Wednesday April 17th
"Did you hear about the storm?"
"What, what?. what storm?"
"No way, that storm was headed more south, like Utah & Wyoming? I'd better check the weather."
My colleague Jon had just filled me in on the latest news, it now looked like the storm was going to clip the southern Bitterroot as well. The National Weather Service had winter storm and heavy snow warnings up for the mountains above 4,500'; something might be coming. April had so far been pretty uneventful in western Montana, and although temperatures were generally running a bit below normal, I had resolved to the fact that powder days were probably behind us and it was time to get used to the corn snow. But maybe not?
Thursday was cloudy and cool in the Bitterroot Valley, with a high around 40 that was well below the normal of 50-60 degrees. The sky threatened, but nothing fell. One could only guess what was going on to our south, and hope it was snowing in the mountains.
Friday was predicted to be warmer and sunnier, and the temperature rose to around 50 in the valley. I had little doubt that any powder would have survived Thursday, but with these warm temperatures and sun today; I didn't have too much hope for it surviving through to Saturday. Since Lost Trail had closed for the season last weekend, our best source of info for snowfall and temperature was the SNOTEL reporting station at 7900' on Saddle Mountain. The station reported 0.9 inches of melted precipitation, and a maximum temperature of 30 degrees F in the 24-hour period including the storm. Jon and I estimated maybe 10-12 inches of snow had fallen with that combination of precipitation and temperatures, but that was only a guess. Later that day, Derek blew me away when he said that Lost Trail reported 2 feet of new snow! E later told me that she had heard this report as well (all of this over a base of 80 inches), and our plan was set to head out and ski on Saturday morning.
Our goal was to ski some of the new terrain on Saddle Mountain serviced by chair 4. Due to wildfires and other setbacks, the chair only opened on a limited basis at the very end of the ski season. We'd missed our opportunity to sample the new terrain while we were away skiing in Idaho, and definitely wanted to get our chance now, even if we had to earn the turns ourselves.
When the alarm went off at around 5:00 A.M. the next morning, E was not at all psyched to hear it, but I wanted to get up and on the snow before the sun had any more time to work on it. The temperature was 28 degrees as we left Hamilton (3,560') and when we reached Lost Trail Pass (7,000') it had dropped below 20. At least there was still a chance that the snow was in good shape. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were hailed by a couple of guys near the entrance. It turns out that they were holding a snowmobile hill climb & snow cross at the area. We convinced them that we were there to ski, and that we'd be on a different part of the mountain and they let us pass. We parked the car and I immediately got out to check the snow. It looked like the temperature had certainly warmed up on Friday, there were a couple of inches of sun crust on the surface. It wasn't a horribly tough crust, and snow that we found in the shade seemed to be in much better shape, with only a paper thin layer of hardened snow above a bunch of powder.
We prepared our packs and put on our snowshoes amidst a flurry of whining snowmobile engines. Although their noise was annoying, the fact that they had tracked out much of our climbing route was a real bonus. Surprisingly, there were snowmobile tracks on just about every trail on the mountain. It seems that as soon as the skiing stops, Lost Trail becomes the realm of snowmobiles. We followed snowmobile tracks up to Triple Jump/Bear Claw Ridge (~7,600'), at which point we had to break trail up to the main ridge comprising the western edge of the ski area (~7,900'). From the point at which we hit the ridge, it was about a mile to the summit of Saddle Mountain (~8,200'), the terminus of chair 4 and the start of our ski route.
The summit area now had a few small structures such as the upper lift shack, a small building that looked like a ski patrol hut, and off in the burnt woods, a Port-o-let that was full of snow. Although the temperature had risen to around 30, a chilly breeze blew across the summit so we hung out just inside the shelter for the upper mechanism of the lift. It was out of the wind and in the sun, a nice combination. We ate lunch and enjoyed the scenery. To the southeast across the Big Hole, we could see the Pioneer Mountains where Maverick Mountain ski area is found. Beyond the jumbled Sapphire Mountains to the northeast we could see some of the sharp white peaks of the Anaconda Range, near Discovery Basin ski area.
We switched to ski mode and decided to head to the skier's left to try and get to terrain that had not seen as much sun. The snow at the summit had a sun-softened crust that supported our weight but wasn't all that easy to ski. We continued north along a cat track, all the while looking down upon sweet terrain with sparse evergreens on a pitch of about 25-30 degrees. THIS was the awesome terrain that we had been staring at all season. We had just about reached the ski area boundary when we finally decided to drop in. I went first and found that the snow was a very heavy powder that had been worked by the sun. It would have been nice to find something with northern exposure that would offer up lighter fluff, but that would mean taking a course off the far end of the ski area and require a big slog to get out. We decided to stick to what we had, and skied the nicely spaced trees on an angle down to the leftmost trail along the boundary. It was a bit tricky, but the skiing in the heavy snow was really fun once you got the hang of it. I'm sure the fat skis helped a bit too. You could vary how much you sunk into the snow depending on edging, but staying centered was VERY important. E was taken down more than once by mysterious snow snakes! Snowmobiles had tracked up a bit of the center of the trail, but we still had plenty of fresh snow to work with. The first steep pitch continued for about 500 vertical before mellowing to a blue pitch. I'm already anxious for next year, this terrain is going to be amazing right after a storm. After dropping about 800 verts, we decided to head to the right to check out the tighter trees and get ourselves better set up for the hike out. Our final destination was the bottom of chair 4, which is below the base area at an elevation of about 6,400' and would mean a short trek back up to the car.
The snow in the tighter trees wasn't really any different, since they were still sparse enough to let in significant light. We simply cut through the woods and decided to finish our run along the lift line. This part of the liftline run was only a blue slope, but if offered up lots of fun dips and rolls to keep it interesting. We finally stopped our run at 6,550' and switched back into hiking mode. The day was really warming up, and it was a pleasant switch. The hike out took about 30 minutes, and fortunately, the snowmobile festivities had settled down for a bit and we didn't have to deal with too much noise. We headed back down to town and had time to grab a sandwich at one of our favorite local eateries known as "A Place to Ponder". More moisture is on the way this week, although it's hard to tell how the temperatures will behave regarding snowfall. Any moisture is good moisture since the last four years have been fairly dry, but I'll take snow if we can get it!
A summary of our route indicating hiking and skiing stages along with elevations of various points.
Click on the map to link to Lost Trail Powder Mountain's Home Page.
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