The Big Wide Empty

Way, way out in the land of powder, the cornices are steeper, the trails go deeper, and the crowds are nonexistent. Where is this mythical kingdom, you ask? Right here in North America.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Used to be that out West, folks just hiked up their long johns and ambled over to a hill when they wanted to mess around in the snow. Occasionally, they'd rig up a rope tow, or hitch a draft horse to pull a sleigh, or teeter guilelessly over gut-woven snowshoes the size of small dolphins. Back then, the only thing dominating the landscape was the landscape, and the only other tracks belonged to fishers and martens.

On a good day in Montana, things still work this way. Up here, most snow falls where there are no people. Get a few miles off a road and the backcountry is big (really big), beautiful, and alluring. If you crave total solitude, all you need to do is hire a guide and head to any of the state's accessible mountains, like the Bitterroots, the Pintlers, or the Gallatin Range. While I've never seen a fisher, I do have a friend who was chased by a moose once while cross-country skiing on MacDonald Pass outside Helena. Now his dog won't go out with him anymore. Even our small, commercial ski hills tend to cower under heaps of snow, bringing the backcountry experience close to home. Sure, sometimes us Montanans get in the mood for all that French stuff—the après-ski, avant-ski, faux-ski. But most of the time, well, we just like to ski-ski, and the cheaper the better.

If you're hopelessly stuck on slopeside sushi and a place to wear rabbit fur, stick with Colorado. But don't be fooled into thinking Big Hills are the only ones worth skiing. You may ski more miles and more terrain on their overgroomed slopes, but you won't be half as invigorated as when you're negotiating the unruly steeps, trees, and bumps of their Mini-Me Montana cousins at less—sometimes way less—than half the price. Here, where vintage mom-and-pop ski hills still exist next to nearly every town, the powder is pure, raw, and direct, unmediated by designer warming huts or terrain parks, and the midweek dump lasts for days. You'll find powder stashes bigger than all the condos on I-70. And it's not that cold. Really.

Face it: It's high time you answered the call of the great northern backcountry and took the ultimate winter road trip through western Montana, Land of the Last Un-Resort. Throw on those farmer-johns, wrap up a few soggy sandwiches, and hit the highway. But don't forget the snow tires. This year, a blessed one-two punch called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is making some of us very gleeful. La Niña is cooling waters off Mexico—which drive the jet stream north—and warming waters far off the North American coast. Translation: a lot of white stuff in the Northern Rockies. Take a week. Or maybe two...or three...or what the heck, four.