Sunday, March 25, 2012

Touring the High Slopes At Big Sky And Moonlight Basin, Montana

I skied my first chute this week at Big Sky, the places the ski area designates as expert trails down the mountain faces between rock and cliff features. This one was on my second day, a trail called First Gully off the tram that takes you to 11,166 foot Lone Peak. First Gully is on the Eastern Face of Lone Peak (if I have my bearings correct).

You have to disembark the tram and ski down part of the south face of Lone Peak to reach the entrance to the gullies.

If you look at the first photo here, you see the big horizontal field in about the middle of the picture – this contains the Gullies Traverse. Then you drop down into the wide chute, First Gully, at the end of that field.

The tram had been closed for skiing the south face because of too-hard icy conditions, then it was opened up when the sun softened conditions, and I was able to jump on a nearly empty tram. The second picture on this post shows parts of the First Gully viewed from the tram.

I got off the tram in somewhat dramatic weather conditions, and got a quick rundown from another skier on how to get to the gullies (the First Gully is the wider one of three). You have to follow the sign for the Liberty Bowl, then take Yeti Traverse off to the left, ski down part of Marx, then enter the Gullies Traverse to the left of that trail.

They have fences and good signs up there, but the skiing conditions remind you that you're on a mountain face, with all the associated hazards, and not a prepped ski area. After I quickly negotiated the first traverse and a steep ski down a part of Marx, it was easy to find the Gullies Traverse that took me from the south to eastern face of Lone Peak.

Gullies Traverse to First Gully

It was just me and a young snowboarder, who seemed like he'd been over the face about a hundred times. I let him go ahead of me, as he seemed pretty eager to get going – the traverse for him was like going out his backdoor at home; for me it was a "don't look now" moment. It was kind of a relief to get to the end of it, and I immediately dropped into the First Gully with a "Yahoo!"

My exuberance was quickly dispelled by the harder, chattery conditions. It was wicked steep and not very soft snow. I felt strong but it turned into a slow careful descent. It's not a super technical ski but it's not for kids either. There's no tolerance for falling in those conditions, because you might end up in an endless slide. Losing a ski was a possibility because of the vibrations involved with turning.

The whole thing probably took five minutes, I don't know. I bailed out a little bit at the end into softer snow, and started chattering like a little kid to a guy watching me below.

The next day I went to Moonlight Basin on the other side of the mountain. It's amazing how they have two complete ski areas on each side of the mountain (Big Sky and Moonlight Basin). I took some easy skis then tried the hike-to Headwaters lift. the Headwaters, a series of chutes on the north(?) side, with a bowl beneath them, are just as amazing as the eastern face.

I watched pro skiers fly through the chutes for a competition that was taking place, with music and cheering coming up from below. What a spectacular few days.

And good for me too. Chapter 11 of the book discusses how challenging yourself in the outdoors probably has positive health ramifications (if you don't do something stupid and fail to survive the challenge!). For example, the book Deep Survival theorizes that challenges trigger ancient pathways that have evolved as humans have survived ordeals, and propagated their species.

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