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.
Coming from our house in Hamilton, Montana, 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 Resort, 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 deal.
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 Resort 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 Mountain 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 Fourth 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 snowfall. 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% H2O+ 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).