Unfortunately, Warren Miller's new movie "Cold Fusion" wasn't playing
in Missoula this year.  Although it was showing in a number of places in
Montana and Idaho, all of them were at least three hours away, which meant a
substantial road trip.  With this in mind, we decided that it would be great
to combine a trip to see the movie with some actual skiing.  In order to
give the snowpack a chance to build up (or even exist as the case was), we
decided on the latest showing in the area, in Coeur d’Alene Idaho on
December 1st.
     Coeur d’Alene is about 3.5 hours away, in the Idaho panhandle on
interstate 90.  I had narrowed the skiing options down to three main areas
in the Coeur d’Alene region: Lookout Pass Ski Area, Silver Mountain, and
Schweitzer Mountain Resort.  All three of these mountains offer skiing at
similar elevations in the range of 4,000' - 6,000'.  Of the three,
Schweitzer is the biggest, with 2,500 acres and 2,400 vertical.  Silver is a
bit smaller, with 1,500 acres and 2,200 vertical, and Lookout is the
smallest with 150 acres and 850 vertical.
     As the day approached, it looked as though there wouldn't be any skiing
on our trip, but once we hit Thanksgiving, the snow started to fall.  Things
still weren't certain however, as even just two days before our designated
date, none of the areas had opened for skiing.  Finally however, the base
depths piled up to over 40 inches, and all three areas set opening dates,
Schweitzer and Lookout on Friday (Nov 30th), and Silver on Saturday (Dec
1st).  Silver had already been our frontrunner due to its location, but the
chance to hit it on opening day and score some untracked powder sealed the
     We left at 5:00 A.M. in the dark, and found good road conditions
through most of Montana.  Once we approached Idaho however, the weather
began to deteriorate (or actually get better if you're a skier ;) due to an
approaching storm.  We crossed over the first pass on I-90 (Lookout pass -
elevation 4,725') and the snow was really coming down.  The road was snow
covered and we had to go a bit slowly.  Some trucks appeared to be using
chains as well.  Although it was snowing at a good clip and conditions were
cloudy, I was amazed at how long it was taking for the sun to come up (it
was already after 7:30 A.M.).  I was thinking about how this wasn't actually
all that unusual since we are at the very western edge of the Mountain time
zone, when something occurred to me...  Lookout pass marks the boundary
between the states of Idaho and Montana, but it also marks the boundary
between the Mountain and Pacific time zones!  We had forgotten to calculate
this fact into our plans, which meant that our timing was now an hour off.
Fortunately it meant that we were an hour early, and as you'll see, we were
going to need it.
      Once we dropped down from Lookout Pass (also the location of the
Lookout Pass ski area), the snow began to lighten up, and eventually changed
over to mix/rain as we approached the town of Kellogg, Idaho (elevation
2,305').  Silver Mountain is located just outside of Kellogg, and the bottom
lift of Silver is literally just off the interstate.  Silver Mountain has an
interesting lift setup.  A gondola ascends from Kellogg, and brings you up
to the base of the ski area (Silver Mt. Base is 4,100').  As a bit of
trivia, Silver reports that this gondola is the longest single-stage people
carrier in the world at 3.1 miles.
        The gondola was slated to open at 8:00 A.M., with the other lifts opening
at 9:00 A.M., so with our extra hour (it was now 7:30 A.M. Pacific) we were
styling for some fresh tracks.  We wandered over to the gondola base
terminal to get a look around and check on tickets, when we were slapped
with some horrible news.  Due to high winds up on the mountain (>50 mph) the
mountain was not opening today!  Noooo!  It was almost like a nightmare.  We
met one of the employees as we walked back to our car, and he said that he
was heading over to Lookout Pass to ski, they WOULD be open today.  It
seemed like a great idea, with Lookout being on 20-30 minutes away.
     We headed over to the Super 8 motel where we intended to spend the
evening.  It's located literally right below the Silver Mountain gondola,
and seems like a great place to stay if you are doing an overnighter at
Silver.  It was obvious that the motel catered to skiers, as they had the
local snow report plastered right on the front desk.  In addition to the
three areas that we had considered for skiing, it also contained snow
reports for two other local ski areas in Washington State, Mt. Spokane, and
49 Degrees North.  All the areas had received about a foot of snow in the
past 24 hours, with 10-20 inches in the past 48 hours.  It wouldn't be hard
to find a place with fresh snow.
