Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Perfect imperfections

An appreciation of Missoula's local ski hill

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 1:44 PM

A few years back, I got on the Grizzly chair at Snowbowl for one more run. It was toward the end of the day, the weather seemed to be escalating and the mountain was shrouded in fog. It was hard to tell if it was snowing or if the frozen particulate churning in the air was the makings of a cloud. About two-thirds of the way into the ride, where the chair leaves the protected corridor of trees and begins its final ascent over the bald face of the Grizzly run, the lift suddenly stopped and left me bobbing and swinging 40 feet above the snowscape.

If you've spent any time on chairlifts, a halt in progress is no big deal. This is true especially at Snowbowl, where the lifts are infamously quirky and the attitude among staff and regulars seems to be if you don't like it, go somewhere else. But on this day, with deteriorating conditions, the impending end of the day and no signs of life in the dissipating light, I got to thinking. And when I get to thinking, worrying is usually quick to follow. How many decades older is this lift than the people operating it? What's the protocol for getting me down from here? How often do they practice such extractions? Should I take my skis off before I jump?

In the light of day, these are unreasonable thoughts, but Snowbowl has a way of making you feel like a crazy person. The mountain has its own rules and the people who recreate and work there have stringent (but poorly disseminated) expectations of their fellow skiers and riders. I once witnessed a mob of people waiting to get on the LaVelle chair heckle an elderly woman who had unwittingly cut the line. And in 2012, a longtime pass holder claimed he had been banned from buying a new season ticket after complaining about unsafe conditions near the base of the mountain. But despite the anxiety-inducing chairlifts and the pressures of adhering to a strict but unknowable sense of decorum, there's nothing I would change about Missoula's local ski area. In its own way, Snowbowl is perfect.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

I'm not sure if Missoula is a big town or a small city, but it's hard to imagine a place inhabited by so many people so unanimously committed to recreation and leisure. I couldn't find any hard numbers, but I wager Missoula sits at the top of per capita sales for inner tubes, fly rods and beer. You'd think a town so enamored with fun and the outdoors would also ubiquitously love their local ski hill, but Snowbowl seems to illicit strong and polarized feelings from western Montana residents. I have friends who, like me, love it and would gladly spend the whole season driving the (often perilous) road to the Bowl. I have other friends who happily drive two hours to ski or ride elsewhere and vow never to return to the mountain out their backdoor. But whether you love it or hate it, there's no denying that Snowbowl is tough to break.

It starts with the mountain itself. From the top of the LaVelle chair to the base of the Grizzly chair, the mountain offers a thigh-burning 2,800 vertical feet of open bowls, glades and groomers. Some days the moguls on Spartan Headwall line up so perfectly they make me think I really know how to ski bumps, and when the wind blows just right across West Ridge, pillows of soft snow fill in old tracks and make for the sort of snow-in-your-mouth tree skiing only seen in movies. But for the uninitiated, an inaugural descent might leave one scratching their head.

The problem stems from Snowbowl's varied and inconsistent fall lines. The fall line of a ski hill is the slope created by the gradient (up and down) and the contours (side to side) of the hill. In other words, if you were to pour a giant bucket of water on the mountain's head, the water would follow the fall line to the bottom. At Snowbowl, this exercise would show water collecting rapidly in a dozen gulches and ravines before coming together again in a tidal wave just before the base area. The result is that skiers, like the water, are funneled into the same lines to get down the hill, and when there hasn't been much new snow or if it's a busy day, those lines become packed and icya bit like a bobsled course. The lines can be a little butt-puckering, so it's best to resist following the fall line, which is a little like arguing with gravity about which way is down; you want your skis to go in one direction, but your body is pushed in another.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

For experienced skiers, Snowbowl's funky fall lines can be a surprising blessing. All those opposing and intersecting slopes demand some creative and satisfying decision-making. But throw in dense stands of evergreens, a few exposed boulders and the fact that Snowbowl is in Missoula, where it doesn't snow all that much, and just getting down the mountain can seem like a test of will. And although there are ways for the timid to get to the bottom, there aren't many. According to Snowbowl's Master Development Plan, more than 40 percent of the terrain is for experts only, while only 2 percent is rated for novices and beginners. In other words, the Bowl is great for the whole family, but it's best if the whole family knows how to ski.

Of the people I know who refuse to buy a lift ticket at Snowbowl, though, the tricky terrain is usually not their chief complaint. Closer to the heart of the matter is that Snowbowl has a microculture that can sometimes feel unwelcoming. I experienced this when I first started skiing there 10 years ago. Growing up, skiing was something I got to do one or maybe two weekends a year in Vermont. When I moved to Montana, my gear was outdated, and not in a cool way. My skis were short, my helmet was too small and I didn't know that snow could fall "upside down" or that on a crowded day you should never, ever get on a chairlift by yourself. On one of my first visits I rode the chairlift with a woman who began asking me about my skis. "How wide are they underfoot? How much camber? Are those only 165s?" I had no answers. My mom had bought them for me and I'd only used them a handful of times, which didn't seem like an acceptable response. "They're my old skis," I said, pathetically.

That interaction made me feel surprisingly insecure. I'd never thought about equipment in a meaningful way, but suddenly I felt like I should know this stuff. A couple years later I started dating a girl who was, without a doubt, a badass skier. She'd grown up skiing Snowbowl. She shouted at friends as they skied under the lift. She high-fived the lifties. She called everyone "Buddy." We skied together once, and as dates go it was about as awkward as it gets. My tiny helmet, my plaything skis, my utter anonymity—you could hear her attraction to me hissing through a pinprick in her head. We broke up soon after.

That is an extreme example coming from a person who is insecure about everything, but it's indicative of what, I think, can turn some people off from Snowbowl. It's the sort of place that makes you feel "other" very quickly, and then makes you wish you were the same.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

I understand why some people don't like Snowbowl and I'm glad for it. Not because I now have new skis and I know my way around. Not because I yell "single" in the lift line or because I know where to park so I can ski all the way to my car. And I'm not glad out of some sense of keeping it a secret or guarding it from outsiders. I'm happy some people don't appreciate Snowbowl because I do. Because if I leave my house at 9 a.m., I'm skiing by 10. Because when the sun shines on East Bowl, the snow gets soft and forgiving. Because all those funky fall lines are resolved at the base, where there's a bar with a fireplace and a pizza oven. You could show me a perfect day with perfect snow on a perfect mountain, and it still wouldn't feel as perfect as a day at Snowbowl, no matter the conditions—especially if that day ends with me unbuckling my boots and ordering a pitcher and a pie at that bar. And most importantly, I'm glad not everyone appreciates Snowbowl because nothing should work for everyone. Things are made better when they appeal to the group, not the crowd.

I don't remember why the Grizzly chair stopped that day, but I was stranded long enough that it must have been something gone wrong. If I hadn't been by myself, the moment probably wouldn't stand out in my memory, but I was alone and ripe for worrying. It was the sort of whiteout where air and earth blend together and your sense of space vanishes. As my anxiety piqued, I heard the steady cadence of skis turning through snow, and somehow, it made me stop worrying. The chair rumbled back to life.

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