When the sun finally rose on my first morning at Big Sky, Montana, I could hardly contain my excitement.
A fresh layer of snow had blanketed the area the night before, and the mammoth triangular, 11,166-foot summit of Lone Peak appeared like a foreboding white hazard sign in God’s deep-blue sky.
As my wife and I boarded our first chairlift of the day, I whipped out the trail map to scope out our first run. I thought we might start with an intermediate trail called Hangman’s. She wanted to get her feet wet with a beginner’s run called Pacifier.
We arrived at the top of the lift. As we skied off to the side, my wife fell down. A little farther on, as I stooped over to tighten my boots, she skied into me, knocking me to the ground.
I took a deep breath. Pacifier it would be.
There’s nothing more frustrating for a skier than being matched up with a partner of a vastly different skill level. Either you can't keep up, or your companion goes so slowly you’re bored.
When this happens in a group lesson, the frustration is easily remedied: Just switch groups. If it’s a friend you’re with, you might ski alone or, next time, take someone else along instead.
But what happens when it’s your spouse? Are you condemned to mutual misery on the slopes -- she worn out and discouraged, you aggravated and impatient -- or must you scrap the idea of a joint ski trip altogether?
I first struggled with this question when I proposed marriage to my girlfriend three winters ago, on a ski trip in Colorado . It was her first time on skis, and we spent most of the week apart – she in full-day beginner lessons, me skiing on my own. Despite this, and the multiple bruises she suffered, she agreed to marry me -- and to try skiing again. I considered both a triumph, and resolved to do better the following year.
A year later, her skiing was much improved; my problem of impatience was not. I took her on a steep and crowded trail she wasn’t ready for, causing us both some heartache (and her some joint aches). When she wanted to rest her sore bones and take a day off from the slopes, I left her by her lonesome and headed off with my skis – a mistake even a rookie husband shouldn’t make. Whereas I envisioned a schedule packed with schussing from 8 A.M. to dusk, she wanted a vacation with a little more variety and relaxation. One morning, she even wanted – gasp! – to sleep in.
But it couldn’t have been awful, because she agreed to another ski trip the following winter.
This time, with forethought and planning, I was determined to get it right.
First, we selected the destination carefully: Neither of us had ever been to Montana, and we were drawn by its remoteness, reputed beauty, bountiful snowfall and legendary skiing.
Choosing Montana also helped us put together a more varied schedule: Instead of a week of non-stop skiing, we planned to spend one day on a tour at Yellowstone National Park, and part of another dog sledding.
When we got to Big Sky Resort, our first stop, we found a skier’s dream. The area has the most acreage of any U.S. ski resort if you count its kid sister resort next door, Moonlight Basin. A single premium lift ticket gives you access to their combined 5,500 acres, and you can easily traverse between the two. Big Sky alone spans three peaks, has 4,350 feet of vertical drop and more than 85 miles of runs over 150 trails. Together with Moonlight, which opened in December 2003, there are a total of 23 lifts and some 220 trails.
But what made Big Sky perfect for a couple like us was that it fit both our needs. For her, 40 percent of the mountain was comprised of beginner and intermediate terrain, some of which we could enjoy together without difficulty on her end or boredom on mine. For me, there were also steeps, bowls, glade runs and double-black diamond couloirs so intimidating I nearly had a heart attack just looking up at them from below.
Because Big Sky is hard to get to – the closest commercial airport is in Bozeman, about an hour’s drive away, and there’s no direct air service to New York or L.A. – the runs were mostly empty when we went early last January. From what I understand, they’re pretty much never crowded.
That meant my wife could ski without worries about having to make sharp turns to avoid crowds, and neither of us had to wait on any lift lines. On most runs, we felt we had the mountain all to ourselves.
And what a mountain it is. Rising 11,166 feet above sea level, Big Sky’s highest summit, Lone Peak, dominates the landscape and forms an intimidating exclamation point to the mountain that unfolds beneath it. Reachable by a 15-passenger tram, the peak offers views of three states and is the starting point for some of the most challenging in-bounds terrain in all of North America. You can ski down to the tree line via gullies, cliffs, couloirs and bowls, but don’t expect it to be easy. If you’re not up for a calf-straining, heart-stopping descent, you can still go up, take in the view and then ride the tram back down to more moderate ground.
There’s plenty of more manageable terrain all around Big Sky. The Ramcharger Quad, just a few paces from our hotel, took us up to a remote peak with spectacular views and a variety of greens, blues and blacks running down the side.