     We finished checking in and considered our skiing options.  I could
only imagine the number of people that were going to arrive at Silver for
opening day, and get turned away.  It seemed like poor little Lookout Pass
would get swamped.  Since we had our extra hour, we decided to go the extra
distance to Schweitzer.  The locals said it took about an hour or so to get
there.  Schweitzer was also in the general direction of Coeur d'Alene, so it
would work out with regards to seeing the "Cold Fusion" ski movie.
     Soon we were on our way again, heading west on I-90.  The next pass we
had to go over was 4th of July Pass (elevation 3,019').  Even with this
small increase in elevation, the rain changed back to snow and picked up in
intensity.  The snow stayed with us all the way down into Coeur d'Alene
(elevation 2,157') and kept up as we headed north to Sandpoint, the major
town near Schweitzer.  Numerous cars were off the road due to the heavy
snow, and our going was again quite slow.  Even when we finally reached the
access road for Schweitzer, our journey was nowhere near done.
     The access road for Schweitzer seems like enough of a challenge on a
fair weather day, rising almost 2000 feet and containing some interesting
hairpin turns, but in the middle of a storm it was a big obstacle.  The new
snow had brought down a bunch of trees, some of which fell onto the road.
Although the major ones had been removed, a lot of debris remained and
slowed the going up the hill.  This combined with the slippery conditions,
and some cars that couldn't quite make it, slowed the flow of traffic even
more.  When we finally reached the Schweitzer village (3,910') the traffic
ground to a halt as the attendants attempted to park everyone.  As we wound
our way up and down around the village in the middle of the snowstorm, the
frustration of crawling along in traffic was fortunately augmented by the
thrill of exploring a new ski area.  By the time we finally parked, in some
crazy little parking zone of the village, we had no idea where we were.  All
told, I bet we spent more than an hour from the base of the access road
until we actually parked.  We were clueless, but there was tons of new snow,
it was still puking more, and we were going to ski some powder as we
explored an entirely new resort to us.  Who can complain about that?
     We were lucky enough to catch a shuttle from our parking area towards
the direction of the base lodge, but even the shuttle couldn't get all the
way there due to the slippery roads.  We eventually got off and followed the
line of people walking towards what we hoped was the base lodge, but we
could hardly see a thing in the heavy snow.  There was a line for tickets,
which worried me about crowds, but as it turned out, crowds wouldn't be an
issue at all.  I looked up at some of the slopes that were close enough to
be seen, and saw that they were deserted.  As it turned out, there was all
the untracked powder you could want and more... if you could ski it.
     We caught one of the main lifts from the base, and headed up.  We
decided to take an easy cruiser to warm up, and that worked great until we
passed a sparse area of trees on our left.  All I could see were acres of
untracked snow, not even a hint of a track anywhere.  Who could resist it?
Jumping into the glade, everything suddenly became clear, the skiing was
unlike anything I had experienced before.  We were essentially skiing on
virgin snow, most of which had fallen in the past couple of weeks, with
absolutely NO base.  We're talking four feet or so of unpacked powder, and
this wasn't the champagne that you'd find in Utah or Colorado, or Vermont in
midwinter, this was 10% Pacific Northwest material.  Happily, this meant
that there was no concern about hitting the ground below, but boy was it
hard to ski.  If you didn't keep up your speed and plane on top, you bogged
down in the mire, and had to extract yourself and start again.  The blue
pitch that we were on was nowhere near steep enough to keep us going (and as
I found out later, even a pitch of 35 degrees wasn't enough), so it was time
for a reassessment.  Off to the left, the trees dropped away at a pitch that
looked like 40 degrees, nice and steep.  However, the slope only got steeper
and simply seemed to disappear.  Although I wanted to see if the slope was
steep enough to keep moving, it didn't seem too wise to dive into unknown
steeps, especially with this crazy snow.  Instead, we traversed our way back
to the trail, a very slow process indeed.  Even just traversing it was
difficult to keep your balance, and you didn't dare fall over because
getting out meant a Lot of work.  E fell once at the end of the traverse,
just fell to the side slightly.  I took her 10-15 minutes to dig herself
out.  We now understood why the powder was so untracked.
