New Whitefish Resort Hiking Restrictions Rankle Skiers

By Beacon Staff

On the last evening of the season skiers, hikers and snowboarders were allowed to ascend the slopes of Whitefish Mountain Resort after its hours of operation, a slow line of climbers worked their way toward the summit. There was little talk of the impending restrictions kicking in March 1; instead, climbers, many clad in T-shirts, simply commented on the unseasonably warm temperatures, sun and soft snow – then kept moving.

Near the summit, the sun drew toward the horizon, turning the snow pink. Several skiers stood with their cameras out, recording a moment many have come to cherish once the chairlifts cease, when the mountain is silent and wide open – when it feels like one’s own.

An estimated 100 hikers ascended Big Mountain on the evening of Feb. 28, demonstrating how many valley residents value hiking after-hours. That crowd, however, also reinforces the point made by resort officials that the number of uphill hikers has exploded, making a policy to deal with them necessary.

“Our grooming operators are constantly worried that they’re going to inadvertently injure or kill someone who makes a bad decision out there,” Chester Powell, the resort’s manager of operations and risk management, said. “I’m not willing to wait until that happens to reactively put a policy in place. I’d like to try to prevent it from happening.”

But many members of the Flathead outdoor community are incensed by the new regulations. Since the policy’s announcement, a discussion of the new restrictions has sprung up on Facebook.com with more than 600 members, as well as a new Web site, www.uphilltraffic.org, dedicated to the issue and exploring the idea of forming a non-profit group. A survey, available on the Web site, is also circulating, attempting to gauge reaction to the resort’s decision.

“It’s kind of another example of how they are not interested in prioritizing what the local people and the local skiers want,” Whitefish resident Beth Sobba said. “We live and work here. We’re not on vacation.”

Resort officials announced this week they are opening up a public comment period running through April 4 to gauge feedback on the policy. Resort Public Relations Manager Donnie Clapp described the public comment period as a way to formalize the discussion in which he and other resort officials have been participating with skiers on Facebook. In the fall, according to Clapp, the resort will reevaluate the policy and decide if changes are necessary.

Molly Bruce, left, and her husband, Larry Bruce, ascend the Toni Matt groomed run at Whitefish Mountain Resort while skinning up Big Mountain.

“We’re very open to changing this into whatever its ideal form is,” Clapp said. “We agreed that we could formalize the feedback process and that that would help people go through the process of letting us know how they feel.”

“One thing that’s going to weigh very heavily is how well people follow the policy that’s put in place right now,” Clapp added. “Whether people work with us on that or not is going to go a long way toward telling us whether these users are capable of self-policing, in that regard.”

That policy, announced Feb. 22, restricts those wishing to hike or “skin” up Big Mountain within the resort’s boundaries to a single route along the left side of Toni Matt. Uphill traffic is only allowed between 6:30 a.m. and the final sweep of the mountain by ski patrol after the resort closes for the day. That same route will be open between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. for the first 14 days after the ski season ends. There will be no active restrictions outside those hours and dates, but uphill travel will no longer be allowed pre-season, when the resort is making snow and preparing the slopes.

Whitefish Mountain Resort operates on public land within the Flathead National Forest’s Tally Lake Ranger District through a Special Use Permit. Tally Lake District Ranger Lisa Timchak has said, “We fully support this preventative measure,” and Forest Service officials may send additional staff to the resort to help enforce the new policy. But the fact that these new restrictions apply on public land is part of what rankles local residents.

In the ongoing Facebook discussion, the crux of the conflict is clear. Restricting hikers to a single route makes sense, and few people ascend routes other than Toni Matt or Big Ravine anyway. But no longer being able to hike up the mountain in the evenings is an enormous loss, particularly to valley residents who work full-time jobs, and see the activity as a safe and even therapeutic way to spend time outdoors during the winter.

“Off-hours hiking on the Big is one of the most convenient forms of winter sanity around,” Whitefish resident Pete Siudara said. “I have never seen such a positive atmosphere created, when a group of people calmly ascend the mountain under a full moon, or a star-lit evening. The turns made on the descent are always sweet tasting, and when we return to town, we are happy, we sleep soundly. I know of no other natural medicine around, so safe and close to home.”

Yet the resort’s new restrictions have been prompted by problems, mainly in the evening, caused by skiers and snowboarders cruising dangerously close to grooming machines, particularly winch cats, which are groomers that use a winch and steel cable to groom steep terrain. Clapp cited a Feb. 19 incident where an after-hours skier went beneath a winch cable, and offered “aggressive resistance” when the groomer operator asked him to leave the area.

“People are skiing way too close to our grooming equipment. So close that a rational person would not believe it if they saw it,” Nick Polumbus, sales and marketing director for the resort, wrote on Facebook. “My concern lies with the fact that if a skier lost an edge and came up against a grooming machine’s tiller, the tiller could not be stopped fast enough. I am generally concerned with the lack of respect for this heavy machinery.”

Skiers on Facebook have offered a number of alternatives that include a set window of after-hours time where hikers can ascend Toni Matt, or safety classes mandatory for anyone hiking up. But many suggestions still come up against Clapp’s assertion that the resort feels unless it has a ski patroller on the slopes during those hours, it is leaving itself open to lawsuits.

“Without safety personnel on-snow to respond/watch over, we can’t be confident people will stay in safe areas,” Clapp wrote on Facebook. “I realize that most people would for fear of losing privileges, but what about the guy who doesn’t have them in the first place?”

In the meantime, skiers and hikers wishing to preserve their after-hours access to Big Mountain are optimistic that some better compromise can be worked out, as long as the discussion continues.

Comments on the new policy can be mailed to:
Whitefish Mountain Resort
c/o Uphill Traffic Policy
P.O. Box 1400
Whitefish MT 59937

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