broken Spoke at Big Sky’s Town Center, where locals gather for Wednesday-night karaoke and it’s not uncommon to see folks dancing on tables. Looking to cram in the calories before a powder day? Try Milkie’s Pizza & Pub , also in the Town Center, for friendly service, humongous pies and arguably the best wings in Montana.
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