Lookout Pass, MT/ID 08APR2006 (Part II)

Here's the conclusion of the trip report; pictures with integrated text and links are at:



We returned to the summit after lunch, and headed for the back (or Montana) side of the mountain.  We chose to ski Rainbow Ridge, an intermediate trail that wraps around the skier's right of the back side.  There aren't actually any beginner trails on the back of the mountain, but Rainbow Ridge looked to be the easiest option and a good one for starting off the afternoon.  Rainbow Ridge has that classic look of many of the trails I've seen at the smaller ski areas of Western and Southwestern Montana; it slices through what looks like a monoculture of evergreens.  The trees are actually fairly small, maybe six or so inches in diameter on average, and the spacing is fairly tight, with just a few feet between trees.  However, since the trees have no lower branches and there is often minimal underbrush or ground clutter, there's a lot of fun tree skiing to be had on low to moderate angled slopes.  We enjoyed popping into the trees at times and making a few turns, and although the snow surface certainly didn't have the character you'd expect to find during mid winter, it was consistent and clean enough to make for enjoyable skiing.  The character of these forests with the densely-packed, smaller evergreens presumably comes from a combination of wildfires, logging, and other environmental factors, but some of the local ski areas do have sections with larger, more widely-spaced trees that may have avoided these processes.


Rainbow Ridge wrapped around the skier's right of the area's backside terrain, and eventually dropped us at the mountain's backside lift, which is a fixed grip double chair like the one on the front side.  In tune with the lift operator on the front side, the back side operator was very cheerful and made us feel like we were one of the few special guests at the mountain for the day (which we sort of were anyway).  He was really helpful with regard to loading the boys on the lift and provided lots of personal attention.  I guess you can get a lot of attention when not only is there nobody else in the lift queue, there isn't even anyone else in sight.  The steepest terrain on the back side of the mountain is also directly under the lift line, with a couple of advanced trails called Sun Dance (directly under the lift) and Whitetail (to the skier's right of Sun Dance).  You'd never know it from the trail map, but there was a lot of interesting terrain between these two trails.  I was especially intrigued by a long gully that emerged from the trees between the two trails.  As I cruised above it on the lift, I vowed to check it out later in the afternoon if I got the chance.  E said that because the unloading area of the backside lift was rather low to the ground, Ty was able to unload by himself.  Lookout's lifts were certainly making a good impression on Ty.


For our next run we moved one trail to the skier's left of Rainbow Ridge and tried out Cloud 9, which looked to be the next step up in steepness.  There are actually only five marked runs in total on the back side of the mountain (three intermediate runs and two advanced), and it basically looks as though they gradually increase in pitch as you move from skier's right to left.  Cloud 9 was certainly a step up in steepness from Rainbow Ridge, and there were some pitches on Cloud 9 that were getting a bit "blackish" in difficulty.  Ty took the trail pretty slowly, and had to rest more often, so we knew he was approaching the end of his day.  However, he still had some legs left in him, and on the more moderate pitches of the trail I recall that he would ski with his arms out, pretending that he was flying like an airplane.  We found that the snow was still in good shape everywhere we went on the groomed or more popular trails, but once we were done with that run we decided it was time to head to the front side for a final descent.  It was better to be on the front side BEFORE Ty's energy reserves and good disposition were depleted.


We'd sort of been stepping up the pitch of the runs throughout the day, so for our final descent together, we figured we'd give Montana Face a shot.  It's probably one of the steepest "marked" runs that we saw, but the steep stuff (the area with pitches in the range of roughly 30 degrees or so) only lasts for probably 100-200 vertical feet.  I'm sure that area is a blast on a typical powder day.  The snow that we actually encountered in the Montana Face area was a little trickier than anything else we'd encountered that day, because up to that point we'd really just dealt with groomed runs.  Therefore, the snow was further away from corn and a bit mushier and stickier.  Some skier traffic in the area had helped to at least partially settle it down though.  With the combination of snow and pitch, I actually had to focus on making good steady turns with Dylan on my back, so it wasn't surprising that Ty had some difficulty.  I'm not sure if he could have tackled the slope more easily earlier on when he was in the prime of his day, but he had some episodes where he'd freeze up and be unable to commit to a turn because of the snow consistency and pitch.  Fortunately the steep section was not too long, so we were able to get him down it with a combination of taking it slow and eventually traversing out into more moderate terrain on the skier's right.  We finished off the run and Ty certainly seemed to be done for the day, so we all headed into the lodge.


