Winter recreation is plentiful in our corner of the world, more to do than you can shake a ski pole at, as they say. Obviously there’s skiing, and when we hear the snow is good, or can see it’s a clear day on Big Mountain from our valley vantage point, we head up. While riding Chair 1, we watch the skiers and snowboarders slide down the slopes and on most days we see a few skiing up. Why do they do this when there’s a perfectly good lift right here?
I’m sure many of you were as confused as I was when I first saw this strange, counterintuitive act. Yet once you stick around awhile you realize there is a subculture here and for them, going uphill is just one more way to embrace winter.
There was a time when this group we refer to as “uphill skiers” would climb up wherever and whenever they wanted. As you can imagine, this posed a safety issue. Our management and officials from the Flathead National Forest knew that uphill skiing was not going to go away, and in fact it was only going to gain popularity. It was inevitable that we would need a safety solution to work for everyone. That solution was the Uphill Policy, a guiding course of action to keep all parties safe and happy.
When I asked our Ski Patrol Manager Keagan Zoellner for her thoughts about uphill skiing and safety she said it is worth noting WHY the uphill policy is in place—to provide for skier safety, both regular guests and uphill visitors.
“It’s important that folks stay on route to reduce the chance of collisions, especially in low visibility situations,” Keagan wrote to me in an email. “But almost more importantly, that folks adhere to the policy before and after operating hours. Before the mountain opens, patrol is conducting avalanche mitigation. After hours, groomers are working the hill and winching.”
The “Benny Up Route” is the one we are most familiar with because it ascends up the mountain under Chair 1 and up Toni Matt. This route is open from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. (groomers head up the mountain at 4 p.m.). Hikers stay to the far skier’s right, rather than climbing up the middle of the run where a collision could take place. The East Route is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. This route starts in the base area and ascends toward the east, going up Expressway and then up the Moe Mentum run where they stay to the skier’s left side.
One additional safety tip Keagan mentioned, “Folks traveling up in the dark should consider wearing a headlamp to let the downhill folks know where they are.” If ascending before or after hours (6-9:30 a.m. or 4-7 p.m.) individuals need to return on the same route they climbed. She also passed along a “Big Thank you” to the uphill community for minding this policy.
If you plan to skin up, go to skiwhitefish.com/uphill and read the policy and look at the map. There are signs along the routes however, it is your responsibility to know the policy. This policy also includes a Special Order from the U.S. Forest Service. This Special Order specifies that it is prohibited for anyone to be off the two approved routes, and to be within 100 feet of grooming machines, whether stationary or moving, or 50 feet of snowmaking equipment, to include but not limited to fan guns, high-pressure water lines, and high-voltage electrical cables. This is very important for those who wish to ski uphill in the pre-season.
Race You to the Top
Just as we want everyone who goes up or comes down the mountain safe, we also recognize that this popular activity is worth celebrating as one of many cool things we get to do around here. That’s why we host the Whitefish Whiteout this Saturday, February 8. For more than a decade this event has grown in both the number of competitors as well as the number of categories. This year we add one more category—a fourth course option—opening up the field to more uphillers.
All courses begin at the bottom of Chair 1 at 10:15 a.m. ascending the Benny Up route where one category will finish. The other three categories (short, medium and long) will complete stages, skiing up and down other areas around the mountain.
The fastest racers on the longest course can finish under two hours—just about what it would take me to climb up the first part (only guessing, I’ve never tried). I believe the fastest time up Benny Up is just under 25 minutes.
Maybe someday I will join this tribe, until then I know where they are, and will steer clear when they head uphill.