     Making our way back to the trails, we decided to figure out this snow
in a slightly more forgiving setting.  The powder on the groomed runs was at
least chopped up, and made things a bit easier, but not entirely.  As we
worked our way down a black trail with a pitch of around 25-30 degrees, I
looked around and noticed that every other single person on the trail was
buried in the snow searching for their skis, in the process of falling, or
getting up from a fall.  Any yearning I'd had for my snowboard was removed
after I'd seen enough snowboarders floundering in the powder unable to
extract themselves, and then struggle to even get moving again.  This was
obviously challenging snow.  Fortunately, the option of skiing the chopped
up areas, then diving into the untracked to experiment, really paid off, and
we were soon figuring some things out.  Planing on top worked the best,
which meant that you had to maintain speed.  If you tried to turn too
aggressively, it meant the pressure would push you down in the mire.
Keeping a uniform platform of two skis was imperative.  If you weighted one
ski even slightly more than the other, down it would go into the deep and
you were in trouble.  If you did break the plane of the surface few inches
and start to dive, shifting your weight rearward seemed to be the best
defense.  It was like walking a tightrope of powder-skiing technique.  The
tolerances were so tight, that normal lapses in technique that one could get
away with meant the difference between powder skiing bliss and stuck in the
deep (or worse).  Anyway, it's not easy to describe the conditions in words,
but they were weird enough to be worth of a couple of paragraphs of effort.
     As the day wore on, we explored more of the mountain and found some fun
places to work out technique for the snow.  The mountain is composed of two
main areas, the front side, called Schweitzer Bowl, and the back side,
called Outback Bowl.  Most of the mountain was open, except for a few steep
places that seemed to require avalanche control, and a couple of upper lift
sections where the wind was just howling too fiercely to allow people to go
up (it was easy to see at this point why Silver Mountain was closed).  Thus,
we unloaded at the mid station.  We actually found some of our best turns on
a blue trail called Midway on the front side of the mountain.  The wind
seemed to have hit it just right so that the snow was a little more
compacted, allowing you to sink in only a foot or so and maintain speed.  We
found a nice area of untracked and worked it for a few laps.  We explored
the Outback Bowl area, and ate our lunches at a lodge there called the
Outback Inn.  It was a nice quiet place, but they didn't have fries, only
baked potatoes or "Spuds" as they called them.  Seems like an Idaho thing.
     By 2:30 P.M. (Pacific Time) it was already starting to get dark (due to
a combination of the snowy sky, location in the time zone, and latitude) and
we knew we didn't have many runs left.  We enjoyed a couple more on Midway
and then decided that we’d better find our car that was buried somewhere in
the midst of the village.  We put our heads together and gave it our best
shot, which turned out to be right on the mark.  We skied onto the lower
green trails on the front side of the mountain, then hopped onto the street
and skied some more.  Eventually things started to look familiar and we
found the car, in much less time than we had feared.
     The snow had lightened up a bit, and the drive out was much easier than
the one getting in.  As we dropped back down towards Sandpoint, the sky had
even cleared a bit in the valley, although a huge mass of clouds still hung
over the mountain.  We stopped in Coeur d’Alene for a bite to eat and then
headed to the Warren Miller movie at the local college (Northern Idaho
College I believe).  The movie was classic Warren Miller, although the
second half seemed to end very quickly.  A quick trip down I-90 brought us
back to Kellogg where we spent the night.
     The next morning was a true test of priorities, as we awoke to clear
blue skies, and a gondola outside our door heading up to a newly opened ski
area with gobs of bottomless fresh powder.  I knew better than to put off
the stuff we had to do, but if E had caved I would have done it.  I could
tell she was tempted as well, but we finally agreed that Silver Mountain
would have to wait until another day.  As we drove away, I tried not to look
up at the pristine slopes (and fortunately they are hidden from view much of
the time).

Unfortunately, we didn’t get any shots of the skiing since it was snowing so
hard and our time was limited at Schweitzer, but I did get a few scenery
shots from the trip.

Pictures (3 images) can be seen at the following link.


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