We still had some time before the lifts closed, and since E was OK with hanging out with the boys in the lodge for a bit, I decided to explore the mountain for a couple of runs by myself.  The rain had gradually been increasing in intensity throughout the afternoon, and by the time I headed back out to the slopes I encountered a cold, steady rain.  Most people were heading into the lodge at that point so the mountain was even more deserted than before.  My plan was to head to the back side of the mountain and check out that cool gully I'd seen from the lift, so as soon as I got off the front side lift I headed straight down the back side lift line.  It wasn't long before I realized that I was going to be in for quite an experience – although not a really enjoyable one.  The run under the lift (Sun Dance) had not been groomed, nor had it seen much in the way of skier traffic aside from a few random tracks.  The snow surface was a different world from anything I'd encountered up to that point in the day.  It was far from corn, but not too far from sludge.  I couldn't believe how difficult it was to ski, and I was really thankful for the grooming that had allowed us to have such a fun day.  I really had to pick my way down that slope, and while I still had that gully on my mind, by the time I got to it all I could do was traverse into its lower section and sample it a bit because aggressive skiing there was just not going to happen.  The snow was so tough to turn in that it felt like I'd just be begging for an end of the day injury.  I did pass a couple of Lookout Pass ski patrollers on my way down the trail that seemed to be having difficulty with the snow as well, so that assuaged my frustration a bit.  Once I'd reached the lift, I knew there was no need to try out anything like that again, even if I'd had more time to explore.  I'll have to try to get back and explore that gully under more appropriate conditions (like powder of course).


The rain continued to pour down as I rode the lift back to the summit, and it was plentiful enough that I even had trouble getting photos without raindrops spotting up my camera filter.  E and the boys called me on the radio and asked where I was, and I let them know that I was riding the lift and would soon come back down the front side to finish off my day.  I was sitting there lamenting the fact we hadn't had the chance to experience Lookout on a powder day, and half enjoying the rain because of the way my Gore Tex was so nicely keeping me dry, when something interesting happened.  I was about 200 vertical feet from the summit when the rain suddenly changed to snow.  It was really cool to be among winter again, and I radioed down to E and the boys and let them know that it was snowing up higher on the mountain.  I paused for a few moments at the summit to enjoy the snowfall, and then took off in the direction of the Huckleberry Ridge trail.  After battling the sludge on Sun Dance, I was looking for some nicely groomed terrain where I could enjoy some smooth carves.  I ended up heading down one of the intermediate trails like Gold, getting to some of the open terrain in the middle of the mountain and skiing out to the lodge to meet up with E and the boys.


Based on the few times we'd stopped in at Lookout Pass, and the comments of friends that had skied there, the ski experience was very much what I'd expected.  What I did find surprising about Lookout was how extremely similar it was to Lost Trail.  Many of the small ski areas of Western Montana have a somewhat similar feel, but the high degree of similarity between Lookout and Lost Trail is simply uncanny.  Perhaps it's because both areas are in the Bitterroot Range on the Idaho/Montana border, but the main mountain areas really seem to have similar vegetation, terrain, lifts, acreage, facilities, attitude, etc.  If it weren't for Lost Trail's Chair 3 and 4 expansion area, the two areas would seem like clones of each other.  Both mountains have expanded beyond their initial main lift to add a second one off the side or back with slightly more vertical.  In Lookout's case, the additional was the chairlift on the Montana side of the mountain, known as the Timber Wolf Double, which upped the mountain's vertical drop to 1,150 feet.  I'd still consider that chair a rather recent addition since it only opened on December 26, 2003.  But Lookout hasn't added anything like Lost Trail's latest expansion that tripled or quadrupled the ski area's acreage a few seasons back.  Lookout does continue to expand however.  The mysterious out of bounds "trails" that I had noticed on our first run of the day are apparently part of a new terrain pod that is going in.  The terrain will head down toward I-90 off the Huckleberry Ridge trail, with a new third lift dropping from the summit like the other two, but running a bit perpendicular to their orientation (see the proposed lift and trails on the map below).  The new lift is yet another double, called the North Star, and is supposed to be completed for the upcoming 2007-2008 season to provide access to three new expert and three new intermediate runs.  The North Star looks to provide a similar vertical drop to what the Timber Wolf provides, and when all three lifts are in place it looks like they will slice the mountain into roughly thirds.  The new terrain at Lookout isn't nearly on the scale of what Lost Trail added with its Chair 4 expansion, but Lookout seems be surrounded by much narrower valleys and may have space constraints that Lost Trail doesn't.  Regardless of exactly how much new terrain will be added with the North Star, I'm sure visitors will be happy with the new lift because it should spread people out even more at what already appears to be a sparsely-populated ski area.


