As an arctic front blasted into northwest Montana, conditions at the top of Big Mountain on Sunday morning, Jan. 20, sounded more akin to Antarctica than the northern Rockies. With morning summit temperatures barely scratching negative 3 degrees and winds gusting at 30-40 mph, Whitefish Mountain Resort closed five lifts.
Pounded by northern winds, the mountain’s seven inches of new powder mutated into nasty conditions. Groomed runs transformed into obstacle courses with whale-sized drifts – not of fluffy powder, but hard as cement. Tree branches, bark, and lichen littered the slopes. “Yesterday was ugly,” said Tary King, head of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s ski patrol. “Runs were boilerplate scoured with 3- to 4-foot high drifts. Everything was drifting and branches flying everywhere.”
Riding up the mountain in the morning, many of the patrollers pulled down the chairlift’s restraining bars. “We never do that,” laughed King. “But that’s how hard it was gusting.” The ski patrol closed the summit lifts for safety. King explained that if a lift went down, they wouldn’t be able to evacuate people fast enough.
The resort opened only chairs 3, 6, Easy Rider, T-Bar 1, and the Magic Carpet. Lift tickets were reduced to $28. Resort personnel hoped to open the summit later in the day, but by noon conditions did not improve. Chairs 1, 2, 7, 11, and T-bar 2 remained closed the entire day. Even lower down, drifting on the resort’s Nordic course precluded skate skiing.
The ski patrol bombed a few slopes for avalanche control. “Northern winds changed our usual routes. We’d go bomb, but with big winds, an hour later, you gotta bomb again,” said King. This morning, the patrol plans to bomb Picture chutes, East Rim, and the Faults again.
Sundays wind chills ranged around negative 30 degrees at the mountaintop. As sub-zero temperatures persist, the National Weather Service in Missoula issued a hazardous weather outlook for wind chills to continue. Although Monday morning recorded negative 8 degrees at the summit with winds moderating to 5-10 mph, the wind chill still hits negative 22 degrees. Ski fast, and that number will drop lower.
The National Weather Service advisory warns that wind chills this low can lead to frostbite if skin is left exposed to the elements for 30 minutes. “Groomers will be good today, but off the beaten path will be highly variable,” said King. “People need to be prepared for extreme conditions. Cover every inch of skin!”
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