Rather than deposit my wife in lessons all day, as I had done the first time we went skiing, she took lessons in the morning and we skied together in the afternoons. Sometimes we took the same run down; other times we took separate trails that converged at the bottom. There were groomed runs for her, tree runs for me, and trails that were half moguls and half corduroy so she could ride the smooth stuff while I negotiated the bumps.
Because the area averages 400 inches of snowfall a year, there’s no shortage of dry, fluffy powder – and the absence of crowds means you don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to find it. There’s enough fresh powder to be had all day long – and often into the next.
And because we were staying slopeside in a cozy one-bedroom suite at the Summit Lodge, my wife was able to quit early when she wanted to and sit in front of the fireplace in our living room watching the snow fall while I grabbed a few more runs before the lifts closed.
After sundown, we’d head to the pool together and relax in the steaming outdoor hot tub under a brilliant starry ski while ice formed on our eyelashes and hair. Then we’d go back to our room, where I’d use the self-cleaning oven in our suite’s kitchen to heat up one of the kosher meals I had prepared at home in New York.
If you’re hard up for kosher food in Montana you might try Rabbi Chaim Bruk at the Chabad of Bozeman (406-585-8770 or Jewishmontana.com), who will probably invite you for a Shabbos meal. But don’t expect to find any kosher meat at the local supermarket; the closest salami, Rabbi Bruk told me, was in Chicago. There aren’t many Jews in Montana.
Or people, for that matter. Though it’s the country’s fourth largest state, Montana ranks 44th in population.
You feel it on the largely empty slopes of Big Sky, and at its base area. Though there are a few restaurants, shops and bars at the base, Big Sky is really a skier’s resort, and the folks who run Big Sky prefer it that way. They told us they’re proud their mountain doesn’t have the kind of base village or ritzy culture you’ll find at other large U.S. resorts, like Vail or Park City, Utah. The ski-and-stay packages at Big Sky are more affordable, too. (This year, Big Sky is offering five-night/four-day lift and lodging packages for two people starting at $985.)
If you’re looking for some decadence, you can find it right next door, at Moonlight Basin. At Moonlight the luxury is more of the quiet kind -- with gorgeous log homes, a cozy lodge and a decadent spa rather than upscale bars and glitzy clothing shops.
When we went over to Moonlight for a couple of nights toward the end of our week, I discovered a whole new side of Lone Mountain to ski while my wife luxuriated in some of Moonlight’s indulgences.
I spent most of my time in the tree runs served by the Lone Tree lift, a 1,000-acre expanse largely empty of skiers and the whirr of lifts. Even though I skied on a special promotional day when lift tickets for Montana residents were reduced to $15 a pop and there were actually some lift lines, once I reached the snow I could go through the trees for half an hour without seeing a soul.
In the evening, while my wife enjoyed a rejuvenating massage at Moonlight’s spa, I swam short laps in the main lodge’s indoor-outdoor, slopeside pool. When her massage was over, she joined me under a landscaped rock waterfall in the hot tub, warm water cascading onto our shoulders while a light snow carpeted the stones around us.
The lodge itself is the hub of Moonlight’s picture-perfect village, which is dotted with luxury ski-in, ski-out homes. Aside from all the accoutrements of a luxury Western ski lodge – elk antlers, plush chairs, a massive stone fireplace and restaurant – the lodge also has internet computer terminals and newspapers, so you can connect with the outside world. Not that we wanted to.
In the evenings, we retreated to our three-level, four-bedroom luxury home, complete with outdoor hot tub and heated car garage. In the mornings, I’d strap on my skis and shuss right onto the trail. In the evenings, we’d relax together in front of the wood-burning fireplace, surrounded by elk chandeliers, cow-skin throws and snug couches.
The palatial home was roomy enough to sleep 10 people comfortably and was outfitted with all the perks and amenities one could imagine, and then some: video games for the kids, huge flat-screen TVs, Jacuzzi bathtubs, boot warmers, laundry, a house-wide stereo system, a state-of-the-art kitchen and even humidifiers in every room. Oh, and did I mention that the beds were made of local logs and antlers?
The two-story picture window looking out onto the mountain and the village was icing on the cake.
Our trip wasn’t only about skiing.
One morning, we were picked up before sunrise – which, at this latitude, means before 8 A.M. – by Yellowstone Tour Guides and headed south for the wilds of Yellowstone. Rocketing geysers, bubbling geothermal pools, thundering waterfalls and herds of roaming bison, elk and bighorn sheep make this one of the most unique and beautiful places on earth.
