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No Hiking For Skiers Until More Snow Falls At Whitefish

Uphill skiing has become increasingly popular at ski hills like Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Uphill skiing has become increasingly popular at ski hills like Whitefish Mountain Resort.

When you think ski season, you probably think of people skiing downhill.

But using skis to hike uphill has increasingly become a sport of its own.

"Whitefish, in particular, has a very strong community for that," says Nick Polumbus, the director of marketing and sales at Whitefish Mountain Resort. 

The Resort instituted a winter uphill policy in 2009 to better manage where and when people were hiking up to avoid collisions with downhill riders and snowmaking equipment.

"We're real proud of this policy and we’re real proud of our ability to embrace this community, have this and offer it. It's just we also need to make sure we're making this as safe as possible for everybody."

Other ski hills in Montana, like Big Sky Resort, allow uphill hiking, also called alpine touring, but require hikers to buy a day or season pass. At Whitefish, hiking to earn your turns is free.

Polumbus says hundreds of people were hiking up the mountain in the weeks leading up to opening day, using adhesive mohair strips along the bottoms of their skis to stick to the snow. But now that the mountain is open to downhill skiers, and it hasn’t snowed much, the resort has temporarily suspended uphill traffic to prevent collisions.

"The mountain, actually, to the naked eye from town looks pretty good. It looks wintery and there's even some snow in town. Then once you get up, it looks like there's a lot of snow on the front side of the mountain but looks are pretty deceiving," Polumbus says.

Bits of grass and the tops of small trees poke out of the snow halfway down most runs. Nearly the whole front face of the mountain is closed until storms bring in enough new snow to cover them up, and elsewhere, snowmaking guns run 24/7 fanning man-made snow onto easier terrain to get it open sooner.

Normally, one of the designated uphill routes, the Benny Up, would march directly through this area. Polumbus says it wouldn’t be safe to have steel-edged skis gliding through or over that obstacle course.

"We're making snow with pressurized water and forced air. It's a lot of pressure to do that and a lot of voltage, electricity to do that. It's not something to be toyed around with. We're not just saying that to sound dangerous. It’s real."

The other designated uphill route would guide hikers up one of the few open ski runs.

Nick Polumbus: The last leg of the uphill route, or the first part of anybody's downhill, is the same exact spot. 

Nicky Ouellet: Yeah, we're standing up here right now and there's maybe 20 people lined up waiting to head on down. So it's tight.

We ski down to another area of concern on a run called Moe-Mentum.

"And it's almost like half the size that it would be, this trail, in the middle of the winter. And the thought of putting people then also going also uphill on this trail is just more than we were comfortable with."

Polumbus says he’s aware of a couple of gripes about the temporary closure, including one pointing out it bars access to public lands. The resort has a permit from the Flathead National Forest for the majority of its alpine terrain. Polumbus says the resort and forest make decisions like these in partnership.

"We have an obligation through our permit with forest service that involves public safety, and that's what we're talking about."

Later this season, the resort will host several ski-mountaineering, or ski-mo, events. The annual White Out sends participants up, down and across most of the resort’s skiable terrain. On Wednesday nights in January, skiers can choose to hike up and ski down one to three laps as part of race league.

But until there’s more snow, skiers will have to hike to earn their turns elsewhere.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.