We once again enjoyed the relatively warm lodge as we changed into drier clothes and packed up the gear from the wet day.  Although I don't recall it raining extremely hard when we finally got ready to leave, I loaded the car and warmed it up so the others could stay out of the precipitation.  It was definitely one of those days where you really appreciate the chance to sit in a nice warm car after skiing.  As we headed east on I-90 toward Missoula and dropped in elevation from the pass, the precipitation gradually dissipated.  That effect was totally consistent with the way Lookout's weather usually compared to what the valley saw farther west.  Once we'd reached Missoula, there were actually patches of blue sky around and the rain was a distant memory.  I was able to get some pictures of the north-facing trails of the proposed Bitterroot Resort, which still held visible snow even though it was well into April.  Even though I doubt the snow was deep enough to be comfortably skiable, I was a bit surprised at how much white I could see on the trails.  I've found that with only about 40 inches of snowfall a season, and relatively warm temperatures, the lowest couple thousand feet of the Bitterroot Valley (elevations of ~3,200' to ~5,500') rarely maintain much snowpack.  But, the fact that I could still see all that white in April certainly revealed the power of north-facing slopes.  I'd say I'm a little less skeptical now about the potential resort's ability to maintain skiable terrain all the way to the valley with the aid of snowmaking.  The relatively low humidity and typically cool nights should allow them to make snow as long as they've got the water.  A bit farther west of the trails, I could see the Lolo Peak area.  Lolo Peak is the crown of the resort at 9,139 feet, and it turns out it's the northernmost 9,000 footer in the Bitterroot Range.  It can be tough to see the actual peak from Missoula because another peak (point 8,694) is more prominent when you look from the north.  Whatever difficulties there might be in maintaining snow at the lower elevations, they won't have to worry about the snowpack up there throughout the season.


We actually didn't head home to Hamilton that evening, because we had planned to combine another mini vacation with our Lookout Pass ski day.  We'd decided to break up the drive and stay overnight at the Wingate Inn in Missoula.  The Wingate has an indoor water park that is included in the price of your stay, so even local folks sometimes come to stay overnight to spend some time at the water park and experience a change of pace.  We had heard about the water park from our friends Dave and Maureen, and finally had the chance to check it out with the boys.  Ty was pretty excited about the water slides although he wasn't quite willing to go down them alone.  So, he went down with either E or I and had a lot of fun.  Even Dylan got to go down the slides, and seemed to have fun when he wasn't simply stunned by the whole experience.


The next day we headed home to Hamilton, having finally visited a couple of places that had been on our list for quite a while.  As we passed through the Lolo area and were able to look at the lower, east-facing slopes of the proposed Bitterroot Resort, we realized the north-facing slopes we'd seen from Missoula weren't quite representative of what was really going on with the snowpack.  From the east, you could see that in reality, most of the lowest-elevation terrain was completely bereft of snow.  I still think the resort might be able to permit skiing to the base of the area with the aid of snowmaking, but they'll really have to pump it out in accordance with how long they want to keep skiing to the base.  Unfortunately, Lookout Pass stopped running its lifts for the season after that Sunday, so it was time to broaden our search and figure out where Ty was going to ski the following weekend…


The integrated (text, links, and pictures) version of the report can be found at:



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