Half the earth’s geothermal activity takes place in Yellowstone, and it has the largest supervolcano in North America (the second-largest might be a chili place I’ve heard about in Queens). The landscape is little changed from the way it has looked for millennia, and the park goes to great lengths to keep it that way. Private vehicles are forbidden in winter, and the only way to see the park is on an accredited snowmobile or snow coach tour. We opted for the latter – basically, a van on tank treads – sitting in a warm cabin while making frequent stops to view wildlife and geothermal curiosities, including Old Faithful.
All along, our helpful guide, Doug Holstein, tutored us in the geology and biology of the park. When things got quiet in the cab, he regaled our group with gruesome but entertaining tales of foolhardy visitors who ignored park warnings and waded into geothermal pools – only to have their skin melt off, or worse. Good times.
With eight Alaskan huskies as our guides, we set out on an eight-mile loop through the Montana foothills on a ride as thrilling as it was beautiful.
The trip began with barking – lots of it. As our human guides hooked the dogs up to four different sleds, the dogs – mostly retirees and almost-rans from the Iditarod – went into a frenzy, yelping and jumping up and down on the snow. While the sleds stayed hooked securely to a truck, we got a quick lesson in how to drive them. Rule No. 1: Never abandon the sled. With my wife seated as passenger and I holding the reins, she turned around and shot me a look: Don’t abandon me to the dogs.
And then, we were off! In an instant, the cacophony of 35 barking canines was replaced by idyllic silence as eight panting huskies pulled us through open meadows and between towering fir trees against the backdrop of the Montana Rockies.
We picked up speed as we went over a hill. As the sled bounced around on the packed snow and the tree branches reached out to catch us, my wife and I found ourselves screaming in both pleasure and terror.
It took a while to get used to driving the sled – and one accident, in which I let the sled get too fast and ran over four of our poor dogs – but once we got the hang of it we cruised across the snow, marveling at the landscape and feeling as if we had been dropped into a long-lost world of simpler, more beautiful times.
I had a similar experience on the last day of our trip, after we had taken the Saturday night bus back to Bozeman and shacked up at the C’mon Inn -- a family friendly, 125-room hotel whose central lobby is dominated by an indoor pool and hot tubs surrounded by waterfalls -- in preparation for our flight home the next day.
One of the challenges of planning a ski trip out West is that it’s hard to avoid wasting a vacation day on both ends traveling there and back, especially when there are no direct flights. Given the time it takes to get from Big Sky to Bozeman, I figured I wouldn’t be able to ski on the day of my return flight.
But then I discovered Bridger Bowl, a 2,000-acre nonprofit ski area less than 30 minutes from the airport. Unknown to many on the resort circuit because it has no lodging of its own and is dwarfed by some other Western ski resorts, Bridger nonetheless is a formidable mountain with enough terrain to keep expert skiers busy for days. And with lift tickets running $45 per day, it’s a throwback to simpler, cheaper times.
So after a good night’s sleep at the C’mon Inn, located less than 10 minutes from Bozeman’s tiny airport, I rented a car for $14 and headed for Bridger.
The mountain has a world-class ski area with a community feel. I found untracked powder, calf-achingly difficult runs and the charm of old-fashioned chairlifts, which were bought from other resorts and reconditioned for use at Bridger. There was also a ridge with such serious steeps that avalanche transponders are required to board the lift that takes you up there. I decided to pass on the lift, which is named for one of four coal miners killed in an 1885 avalanche on the mountain, P.B. Schlasman.
But I did manage to traverse much of the rest of Bridger and, most importantly, squeeze in some precious runs before my flight home. When it was time to leave, the funnel shape of Bridger’s trails – the base area is accessible by all of them – was of great help: I was able to ski till 3 P.M. and still make a 4:30 flight.
Taking those last few time-pressured runs was probably the only thing I did all week that really drove my wife crazy – which I took as a good sign. It meant that we finally had mastered the joint ski trip.
Now that we’ve cleared that hurdle, we have a new challenge for next year. My wife gave birth to a son -- our first child -- in late November. Next up: Figure out how to do a ski trip with a baby.
Planning your trip
Big Sky Resort can be reached at 800 548-4486 or online at www.bigskyresort.com. Moonlight Basin is at 877 822-0432, or www.moonlightbasin.com. Yellowstone Tour Guides, which picked us up from our hotel at Big Sky, is at 888 493-2260, or online at www.yellowstonetourguides.com. For a canine adventure, try Spirit of the North dog sledding at 406-995-3424, or www.huskypower.com. The C’mon Inn, which is halfway between downtown Bozeman and the airport, can be reached at 866 782-2717, or online at www.cmoninn.com. Bridger Bowl is at 800 223-9609, or www.bridgerbowl.com. The author was the guest of the facilities mentioned in this story.